Climate change begins at home: the world is our home

12 09 2009

Yesterday I was at a meeting at DCMS about how the cultural, tourism, heritage & sport sectors can adapt to climate change. Roger Street of the UKCP09 was there with a great set of maps showing flood risk across the regions. Heritage sites such as listed buildings, churches and museums were marked, many swamped by blue (flood water). Central London has thousands of these sites. The bluest region is East Anglia, and this region doesn’t have a flood barrier. I went up close to this map and saw the place I grew up in, my home, a tiny Broads village called Dilham, covered in blue. My mind lurched back to childhood, remembering the expanses of those Norfolk fields and broads, the dense wet woods that nobody walked in, exploring for miles on our bikes. My home was a vast space but on this map it was insignificant. If ‘managed retreat’ is applied in this area, it will also be gone for good not just damaged.

I was thinking about the concept of home throughout this meeting because the discussion was dominated by talk of tourists – visitors not being at home. Culture and heritage were seen within the paradigm of ‘pleasure and leisure’ (escape, fun, culture as commodity and so on) rather than ‘knowledge and learning’ (including ethics, science, community ownership of its heritage, media as educator and so on).  Tourism was probably the focus because it contributes so much to the UK economy (the sector is worth £114.4bn).

Much of the talk was about how a visitor attraction might cope with and make an opportunity from an extreme event such as drought or flood, with positive suggestions including ‘selling more ice cream’. Because we weren’t exploring specific situations we couldn’t articulate the risks and impacts with great clarity. It was stated that if UK has heatwaves and drought, it will be a less enticing place to visit, not taking into account that the UK will be less hot than other places. A key risk was noted to be that our organisations’ reputations will suffer if affected by extreme events, which doesn’t account for public equanimity when a crisis affects us all.

Like most Government departments, the DCMS doesn’t have an international remit, so its sustainability strategy focuses on ‘home’ and therefore only looks at the UK Climate Projections and focuses on regional or local effects. This is an echo of the problem with the DECC assessment of its GHG emissions, because it neglects to account for outsourced industry and so it puts a positive gloss on its own ratings. It is part of the same closed logic which obsesses about carbon trading rather than collaborating internationally to support alternatives and geoengineering solutions. The UK is amongst the countries likely to be least affected in physical geography terms by climate change. However, we are an exceptionally globalised country – our home is the world in more ways than one. We rely on non-domestic sources for our food supply and many of our raw materials and manufactured goods. As more countries suffer severe consequences of climate change, there will be pressures on our aid commitments, our investment in preventing terrorism and war and our management of mass migration. In assessing how climate change will affect the DCMS family, and what we can do about it, we have to take these global impacts into account first and foremost.

These (rather big) quibbles aside, I was really pleased that DCMS is doing this work and talking about adaption strategies (not just mitigation) and I did learn a lot.  I was also very thankful to be invited and hope my quibbling won’t prevent involvement in future. I think that my quibbling may be more effective if my insight can be sharpened by challenge and support from others so do please comment on this and on the Framework for Climate Action for the sector.  I need to know if I’m begging big questions because narrow logic is one of the biggest obstacles to effective action.

Climate change and museums in France, by Marine Soichot

29 06 2009

I am a PhD student in museum studies at the national Natural History Museum in Paris (France) and my work is on how science museums and science centres can be a place to display climate change.  Bridget asked me for a short presentation of my work for this blog. After a long first draft, I split it into three smaller posts. Here is the first one, a short description of the climate change problem in the French context.

Although the scientific label of climate change is powerful, stakes in this problem largely overrun the traditional academic research field. There are many political, economical and social implications. The problem is all the more impregnating in all fields of society as the focus is on carbon and energy. Climate change has become a subject of public debate and authority interventions and now a full public problem as called by political science. A multiplicity of actors – scientists, politicians, think tanks, companies, journalists and media, NGOs etc. – takes part in the public debate and build together what we call climate change.  The final construction is different depending on who participates in it and on how they participate.

