Skip to main content

The challenges of global environmental change: Why we (Bristol) should 'bridge the gap'

Our planet and the people who live upon it face profound challenges in the coming century. As our population, economies and aspirations grow we consume increasing amounts of precious and finite resource.  The side effects and waste products of this consumption also have profoundly negative impacts on our environment and climate, which  in a vicious circle will make it even harder to support our food, energy and water needs.

In order to live on this planet, we must bridge the gap between wasteful lifestyles based on limited resources to efficient lifestyles based on renewable ones. Nowhere is that more apparent than in our consumption of fossil fuels. Much of our prosperity over the past two centuries has derived from the exploitation of these geological gifts, but those gifts have and are causing climate change with potentially devastating consequences. These are likely to include more extreme weather, loss of marine ecosystems and droughts; in turn, these could cause famine, refugee crises and conflict. 

These climatic and environmental impacts will be felt locally in the European Green Capital as well as globally.  We live in an interconnected world, such that drought in North America will raise the price of our food. The floods of last winter could have been a warning of life in a hotter and wetter world.  Many of us in the South West live only a few metres above current sea level.  

In my own work with Cabot Institute colleagues, I have investigated not just how Earth’s climate might change but how it has changed in the past.  This shows that our climate forecasts are generally right when it comes to the temperature response to greenhouse gases, although perhaps they underestimate how much the poles will warm.  More concerning, Earth history reveals how complex our planet is; with dramatic biological and physical responses to past global warming events. During one such event 55 million years ago, rapid warming transformed our planet’s vegetation and water cycle: rivers in Spain that had carried fine grained silts suddenly carried boulders. And that ‘rapid’ warming event occurred over thousands to tens of thousands of years not two hundred a reminder of the unprecedented character of our current climate change experiment.
Flooding in Whiteladies Road, Bristol. Credit: Jim Freer

Consequently, despite our best understanding of some factors, climate change will make our world a more uncertain place, whether that be uncertainty in future rainfall, the frequency of hurricanes or the timing of sea level rise. This uncertainty is particularly problematic because it makes it so much harder for industry or nations to plan and thrive.  How do we ensure a robust and continuous food supply if we are unsure if the planet’s bread baskets will become wetter or dryer?  Or if we are unsure how our fisheries will respond to warmer, more acidic, more silt-choked oceans?

Underlying this uncertainty is a deep ethical question about who will bear the risk and the inequality issues hidden within our choices.  Most of us recognise that we are consuming the resources and polluting the environment of our children.  But the inequity is deeper than that it is not all of our children who will suffer but the children of the poorest and the most vulnerable.  Those whose homes are vulnerable to floods, who lack the resources to move or the political capacity to emigrate, who can barely afford nutritious food now, whose water supplies are already stretched and contaminated. 

Bristol in 2015 will not bridge the gap by despairing at these challenges, but we can lead in acknowledging them. We can lead in showing how to avoid the worst uncertainty and taking responsibility for the consequences of where our efforts fall short.  Most importantly, we can lead towards not just radical resiliency but inclusive resiliency. 


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

Prof Rich Pancost




Popular posts from this blog

Powering the economy through the engine of Smart Local Energy Systems

How can the Government best retain key skills and re-skill and up-skill the UK workforce to support the recovery and sustainable growth? This summer the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) requested submission of inputs on Post-Pandemic Economic Growth. The below thoughts were submitted to the BEIS inquiry as part of input under the EnergyREV project . However, there are points raised here that, in the editing and summing up process of the submission, were cut out, hence, this blog on how the UK could power economic recovery through Smart Local Energy Systems (SLES). 1. Introduction: Factors, principles, and implications In order to transition to a sustainable and flourishing economy from our (post-)COVID reality, we must acknowledge and address the factors that shape the current economic conditions. I suggest to state the impact of such factors through a set of driving principles for the UK’s post-COVID strategy. These factors are briefly explained belo

IncrEdible! How to save money and reduce waste

The new academic year is a chance to get to grips with managing your student loan and kitchen cupboards. Over lockdown the UK wasted a third less food than we usually would. This is brilliant, as normally over 4.5 million tonnes of edible food is wasted from UK homes every year. For students, it’s even higher. The average cost of food waste per student per week is approximately £5.25 - that's about £273 per year !  It’s not just our bank accounts that are affected by food waste – it’s our planet too. The process of growing, making, distributing, storing and cooking our food uses masses of energy, fuel and water. It generates 30% of the world’s CO₂ greenhouse gas emissions. The same amount of CO₂ as 4.6 million return flights from London to Perth, Australia! So it makes sense to keep as much food out of the bin as possible, start wasting less and saving more.  Start the new term with some food waste busting, budget cutting, environment loving habits! Here’s five easy ways to reduce

Farming in the Páramos of Boyacá: industrialisation and delimitation in Aquitania

Labourers harvest ‘cebolla larga’ onion in Aquitania. Image credit: Lauren Blake. In October and November 2019 Caboteer  Dr Lauren Blake  spent time in Boyacá, Colombia, on a six-week fieldtrip to find out about key socio-environmental conflicts and the impacts on the inhabitants of the páramos, as part of the historical and cultural component of her research project, POR EL Páramo . Background information about the research can be found in the earlier blog on the project website . Descending down the hill in the bus from El Crucero, the pungent smell of cebolla larga onion begins to invade my nose. The surrounding land transforms into plots of uniform rows of onion tops at various stages of growth, some mostly brown soil with shoots poking out along the ridges, others long, bushy and green. Sandwiched between the cloud settled atop the mountainous páramos and the vast, dark blue-green Lake Tota, all I can see and all I can smell is onion production. Sprinklers are scattered around, dr