Bending the curve on climate change

David Bent writes about the four seminar series, run by Centre for Science and Policy and convened with Prof Charles Kennel. 

Through February and March I made my way to Christ’s College Cambridge on four evenings to hear the latest on climate change, the science, the politics and the possibilities. Suitably, the evenings got lighter as the series went along. Here are some of the highlights, with a particular focus on the final panel session which focussed on the role of universities, along with some reflections of my own.

It was possible to put the insights from the first three seminars into three buckets: the science; the Paris Agreement; and things to do.

The science is evermore certain and frightening.
Dr Emily Shuckburgh of British Antarctic Survey told us that there has been a dramatic increase in risk of impactful events due to climate change already observed , and there is a possibility that catastrophic changes already underway. The Paris Agreement talks of “holding the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. Dr Shuckburgh’s view was that 1.5°C might not be impossible (but might be) . (It has to be said other voices from the floor were more pessimistic on this). Either way, the timeline is tight even for keeping well below 2°C, and will involve accepting unavoidable impacts, trade-offs and unintended consequences. We should “throw the kitchen sink” at the problem.

The Paris Agreement is not enough, but is different in interesting ways from the past.
In the view of Dr Joanna Depledge of the Department of Politics and International Studies , the agreement will not save the world, whatever the closing rhetoric. Nevertheless, pursuing efforts for 1.5C was a big surprise, and an indication of a shift in attitude from key negotiators. The US, India and China all made an effort (in their different ways) to make sure an agreement was made.

This was part of a changed the “storyline”, with a common global endeavour (compared with North/South blame game) that looks to the future, not the past and which sees climate change as an opportunity to pursue in cross-sectoral partnership, not just a burden for governments to intervene on. There were many more ‘coalitions of the willing’, and the business voice in particular was pushing for action, rather than inaction.

Dr Richard Fraser of the Department of Social Anthropology was able to study Paris negotiations as an ethnographer. Amongst other observations, he spoke of it as a cultural event, where people drawn from many different constituencies from across the world created shared imaginary communities together that were global, and gave the participants a sense of control and optimism. The way he told it, such magical thinking is a positive thing.

Prof Charlie Kennel hopes the COP process will be to the 21st century what the world fairs were for the 19th century: events that both demonstrate and are signals of the world that we want to create, and the future to come.

There are many things to do; we heard three types.

– Change how we do policy analysis to focus on worst-cases. Simon Sharp of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office spoke of his work shift the focus from the average prediction to the worst-case scenario, as it is accepted practise in policy circles to avoid that worst case. He had worked with others to create a report of climate risks exactly to move policy maker attention to that consideration.

– Galvanise the diverse abilities of a large institutions. Prof Kennel described the University of California’s approach. After a period of analysis and deliberation, UC has chosen 10 pragmatic, scalable solutions under the banner ‘bending the curve’. All of these can be implemented immediately and expanded rapidly. They will clean our air and keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius and, at the same time, provide breathing room for the world to fully transition to carbon neutrality in the coming decades. These ten cover science, economics and more and so draw on the research and development skills from across the whole university.

– Changing how we design and run infrastructure and buildings. Prof Ian Leslie spoke of Smart Buildings, where, amongst other things, the internet of Things would be a profound disruptor of the status quo. Prof Paul Linden described redesigning cities so there was more mixing of green and blue (e.g. parks and canals), reducing the heat that surrounds buildings. The buildings themselves should be redesigned to allow for free flow of air, rather than boxing in the heat form people and their machines and then needing to expend energy to take that heat away.

When it comes to universities, the final session looked at two questions. What is the responsibility of universities, given the societal transformations required to bend the curve on climate? How can Cambridge itself should leadership among universities?

