Cabot Institute blog

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Thursday, 27 October 2016

Working with the weather to manage parasites of livestock in changing climates

Parasites can be found in every environment on earth and infect a wide range of hosts – birds, fish, plants, insects, wild animals, domesticated animals and humans.  When parasites are discussed they often trigger an “ewww” reaction.  However, they have much more serious economic, food security and animal health and welfare impacts when they infect grazing livestock.  Grazing livestock contribute greatly to food security and this is not going to change any time soon.  Not only is the global population (and therefore food requirement) growing, there is an increasing demand for animal-based food products in developing regions and there is an essential role of animal products in marginal environments where crop production is infeasible.  Parasite control is therefore vital, but is not easy to achieve.

Many parasites have complex lifecycles which depend upon specific climatic conditions.  For instance, temperature and moisture determine development rates and survival.  Farmers could once use this to their advantage as the predictable, seasonal weather patterns led to predictable, seasonal patterns of parasites.  Reliable livestock husbandry practices therefore developed for parasite management.  However, in recent years there have been changes in climate and less predictable weather patterns.  Traditional management practices are often no longer effective as parasites are being found in unexpected regions and at unexpected times of year.  What’s more, whilst other organisms are being put under threat by climate change, parasites are successfully evolving and adapting to these changes in environment due to their short reproductive cycles.

Predicting the risk of infection to parasites involves multiple areas of expertise.  An in-depth knowledge of parasite characteristics is essential, and needs to be updated as they evolve.  Accurate forecasts for climate are also needed to help predict which regions may have an environment suitable for the parasite and changes to its seasonality.  An accurate forecast for weather (daily climatic conditions) is essential for certain parasites.  Combining historical data with forecasts, knowledge of the parasite’s requirements for development and farm characteristics (such as altitude and orientation) within complex models gives precise information on infection risk and helps farmers to be one step ahead of the parasites.  Technology is also aiding the rapid diagnosis of specific parasite infections to guide effective management practices.
Despite these advancements in parasite control, uptake of the technologies by farmers is often slow. The science behind parasites and the models developed are complicated and daunting.  Livestock farming is demanding, both economically and in terms of labour.  Therefore farmers need these complex technologies to be transformed into tools that are still effective, yet simple and easy to integrate into their current practices.  They need to feel confident in using the tools and understand the benefits that come with them – not the science.  These benefits include more efficient animals, both economically and environmentally, and improved animal health and welfare.

There is still much to learn about parasites. The rapid changes to the environment, the livestock industry and the parasites themselves means that this is an area of work that will be ongoing for the foreseeable future.  There is a huge need for collaboration between disciplines to not only develop the tools, but also to communicate their need and promote their use on farms.  This barrier to technology uptake could be a bigger hurdle for scientists than technology development itself.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Olivia Godber, a PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The Bristol Volcanology Group: Managing Britain’s volcanic crises

When Professor Steve Sparks moved to Bristol from Cambridge in 1989 to take up the Chair of Geology in the School of Earth Sciences little did he know what was in store for him. His time at Bristol would see him advise the government and become one of the most cited scientists of all time.

Sparks’s extraordinary journey as head of the volcanology group has lead it to study volcanism on every continent and has allowed it to grow from one man to a thriving collective of staff, researchers and students. The world-class science produced by the group has resulted in it receiving the Queen’s Anniversary Prize; the highest accolade in higher education.

Professor Kathy Cashman accepting the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education
Naturally, this evolution has been heavily influenced by volcanoes.  Unlike many sciences, the progress of volcanology can be episodic- driven by key eruptions and crises. For the Bristol group, two events have defined their work which has, in turn, altered the course of the science:

The eruption on the Island of Montserrat lasted from 1995 to 1997, killed 23 people and displaced several thousand.  As Montserrat is a British dependant territory, the British government was closely engaged in managing the crisis and wasted little time roping in Bristol’s volcanic expertise as Sparks explains: “Bristol was a key partner in establishing the Volcano Observatory on the island and several Bristol staff and PhD students were involved in the monitoring effort in the first few years.” This partnership has continued for the past two decades with Professors Sparks and Aspinall acting as directors of the observatory and heading up the advisory committee ever since. In addition, the research resulting from the eruption has contributed invaluable information to the science of volcanology including causes of volcanic cyclicity and eruptions.

