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Friday, 30 January 2015

The science of sustainable development, what shall I teach?

Before the lectures

Next week I will teach the first of three lectures which constitute the Science of Sustainable Development within the Sustainable Development course at the University of Bristol. This is an open unit and can therefore be attended by first year undergraduate students from across the university.

The figure below shows how Sustainable Development is considered at the University of Bristol, clearly a hugely interdisciplinary and wide subject area!

Traditionally this unit has attracted a significant fraction of its cohort from Geographical Sciences, which is my current home department. This should make preparation of these three lectures relatively straightforward right? Wrong.

A fascinating aspect of the School of Geographical Sciences is its breadth and variety of research and expertise. This is the case not simply because our physical geographers work on everything from past climates to flood inundation modelling but also because there is also the ‘human’ side to geography. My human geography colleagues research and teach on topics as varied as spatial and historical patterns of electoral voting and taxidermy.

This highly varied student body is complicated further by my own personal background. I am a ‘pure’ physicist by training, having studied for my PhD in the nanoscale physics of solar cells and LEDs.  After my PhD I have mostly been a climate modeller, with some time spent in environmental consultancy and so my career has been undeniably ‘environmental’ from start to finish so far. That said, I would struggle to think of more than a few topics in my undergraduate days which were explicitly linked to sustainability. Perhaps this is not surprising however when one considers how large the core of physics is as a university-level subject. How can lecturing staff make quantum mechanics and astrophysics relevant to Sustainable Development? Is it even possible or meaningful? These questions are certainly outside the scope of this short blog post!

Moving back to the subject matter of my lectures, I had to consider what links climate change, climate modelling and environmentalism in such a way that the term Sustainable Development can be introduced scientifically in three parts? When I posed this question to myself in this way, the answer was clear; The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC for short, not to be confused with the Independent Police Complaints Commission! This body was founded by the UN and World Meteorological Organisation in the late 1980s to provide a synthesis on the state of knowledge of the climate system and how humans are interfering with it. The IPCC has to date published five of these Assessment Reports and they are split into three Working Groups:
  1. The Physical Science Basis
  2. Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
  3. Mitigation of Climate Change.

The bulk of my work since 2008 (at the Met Office and at Bristol) has concerned climate modelling and therefore fits well within the remit of Working Group one. Theoretically I could have stopped there and taught three lectures on the meteorology and climatology of climate change, this would probably however only really appealed to those students who had taken A Level physics. The natural diversification of the three Working Groups was the only solution and I therefore decided to prepare one lecture on each. This also provided me with an opportunity to improve my own knowledge of Working Groups 2 and 3, something I had been meaning to do for a while! I should state at this point that there is no scientist in the world with an in depth knowledge of every aspect of even one of the Working Groups. Working Group 1 alone has over 1500 pages of fully cited scientific text for example!    

After lecture one  

As I write this part of the blog post I have just given my first lecture in the series. This lecture tallied well with my research interests and scientific knowledge and I now have a little under a week to finish my preparation for the next two lectures. Crucially, my biggest challenge will undoubtedly be the effective teaching of Working Groups two and three and I will aim to report back with another blog post after my lectures have run their course. 

Finally, one aspect of this course which I hope that will come across in my teaching is my aim to emphasise the interdisciplinary nature and breadth of this subject. As I said in my first lecture, I am a physicist working in a geography department and lecturing to students from all five faculties. If this doesn’t illustrate the cross cutting nature of this subject then I don’t know what does! 

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member, Dr Jonny Williams, an environmental physicist working in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol. 
Jonny Williams

Life of breath: Understanding air pollution and disease through the Arts

Media vita in morte sumus.  Image from You Tube.
I have written on the Life of Breath blog about the symmetry between breathing as life, and breathlessness as death (as it appears in the words of the haka – see ‘I will not be drowned’).  The line media vita in morte sumus (‘in the midst of life we are in death’) was supposedly composed around the end of the first millennium, but is now believed to be a much older phrase, encapsulating a still older idea: that understanding something means encountering and attempting to understand its counterpart (1).  Just as All Hallows and All Saints are separated by nothing more than midnight, life and death cannot be separated from (nor understood without) each other. The Life of Breath project is a five-year senior investigator award funded by the Wellcome Trust (PIs Prof. Havi Carel at the University of Bristol and Prof. Jane Macnaughton at Durham University), considering breathing and its ‘pathological derivative’ breathlessness as two halves of a whole.

