Learning about cascading hazards at the iRALL School in China

Earlier this year, I wrote about my experiences of attending an interdisciplinary workshop in Mexico, and how these approaches foster a rounded approach to addressing the challenges in communicating risk in earth sciences research. In the field of geohazards, this approach is increasingly becoming adopted due to the concept of “cascading hazards”, or in other words, recognising that when a natural hazard causes a human disaster it often does so as part of a chain of events, rather than as a standalone incident. This is especially true in my field of research; landslides. Landslides are, after all, geological phenomena studied by a wide range of “geoscientists” (read: geologists, geomorphologists, remote sensors, geophysicists, meteorologists, environmental scientists, risk assessors, geotechnical and civil engineers, disaster risk-reduction agencies, the list goes on). Sadly, these natural hazards affect many people across the globe, and we have had several shocking reminders in recent months of how landslides are an inextricable hazard in areas prone to earthquakes and extremes of precipitation.

The iRALL, or the ‘International Research Association on Large Landslides’, is a consortium of researchers from across the world trying to adopt this approach to understanding cascading hazards, with a particular focus on landslides. I was lucky enough to attend the ‘iRALL School 2018: Field data collection, monitoring and modelling of large landslides’ in October this year, hosted by the State Key Laboratory of Geohazard Prevention and Geoenvironment Protection (SKLGP) at Chengdu University of Technology (CDUT), Chengdu, China. The school was attended by over 30 postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers working in fields related to landslide and earthquake research. The diversity of students, both in terms of subjects and origins, was staggering: geotechnical and civil engineers from the UK, landslide specialists from China, soil scientists from Japan, geologists from the Himalaya region, remote sensing researchers from Italy, earthquake engineers from South America, geophysicists from Belgium; and that’s just some of the students! In the two weeks we spent in China, we received presentations from a plethora of global experts, delivering lectures in all aspects of landslide studies, including landslide failure mechanisms, hydrology, geophysics, modelling, earthquake responses, remote sensing, and runout analysis amongst others. Having such a well-structured program of distilled knowledge delivered by these world-class researchers would have been enough, but one of the highlights of the school was the fieldwork attached to the lectures.

The scale of landslides affecting Beichuan County is difficult to grasp: in this photo of the Tangjiwan landslide, the red arrow points to a one story building. This landslide was triggered by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, and reactivated by heavy rainfall in 2016.

The first four days of the school were spent at SKLGP at CDUT, learning about the cascading hazard chain caused by the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, another poignant event which demonstrates the interconnectivity of natural hazards. On 12th May 2008, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake occurred in Beichuan County, China’s largest seismic event for over 50 years. The earthquake triggered the immediate destabilisation of more than 60,000 landslides, and affected an area of over 35,000 km2; the largest of these, the Daguangbao landslide, had an estimated volume of 1.2 billion m3 (Huang and Fan, 2013). It is difficult to comprehend numbers on these scales, but here’s an attempt: 35,000 km2 is an area bigger than the Netherlands, and 1.2 billion m3 is the amount of material you would need to fill the O2 Arena in London 430 times over. These comparisons still don’t manage to convey the scale of the devastation of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake, and so after the first four days in Chengdu, it was time to move three hours north to Beichuan County, to see first-hand the impacts of the earthquake from a decade ago. We would spend the next ten days here, continuing a series of excellent lectures punctuated with visits to the field to see and study the landscape features that we were learning about in the classroom.

The most sobering memorial of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake is the ‘Beichuan Earthquake Historic Site’, comprising the stabilised remains of collapsed and partially-collapsed buildings of the town of Old Beichuan. This town was situated close to the epicentre of the Wenchuan earthquake, and consequently suffered huge damage during the shaking, as well as being impacted by two large landslides which buried buildings in the town; one of these landslides buried a school with over 600 students and teachers inside. Today, a single basketball hoop in the corner of a buried playground is all that identifies it as once being a school. In total, around 20,000 people died in a town with a population of 30,000. Earth science is an applied field of study, and as such, researchers are often more aware of the impact of their research on the public than in some other areas of science. Despite this, we don’t always come this close to the devastation that justifies the importance of our research in the first place.