Climate change was first introduced in the scientific and diplomatic sphere (first international discussion in the late 1970 and creation of the IPCC in 1988). Then the problem was developed at a national scale. In France, different actors converged. There was no strong opposition to climate change such as the skeptic movement in the US. Climate change was early recognized as a true problem by scientists, media, politicians and NGO (that is not to mean that there was an early political action to deal with it). In a simplistic way, the following points structure main discourses about climate change in France:

  • We observed a rise of average temperature over several decades. This increase is caused by human activities and first of all by fossil fuel consumption. Indeed, more and more green house gases are released making the atmosphere warmer and warmer.
  • This rise of temperature will cause climate modifications whose consequences are various: sea level rising, ice melting, species extinction and biodiversity loss, storms and flooding.
  • It will affect human society in many ways. It is an emergency. We have to act now and cut off our green house gas emissions at any level.
  • Everybody has a share of responsibility in this problem and has to act at his own level. We all have to change our way of life and become an eco-citizens.

Climate change is also strongly linked with sustainable development and the idea of a new green way of life. It is becoming a cause without opponent such as road safety or genetic diseases.  That is not to say there are no oppositions or controversies but they are limited in specific fields and given low publicity in the public sphere. This situation is quite different from the way climate change was developed in other countries. Indeed, a public problem is different in each country because of the history and the culture.

Marine Soichot

The sea, the sea

3 06 2009

Slaughden lost to the seaMIT have developed a new, more accurate model for predicting climate change. Using it, scientists now have strong evidence that there is a 90% chance that the global temperature rise will be in the range of 3.5-7.4 C degrees temperature increase by 2100. The emissions reduction policies of the world’s powers are based on a notion that the temperature increase will be around 2C. John Holdren, President Obama’s environmental advisor  tells us that 30 million years ago, when it was 3C warmer than it is now, the sea levels were 30 metres higher than they are now. That doesn’t mean that a 3C increase will result in similar sea level rises, but it shows us how Earth is not a stable place but capable of massive disruptive changes.

Many scientists have previously warned that the official prediction of a 2C warming is highly conservative, and also Stern’s report makes clear that urgent reduction of carbon emissions is necessary to avoid the devastating effects of 2C, so this new prediction may not come as a great shock to some. But it should be a shock to Governments and corporations who have put economic growth ahead of sustainability.

One of the most important elements in this scenario is the sea. Here are a few reasons why:

The well known reason that melting polar ice caps cause rising sea levels.

Climate disruption leads to more violent and unpredictable storms which cause erosion and flooding of coastal and river areas.

If the sea runs out of edible fish stocks, we will eat more farmed meat. This will lead to more forest clearance. Farm animals emit more carbon emissions globally than flying.

Phytoplankton in the oceans acts as a greater carbon sink than any terrestrial vegetation. Pollution and plastic deplete the quantity of phytoplankton.

The more we develop coastal wilderness, the less resistant is the land to flooding and erosion.

There are many more reasons why we should pay attention to marine and coastal conservation.   That’s why I went to lobby Parliament on May 13th to make final adjustments to the draft of the Marine Bill. This Bill includes ambitions  to create a single authority for UK Marine and Coastal management and to ensure more ecologically significant sites are protected. I was lucky enough to meet my MP, Joan Ruddock, who is also the Under Secretary for Climate Change and Energy. She has held ministerial offices in environmental policy for some years and is a botanist by training so is extremely sympathetic to the ecological cause. She talked about the work they are engaged in with Obama and the UN to combat climate change. From that level, the conversation managed to get onto museums. I said I was concerned that the DCMS sector was responding to the climate crisis in a rather unco-ordinated, slow and unrigorous way. She said that she loved the Horniman Museum and Kew Gardens but rarely had time to enjoy them. I pointed out that museums, heritage bodies and botanical gardens have a much greater role than providing leisure activities, but she immediately agreed that they contribute in very serious ways to scientific research, to environmental conservation and to archiving knowledge that might be lost in any kinds of collapsed society or environment. We should be doing more to increase public understanding of that role, to raise the credibility and sense of purpose of the cultural sector.

I’m writing a book on threatened coastal heritage and the role of culture (artists, museums, creative community activists) in protecting that heritage and helping us cope with the loss of it. This is one way I can help to raise awareness of the value of the cultural & heritage sectors in that respect.

Climate crisis and the MLA sector

3 03 2009

Here’s a post imported from my Culture, Learning, Innovation blog which explains my current thinking:

If, like me, you follow environmental news, you will be feeling a tad unsettled these days. I’ve been unsettled about the environment for decades but lately it is clear that a drastic ecological crisis is unfolding, with the threat of runaway climate change. For some time it has troubled me that the cultural heritage and collections sector in the UK has approached this crisis so weakly. There are a small number of standout organisations, such as English Heritage and now the NMSI (helped by its new director Chris Rapley being a climate scientist). However, it has mystified me that there is so little central co-ordination and so little evident drive or publicity in whatever central activity that exists.