Prof Kennel took us through the relevant history of the University of California, and especially the Scripps Institute of Oceanography that he used to lead. It’s a story of discoveries, such as the realisation oceans don’t absorb as much CO2 as had been thought, and of using those insights to equip students, such as future Vice President Al Gore, and to push climate change up the political agenda. The most recent staging post is the ten scalable solutions mentioned above. The message: addressing climate change is what universities do, as part of understanding the world.

Polly Courtis of the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership spoke of her experiences being on the interface between the university and industry. For her there are three opportunities. First is what we teach, to make sure all graduates have a basic awareness and to weave these big issues into any executive or business education. Second, is how we collaborate with business, so that the problems that companies are facing can become of interest to academics. Third, is how the university helps to envision the future, by giving the windows of discourse that describe what is needed.

Lord Rees looked for scalability and multiplier effect. He believes that Cambridge has been very successful in innovation, so it should lead the way of clean energy. let’s speed the transition to a low carbon economy by making the costs of production competitive with incumbent energy generation. The other role is to keep it on the political agenda, through education and by making the issues prominent in politicians’ inboxes.

Questions from the floor teased at many of these points. Is it only technological innovation, or is there a need to help diffusion of market-ready technologies and pushing priorities on social change? Could there be a foundation course for all students on sustainability? Should colleges and the university divest their endowments out of fossil fuel assets? How important is it for the university to put its own house in order?

The big picture was that universities are places for ‘big thinking’, as the UC story proves. The square miles around Cambridge have been amongst the most effective in the world over the last few centuries on innovation. So, there’s a clear role accelerating the clean energy revolution. But that needs more than just invention, it needs commercialisation and diffusion too. The final word from a panelist was for Cambridge to make climate change a ‘red thread’ that goes through the activities of the institution.

Final reflections

As someone who attended all of the seminars I had some other reflections.

In 1997 I distinctly remember my atmospheric physics seminar when the lecturer said that “climate change is happening”. Through my work at Forum for the Future I’ve tried to get companies to act on that science, a minor part compared to others’ efforts on many levels. Even so, few would say we have acted at the pace or scale required so far. It is not fanciful to say that that runaway climate change is possible, and could degrade the foundations on which global civilisation sits.

The seminars reinforced for me the observation that climate change is a such a profound problem because it sits in the blindspot of our current way of doing things. Cognitively, economically, politically we respond quickly to things that are immediate and obvious. The effects of climate change are diffuse and long-term, the causality of any one climate event tangled, the response required complicated. Problems that we can solve with our current way of doing things get solved; those that we cannot solve remain.


So, if climate change could be addressed by individual choices in free markets framed by stand-off governments, then we would have done it by now. My conclusion is that we need to change how we arrange the interplay of economics, law, politics and more that set the operating context for individuals and organisations, and that are expressions of dominant beliefs in society. In short, we need to change our current political economy.

It seems likely to me that the best of the responses to climate change can be the seeds of that new political economy, and will be used to address other public policy questions. If we find that government-business alliances can drive the technological innovation we need on renewable energy, say, then we’re likely to use the same vehicles for water, biodiversity and social questions too. As it happens, since the seminar series, Michael Jacobs of the Grantham Institute has written about how civil society created the Paris climate agreement. He argues a similar point: the Paris Agreement set in train a process where, by tackling climate change, we can change capitalism.

The implication is that we have the agency to act, today, in ways that can develop and scale the best of the responses to climate change to craft the political economy we need for a sustainable economy. We should expect those responses to challenge one or more fundamental assumptions about how things are done, whether that’s ‘market incentives can solve all problems’, or ‘governments only provide framing conditions’.

Finally, I was struck by how important universities are incubating the ideas that can create the world we need. In the conversations around the seminars it is clear many people are doing brilliant work in their fields, from the scientific like fluid dynamics through to an anthropological understanding of the global social process. There was enthusiasm, there was deep knowledge.

It all points to the strong, positive role that a world-leading university can play in that transition to a safe climate. In the desperate situation we are in, I hope that any and all universities can find their own way to ‘throw the kitchen sink’ at the problem.


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