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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 Aside from Atlantis, there is no historical reference for the fate of Tuvalu in a world of rising sea levels.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

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