River erosion damaging check-dams designed to stop debris flows is still a problem in Beichuan County, a decade after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake.

It may be a cliché, but seeing is believing, and the iRALL School provided many opportunities to see the lasting impacts of large slope failures, both to society and the landscape. The risk of debris flows resulting from the blocking of rivers by landslides (a further step in the cascading hazard chain surrounding earthquakes and landslides) continues to be a hazard threatening people in Beichuan County today. Debris flow check-dams installed after the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake are still being constantly maintained or replaced to provide protection to vulnerable river valleys, and the risk of reactivation of landslides in a seismically active area is always present. But this is why organisations such as the iRALL, and their activities such as the iRALL School are so important; it is near impossible to gain a true understanding of the impact of cascading hazards without bringing the classroom and the field together. The same is true when trying to work on solutions to lessen the impact of these cascading hazard chains. It is only by collaborating with people from a broad range of backgrounds, skills and experiences can we expect to come up with effective solutions that are more than the sum of their parts.

This blog has been reposted with kind permission from James Whiteley.  View the original blog on BGS Geoblogy.   This blog was written by James Whiteley, a geophysicist and geologist at University of Bristol, hosted by British Geological Survey. Jim is funded through the BGS University Funding Initiative (BUFI). The aim of BUFI is to encourage and fund science at the PhD level. At present there are around 130 PhD students who are based at about 35 UK universities and research institutes. BUFI do not fund applications from individuals.

Teaching controversial subjects in a conservative area

Political polarization, the ever-widening divide between Right and Left in the US, is an obvious problem. We have lost our ability to communicate with one another: using different sets of ‘facts’ to back up our arguments, with the ‘facts’ depending on our side of the political spectrum. The internet has in large part facilitated this fracturing. One can spend 10 minutes on Google to find support for anything that they believe. For example, Youtube videos link to increasingly conspiratorial videos, pushing us farther apart. This loss to our collective conversation is damaging in most arenas, even in the classroom or lecture halls. When a collection of outright lies masquerading as facts meets science, it causes problems. When a student population has firmly-held beliefs in concepts that are simply not true, as a facet of their personal values or beliefs, this presents a difficult and unique challenge for an instructor. I was a visiting assistant professor in a conservative area, dealt with these issues, and hope to provide some help for those who are walking into a similar task in this post.

I loved teaching at Sam Houston State University (SHSU), enjoyed my time with both my students and colleagues. Some of this is going to read as if I was combative the entire time I was at SHSU. I wasn’t. I truly enjoyed interacting with my students (and most liked interacting with me, from reading my evaluations), especially the ones who thought about topics differently than I do. College is supposed to be about exposure to new ideas, after all. I find it difficult to let people believe in materially incorrect things however, especially when they’re detrimental to their lives, and to my own or my family’s lives. SHSU is in a very conservative area in East Texas, and my introductory, general education course covered both climate change and evolution. Covering these subjects meant that the students signing up for “Historical Geology” as an easy science credit got a more ‘controversial’ course than they expected.

To say that climate change or evolution is controversial is imprecise. Both subjects, scientifically, are not controversial, especially at the introductory level. Evolution is a multifaceted theory that is accepted by scientists and there are no competing arguments; this has been understood for 150 years. Scientists also agree that the climate has been changing for decades, and that carbon dioxide (CO2) is a potent greenhouse gas since Svante Arrhenius calculated the extent to which increases in CO2 can cause heating in the atmosphere (he was alive in 1859-1927). Both subjects, unfortunately, are controversial in the public’s eye. Today, 29% of the American public believe scientists do not agree that humans have evolved over time, and 32% reject the scientific fact that is human-caused climate change (and 24% are uncertain!). Walker County, TX, which SHSU is in, has 7% lower acceptance rate than the national average. When I asked my students if scientists agree or do not agree that evolution is a fundamental process describing change through time, ~20% said scientists did not agree. To say that my classes were comprised of more conservative students, with strong personal beliefs, than an average introductory science course in the US is probably accurate.

