Cabot Institute blog

Find out more about us at www.bristol.ac.uk/cabot

Friday, 26 September 2014

Monday, 15 September 2014

The big commitment: How we're ensuring all our students encounter sustainability at Bristol

The University of Bristol has signed a UNESCO Global Action Programme commitment, in advance of there launch of the next UNESCO strategy for Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

As the UNESCO decade for ESD draws to an end, UNESCO has reviewed progress, and will this November launch a new Global Action Programme focussed on four key areas which most urgently need more attention.

My own journey, and Bristol's very much reflects the picture UNESCO has found. A decade ago ESD was largely below the radar in Higher Education (HE).  Lots of great things were going on, but as local initiatives by keen academics. Typical of the time, we won our first Times Higher Award and Green Gown Award for what was then a very innovative interdisciplinary open unit on Sustainable Development, available to any student, whatever their degree. Nearly a decade later, UNESCO has set us all the challenge of moving from hot spots of excellence to whole institution approaches. Bristol has committed to meeting that challenge.

The University of Bristol collects
its 2nd Green Gown Award in
2013.
We changed gear to a whole institution approach about three years ago, when we were selected as  one of six Green Academies by HEA. I've never been a fan of labels, but in this case it was the catalyst for moving to a whole institution approach - and in 2013 the University was awarded another Green Gown, but this time for whole institution continuous change. The whole University  is taking education for sustainable development  seriously, every part of the institution is doing something. Our challenge now is to connect all of this is up, to deepen student opportunities to engage with uncertainty, with the challenges of sustainability in their studies, informal activity and in the subliminal curriculum. The key for me is ensuring our students have adaptive capacity - the ability to live with uncertainty and take decisions based on evidence. Without those skills the sirens of cosy avoidance of the crisis  facing our planet beckon. We can let the evidence speak for itself, as long as our students have the skills to listen.

Our UNESCO commitment is to ensure all students encounter sustainability through their formal studies, have opportunities to link theory and practice through informal activity or community based projects,  learn subliminally about sustainable lifestyles through the way the precinct is run (estates) and understand how central sustainability in its many aspects is to our research. This autumn in advance of the Nagoya launch, all Bristol students will be encouraged to take the Global Sustainability Literacy Test.  As one of the launch partners, the Cabot Institute  as a research institute is central to this - showing the importance of living with uncertainty and bringing people together on an interdisciplinary basis to address these challenges.

Whether your expertise is in environmental, social, economic or cultural sustainability you have an important part to play in building both the knowledge and skill sets to help achieve the UNESCO aims.

Bristol has pledged to play its part.

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This blog post is written by Cabot Institute member, Chris Willmore, University Academic Director of Undergraduate Studies, University of Bristol
Chris Wilmore

Further reading
Education for Sustainable Development at the University of Bristol
- Community Based Learning at the Cabot Institute

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The uncertain world

J.G Ballard's The Drowned World
taken from fantasticalandrewfox.com
Over the next 18 months, in collaboration with Bristol Green Capital 2015 artists, civic leaders and innovative thinkers, the Cabot Institute will be participating in  a series of activities in which we examine how human actions are making our planet a much more uncertain place to live.

Fifty years ago, between 1962 and 1966, J. G. Ballard wrote a trio of seminal environmental disaster novels: The Drowned World, The Burning World and The Crystal World.  These novels remain signposts to our future, the challenges we might face and the way people respond to rapid and unexpected change to their environment. In that spirit and coinciding with the Bristol Green Capital 2015, we introduce The Uncertain World, a world in which profound uncertainty becomes as much of a challenge to society as warming and rising sea levels.

For the past twenty years, the University of Bristol has been exploring how to better understand, mitigate and live with environmental uncertainty, with the Cabot Institute serving as the focus for that effort since its founding in 2010.  Uncertainty is the oft-forgotten but arguably most challenging aspect of mankind’s centuries-long impact on the environment.  We live our lives informed by the power of experience: our own as well as the collective experience of our families, communities and wider society. When my father started dairy farming he sought advice from my mother’s grandfather, our neighbours, and the grizzled veterans at the Middlefield auction house. Experience helps us make intelligent decisions, plan strategically and anticipate challenges.

Similarly, our weather projections, water management and hazard planning are also based on experience: tens to hundreds of years of observation inform our predictions of future floods, drought, hurricanes and heat waves. These records – this experience  – can help us make sensible decisions about where to live, build and farm.

Now, however, we are changing our environment and our climate, such that the lessons of the past have less relevance to the planning of our future.  In fact, many aspects of environmental change are unprecedented not only in human experience but in Earth history. As we change our climate, the great wealth of knowledge generated from human experience is losing capital every day.

The Uncertain World is not one of which we have no knowledge – we have high confidence that temperatures and sea level will rise, although there is uncertainty in the magnitude and speed of change. Nor should we view The Uncertain World with existential fear - we know that warm worlds have existed in the past.  These were not inhospitable and most evidence from the past suggests that a climate ‘apocalypse’ resulting in an uninhabitable planet is unlikely.

Nonetheless, increasing uncertainty arising from human-induced changes to our global environment should cause deep concern.  Crucial details of our climate remain difficult to predict, and it undermines our ability to plan for our future. We do not know whether many regions of the world will become wetter or dryer. This uncertainty propagates and multiplies through complex systems: how do we make sensible predictions of coastal flood risk when there is uncertainty in sea level rise estimates, rainfall patterns and the global warming that will impact both?  We can make predictions even in such complex systems, but the predictions will inevitably come with a degree of uncertainty, a probabilistic prediction.  How do we apply such predictions to decision making? Where can we build new homes, where do we build flood defences to protect existing ones, and where do we abandon land to the sea?

Methane escaping from Arctic
permafrost. Image: Treehugger.com
Perhaps most worrying, the consequences of these rapid changes on biological and chemical systems, and the people dependent upon them, are very poorly understood. For example, the synergistic impact of warmer temperatures, more acidic waters, and more silt-choked coastal waters on coral reefs and other marine ecosystems is very difficult to predict. This is particularly concerning given that more than 2.6 billion people  depend on the oceans as their primary source of protein. Similarly, warming of Arctic permafrost could promote the growth of CO2-sequestering plants or the release of warming-accelerating methane – or both. Warm worlds with very high levels of carbon dioxide did exist in the past and these do provide some insight  into the response of the Earth system, but we are accelerating into this new world at a rate that is unprecedented in Earth history, creating additional layers of uncertainty.

During late 2014 and 2015, the Cabot Institute will host a variety of events and collaborate with a variety of partners across Bristol and beyond to explore this Uncertain World and how we can live in it. How do we better explain uncertainty and what are the ‘logical’ decisions to make when faced with uncertainty? One of our first events will explore how uncertainty in climate change predictions should motivate us to action: the more uncertain our predictions the more we should employ mitigation rather than adaptation strategies. Future events will explore how past lessons from Earth history help us better understand potential future scenarios; how future scenario planning can inform the decisions we make today; and most importantly, how we build the necessary flexibility into social structures to thrive in this Uncertain World.

This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.

Prof Rich Pancost