Cabot Institute blog

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Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Uncertain World: Is uncertainty used as a stick with which to beat climate change?

The Cabot Institute is focussing on our Uncertain World this year, with a host of events to meet with new communities, think around new ideas and establish new solutions for what’s in store for us in the future.  We are posting blogs during November on 'Our Uncertain World'. Join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #UncertainWorld and contribute your thoughts and concerns to our (virtual) graffiti wall.  Read other blogs in the series by visiting the weblinks at the bottom of this blog.
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Uncertainty runs through climate science like the lettering in a stick of rock. It will never 'go away' and no communication strategy should ever aim for this. But it does seem as if somehow, uncertainty has become a stick with which to beat climate change in a way that it has not for other areas of science (or perhaps more to the point, in other areas of life). So it is worth asking why this is the case, and what we can do to address this...

My background is in psychology, and there is a rich literature on the psychology of risks perceptions that is certainly relevant to communicating uncertainty in the context of climate change. We know that people discount certain risks and inflate others, given the chance many will lean towards 'wishful thinking' rather than a cold, rational assessment of the probabilities.

But to my mind, the challenge of communicating uncertainty in climate change goes beyond presenting information in a way that will 'beat the biases' of the human mind - although there is an important role for this. To me it is more about 'going with the grain' of public engagement with climate change, starting from 'where people are' and working backwards from there, rather than starting with the science...and this tends to be the approach we take at Climate Outreach, the organisation I work for

For example, its now well-established that some of the most important and consistent drivers of public engagement with climate risks are peoples values, worldviews and political orientation. Scepticism is essentially unjustified levels of uncertainty about climate risks...but what drives this perception is people's ideas about the implications of climate risks for their lives. People work backwards from an outcome that they don't like the sound of, or feel threatened by, and assess the underlying risks accordingly. So starting with those 'implications' is crucial, and why the focus of the second day of the Cabot Institute's Uncertain World conference is so important.

Where will people live? What impact is climate change having on Civil Society and the voluntary sector? These are crucial questions covered in Day 2, and help to join the dots between the underlying science and the 'social reality'  of climate change for non-scientists and specialists. Once people are more engaged with 'solutions' to climate change that they endorse or can identify with - when people hear a story about climate change that sounds like it was written about them - they are much more likely to be open to the science that defines and describes the underlying problem.

My sense is that the biggest step we could take (as a community of people from very different background and disciplinary perspectives) would be to develop much greater strategic capacity to 'join the dots' between the science and the stories that people engage with. At the moment, sustained public engagement with climate change does not happen in a co-ordinated way, but events like the Uncertainty Summit are important ways of bridging the gap between different disciplines and professions. If the expertise and diversity of perspectives represented at this meeting could be marshalled on a permanent basis, to provide a new type of institution explicitly tasked with full-time public engagement on climate change (from the science through to the social reality of the issue), we would have a level of public engagement proportionate to the scale of the challenge we face.

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Adam Corner
This guest blog was written by Adam Corner, Research Director at Climate Outreach.  Dr Adam Corner is Climate Outreach's Research Director, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University. Adam manages Climate Outreach's research portfolio, oversees the 'Talking Climate' project website, and directs Climate Outreach's collaborations with academic partners. He writes regularly for the national media, including The Guardian and New Scientist magazine.

Climate Outreach recently published a 'Handbook' on communicating uncertainty with Steve Lewandowsky and Mary Phillips at University of Bristol. Download the handbook.


Other blogs in the Uncertain World series

The Uncertain World: A public dialogue
The Uncertain World: Question Time
The Uncertain World: Reflections

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Delivering the ‘Future City’: engaging or persuading?

In Bristol’s European Green Capital year, the University of Bristol and its Cabot Institute have been working with the Bristol Green Capital Partnership and its members to convene a series of four conversations between Bristol academics and city ‘thinkers’ from across public, private and civil society exploring how Bristol delivers the ‘future city’ –  what capacities it needs to be resilient, sustainable and successful and how it can start to develop these in times of changing governance and tightened finances. The conversations will be reflected in a series of four blogs (the third below) and then brought together as a policy report for the Festival of the Future City in November.  You can read the other blogs from this series at the bottom of this post.

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In this third conversation we considered how the range of civil society in the city is or could be effectively engaged in the future of the city. Our earlier debates (on governance and austerity) have suggested that a limited range of the spectrum of thought in the city is really engaged in shaping the future so how can engagement be widened in a way that brings people in because they want to be involved. But first, are we asking the right question in seeking new forms of engagement when maybe we don’t sufficiently value what is already happening? After all, isn't everyone engaged in some way? What would be different in Bristol if the contribution of every individual, group and community was celebrated, connected and valued? If they felt they had both a stake and a role and were already part of delivering a better future? Would there be different questions asked, or different projects, processes and policies designed for the future?


Utopia and dystopia


A strand of discussion that captured the collective imagination was the idea of utopias – not as an impossible goal but rather as a method to help us move beyond the immediate issues of what we know now. Particularly in the current economic and environmental crises, the use of visions of utopia as a method for imagining a better world and alternative futures is a great tool - although we can also imagine the opposite, the dystopian vision of social disruption in an overcrowded, overheated world fighting for limited resources. 

Dystopia. Image taken from PlayBuzz.
We have set an important, ambitious target for combatting climate change: that by 2050 we must have an 80% reduction in our carbon emissions; and we've been talking about the profound inequality in the city and the lack of social mobility for years – neither of these will change with incremental efforts. The Utopian approach allows us to imagine beyond what we know now, to think further ahead. Continuing to work in 5 year cycles is only tweaking when what is needed is system change – we can wait for the ruptures or be bold in addressing the big problems. We know that the city will be very different in the future, that the potential is there for dystopia if we don’t act.