More recently in 2010, the Eyjafjallajokull ash crisis cost the European economy $5 billion through the closure of airspace. In the midst of the decision-making surrounding this closure was a SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) meeting attended by six volcanologists, of which three were from Bristol. Bristol’s Professor Willy Aspinall, was one of the three called to advise, alongside Dr Matt Watson and Professor Sparks. He described the meeting as a ‘spectrum of people working in many areas from civil aviation to defence’.

Eruption column above Eyjafjallajokull
The role Bristol played was pivotal in the national response and was a turning point for the group as a whole as Watson explains ‘Eyja changed how we operated. Volcanology had previously comprised mostly of research produced for other researchers, but this was the first time we could use it practically in a crisis’.

Indeed, not only did it highlight the need for more applied approach to volcanology, it also prompted whole new field of research on volcanic ash involving analysis of ash deposits and advances in remote sensing techniques.  Such challenges were met head on by the group that has a huge breadth of research capabilities, from geophysics to geochemistry to petrology. 

Looking to the future, the group’s challenge is to be prepared for new eruptions, wherever they may be.  The researchers are working in regions all over the world including countries such as Guatemala and Ethiopia. Bristol volcanologists hope to expand this aspect of their research through opportunities such as the Global Challenges Research Fund which will draw together expertise from all corners of the group to address volcanic challenges in less developed nations.

Keri McNamara looking at a volcanic air fall deposit in Ethiopia, alongside some of the locals 
In recent years, Sparks has stepped down as the head of the group allowing for the appointment of Professor Kathy Cashman as AXA professor of volcanology and the group’s new lead.  Now, 27 years after it began, the group is not showing any signs of slowing down. The question is, when will next episode in the group’s history erupt?


This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.


Thank you to Alison Rust, Kathy Cashman, Matt Watson, Willy Aspinall and Steve Sparks for providing information for this blog. 

Friday, 14 October 2016

Exploring legal approaches to climate justice: Reflections from the South Pacific

A traditional canoe painted with world flags on Port Olry beach on the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu
The South Pacific is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change impacts. The images conjured up of sinking small islands surrounded by miles of rising oceans however do little justice to the vibrant cultures, diverse landscapes and close-knit communities I recently encountered there. As part of my PhD project exploring the legal protection available to climate vulnerable states and communities I was fortunate enough, with the support of the South West Doctoral Training Centre, to be awarded a three month visiting researcher position at the University of the South Pacific in Port Vila, Vanuatu. I spent my time there gathering data, primarily through a series of interviews with key stakeholders from national government, local law firms and NGOs, as well as with a number of regional organisations during a short trip to Fiji.

While being hosted by USP undoubtedly opened doors with participants and made the fieldwork far simpler to organise remotely, I still encountered the inevitable challenges associated with conducting research in a developing country context, thousands of miles from the familiarity of home. The techniques I had prepared for setting up interviews through methodically emailing, calling and making appointments ahead of time proved to be ineffective in a cultural context in which face to face conversations and storying are the norm. After two fruitless weeks of desk-based attempts to contact participants, I abandoned my USP office to wander Port Vila’s streets, notebook and dictaphone in hand, searching out the relevant office buildings. Luckily, as detailed maps and road signs were also hard to come by, government buildings marked with flags were relatively easy to spot. Once I had met with a handful of very helpful people I was armed with a list of relevant organisations and some directions, my study finally began to take off.
Market house in the capital, Port Vila on Efate island
The experience was eye-opening and rewarding, both personally and academically. Vanuatu, as a least developed country, the world’s most at risk to natural disasters according to the UN’s 2015 World Risk Index[1], and extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts, faces numerous challenges. Cyclone Pam, which struck the islands in March 2015, caused an estimated $449 million in loss and damage amounting to a staggering 64% of the country’s GDP[2]. The devastating power of climate related impacts in the region is clear, not only in terms of immediate damage but also, more indirectly, through the economic hardship caused by reduced crop yields among many remote subsistence farming communities, or the impacts of oceanic acidification and warming upon marine ecosystems that many coastal villages depend on for both food and tourism. Talking to those who work closely with these communities at the grassroots level revealed many anticipated issues, from geographic remoteness to a lack of access to institutional support. However, it also revealed the inherent resilience, strong sense of community and traditional knowledge which has enabled devastated communities to recover and should play a central role in the development of climate change responses going forward. 

