Time to get serious

1 09 2009

I just heard a BBC presenter stating that it is too late to reduce emissions to avoid dangerous effects of climate change. We’ve known this some years but the trusted voice of the BBC now confirms it. The topic was the Royal Society report on Geoengineering Climate, launched today with James Lovelock and others. Their point is that although we should continue to reduce emissions through industry and lifestyle, on a nation by nation basis using carbon trading as the basic mechanism, we also urgently need more radical and imaginative global solutions such as carbon scrubbing, carbon sinks and algal blooms in the sea.

The carbon emissions approach, termed ‘mitigation’ or ‘amelioration’ is vital but it needs to move into a new phase where we adapt to the effects of global climate disruption, which includes continuing to mitigate it. This balance of the terms ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ is quite complex, as you can see from this report on Scotland’s Climate Change adaptation framework. Can you separate the two terms? What do they both mean?

For me, what matters is accepting that change is happening. Polar ice is melting. Wildfires are raging. It also means accepting that climate change is unpredictable, so we must not argue over the precise predictions for the future but plan for wide ranges of possibility. It means keeping a ‘both/and’ approach, that you must both hope and act for a better future and see the worst of what could happen if we don’t hope and act.

On Sunday, I went over to the Climate Camp at Blackheath. It was fascinating: quiet, focused and thoughtful, like a climate university (although perhaps missing some expert lecturers). The focus was ‘what are we going to ask for at Copenhagen? How do we get world leaders to aim for more ambitious emissions targets and look at alternatives to carbon trading?’ I discovered the tent of EcoLabs – with a display of artwork commissioned to illustrate the Future Scenarios in Mark Lynas’ book Six Degrees. MIT now believes that the likely temperature increase will be in the range of 3.5-7.4 degrees hotter by 2100 so it potentially exceeds the book’s 6th degree. It was hard to even face looking at the effects of the third degree increase. As I went out of the tent, a smiling dad with a little toddler on his shoulders came in.

I decided whatever I was doing wasn’t enough. So, what am I doing?

This afternoon I’m volunteering at the launch of 1010 at Tate Modern, a huge campaign to galvanise the UK’s businesses, schools, museums, households, councils etc to reduce emissions by 10% by the end of 2010. It is set up by Franny Armstrong, director of The Age of Studid, and is looking like it has the potential to captivate people’s imaginations. After today I want to focus on getting cultural and heritage organisations to sign up to the 1010 pledge.

This weekend I’m going to an event called Moot, to camp with a small group of people who work in museum, gallery and arts education who are concerned about ecology and climate change.

Next week I’m going to a small conference led by DCMS, who have commissioned Arup to develop an adaptation strategy for the cultural & heritage sector.

I’m continuing to work on a project, now called The Tide Clock, about the role of cultural heritage & creative activism in areas of coastal and fluvial flood risk.

I’m developing a framework for cultural heritage organisations to think about both mitigating and adapting to global climate disruption, looking at both their operations and their public engagement mission. I’m considering creating a network called ClimB for climate brokers in the cultural and heritage sectors, who work with clients or within their organisations to implement and improve this framework. I’d be very grateful for any feedback on this draft framework and from anyone keen to support a network of this sort. Leave comments here and/or email me on bridget.mckenzie@flowassociates.com

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.

About time

6 04 2009

I’ve just reread a poem by Primo Levi called Almanac, written on 2 January 1987, 3 months before he fell to his death. It says “The glaciers will continue to grate, smoothing what’s under them” and “Earth too will fear the immutable Laws of the universe. Not us. We, rebellious progeny With great brainpower, little sense, Will destroy, defile…” and it ends “Very soon we’ll extend the desert Into the Amazon forests, Into the living heart of our cities, Into our very hearts.”

An almanac is an annual publication of timely events, mostly of a cosmic nature but also of sacred events in the human calendar. Levi’s is a very rebellious kind of almanac, a prediction of a time to come based on his observation of the human disregard for planetary forces. He plays on the popular notion that people are far too insignificant to affect the great forces of nature, by suggesting that despite the immutable laws of the universe there still can be change on a vast scale. And that it is the very rebellion of humanity against nature which is bringing the desert into our hearts.

Now, you might think that Levi was a prescient genius. Referring to ecological catastrophe in 1987? Surely we didn’t start to think about this until the 21st century? Or at least since late 2006 when the Stern review told us that climate change was serious and most probably caused by man? Well, genius Levi was. But, in this case not so prescient. In fact, the ‘greenhouse effect’ was noticed in 1886 by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius. Significant global warming was noticed in the 1930’s and one man G.S.Callendar said it was due to the greenhouse effect. Thanks to Cold War funding, scientists continued to monitor the warming climate. In 1967 (the year I was born, the Summer of Love) a report made clear that the temperature would continue to rise with serious results. The 1970’s saw the rise of environmentalism but the research effort was so dispersed and under-funded in such a complex field, that climate change was not taken up as a major concern by the environmental groups. My parents were Green as can be but lived it out through self-sufficiency, thrift and nature conservation. They rarely talked about climate except whether the drought (1976) would mean we’d starve (we went hungry) or whether the rainy winter would make the soil too clarty.

I vividly recall news reports of global warming in 1988, when I was at the University of Sussex, and it had a big impact on me. My close friends then thought the biggest cause was feminism and equality, but I couldn’t agree. We studied humanities not science. The science faculties were over the other side of campus and we didn’t mix.

Since then I have always factored climate change into my thinking about the future,  much to the bafflement of my colleagues in museums and galleries over the years. The other day, chatting to some friends, the climate topic came up and they all agreed ‘it won’t happen in our lifetimes, it’s something that will affect our grandchildren’. I was surprised yet again that the waves of understanding had not caught up even with a group of people who keep up with current affairs and think hard about them.  Today the Wilkins Ice Shelf is collapsing. Jonathon Porritt predicts a ‘perfect storm’ of climate change and economic collapse as early as 2020. When we hear such news we close our ears, turn onto it with a challenge or just freeze. We are faced with so much information that we can be selective and choose not to believe it, unlike the trust felt by the early readers of almanacs.

Meanwhile, the G20 world leaders act with amazing alacrity to bail out the economy but at a glacial pace to respond to the climate crisis. “The glaciers will continue to grate, smoothing what’s under them”. The irony is that if the leaders continue to act at a glacial pace, the glaciers, which have already started to melt, will disappear. The immutable laws of the universe mutate.


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