‘We need to start thinking about how we best plan for the type of world we want, because if we just carry on the way the current narrative is playing out, it feels more like dystopia than utopia’. 
Could we try to imagine out of that dystopia what the possibilities are? To use a great phrase from Seamus Heaney, we need to ‘make space for the marvellous as well as the murderous’, the utopian vision coming out of crisis. But of course there are tension between what we think will happen and an imagined ideal future and we need to work with the first to get the second – and work out what will make the difference in what we end up with.
‘We need to start thinking about how we best plan for the type of world we want, because if we just carry on the way the current narrative is playing out, it feels more like dystopia than utopia’. 
Could we try to imagine out of that dystopia what the possibilities are? To use a great phrase from Seamus Heaney, we need to ‘make space for the marvellous as well as the murderous’, the utopian vision coming out of crisis. But of course there are tension between what we think will happen and an imagined ideal future and we need to work with the first to get the second – and work out what will make the difference in what we end up with.
Utopias are liberating: an imagined goal to work to
Visions are constraining: just limiting variations of now 

Spaces of encounter and trust


Living in cities allows us to collaborate and survive better. But cities also allow anonymity (for better and worse) and non-participation, creating boundaries between different communities and the segregation that many perceive, generationally and culturally and within and across communities. How could the infrastructure be changed to allow the creation and connection of neutral spaces in order to facilitate interaction? Could a city be designed to actively help people to get to know each other? A city designed to break down barriers between differences, and that values and perceives diversity in all its guises to be a ‘fantastically wonderful, magical, absolutely life-enhancing, collaborative opportunity’. 

We do know how to do some of this this, but it’s not happening and more needs to be done if a city’s infrastructure, services and technologies are to make positive contributions to building trust across communities, cultures and generational groups. Infrastructure could then be an enabler of bringing people together, creating spaces for encounter and reasons for interaction and discovery, celebrating and sharing stories and creating connections.

In overcoming intergenerational barriers, there are great examples from around Europe: ante-natal care in old peoples’ homes in Switzerland or co-housing students and older people in Amsterdam. The class and ethnicity barriers seem to be harder to crack – children in schools work together but increasing segregation occurs after age 16, so understanding why and what could be done to build trust and communication between communities is needed.

Trust came up strongly in the conversation, the need to build networks of trust to start to erode boundaries, having conversations to build lasting relationships, finding and using ways for neighbours to know each other. Across Bristol, neighbourly gatherings are building local encounter - like street parties and Playing Out

Playing Out grew out of discussions amongst friends and neighbours with
young children, living in a built-up, residential area of south Bristol.
Image taken from Playing Out.
Looking further ahead, should we start with envisioning how would we all want to be with each other and treat each other in 50 years' time in order to have society that works? Can this help to create a Utopian image of human relationships and forms of engagement to work towards?

Who are 'we' and are we right?


There’s a danger with all these good intentions that what we really think is that all that needs to happen is everyone else should think like ‘us’. Is there therefore a risk that engagement is really more about persuasion? There are many forms of engagement and many people are engaged in different ways. It is important that we celebrate and value different contributions so that everyone feels like they have a role. For example, surely someone supporting a kid’s after-school basketball club in Southmead is engaged - they’re helping young people to learn leadership and team working skills. They’re encouraging low-carbon, high-community activity (rather than playing sedentary electronic games or engaging in other more antisocial behaviour). They are actively and directly community building and, although they might not use these words, they’re engaged in Future Cities too.

Are certain types of engagement the only valid ones? What about the new political engagement that the Scottish referendum brought about for example, through harnessing new places and by engaging young people more successfully. Riots are also a form of engagement, bringing people together and making something happen – in Bristol, the St Pauls Riots of 1982 resulted in change – this type of engagement is more profound than elections but it’s also messy and disruptive. Mob engagement, civil disobedience, communities collaborating to be exclusive, these are all forms of engagement… are we then talking about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ engagement? 

So perhaps everyone can coalesce around the common human aim of having a better future for us and ones we love with human (and environmental) flourishing at the core of everything, tackling issues of equity and justice and not forgetting the climate imperative that might force us to act more decisively together. 

Politics, democracy and big institutions


We talked in previous debates about who has the power. Here we also discussed democracy and the democratic mandate of the big organisations that have power in the city. The city council of course has a democratic mandate through its elected councillors and mayor but other major ‘anchor’ organisations do not. These still have the ability to shape and influence policy – organisations such as the universities, health services, travel providers and big businesses in the city. 

However, even where there is a democratic potential, not everyone exercises their rights to participate in democracy. For example in the last mayoral election, around 12% voted in parts of south Bristol, compared to over 55% in the more affluent northern areas, leading to a huge democratic deficit which demonstrates that current forms of engagement in the running of the city are not working. There is something about the current idea of politics which is not engaging so, as we've reflected above, new engagements which address building trust, inclusion and the embracing of diversity are necessary.
The large institutions in the city do have power but they are seen as impenetrable, unaccountable and not good at democracy and yet they have the resources to do much good where the city council is constrained by its bureaucratic processes and lack of resources. Grassroots activities should also have a role in the formal democratic processes, allowing power to be diffused and giving more communities agency, influence and a voice.

People involved in Green Capital have been described as the ‘emerald city’ and they are just a small group within the overall population of over 400,000. But how many ‘degrees of separation’ are there to reach the whole city? How can we, as a future city, build on the levels of engagement and ambition for resilience and sustainability started in this Green Capital year, working through all the networks and across the separations?