This sense of opposing ideas, linked and hinged in the middle, can also be found in some of the causes of breathlessness, such as smoke. Smoke resists definition. It can be dirty, as in Blake’s poem ‘London’ (‘Every black’ning Church appals’) or at the beginning of ‘Paradise Lost’ (‘a pitchy cloud of locusts’); or it can be cleansing, for example when fumigating a building. It can be a tool, to give food flavour and longevity, or to stupefy bees; or it can be a silent killer in a house fire, more dangerous than the fire itself. Smoke can also be holy, as in the veils of smoke and incense that surround God in the Old Testament. Steven Connor speaks of the God encountered in the Old Testament as ‘a smoky God … His ineffability and unapproachability are signified in the cloud of smoke’ that descends on Mount Sinai, and notes the duality I just mentioned, stating that ‘Smoke can be life, spirit, meaning itself; but it is also horror, filth, chaos’(2).  It seems natural, then, that we can find smoke both comforting (smokers may enjoy the smell of cigarette smoke, church-goers the spicy smell and ritual of the thurible) and disturbing: something that causes us to cough or wheeze, or which, over time, permanently compromises our ability to sing, speak or breathe (3).

Nelson's Column during The Great
Smog, 1952.  Image taken from via Wikipedia
This last is our most pressing concern when we consider smoke discharged directly into the air, whether it is via an exhaust pipe or a chimney (what Connor calls ‘the sewer into the sky’). These ideas are also bound up in historical approaches to breathlessness, respiratory diseases and conditions, and their relationship with smoke and air pollution (4).  A member of the project advisory board, Mark Jackson, notes that, before chronic or seasonal respiratory conditions such as asthma were properly understood, patients were given conflicting advice. Those suffering from hay fever or ‘summer sneezing’ were often told to treat their condition with ‘fresh air’, visiting the coast to inhale the supposedly clean sea breezes (5).  Elsewhere, Jackson tells us that during the Industrial Revolution, asthma sufferers might be given the opposite advice and told to breathe sooty air for its supposedly antibacterial properties (6).  Both Connor and Jackson write about the Great Smog of 1952, which killed several thousand people in the capital through exacerbating or inducing respiratory and cardiac disease. Here we might note another pair (the heart and the lungs) that cannot be easily separated, as we discussed at the first meeting of the core project team (see ‘Taking a deep breath’). Jackson notes that the link between pollution and disease was already well established before the Great Smog, and before the 1956 Clean Air Act it led to (7).  He states that the Act focused on ‘visible’ pollution, specifically prohibiting the emission of ‘dark smoke’, but paid less attention to invisible pollutants such as sulphur oxides and carbon monoxide.

As well as ignoring or dismissing pollutants that we cannot see, perhaps it is a natural human response to look on the vastness of the sky or the ocean, and assume that their sheer size dwarfs anything discharged into those spaces, rendering it dilute and harmless. As suggested by the invisible poisonous gases wafting stealthily around our towns and cities (or, indeed, our supposedly clean countryside and coastline), very often we are oblivious to that which threatens us. However, complacency offers us no protection from the consequences of air pollution, particularly for respiratory health. For example, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is now the fourth most-common cause of death worldwide, but there is no comprehensive history of breathlessness in a clinical context, a lacuna that the Life of Breath project aims to fill. The project will also attempt to situate breathing and breathlessness in their proper context via an interdisciplinary approach that draws on patient experience and clinical practice, as well as other relevant disciplines, such as medical humanities, history, philosophy, literature and anthropology, using each area to inform the others.

The funeral sentences in the Book of Common Prayer include the line ‘in the midst of life we are in death’. They go on, ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts’. As the Life of Breath project indicates, our lungs have secrets, too.


  1. The phrase media vita in morte sumus is sometimes attributed to Notker I, also known as Notker the Stammerer, a Benedictine monk and poet. He is supposed to have coined it after observing a half-built bridge stretching shakily out over a chasm.
  2. Steven Connor, ‘Smog’, a talk broadcast on Nightwaves (Radio 3), 2nd December 2002, to mark fifty years since London's Great Smog.
  3. See Steven Connor’s essay ‘Whisper Music’ for his (and Aristotle’s) comments on coughing.
  4. Steven Connor, ‘Unholy Smoke’, a talk given at Trailing Smoke, Art Workers Guild, London, 12 November 2008, accompanying the exhibition Smoke.
  5. See Mark Jackson, Allergy: The history of a modern malady (London: Reaktion).
  6. Mark Jackson (2004), ‘Cleansing the air and promoting health: the politics of pollution in post-war Britain’, in Medicine, the Market and Mass Media: Producing Health in the Twentieth Century, eds. Virginia Berridge and Kelly Loughlin (London: Routledge).
  7. Jackson, ‘The politics of pollution’.