Through the case study, I set out to examine the existing climate policy responses at the regional and national levels, the availability of legal mechanisms and the challenges associated with access to justice faced by communities in practice. In the wake of the adoption of the Paris Agreement at COP21 in December, climate change and debates surrounding the follow-up action needed is at the top of the Pacific policy agenda. While the Agreement has been hailed as a significant step forward for the international community with many states making voluntary commitments to cut their greenhouse gas emissions through Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), many aspects of the Agreement leave much to be desired, particularly from the point of view of the most climate vulnerable. There has been no clear mapping out of the financial support pledged by developed countries to assist in the adaptation and mitigation efforts of developing countries.


The Agreement itself contains no enforcement mechanism or legally binding GHG reduction targets and, particularly concerning for Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) such as Vanuatu, loss and damage has been consigned to a vaguely worded clause with an express exclusion of any right to compensation. These inadequacies are already being reflected in the reservations declared upon ratification by a number of Pacific nations including the Cook Islands, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands providing that they view the progress so far to be insufficient to prevent a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees and that they do not renounce any existing rights under international law. In light of the vast potential for resulting damage in Pacific SIDS, securing more direct access to climate finance and seeing loss & damage addressed more effectively at the international level have emerged as core priorities for both governments and regional bodies. 

The question of whether alternative legal avenues can be of assistance in securing access to such funding however has yet to be answered. My own assumptions that human rights mechanisms would offer the greatest enforceability and therefore represented the best available avenue in terms of climate litigation have been fundamentally challenged. Limited institutional capacity and funding can be seen to restrict the ability of governments in the region to effectively engage with international human rights conventions along with their corresponding reporting requirements, leading to very limited numbers of ratifications and, in turn, a lack of access to the complaints mechanisms those conventions provide for. In addition to this, Pacific states are without any regional human rights mechanism which could have provided for both greater enforceability and greater engagement with international human rights standards. Despite efforts by regional bodies such as the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) to provide a blueprint for the development of such a mechanism, this is currently not on the political agenda.  

Bottom of Mele Cascades, on Efate island, Vanuatu. 
A great deal more research is needed to fully explore the legal options of climate vulnerable states in the region with respect to the loss and damage that they will continue to suffer. While it is clear that Pacific SIDS are keeping their options open with respect to international legal obligations and state responsibility, at present the hope appears to be that the momentum generated in the run up to the adoption of the Paris Agreement will carry through the stronger commitments needed, both in terms of emissions reductions and financial support. I have learned that climate justice has many facets, not merely the more obvious distributive injustice of the manner in which the impacts of climate change manifest themselves by hitting the poorest and those who have contributed the least to global emissions the hardest, but also more procedural aspects of access to justice and the efficacy and availability of institutional support.

Climate justice demands a focus on the challenges faced in practice by vulnerable communities, affording them the opportunity to exercise fundamental rights and to make their voices heard. The inter-linkages between the national, regional and international levels of governance and policy making should be strengthened, carving out a definitive role for civil society in the process. Civil society organisations are crucial, not only in terms of responding to immediate disasters, but also to raise awareness of climate change and its human rights implications, to assist governments in the implementation of climate policies where institutional capacity may be lacking, and to amplify the needs of communities. One approach encompassing all of these many facets will be difficult to construct and may seem near impossible politically to implement, but we as climate change researchers should take heed of the example set by Pacific SIDS who, in the face of incredible adversity, have rallied to lead by example in the international community with ambitious climate policy proposals, along with close and effective collaboration.

A ni-Vanuatu family paddling a traditional canoe off Mele beach, Efate
[1] United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security UNU-EHS, World Risk Report 2015, available online at: http://collections.unu.edu/eserv/UNU:3303/WRR_2015_engl_online.pdf (accessed 08/06/16) at 46.

[2] Simone Esler, Vanuatu Post Disaster Needs Assessment Tropical Cyclone Pam March 2015, Government of Vanuatu, available online at: https://www.gfdrr.org/sites/default/files/publication/PDNA_Cyclone_Pam_Vanuatu_Report.pdf (accessed 9/6/16) at ix. development of climate change responses going forward.



This blog has been written by University of Bristol Cabot Institute member Alice Venn from the School of Law. Alice's research examines the protection of climate vulnerable states and peoples under international law from an environmental justice perspective.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Bristol Geographers appear in The Times and condemn divisive Brexit rhetoric

The following text comprises a longer version of a Letter to the Editor that appears in print and online in The Times. The letter, signed by over 85 members from of the School of Geographical Sciences expresses our dismay and disillusionment with the recent divisive rhetoric from the government regarding foreign workers and an inclusive society.

Further, we are concerned that this rhetoric is already acting as a detriment to our university's values, and the research and teaching we do.