In conclusion


In this third session we talked about engagement through the ideas of Utopia (and dystopia), spaces to facilitate encounter, and the necessary building of trust. We questioned what is meant by ‘engagement’ – whether we’re missing valuable contributions by holding onto a narrow definition and that what ‘we’ might really mean is more akin to persuasion. Some forms of engagement are messy and disruptive but sometimes ruptures are needed to force the radical change that isn’t happening through the routine tweaking of the familiar. The exercise of imagining the future opens up a conversation about what to do tomorrow in seeking a better future for us all, making ‘space for the marvellous as well as the murderous’. It should be less ‘we engaging them’ and more ‘us all co-creating’ a thriving city for now and in the future.

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This blog is written by Caroline Bird, Future Cities and Communities Knowledge Exchange Manager at the Cabot Institute.
Caroline Bird

Other blogs in this series
Blog 1: Delivering the ‘Future City’: does Bristol have the governance capacities it needs?
Blog 2: Delivering the ‘Future City’: collaborating with or colluding in austerity?

Monday, 26 October 2015

Uncertain World: Reflections

This last week we have been focussing on our Uncertain World, with a host of events and interactions to meet with new communities, think around new ideas and establish new solutions for what’s in store for us in the future.  You can read the other blogs covered in 'Our Uncertain World' at the bottom of this blog. Join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #UncertainWorld and contribute your thoughts and concerns to our (virtual) graffiti wall.  
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Over the past year, the Cabot Institute have been exploring this Uncertain World. I have been lucky enough to have attended, and written about, two events that have occurred this week - a public dialogue event and a Question Time event. This last blog is a way for me to reflect on the event and my thoughts on moving forward in a time of uncertainty.

At the events, I was particularly struck by how differently we perceive this uncertainty: both in our lived experience and our understandings of climate change. From concerns surrounding health to the criticism of how climate change is taught at school – every person I encountered or listened to saw something different and added new concerns. Particularly notable was the wide divergence in understandings of climate change, resilience and uncertainty between two of the generations present at these events. It is these perceptions that have guided my thoughts.

Out of fear of insulting you readers – I will refrain from labelling these generational conclusions in terms of ‘elderly’ and  ‘young’, or ‘mature’ and ‘naïve’. Instead, I will simplify them slightly – naming them after two people in my life: Maggie (my Nan); and Mary (my goddaughter). Maggie is 77 and enjoying retirement; Mary is four months old and doing a good job at avoiding colic.

Maggie

Many lack concern for climate change because they feel that they will remain unaffected. There is a greater concern in episodes of more-traditional conflict. Aside from Atlantis, there is no historical reference for the fate of Tuvalu in a world of rising sea levels. We fear armed conflict because of popular memory but how can we conceptualise climate change when we have no reference point to refer to?

Generation Maggie remembers the Second World War and much of their understandings were guided by their memories of the uncertainty generated by the conflict and the communal responses to this danger. This provides an important window into understanding uncertainty - the traditional perception of an existential threat, and how climate change often exists outside of this framing.
The uncertainty generated by the conflict of World War II led to
communal responses to this danger. Image credit: Wikipedia.
With age often painted as a contributory factor in scepticism towards climate change, it is important to understand that this may not be borne out of a lack of belief. Instead, it is driven by the conflict between the uncertain nature of climate change and the tangible, real threat that traditional conflict has posed in the past.

This problem is very different from the Blitzkrieg that transformed our cities into rubble during World War II; and, rather than labelling these sceptics “idiots” (George Ferguson’s words, not mine), we need to seek to engage with those who perceive climate change as uncertain and empower them to understand its role as a greater risk than we have ever experienced. World War Two may be a scar on this nation, but climactic shocks provide a threat that will be even harder to resist.

This experience also points to an important case of pooling of risk. Risks and resources were shared, community spirit was emphasised and everybody played their part. Food insecurity created rationing which, in turn, led to personal innovation and better diets than today. This may be rose tinted glasses but, as discussions uncovered, it is this form of community engagement, support and joint-adaptation that might provide the most effective routes to tacking climate-induced uncertainty in the future. Some still hark back for a return to these times; perhaps we should also look back and look to this community-resilience for inspiration.

Mary 

As Bristol Youth Mayor, Neha Mehta said at the Question Time panel, young people care. They have enthusiasm and empathy and, importantly, the desire for change. At the Question Time event, I found myself lucky enough to be sat behind Bristol's Youth Council. For the hour and a half, their heads did not drop. In fact, it was one of their numbers that asked the most challenging, and perhaps most pressing question of the evening: just how compatible are meaningful steps towards climate mitigation and a capitalist system based in corporate profit? A question that many have tried to find the answer to and I will not dare not elaborate on.

Neha Mehta, Youth Mayor (left) at the Cabot Institute Uncertain World Question
Time event in October 2015.
This generation will suffer from a greater degree of uncertainty in employment, finance and fulfilment of fundamental needs than the generation that has come before. Significantly, this increased instability will occur at a time when climate change will become more evident and the need for adaptation more extreme. This is not a cry of defeat, perhaps this increased uncertainty in all parts of life shall result in an increased innovation, creativity and passion in meeting these challenges and fulfilling the necessary transformations. Evidence of this can be found in the fossil fuel divestment movements that are sweeping across the education institutions of the globe.

According to even medium projections, future generations will inherit a very different world to the one that you and I inhabit. This raises an important need to expand these discussions to younger generations. The solution to these problems cannot just come from the leaders of today, but also the stewards of tomorrow. The young must be inspired to see that change and strive for it.  For Neha, the answer must lie in education. Climate change can no longer be simplified and taught as just one aspect of a wider syllabus. Lessons must seek to inspire and advocate the individual and social change necessary to combat climate change. It is only through this engagement that today's young people can become the future leaders that the climate change regime really needs. 

