MCFly writer Laurence Menhinick went to the Manchester Museum’s “Climate Change Question Time” on Thurs 23 February and came away with more questions and her hopes hanging by a thread…
Having attended an earlier edition of Climate Change Question Time at the Manchester Museum, I was very pleased to see that event repeated yesterday- at least this time I had the time to prepare a good question… but more on that later.
I really welcome such public event as the more exposure climate change issues get the better. The speakers were, as with the previous event, all authorities in varying environmental fields: Kevin Anderson, Professor of energy and climate change at The University of Manchester and Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research; Jason Kirby, physical geographer from Liverpool John Moores University; Jonathan Gregory, climate scientist from Reading University; Celine Gemond-Duret, of the Centre for Sustainable Development at the University of Central Lancashire and marine physicist Professor John Huthnance of the National Oceanography Centre.
The questions asked by the audience were varied to say the least, reflecting both concern and a worry from the public (from “will London be flooded?” to “how can we mitigate?” and “what is the British “view” on climate change?” I must point out here that the aim of the event is to educate the non-specialist public, and therefore general points were made and repeated : gravity of the situation, proven facts relating to sea rise, global mean temperature projections, risks to food supplies and water shortages and aspects of climate modelling etc..
A few interesting points were made:
Despite being on course to follow the worst projections ( +4 ºC to +6ºC GMT rise) there is still hope we can make a difference
Kyoto’s first deadline being 2012, there is international consensus to carry it over another 5 years and agree to another binding agreement following that.
The impacts of climate change will be very varied and spread out in time.
The notion of a “point of no return” is unhelpful since it wants to refer to a specific date or measurement whereas some effects of climate change are permanent some are not: the ice sheet will not reform without another ice age whereas sea ice could “come back” as it were.
The excuses for inaction are wearing thin: demanding more studies, more certainties, more science is just not good enough since evidence is already available and the timescale from cause to effect is short
Scientists also have a role in conveying information to the layman: the notions of scientific “uncertainty” and “error” do not mean what the public thinks and it leads to a general feeling that science is wrong and doesn’t know.
The role of media coverage (from news to Hollywood doomsday films) was discussed at length– first to mention that (in the UK at least) there was no reliable mass media coverage of the issues, especially since the weight given to sceptics was disproportionate; adding to the fact that epic doomsday films ( re-writing facts and laws of physics in one stroke) blur the distance between fiction and reality and numb people’s perception of what they should really be paying attention to. Marc Hudson of MCFly pointed out that what mattered mostly was the role of the political leaders in implementing action based on the research [Ed: this paper is the one I was banging on about] and he asked what specific actions Manchester and Mancunians should be taking to prepare for and pre-empt those consequences, to which the panel answered (sort of, well… erm..):
public perception is usually biased towards what their political leaders do,
people should realise that they will be affected too and their everyday action is making a difference
we should try to make the public engage socially in the discussion including at local government level
Reparation to poorer countries which will be hit first due to our inaction must take place
The supremacy of GDP as a political measure of worth must be challenged.
But it was interesting that there was also disagreement between panellists on various issues relating to people behaviour and catalysts for change, the role of technology fixes or the role of the economy in fixing the problem. I must say at this point that being currently pursuing my own agenda into changing people behaviour, I jumped in with my consciously prepared question mentioned earlier.
In a nutshell, I wanted to know if members of the panel had managed to influence the people they knew: did their friends reduce their carbon footprints? What was the best argument to make the changes happen? Well, I am sorry to say the answer from one side of the table came down on me like a ton of bricks: we are here to inform not to influence people, it is not for us to tell people what to do. I was shocked enough to take the microphone back and challenge that attitude, because to me if the scientists who know the science inside out, gravely shaking their heads at the utmost seriousness of the matter, are not making the effort themselves and actively trying to encourage others to change, who are the “they” and “we” in their discourse?? Who is it down to then??? (commitment anyone???) Luckily Prof. Anderson strongly disagreed with the answer I was given. He strongly believes that there must be leadership by example, and he was aware for instance that his team at Tyndall have made significant changes to their behaviour of their own accord. Change actually starts with “me”, and the scientific community has a duty to lead the way publicly. I was reassured somehow that I wasn’t alone in making an effort (indeed another lady in the audience explained she was following a simple low-impact “no meat, no car, no flying” life) but I nevertheless noticed that no-one else on the panel wanted to comment. By then it was getting late and I had to go, having just enough time to answer a couple of hand-up polls to the audience by Mr. Anderson, (Marc having started earlier by asking how many people in the audience had engaged their local political representative about climate change issues – and was impressed that quite a few hands were raised-). Prof Anderson polled the audience’s intention in changing the world around them by engaging with their friends and family directly about the issues. I was pleased to see close to half the audience raising their hands. Maybe people’s behaviour is changing after all….