The first place to look for action is the DCMS. They held a conference in January 2008, which appears from the website to have led to no follow up action. (That said, see below for an update.) Of the DCMS family organisations attending this conference, those which really seem to be alert to the nature of the crisis are in the performing arts or contemporary arts sectors. These include Tipping Point and RSA Arts Ecology, supported by the ACE Arts & Ecology team. The cultural collections or MLA sector by contrast appears to be very timid and partial.

The MLA (the body which oversees museums, libraries and archives for the DCMS) has published nothing that I could find on its website about this issue. MLA does have staff responsible for sustainability but this seems to focus on economic sustainability (future funding and so on).

The Museums Association published a consultation document on sustainability, which does mention environmental sustainability as one of several themes, including economic and social sustainability, but there is no mention of an ecological crisis and the environmental actions proposed are very weak. None of these initiatives explores how the sector will need to adapt to the effects of climate change, nor do they really address the power of the sector in raising public awareness and helping us cope with a climate-changed future. They make the common assumption that environmental action is all about making operational changes to reduce carbon footprint.

I’m intending to do some more research and take further action on this so if anyone out there can help answer my queries below with information or just vague thoughts I would be really grateful:

1. What agreement does the Department for Climate Change & Energy have with other Government departments, such as DCMS and DCSF, to help them in taking urgent action (not just in internal action to reduce carbon footprint)?

2. What actions are the DCMS Museums Sustainable Working Group taking? What progress have they made? Who is representing the sector? How can other stakeholders contribute to their work?

3. Should work to address climate change & the broader ecological crisis be uncoupled from ‘sustainability’ initiatives? (Sometimes these seem to exist to define the several distinct meanings of the term, and there is a danger that in a recession economic sustainability i.e. where are we going to get money from? takes over.)

4. Would a sector environmental crisis initiative be more effective if it was structured in the following way:

– Uniting sector leaders but also involving a wider public & independent agencies (e.g. using digital media)

– Covering both measures to ameliorate the crisis and adapt to future change (given that this is not an ‘if’ scenario but a ‘happening now’ scenario)

– Covering both pragmatic/operational measures and public engagement

– Covering both climate change (the crux of the crisis) and broader aspects of environmental degradation including the loss of biodiversity and pollution

– Encouraging intersections with higher education, creative industries and science & technology research industries to promote innovation

– Investing in digital culture

– Using the set of risks posed by climate change in the UN report as a basis for adaptive actions, see my chart in this essay on Cultural Education for a Changed Planet ?

Update: I had a brief chat with Patricia Mandeville (followed by an email exchange), responsible for sustainability at DCMS. She told me that although the Sustainable Working Group doesn’t have resources to be continued, some more things are happening:

– She told me about this strategic plan

– A focus group on Feb 25th covering five topics of waste, lighting, events, setting up an Environmental Management Strategy and staff awareness.

– Having realised there wasn’t a lot of research on climate change and the cultural sector, they are undertaking research led by Arup which includes work on adaptation, using the UK climate change projections that will be published in April. This will include considering the impact of loss of land mass.

– I asked about work in public engagement: She does get involved in the outreach side but is aware that the DCMS can’t be too prescriptive. She says that more public-facing initiatives are happening and in the pipeline, including a major Science Museum exhibition coming on climate change.

– In terms of relationship with MLA, she said there is no formal agreement but they do encourage them to reduce their carbon emissions as an organisation. This is clearly an area where they could do more.

– On a question about their relationship with the Dept for Climate Change she said they are bound to reduce emissions across sector bodies by 80% by 2060, must follow sustainable procurement rules and must complete an annual report on Sustainable Operations on the Government Estate.

– In answer to a question about how people could interact on these policy areas, she mentioned English Heritage’s site: (Given that I meant how we could interact on DCMS/MLA policies on environmental issues, this isn’t quite what I had in mind, but I do think English Heritage could potentially lead in online community building around this topic.)

– She also mentioned a new website coming soon called set up by a freelance consultant called Rachel Madan.


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