At the Question Time event, Leo Hickman posed a thought-experiment: 
"Has one generation ever done anything selflessly for the next?" 
But, why must the need to act lie in one generation? Successful mitigation and adaptation cannot only involve the empowerment of the young. There is no monopoly on change. It must occur at every level and embrace every member of the community – empowering them to make the behavioural changes that are necessary for resilience. 

The framing of climate change as an issue of the selflessness of one (future) generation transfers the need to act from one generation to the next, whilst neglecting the role that the past may play in the present. The climate change regime cannot only look forward; it must also look back to older and previous generations for inspiration. It is not a question of one generation sacrificing all for the future – it is a necessity for generations to work together to ensure the future is empowered and a better world is left.  


This must not be selfless sacrifice by a saviour generation, this needs to be a communal pooling to ensure resilience – and the precedents for this are there. 

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Ed Atkins, a PhD student at the University of Bristol who studies water scarcity and environmental conflict.

Ed Atkins

Other blogs in the Uncertain World series:

The Uncertain World: A public dialogue
The Uncertain World: Question Time

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Uncertain World: Question Time

This week we are focussing on our Uncertain World, with a host of events and interactions to meet with new communities, think around new ideas and establish new solutions for what’s in store for us in the future.  We will be posting blogs every day this week on 'Our Uncertain World'. Join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #UncertainWorld and contribute your thoughts and concerns to our (virtual) graffiti wall.  
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The current rate of environmental change is unprecedented in Earth’s history and many aspects of climate change are understood. Yet, others are not. Scientists can say with a high confidence that temperatures and sea level rise - but continue to remain uncertain on the scale and speed of such processes. Policy makers are now challenged to make decisions that possess long term repercussions on the basis of information that is deemed uncertain. However, it is not just the science that may appear incomplete - social, economic and regulatory trends also remain unpredictable.
The Question Time panel, left to right: Neha Mehta (Bristol Youth Mayor); Ann Cousins (ARUP);
Peter Macfadyen (Ex-Comic Relief & Frome Mayor); Leo Hickman (Carbon Brief);
George Ferguson (Bristol Mayor); Andrew Kelly (Bristol Festival of Ideas).
It is this relationship between policy and an uncertain environment that was the focus of the Cabot Institute’s Uncertain World: Question Time event on the 21 October 2015. Chaired by Andrew Kelly of the Festival of Ideas, the panel included: Bristol Mayor George Ferguson; Bristol Youth Mayor Neha Mehta; Leo Hickman of the Carbon Brief; Peter Macfadyen, formerly Mayor of Frome and a leader in the Transition Town movement; and Ann Cousins, a Sustainability Consultant at Arup
This Question Time event forms part of a wider ongoing dialogue between the Cabot Institute and the Bristol public,  based on making climate-based uncertainty real, relevant and personal for all – whilst exploring what climate change means for this city and its inhabitants.

As George Ferguson said in his opening statement, 
"the stars do seem aligned for Bristol".  
This is true – the city is European Green Capital, one of the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities, and possesses a vibrant sense of community that previous conversations have drawn upon. Recent surveys have shown that over two thirds of the city's population are concerned with the effects of climate change - as a local and a global issue. This provides a clear mandate for this city, and its leaders to act. 

Yet, as Ann Cousins and Leo Hickman argued - it is not just the traditional decision makers who must make these changes. The inspiration of figureheads cannot occur in a vacuum. We are all leaders - be it via changing our own behaviour or by engaging with others to change theirs. 

What became particularly evident in discussions at the public dialogue event was the focus on the local community to meet uncertainty. It is this pooling of risk that resulted in some of our most innovative, and important, social institutions - with the NHS providing just one example. In the face of increased social uncertainty today, many have independently set up food banks and swap-shops – resulting in cooperative ventures and the circular economy becoming more commonplace. It is no secret that the effects of climate change will be first felt at the local level – and it is this pooling of risk that provides an important route to adaptation.

As Frome has shown - and Peter Macfadyen voiced - the answer lies at the community level. For meaningful change, policy must move beyond mere nudge theory and towards tipping points. Change can only occur by giving people agency - by inspiring them to embrace individual mitigation and adaptation strategies. From decreased wastage to selling the car and waiting at the bus stop. This cannot occur in isolation - it must embrace the complexity of climate change as a social issue and link it directly to the lives we live. Radical change will be necessary but it will be a quiet revolution, based on information and engagement.

Peter Mcfadyen (centre) tells the room that the answer to climate change lies
at the community level.
Although there may be wide agreement that climate change is occurring - there is often a popular disconnect between the phenomena and its consequences for us as societies and individuals. When the media talk about climate change scepticism, they are usually referring to people who are uncertain about the reality or seriousness of climate change. Psychologists at the University of Illinois have found an important discrepancy between how the term ‘uncertainty’ is meant in scientific reports and how it is interpreted by others [1]. This is a problem when the 2013 report of the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change used the term over 2200 times - approximately 1.5 times per page of the report of the working group alone [2].

A number of the event's questions focused on the need for radical change in Bristol - including the pedestrianisation of the M32, Oslo’s ban on cars, and a policies on inter-community recycling and reuse. This struck me - the desire for radical change was near-unanimous. But, how representative of this is Bristol as a whole? Many still posses a tunnelled vision and a drawbridge mentality in their understanding of shifting climates – “it’s not affecting me, why should I care?” Priorities lie elsewhere: securing basic needs, prosperity, health, etc. Sadly, climate change doesn’t possess the minds of many.
Seoul - pedestrianised one of its motorways. Is this on the cards for Bristol's M32?
Image credit Better Nation.
Climate change continues to feel distant. A question for science, rather than society. We have seen the images of Hurricane Sandy and of sea level rise - but these are from a different world, a great distance from our front doors. The biggest question of the night for me will continue to plague me for a while longer: Has Bristol felt climate change enough to cause this behavioural change on an individual level? And, if not what will it take?