This blog is written by Jess Farr-Cox in the School of Arts at the University of Bristol, Research Secretary on the Life of Breath project.

A full description of the scope of research, including all the different research strands, can be found on the About the project page of the project website.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Why we must Bridge the Gap

Much of the climate change of the past century has been caused by our burning of fossil fuels. And without a change in that fossil fuel use, continued climate change in the next century could have devastating impacts on our society. It is likely to bring increased risk and hazards associated with extreme weather events. Refugee crises could be caused by rising sea levels or droughts that make some nations uninhabitable. Climate change will also make our world a more uncertain place to live, whether that be uncertainty in future rainfall patterns, the magnitude of sea level rise or the response of global fisheries to ocean acidification.  This uncertainty is particularly problematic because it makes it so much harder for industry or nations to plan and thrive.  Or to grapple with the other great challenge facing humanity – securing food, water and energy for 7 billion people (and growing).  Because of this, most nations have agreed that global warming should be held below 2°C.

Flooding on Whiteladies Road, Bristol. Image credit Jim Freer
These climatic and environmental impacts will be felt in the South West of England.  We live in an interconnected world, such that drought in North America will raise the price of our food. The effects of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems and UK fisheries remain worryingly uncertain. The floods of last winter could have been a warning of life in a hotter and wetter world; moreover, it will only become harder to protect our lowlands from not only flooding but also salt water incursions as sea level rises.  The proposed Hinkley Point nuclear power station will have an installation, operating and decommissioning lifetime of over 100 years; what added risks will it face from the combination of more severe weather, storm surges and rising sea level?  Climate change affects us all – globally, nationally and locally in the 2015 European Green Capital.

That requires reductions in emissions over the next decade.  And it then requires cessation of all fossil fuel emissions in the subsequent decades.  The former has been the subject of most negotiations, including the recent discussions in Lima and likely those in Paris at the end of this year. The latter has yet to be addressed by any international treaty. And that is of deep concern because it is the cessation of all fossil fuel emissions that is most difficult but most necessary to achieve.  Carbon dioxide has a lifetime in the atmosphere of 1000s of years, such that slower emissions will only delay climate change.  That can be useful – if we must adapt to a changing world, having more time to do so will be beneficial. However, it is absolutely clear that emissions must stop if we are to meet our target of 2°C.  In fact, according to most climate models as well as the geological history of climate, emissions must stop if we are to keep total warming below 5°C.

In short, we cannot use the majority of our coal, gas and petroleum assets for energy.  They must stay buried.

Can we ‘geoengineer’ our way to alternative solution?  Not according to recent research. Last November, a Royal Society Meeting showcased the results of three UK Research Council Funded investigations of geoengineering feasibility and consequences. They collectively illustrated that geoengineering a response to climate change was at best complicated and at worst a recipe for disaster and widespread global conflict.  The most prominent geoengineering solution is to offset the greenhouse gas induced rise in global temperatures via the injection of stratospheric particles that reflect some of the solar energy arriving at Earth.  However, on the most basic level, a world with elevated CO2 levels and reflective particles in the atmosphere  is not the same as a world with 280 ppm of CO2 and a pristine atmosphere. To achieve the same average global temperature, some regions will be cooler and others warmer.  Rainfall patterns will differ: regional patterns of flood and drought will differ. Even if it could be done, who are the arbitrators of a geoengineered world?  The potential for conflict is profound.

In short, the deus ex machina of geoengineering our climate is neither a feasible nor a just option.  And again, the conclusion is that we cannot use most of our fossil fuels.

One might argue that we can adapt to climate change: why risk our economy now when we can adapt to the consequences of climate change later? Many assessments suggest that this is not the best economic approach, but I understand the gamble: be cautious with a fragile economy now and deal with consequences later.  This argument, however, ignores the vast inequity associated with climate change.  It is the future generations that will bear the cost of our inaction.  Moreover, it appears that the most vulnerable to climate change are the poorest – and those who consume the least fossil fuels.  Those of us who burn are not those who will pay.  Arguably then, we in the UK have a particular obligation to the poor of the world and of our own country, as well as to our children and grandchildren, to soon cease the use of our fossil fuels.

Energy is at the foundation of modern society and it has been the basis for magnificent human achievement over the past 150 years, but it is clear that obtaining energy by burning fossil fuels is warming our planet and acidifying our oceans.  The consequences for our climate, from extreme weather events to rising sea levels, is profound; even more worrying are the catastrophic risks that climate change poses for the food and water resources on which society depends.  It is now time for us to mature beyond the 19th and 20th century fossil-fuel derived energy to a renewable energy system of the 21st century that is sustainable for us and our planet.

We must bridge the gap.