Planet Under Pressure – thoughts from the brink

I’m just back from ‘a major international conference focusing on solutions to the global sustainability challenge’ with the world’s scientific advisors and practitioners from climate and biodiversity…..  the whole thing being preparation for Rio+20, twenty years since the Earth Summit in Rio that kick started concern about climate change and biodiversity loss. I was there in a personal capacity, but through my work with Comic Relief.

These are my relatively light-hearted personal notes, aimed at sharing some of the larger issues for the planet, as we struggle with the day to day concerns of Frome.

DAY 1 Docklands Light Railway (a cross between the new world and a toy train set) into a world of concrete and glass.  Past Capitalism Central and Canary Wharf.  The nearest thing to nature is the beef in MacDonald’s.  Hyper efficient registration then into the main hall – a vast auditorium with 2999 scientists and me.  Huge screens project the speakers who are too small to see in the distance……

Welcome to the ‘Athropocene’.  Now officially a unit of geological time – the one in which humankind affects planetary systems.  Great!  Except that the screens full of hockey stick graphs all demonstrate humankind using this new found power to drive us to exponential chaos.  “So we are off to a great start” says the conference moderator to sum up a whole morning of unmitigated predictions of disaster…..  I am already shocked by the dispassionate disconnection of scientific information and what it means for people.

Lord Anthony Giddens calls for “utopian realism” and “deeds not only words”….. “regional unions of states and below that, of cities and communities – global civil society – a re-enlightenment…”. Sir John Beddington (UK chief scientific advisor) points out that there will be 500m more Africans in 25 years time, requiring 75% more food, producing associated nitrogen pollution….. and says nothing about how they’ll be fed.

Since the Copenhagen climate talks, targets and predictions have crept to 2030 rather than 2050.  So, new extremes of weather will now be in 18 years rather than 38. This is disconcerting as the former is basically tomorrow, while the latter is too far ahead to be really bothered about.  Remember 350ppm of CO2 and 2oC? (the limits we need to stay within to prevent uncontrollable climate disruption), forget both – we are at 393ppm already and any slowdown of temperature and CO2 increase is related to economic recession and/or pollution, both of which are temporary.

Interesting scattering of insurance industry top bods – legislation is now being enacted to link their company reserves to extreme weather event probability/climate change science.  One of many papers presented looked at micro-insurance for poor farmers – currently stumbling to find affordable levels of payment and to determine what profit is acceptable.  [Interruption by protesters with a big “Greenwash” banner as someone from Shell spoke….  received by extensive applause which was interesting]

40% of US maize goes to biofuel! Enough to feed 350m people.  I had no idea it was that much.  Nor the extent to which African soils are nutrient depleted – years of lack of fertilizer will take years (and $$££) to rectify.  More and more papers refer to huge crop reductions alongside demand increases (Indian wheat 20-30% reduction alongside 40% demand increase).   After a day of talks I find it almost as depressing that we have failed to listen to the messages of 20 years ago, as our inability to deal with Death by Powerpoint and the most basic tenants of communication.  What chance carbon capture?

DAY 2 Back for more….. good World Cafe on whole-systems.  Spend most of it discussing shit – one of our least joined up systems at present.  A useful metaphor as it is hits the fan.

Listening to more papers – at last one really well presented!!

Fact 1: 6/10 African economies are growing – would be more but for energy constraints……  Fact 2: African Porsche sales are on another exponential curve, even though most are never driven due to poor roads….. so that’s the ‘growth’ allocated.

Fact 3: 31 sub Saharan countries are on track to double population by 2050, with 43% under 15 years old (feeding themselves?)

Tuna sandwiches for lunch.  I question the biodiverse credentials of this within the ‘green conference agenda’, but rapidly feel sorry for the young man serving who is but the servant and has no idea what I am talking about. (Of 28 people serving, 28 are black).

First Big Radical Alternative Visions for the Earth (BRAVE) event – ‘Making the Vision Reality’.  Quintin Cooper – the compare – is excellent.  So is the introductory film of views from the South and most of the speakers – especially an inspiring artist who has recently plastered the entire inside of an abandoned church with clay and grass seed.

More talk of new paradigms from staid scientists. I increasingly think we are in for one of these (a “…fundamentally different story about how the world works…”) but emerging from chaos.  ‘Radical’ also emerges large in the days’ word cloud (from roots, as in radish)…

From this back through the City of social injustice, insane growth, and blind indifference.  The first bankers were Quakers – into altruism – what went wrong?  My sanity is rescued by a night with youth in a schooner moored just near Tower Bridge.

DAY 3. More talk of the Anthropocene but not of the alternative ‘Ecozoic’ which sees everything having its own place and role in the functioning of the planet.  The conference seems to present Anthropocene as official recognition of humankind as top of the tree, with an underlying assumption that now we can sort the problems……  Apparently climate change is a ‘Superwicked Problem[1]’  name it and it might go away.

[Sitting near the back of the vast hall I am staggered by the number of laptop screens – both those in front of me are reading emails….. why be here?]

Interesting sessions on science/community communication, with good examples of workshops bringing the two ‘sides’ together for huge mutual benefit.

More on weather forecasting – farmers need to know when rains will start and stop, more than how much.  LOTS of new science and expertise, much of which is really significant – key is getting it to farmers.  Interesting stuff on risks: In general people go for a low chance, but a BIG consequence over high chance of lower consequence.   E.g. A house on cliffs that collapse every 10 years over a river with small floods every 3. Proximity to family or work also influences decisions.  Understanding and working with risk is often better then legislating against it.                                       ‘Uncertainty is an opportunity – adapt to it’

BRAVE part 2 There are a huge range of ideas and actions looking to engage heart over head in the outside world, but not here – BRAVE offers the only glimpse of this.

Sessions on values and life styles – and for the first time all the presenters and the chair are women (surprise surprise). Fascinatingly what brings people into climate change concern is social justice not environment per se.  The term ‘climate change’ is its own worst enemy – talk solutions not problems (local, healthy, nature, more time……).  A paper on differing attributes – I am a “natural frugal”.  At last, something to put in the box of ‘profession’.

Passing thought 1: Ban advertising in public places.

Passing thought 2: Fair Trade is a dry run for how all trade could run.

BRAVE part 3.  The main speaker ripping into science for its compartmentalisation.  Interesting responses including Sir Bob Watson (advisor to virtually everyone at various times, including the US White House.  Archetypal British Scientist – says we MUST move from GDP and include social and natural capital in measurement and that our political system is not fit for purpose.

Bob also says forget 2oC rise, 5o is more likely.   He’s just been with Al Gore in the Antarctic as part of ‘Living on Thin Ice’ run by Gore’s Climate Reality project (which I fear uses the same language to try and solve the problem that caused it: will more science convince the deniers or policy makers?)

Bob is asked why now is different from 20 years ago – when all the science messages are essentially the same – he says the focus now must be on active engagement rather than just communication.   He may well be right.  I look forward to it.

DAY4 is an option, but I am scienced-out and retreat back through the weird world of concrete and glass to gentle rocking on the Thames and some days of daze.

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt”.  (Mark Twain).

[1] Difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize


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