Teaching these particular students about climate change isn’t simply because it’s course material–it’s vital for them specifically. My second week of teaching was canceled entirely by the university because of the impact to the region by Hurricane Harvey. SHSU is a 45 minute drive from Houston, and areas of the town were closed. Many students were commuting from the south, and some had to miss additional classroom time. One individual had to miss many Fridays that semester because he was working on fixing his mother’s house. Climate change has a direct impact on that region, will continue to have a direct impact, and these students should be fully cognizant of their choices when acting as consumers or citizens. There is an irony to a region economically-driven by oil production reaping the consequences of climate change. That, however, doesn’t mean that the population should suffer.

Flooding in Houston, Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The hurricane caused unprecedented flooding which displaced 30,000 people from their homes, causing more than $125 billion in damages. Image credit: urban.houstonian.

Educating a student population with strongly held personal beliefs counter to course material doesn’t work well with traditional teaching methods. We not only have to teach students the material that they need them to understand for the course (past greenhouse gas changes, radiative forcing, proxy data, feedback mechanisms, etc.) but we also have to convince them of barefaced reality. We have to convince them that, no, scientists aren’t lying to them or the public. We have to convince them that we’re not in the pocket of ‘big-environment’, reaping the benefits of ‘big’ grants. We have to recover their idea that there can be legitimacy of the scientific process. If you say the words ‘climate change’ to someone of a Right ideology, they are likely to not listen to what you say afterwards because you’ve been written off as ‘far-Left’. How do you teach when your students might react that way?

A Hybrid Teaching Approach

Instructors, professors, and educators have to engage in science communication rather than teaching. Not entirely, but to a degree that can be uncomfortable. To explain: Science communication is sharing scientific results with the non-expert public. It relies heavily on a ‘values-based’ model, which is empirically more effective than the older ‘information-deficit’ model. The information-deficit model said that “People just don’t know enough, so if I explain what I know, they’ll agree with me.” That’s standard teaching. The professor explains the subject, the students take notes, everybody agrees the professor is telling the truth and that the professor has the most thorough understanding and information. The information-deficit model assumes that facts win, which simply isn’t the case.  We resist facts that don’t conform to our strongly held beliefs. It doesn’t work if everyone does not agrees that the professor has authority in the subject. If a large enough number of the class think the professor is a member of a global conspiracy of attempted wealth redistribution, then the information deficit model falls completely apart. If the information-deficit model worked, then no one walking out of a (properly taught) high school biology course would believe intelligent design or creationism. That’s simply not the case.

The values-model says that the communicator (professor, instructor, educator) establishes shared values with their audience and communicates with them in a back-and-forth exchange.  They then explain why a scientific concept is important to them, and why it should also be important for those who share the same values. That’s not teaching, in the purest sense, because it’s broader than just pure information conveying. That’s also not possible in the lectures we frequently find ourselves teaching.

Let’s assume that our goal is to take students who are uncertain about climate change, or don’t believe that evolution has occurred through time, and get them to accept scientific truths. Information-deficit isn’t going to get us to students accepting the truth, if we’re dealing with a resistant population. While not all of my students were resistant, I like to ‘swing for the fences’ and get everybody to understand concepts. Past students said they liked the ‘nobody left behind’ classroom ethos I set out. The values-model is uncomfortable for scientists, in particular. A scientific-upbringing, like one has while you get a Ph.D., prizes the ultra-rational and eschews ‘values’ for data (click here for a discussion about science being inherently political).

Blending both the values-based and information-deficit models of teaching might be the right approach. We need to communicate information, but if we demonstrate to students why the subject matters, how it fits with their previously held ideas, or even provide space for them to blend their faith with known biology, then we move them away from irrational, ill-placed skepticism.

