Skip to main content

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


Comments

  1. Great blog - thanks Jonny! Looking forward to hearing more!

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Diamond Battery – your ideas for future energy generation

On Friday 25th November, at the Cabot Institute Annual Lecture, a new energy technology was unveiled that uses diamonds to generate electricity from nuclear waste. Researchers at the University of Bristol, led by Prof. Tom Scott, have created a prototype battery that incorporates radioactive Nickel-63 into a diamond, which is then able to generate a small electrical current.
Details of this technology can be found in our official press release here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2016/november/diamond-power.html.
Despite the low power of the batteries (relative to current technologies), they could have an exceptionally long lifespan, taking 5730 years to reach 50% battery power. Because of this, Professor Tom Scott explains:
“We envision these batteries to be used in situations where it is not feasible to charge or replace conventional batteries. Obvious applications would be in low-power electrical devices where long life of the energy source is needed, such as pacemakers, satellite…

Brexit: can research light the way?

What could Brexit mean for UK science? What impact will it have on UK fisheries? Could Brexit be bad news for emissions reductions? These were just some questions discussed at a Parliamentary conference last week, organised by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the Commons Library and Parliament’s Universities Outreach team.

MPs researchers, Parliamentary staff and academic researchers from across the country came together to consider some of the key policy areas affected by the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

Why does academic research matter to Parliament? Given the unchartered waters that Parliament is facing as the UK prepares to withdraw from the EU, it is more important than ever that Parliamentary scrutiny and debate is informed by robust and reliable evidence.

Academic research is expected to meet rigorous standards of quality, independence and transparency. Although it is far from being the only source of evidence relevant to Parliament, it has vital ro…

A response to Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement

The decision by President Trump to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change puts the United States at odds with both science and global geopolitical norms.  The fundamentals of climate change remain unambiguous: greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing, they are increasing because of human action, the increase will cause warming, and that warming creates risks of extreme weather, food crises and sea level rise. That does not mean that scientists can predict all of the consequences of global warming, much work needs to be done, but the risks are both profound and clear. Nor do we know what the best solutions will be - there is need for a robust debate about the nature, fairness and efficacy of different decarbonisation policies and technologies as well as the balance of responsibility; the Paris Agreement, despite its faults with respect to obligation and enforcement, allowed great flexibility in that regard, which is why nearly every nation on Earth is a signatory.

Mor…