References

[1] David V. Budescu, Stephen Broomell & Han-Hui Poor (2009). Improving the uncertainty in the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Psychological Science, 20(3): 299-308
[2] Stephan Lewandowsky, Timotyhy Ballard, & Richard D. Pancost (2015). Uncertainty as Knowledge, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 373(2055).

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Ed Atkins, a PhD student at the University of Bristol who studies water scarcity and environmental conflict.

Ed Atkins

Other blogs in the Uncertain World series:

The Uncertain World: A public dialogue


Monday, 19 October 2015

The Uncertain World: A public dialogue

This week we are focussing on our Uncertain World, with a host of events to meet with new communities, think around new ideas and establish new solutions for what’s in store for us in the future.  We will be posting blogs every day this week on 'Our Uncertain World'. Join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #UncertainWorld and contribute your thoughts and concerns to our (virtual) graffiti wall.  Alternatively join us at our Question Time event on Wednesday 21 October at 6 pm and ask our local leaders how they will change their decision making as a result of our changing global environment.  Tickets are free, book here.


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Adaptation to climate change presents a unique challenge: the need to make important decisions on the basis of incomplete and uncertain information. We know that future environments shall be different from today’s, but we cannot be certain of the specifics of this change.   The pointing out of uncertainty in predictions is a central part of scientific training and provides an important source of transparency in research. However, this has provided climate-skeptics with ammunition on the future of the climate change, the science that explores it and the related policies of mitigation and adaptation. As Adam Corner has written, the longer that the debates surrounding climate change focus on the uncertainty in future prediction, the less likely it is that any transformation will occur. A translation is necessary - and it is this that provides the focus of a series of events that the Cabot Institute is hosting on uncertainty, its role in our lives and climate change, and the opportunities that it can provide in moving forward.

A recent study has found that we, as individuals, have a tendency to prioritise daily experience over more-statistical knowledge - meaning that our personal experiences may have a greater influence on views of climate change than any conclusions drawn by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [1]. This is important:  the complexity of society, ourselves and our relationships mean that we live with uncertainty every day.  It is this socialised form of uncertainty, present across our world, that this public dialogue sought to explore and understand on the 17th October. Led by Hayley Shaw of the Cabot Institute, this event gave the impetus (and the microphone) to members of the public - allowing the communication of how uncertainty is felt in everyday life, its driver, and hopes and fears within an uncertain future.

The event placed its starting point at the (what would seem simple) question of ‘what is that makes a good and happy life?’ An admission: I am 25 years of age and have never even come close to seeking an answer to this question. Perhaps this is symbolic of my skewed personal priorities, or perhaps it points to something larger - our detachment from the elements of life that we enjoy and take for granted. It is this latter symbolism that guided much of the room’s deliberations - with a focus on the privileges we enjoy often being absent in other parts of the globe. Freedom, security and peace; physical and mental wellbeing; and access to basic resources to fulfil fundamental needs were all mentioned heavily. However, conversations also discussed on the more deliberative elements of life, such as autonomy and empowerment, justice and cultural and intellectual wealth. All of which were perceived by participants as never certain.

There were a number of notable themes that participants drew from these discussions. Firstly, was the near-complete focus on the personal and local level, with limited mentioned of our relationships with our state. Second, all characteristics of ‘a good life’ discussed possess a dual role: of both a driver towards and consequence of happiness. For example: many groups spoke about the need for a sense of purpose to truly enjoy life. However, if we to build a flow chart of these elements of a good life, where would we place motivation and self-worth? Whilst some would place it at the end, with a sense of purpose built by security, health and autonomy. I’d imagine that Iain Duncan Smith would disagree, placing it at the beginning as the gateway to personal growth.

Lastly, these points of stability often compete with each other - resulting in competition and trade-offs between them. It is this presence of uncertainty in securing many of these points that opened up an important conversation surrounding how these can be achieved, and the factors that influence their foundations. The economy reigned supreme in many of these deliberations - with the important links between personal income and fulfilling of basic human needs of food, health and shelter often asserted. Common themes of discussion also focused on the issues of migration and multiculturalism, justice and equality, and the nature of the globalised world and trade. Significantly, these are all systems that not only drive uncertainty but are products of it also.

Comments from the public during the event on Saturday 17 October.
Lastly, the group explored strategies of resistance against these forms of uncertainty. In these discussions, it was our understanding of these drivers of precariousness that provided our personal routes forward - be it via the personal choice of taking money outside of the globalised economy, or the need for solidarity, dialogue and knowledge-exchange as a means to challenge injustices. Notably, many of the answers often lay in the community and individual action, rather than the state - perhaps illustrated by the rise of food banks and cooperative endeavours as a means to fulfil important roles that the state does not.

With uncertainty providing an important issue in the communication of climate change, it was eye-opening to explore its sources in day-to-day life. The message from this event was simple: we all experience, explore and rebel against unpredictability on a daily basis - ranging from the mundane to the existential. However, these sources result in an increased degree of imagination and flexibility in our navigation of life. Without it, life would be pretty dull. Unpredictability does not restrict us from making important everyday decisions - so why should it inhibit any response to climate change? Uncertainty should not always be a dirty word.