I had these concepts gnawing at the back of my head while I was teaching my introductory course (Historical Geology). There was one particular moment that help me see a blending as the correct way forward. In class I occasionally asked students to submit anonymous questions to me on note cards about either impending or just-covered subject material. I’m one of the only research-centric scientists these students might ever meet, and I know from conversations with students that they have questions that weren’t covered in the course. Sometimes I answered the note card questions in lecture alongside the regular material, like in my climate lectures. Other times they exchanged cards with 5 other people, then the last person decided if they wanted to ask that now-anonymous question right then. At the end of my evolution section I got the question “What are your values?” from a student. I used my answer to that question as my first slide when discussing climate change.

That’s me sharing a value that most folks should share: that truth is important, something that we should respect. I used it to set the stage for a series of lectures on climate change that talks primarily about the mechanism and past examples, but also talked about climate models, future projections, and why we’re still arguing about it.

The following are my suggestions for how to teach a subject that folks in your classes think is controversial.

Basic structure

I opted for an overt structure to the roughly two weeks that I discussed climate change. I went methodically through a series of questions, going from “What can change climate?” to “Has climate changed in the past?” and “Why might it matter?”. Touching back to the objections that folks have to climate change and systematically explaining why they are wrong is useful, and makes a really compelling way to organize your lectures. Just be sure not to reinforce the incorrect material by stating it as a statement, rather phrase them as questions. So, you shouldn’t say things like “‘Climate changes all the time, so it doesn’t matter if it does now’ is wrong”, instead it should be “Has climate changed in the past? Yes, but here’s why that’s important”.

Spend time with contrarian ‘evidence’

I had a student bring up a conspiracy theory: the Rothschilds were funding research in climate change and if the research came up counter to human-caused climate change they’d bury it. The student then brought up a ‘fact’ which I’d never encountered before, which they said had been buried by the Rothschilds company. The fact was counter to a huge amount of real research. All I was able to do in the moment was to explain the way things really are, but if the student has decided that the underlying data is falsified it’s difficult to counter. Since then, all I’ve been able to find is an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory from the Napoleonic Wars and a Democratic DC Council member talking about how the Rothschilds control the weather. I still do not know where the student got their ‘fact’. I feel like I was under prepared to handle that interaction.

The index card activity that I mentioned above allowed me time to prep for these kinds of questions from my students, when I ask them for questions for the next lecture. I prompt them with “What’s a question that you’ve always wanted to ask a climate scientist? Something you heard about that sounds wrong or is confusing?”. On the spot, it’s difficult to do the due-diligence of tracking down the source of the student’s misconception. A student in another class wrote a question about Al Gore’s prediction of a sea-ice free Arctic Ocean by a certain deadline. The student missed several key points; it was about Arctic summer ice, Gore is not a scientist, the actual analysis Gore got that from was correct, Gore just used the most pessimistic number rather than the scientists preferred value, etc. Those aren’t facts I keep in my head, but I was able to collate them and present them one-after-the-other as a way to dismantle that piece of misinformation.

One way to view the interactions is as an accidental “Gish Gallop”. Dwayne T. Gish was a debater of evolutionary biologists. He was infamous for his rapid-fire objections to evolutionary science. He would place a simple objection, “There are no transitional forms,” and then another and another, then the scientist would need to explain why that’s clearly not true. The explanation requires a great deal more time. Any unanswered objection is then assumed by the audience to be correct. Such is the way in these classes. If you don’t clarify or correct a student’s point, that point is assumed to be correct, at least by the students you’re trying to reach the most, the ones that don’t accept the legitimacy of climate or evolutionary science.

In an ideal world a student would say, “Did you know crazy-thing-X?” and you respond, “I saw that somewhere, but that’s completely wrong because of A-B-C-D, and have you considered that person-backing-X does so because of E-F-G?”. It’s easier to catch something out of left field if you have some knowledge of the outfield.