The letter starts here:

"As a nationally and internationally recognised research and teaching department, we echo Lord Rees’ recent comments to express our deep concern at the divisive and ‘deplorable’ rhetoric during discussions about Brexit and immigration at the recent Conservative party conference. This rhetoric does not reflect the values we aim to uphold in our university and discipline, nor the diversity of feelings in the country. We are dismayed, further, that our Prime Minister, a former student of geography, seems to have forgotten our subject’s core teachings and values.

We are ‘citizens of the world’. Our department’s research, teaching, and study ranges across diverse fields: from financial institutions to flooding; from philosophy to parliamentary boundary reform; from colonialism and biogeochemistry, and all the planetary processes in between. We come from over 19 different countries, and virtually every populated continent. We come from everywhere. And we contribute to numerous global and local initiatives that seek to make our world a better, healthier, happier place.

What unites our diverse scholarly work is the recognition that how we make sense of the Earth - how we ‘geo-graph’ it - matters. How we understand our relationships to the Earth and each other matters for addressing issues affecting our shared planet, equitably and honestly. For this reason, we highlight our responsibility to one another and the many complex forces that make life possible; we recognise and value the many who make us, always, more than one.

Thus, we stand behind all of our staff and students who come from all corners of the world, and who contribute, as international citizens, to the strength of our department and its impacts locally, nationally, and globally. International staff and students now feel very insecure about their futures here. While we will do everything we can to protect their work and contributions, we hope the government will make clear that their futures - and those of our colleagues across the UK - are under no threat.

The School of Geographical Sciences
University of Bristol"


In order of signing:
Prof Paul Bates, Head of School
Prof Ron Johnston, OBE, FAcSS, FBA (former-VC, University of Essex)
Prof Clive Sabel
Prof Richard Harris
Prof Jemma Wadham
Prof Tony Payne
Prof Alexandre Anesio
Prof Sharon Collard
Dr T Davies-Barnard
Dr Merle Patchett
Dr Alex Farnsworth
Dr Sarah Greene
Prof Kelvyn Jones, FBA, FLSW, FAcSS
Dr Jon Hawkings
Dr Gemma Coxon
Dr Chris Williams
Dr Malcolm Fairbrother
Dr Fotis Sgouridis
Mr Earl Harper
Dr Niall Quinn
Dr Chris Yates
Ms Laura De Vito
Mr Matt Trevers
Dr Fiachra O’Loughlin
Dr Twila Moon
Mr Edward Armstrong
Mr Julien Bodart
Mr Rory Burford
Mr Erik Mackie
Dr Peter Hopcroft
Mr Gwilym Owen
Mr Michael A. Cooper
Mr Tim Morris
Mr Gregory J. L. Tourte
Dr Julie MacLeavy
Dr David Manley
Dr Patricia Sanchez-Baracaldo
Dr Winnie Wang
Dr Mark Jackson
Dr Sandra Arndt
Dr Sean Fox
Mr Nathan Chrismas
Mr Thomas Keating
Ms Catherine Midwood
Dr Luke Ridley
Dr Andrew Tedstone
Ms Jeni Milsom
Dr Dewi Owen
Mr John Hargreaves
Ms Claire Donnelly
Dr Victoria Lee
Ms Natalie Lord
Ms Ciara Merrick
Dr Ros Smith
Dr Rosalyn M. Death
Ms Amy Waterson
Dr Jamie Wilson
Ms Nina Williams
Ms Iskra Mejia Estrada
Dr J-D Dewsbury
Ms Sara Davies
Mr George Burdon
Mr Sam Berlin
Ms Emily Eyles
Prof Jonathan Bamber
Mr Stephen Chuter
Mr Alistair Anderson
Mr Jethro Brice
Mr Matthew Marshall
Mr Oliver Wing
Mr James Crosby
Dr Katerina Michaelides
Dr Jo House
Dr Fran Bragg
Mr Dominik Hülse
Dr Alba Martin
Dr Jeff Neal
Dr Julie MacLeavy
Mr Edward Thomas
Prof Paul Valdes
Dr Franklin Ginn
Mr Samuel Rogers
Mr Alan Kennedy
Dr David Richards
Prof Penny Johnes
Prof Dan Lunt
Mr David Hayes
Mr Mat Keel


List of countries people are from:
United Kingdom
Spain
Brazil
Sweden
Denmark
United States of America
Canada
Greece
Italy
Ireland
The Netherlands
Belgium
France
Colombia
China
Germany
Mexico
Israel-Palestine
Cyprus