References
[1] Anthony G. Pratt & Elke U. Weber (2014), Perceptions and communication strategies for the many uncertainties relevant for climate policy. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews. 5(2): 219-232.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Ed Atkins, a PhD student at the University of Bristol who studies water scarcity and environmental conflict.
Ed Atkins

Other blogs in the Uncertain World series:

The Uncertain World: Question Time


Friday, 16 October 2015

Divestment at the University of Bristol?

Divestment march. Image courtesy of Fossil Free University of Bristol.
Earlier this year I was approached by students who were involved in the campaign to petition the University of Bristol to divest from fossil fuel investments to see if I would be prepared to support their campaign and to encourage other members of the University’s staff to do so also.  I give lectures to students from the Faculty of Engineering on the subject of sustainable development, and through those lectures the students were aware that I have a good understanding of some of the challenges that face us.

I am a mechanical engineer by training, a specialist in engineering design, and I have worked in and with the transportation industries throughout my working life.  These industries– automobile, railway, aerospace, marine – are among the prime users of the fossil fuels with which the students are concerned, and although I am passionate about all things mechanical I have become convinced in recent years that we must be more radical in addressing issues of climate change than we have so far been prepared to be.  I was thus pleased to be able to give the students my support.  I felt at the very least the subject should figure strongly in debate and discussion within the University. I wrote emails to a number of members of the University staff inviting them to sign up to the campaign, using the letter reproduced below.
Dear Vice Chancellor,
We are writing to you to express our support for the open letter [1] that urges the University of Bristol to divest itself of investments in companies in the fossil fuel industry.  We acknowledge that exploitation of fossil fuels has enabled the remarkable developments of the industrial world, but we are now convinced that its continuation poses enormous threats to our planet and its population through climate change and through the pursuit of ever-more risky approaches to resource extraction.  We appreciate that reducing our use of fossil fuels is a tremendous challenge: we are 'locked in' to our current ways of doing things by the choices we have made at a time of fossil fuel abundance. Any change we make will be painful and might seem less than rational in terms of immediate short term financial impact (although not if fossil fuel assets become ‘stranded’ as the Bank of England has recently warned). But the longer we wait before we take decisive action the worse the negative impacts are likely to be, and for this reason we respectfully request that you give very serious consideration to the case for divestment.
[1] https://campaigns.gofossilfree.org/petitions/university-of-bristol-divest-from-the-fossil-fuel-industry
Those replies that I received were very largely supportive: over 50 members of staff have agreed to add their names to the petition. But I also received a number of thoughtful comments, and I thought I should share those through a Cabot Institute blog as a contribution to a debate on the topic.

Of those who declined to offer support, the most frequent reason offered was that the subject was too political – I received emails from colleagues saying that they were supportive in principle, but that it was “above their pay grade” or that they did not want to tie the hands of the University’s management.  For others, the University had important relationships with industry, especially with the petro-chemical industry – as sponsors of research and employers of our graduates – that might be threatened by divestment (and indeed an engineering student from the petro-chemical industry asked me why were we not also targeting the aerospace and automobile industries, among others, whose activities were leading to the demand for fossil fuels).

There were dissenters on technical grounds also.  A number of colleagues felt that to lump all fossil fuels together was much too indiscriminate, that natural gas and shale gas at least should play an important role in the transition to a low carbon future, and that technologies such as carbon capture and storage should be a part of future energy strategy.  For another respondent the difficulties in transitioning to alternative fuels were underestimated. Another felt that we should not divest until we have a viable alternative.  He believed that this could be nuclear, but that we needed to address the issues of the long-term storage of waste first (and he believed it was addressable).  Other colleagues admonished me for the way I wrote the statement of support.  I had suggested that divestment would be painful, but that I believed that the pain would be worth enduring because the consequences of runaway climate change were so unthinkable.  I was reproached by one writer for being too pessimistic – he said that the track record of market-based measures for reducing fossil fuel use is excellent: putting a price on pollution is very effective and it's not even that costly.  For another colleague the letter was insufficiently assertive.  We should request that the University divest itself from investments in fossil fuel industries, not just consider it!

Image courtesy of Fossil Free University of Bristol.
The responses that I received have caused me to re-examine my views, but I have not substantially changed them.  I still believe that we must very actively transition away from fossil fuels, even if it means significant changes in our lifestyles (and I remain convinced that it will).  As one colleague said we have reached a point where all scenarios are painful and that the logical thing to do is to act as quickly as possible to minimise the long term impact.  But the responses also demonstrated to me that there is an appetite in the University for an informed debate on the topic, and I hope that this blog entry and any responses that it attracts will be a helpful contribution to that debate.


Addendum

Kevin Anderson's commentary in Nature Geoscience this month and reproduced in his blog at http://kevinanderson.info/blog/duality-in-climate-science/ is very relevant to the divestment debate.  His conclusion that " . . even a slim chance of 'keeping below' a 2°C rise . .  now demands a revolution in how we both consume and produce energy. Such a rapid and deep transition will have profound implications for the framing of contemporary society" is in line very much with the sentiments behind the divestment campaign, and supports the need for urgent action.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Prof Chris McMahon from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol.
Prof Chris McMahon


Friday, 9 October 2015

Complex cities in an uncertain world

The Festival of Ideas have invited partners and participants in the Festival of the Future City to contribute articles on areas of work they are engaged in of relevance to the upcoming events. Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute, blogs below.

Photo by David Iliff. License CC-BY-SA 3.0
Half of the planet lives in cities. By the middle of this century, that number will rise to nearly 75%, nearly 7 billion people. The decisions we make today will dictate whether those future cities are fit for purpose, whether they are just, sustainable, vibrant, resilient and pleasant. But those decisions must navigate an increasingly perilous web of urban complexity and global uncertainty.

The Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr famously said,
‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future,’ 
a quote that recognises and subverts the very nature of the scientific endeavour. Scientists aspire to understand something well enough that we can predict what will happen under certain conditions in the future, whether it be a chemical reaction or nuclear fission – or administering a drug or raising interest rates. In fact, prediction is the basis for all decision makers, not just doctors and engineers but mayors, CEOs, teachers and you. Whether it is predicting when you will run out of bread or predicting whether a residential parking scheme will bring about a net positive change to a congested city, we all make decisions based on what we think is about to happen or will happen if we take an action. In a simple world, we barely need to think about these things because the pattern has been reproduced numerous times or the solution will clearly address the challenge.
But we do not live in a simple world. We live in a complex world – an astonishingly complex world in which the landscape is changing faster than our ability to map it.

People are complex: our emotions, motivations, desires and fears make us notoriously (and wonderfully) difficult to understand and predict. Society is complex: our communities, whether they be geographical, historical, ethnic or religious, interact in marvellously messy ways. And most of all, our cities are complex. Beautifully, fantastically, unpredictably, frustratingly and vibrantly complex. Cities represent tens or hundreds or even thousands of years of ad hoc expansion, destruction and redevelopment; the accumulation of technological and infrastructural strata, from ancient paths, to great roads, to modern electrical grids, to smart city digital networks; and vast demographic changes including an aging population, migration, globalisation and a frightening increase in social inequality.

That is just the complexity within a city, but cities are not isolated from the rest of the world. They are nodes within a vast and increasingly complex global supply chain on which we depend for everything from our food and electricity to our culture and entertainment.

And adding yet additional layers of complexity are our global environmental and societal challenges. We are warming the planet and depleting it of vital resources. Those would be challenging enough given the complex interdependencies that now define 21st century society. Unfortunately, global warming could change our planet in ways that are unique in human history and possibly geological history. We have not experienced and our models cannot fully constrain this uncertain world. Forecasts for rainfall patterns, extreme weather events or food production are fraught with uncertainty – and by extension, so are forecasts for political insecurity and financial markets.

How does the complexity intersect and overlap, how do these systems merge, either dampening or enhancing their collective impacts? How will climate change and food insecurity, for example, exacerbate inequality? We do have tools for navigating these complex systems – ranging from cognitive shortcuts in decision making to community histories to sophisticated models. However, those are almost all based on experience, and experience loses value when the ground rules are changed. Our vast experiment with the Earth’s climate and ecosystem – making our world not just complex but complex and uncertain – makes it harder for scientists to predict the future, decision makers to plan and individuals to act with creative and empowering agency.

Of course, complexity need not be bad. Complexity and change can bring about positive challenges, shaking us out of complacency and inspiring creativity. Perhaps even more inspiring, complexity could be harnessed as a tool for connection rather than isolation. Although our interdependence makes us particularly vulnerable to conflict or instability on the far side of the planet, it also makes us all invested in one another’s lives. This also applies to the urban scale as exemplified by Bristol is Open, in which an additional layer of complexity – a publicly shared digital infrastructure managed by a smart city operating system – could generate new platforms for social cohesion. It could be a new set of cross-city linkages, a digital commons, or a shared lab for city-scale experimentation in which all of us are the scientists.

Ensuring how our complex cities thrive in an uncertain world is a rather exciting challenge that will likely require a range of solutions. During the Festival of the Future City we will explore both what it means to be a citizen in a complex city, how we navigate that complexity both on a personal and societal scale, and the new technologies that create both new challenges and new opportunities. In some cases, we should avoid unnecessary uncertainty, such as potentially devastating climate change. In others, we should harness the social and economic opportunities it presents. But in all cases, we ourselves must change. A more complex world requires a more resilient citizen or community, one that is empowered to learn, to improvise and to create.

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

Prof Rich Pancost


This blog has been reproduced with kind permission from the Bristol Festival of Ideas blog.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Atmospheric and oceanic impacts of Antarctic glaciation across the Eocene–Oligocene transition

Composite satellite image of what the Earth may have looked like prior to Antarctic
glaciation during the late Eocene (image by Alan Kennedy).
The Eocene-Oligocene Transition occurred approx. 34 million years ago and was one of the biggest climatic shifts since the end of the Cretaceous (with the extinction of the dinosaurs). The Earth dramatically cooled and the Antarctic ice sheet first formed, but the cause and nature of the cooling remain uncertain. Using a climate model, HadCM3L, we looked at the effect of ice sheet growth and palaeogeographical change (i.e. continental reconfiguration as Australia separated from Antarctica) on the Earth’s steady-state climate. We utilised four simulations: a late Eocene palaeogeography with and without an ice sheet and an early Oligocene palaeogeography with and without an ice sheet.

The formation of the Antarctic ice sheet causes a similar atmospheric response for both palaeogeographies: cooling of the air over Antarctica, intensification of the polar atmospheric cell and increased winds over the Southern Ocean. The sea surface temperature response to the growth of ice is very different, however, between the two palaeogeographies. For the Eocene palaeogeography there is a 6°C warming in the South Pacific sector of the Southern Ocean in response to ice growth, but very little change (or even a slight cooling) for the Oligocene palaeogeography. Why, under the same forcing (the appearance of the ice sheet), do these different palaeogeographies have such different sea surface temperature responses?

The stronger winds over the Southern Ocean force more-saline water from the southern Indian Ocean into the less-saline southern Pacific Ocean. This is particularly important for the Eocene simulations, where the narrow gap between Australia and Antarctica limits flow from the Indian to the Pacific Ocean. As salinity in the southern Pacific Ocean increases the water becomes denser and sinks, releasing heat. This accounts for the increase in sea surface temperature in the Eocene simulations. In the Oligocene simulations, flow is already much greater between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and so there is no marked increase in density, sinking or sea surface temperature following glaciation. There is only a mild cooling due to the presence of the large, cold ice sheet.

Whether in reality the dominant ocean response to glaciation was warming or cooling may have impacted the growth of the ice sheet at this major transition in the Earth’s history. However, more importantly, this research highlights that sensitivity to subtle changes in palaeogeography can potentially have very large effects on the modelled climatic response to an event such as Antarctic glaciation. This could be very important for understanding palaeoclimate records and interpreting climate model results.

This research, carried out by Alan Kennedy, Dr Alex Farnsworth and Prof Dan Lunt of the Cabot Institute and University of Bristol with others, is featured in a special issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A. The full special issue on the theme of ‘Feedbacks on climate in the Earth System’ and the paper can be accessed here.

Special issue cover (image from Royal Society).
Citation: Kennedy A.T., Farnsworth A., Lunt D.J., Lear C.H., & Markwick P.J. (2015) Atmospheric and oceanic impacts of Antarctic glaciation across the Eocene–Oligocene transition. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A, 373, 20140419, doi:10.1098/rsta.2014.0419.
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This blog is written by Alan Kennedy from the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.  This blog post was edited from Alan's blog post at Ezekial Boom.
Alan Kennedy


Friday, 2 October 2015

The end of the road for diesel?

Smoggy day in Bristol

The Volkswagen (VW) emissions scandal is now into its second week, and with each day the enormity of the deception seems to increase. What started off as a few hundred thousand cars in the US has now become an astonishing 11 million cars worldwide that VW says may have to be recalled. In addition to the VW brand, diesel models of Audi, Skoda and SEAT cars have all been affected, with 1.2 million in the UK alone.

At the heart of this deception is the use of software, designed to be able to detect when a car was under test conditions, in order to reduce the emissions of a group of nitrogen and oxygen compounds, commonly referred to as NOx.  However, these emissions controls would not be switched on during normal driving.

Given that the cars were clearly built with the potential to emit less NOx, it’s not immediately clear why the emissions controls were applied only under test conditions.  Although VW have admitted they “screwed up”, they don’t seem to have said why. However, it’s a fair assumption that the emissions controls would affect the performance of the car, both in terms of drive and fuel economy. Since fuel economy is probably the main selling point of a diesel car, anything detrimentally affecting it, could easily lead to a decline in sales.

In addition to the flouting of the rules by VW, the wider issue is the NOx emissions themselves, which are a seemingly inevitable product of diesel powered vehicles.

The use of diesel as a fuel in cars has been on the up (in Europe at least) over the last couple of decades, with a supposedly superior fuel economy and hence lower CO2 emissions, meaning they have been incentivised in Britain with lower tax. However, this policy failed to take into account other pollutant emissions such as NOx and particulate matter that have been linked with thousands of premature deaths. Indeed, this push to diesel was labelled in a Channel 4 documentary earlier this year “the great car con” and just this week former science minister Lord Drayson called this policy a mistake.

Due in part to this push for more diesel vehicles on the roads in the UK and Europe, Bristol is just one of many cities which fail to meet the 40 μg/m3 annual mean WHO guideline level for NO2 (one of the collection of NOx gases). NOx levels in the UK have seen only a very small decline over the last decade or so, despite vehicle manufacturers telling us they make the cleanest cars yet. This contrasts with petrol vehicles, which have seen a dramatic decrease in NOx emissions over this time.

Why is NOx bad?


The presence of NOx in the lowermost part of our atmosphere, along with other pollutants such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) promotes the formation of ozone. Not to be confused with the protective ozone layer which is much higher up in the atmosphere, ozone near the surface has detrimental health effects, mostly involving the respiratory system, in addition to being a greenhouse gas. Furthermore, NO2 has itself been linked with certain respiratory health problems

Is there a simple solution?


Well, technologies exist to reduce NOx emissions from diesel vehicles, such as urea injection, only it seems that the VW group chose to cheat the system rather than use it, since it would add cost and weight to the car. If these technologies are implemented manufacturers claim to be able to filter out particulate emissions and greatly reduce NOx emissions. But, given the current furore, why on earth should we believe them?

In addition, a recent report from the International Council of Clean Transportation (ICCT) said that the real-world CO2 emissions of diesel (and petrol) cars are well above those in tests. There go the supposed CO2 savings of diesel then. Again you can’t help but question why diesel cars continue to enjoy a tax break in this country.

The death knell tolls for diesel…


…Ok, maybe not. Given the massive investment that the automobile industry has put into diesel over the last 20 years or so, they’re unlikely to suddenly jack it all in. What will probably follow is a splurge of marketing diarrhoea about how each new car is the ‘greenest yet’, all the while completely ignoring the fact that the simplest way to cut emissions would be to have fewer cars not more. Nevertheless, the current news story highlights how frivolously pollutant regulations, and the health implications, are taken when set against generating a profit. It also serves to impress the need for independent verification of emissions, such as those that uncovered VW’s fraudulent behaviour. The Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group here at Bristol, performs similar verification at the national level for greenhouse gases. It has been said that not taking the time to verify emissions statistics is like dieting without weighing oneself. Well, in this case I guess they did make it to the scales, but no one bothered to check they’d been calibrated properly. 

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This blog has been written by Cabot Institute member Mark Lunt, from the University of Bristol's Atmospheric Chemistry Research Group.
Mark Lunt