Consider your approach

Telling somebody to their face that they’re an idiot for voting for somebody might be both cathartic and true sometimes, but it’s not that effective. Changing minds doesn’t involve hurling epithets, even if the president and his supporters are doing it (please see section My Perspective below for an important caveat). Scientists have facts on our side. Proving your point without literally cursing the name of the current president during a lecture in class is more effective than adding “*&@^ Trump”. Are you just venting your own frustration or are you trying to actively convince these folks who are wrong to join the correct side? By all means, force your students to grapple with the underlying long-term consequences of their voting choices, if they voted for him, but do it in the most effective way possible. Yelling at them is just going to stop them from listening.

An example: three students and I are having a conversation that explicitly turns to voting for Trump*. One student voted for Trump because Trump was going to redistribute wealth to the little guy, the other voted for Trump because Trump was going to engage in trickle-down economics (a failed style of economic policy that gives taxes breaks to the ultra-wealthy that then increases economic benefit down the class structure [it fundamentally does not work]). I tried to make sure they realized that they voted for him for polar opposite reasons, and that at least one of them had to be wrong about what Trump would do in office. Just like we try to do in education: making them walk down the path themselves, providing a guiding hand when necessary, and not just telling them, is more effective than yelling it at them (I’ll admit I laughed at the idea that trickle-down economics would actually be effective, but it took me by surprise).

I also spent a lot of time thinking about how the students perceived me as the messenger. I am originally from the Northern Midwest, where “hey guys” is a gender-nonspecific greeting for a group. In Texas it’s “y’all”, which is actually gender-nonspecific, unlike guys which is just used as nonspecific while being male. It’s very easy to adopt regionalisms accidentally or when it appeals to you for good reason. I’m living in the UK now and I’ve no reason to start saying trousers but I have. I fought the “y’all” change because it felt like the students would perceive me trying to co-opt their language to be more like them, which if you add me trying to push them away from strongly held viewpoints, would lead to resentment.

*This happened without me trying to get the conversation there. I try to discuss the political issues with my students, not the individuals involved in politics, when possible.

Talk politics

One of the questions that stuck out in my mind most from the folks who already accepted and had seemed like they might have a solid understanding of climate change was “Why do some people not believe in climate change?”.

Besides the word ‘believe’ in there, it’s a really astute question. Why is it? The physical basis is solid and fairly simple. The question ends up being more of a social science question. Leaving that unanswered though, falls into a serious trap. If you’re presenting the physical science of climate change you leave questions in your students’ minds. They know there’s another side to the ‘debate’. While the ‘there are two sides to every story’ journalism trope has plenty of faults, we’re conditioned to expect to hear the other side’s opinions. So cover it! Without it you seem like you’re trying to obfuscate.

Explain how the Pope, the U.S. Department of Defense, and all oil companies have statements affirming that climate change is real. Go to Open Secrets and show them where the lobbying money goes (mostly Republicans, with the occasional Democrat from an Oil state like North Dakota). Talk about the fight to remove lead from gasoline (which has a great connection to the age of the Earth), or talk about cancer and tobacco litigation.  I also try to explain to students about the Dunning-Kruger effect and how confident non-experts can be when discussing topics (which explains the bulk of the internet). Explain how you can simply say the words “Climate change” to someone on the right and they erect a mental wall, not hearing anything after. Explain that the divide on climate change acceptance can be attributed strongly to political party. It is scientifically shown that climate change is a a political issue . By ducking the question you’re doing a disservice to your students.

Judging pseudo-scientific crap (fact checking?)

A basic understanding of how to engage in sniffing out pseudoscience is useful these days. There are folks peddling all sorts of incorrect information, and students should be inoculated to that. It’s certainly relevant to climate change, where on social media stories about how climate change is all faked go viral very quickly. Giving students a primer on how to suss out lies, misinformation, and disinformation is important in your class and literally every other!

Individual actions vs. community actions

Lastly, while this might lose your conservative students, it’s important to discuss with your students the actions that can be taken. While individual actions are useful and important, we all have our roles to play in conservation, those individual actions aren’t going to solve anything by themselves. The issue in climate change isn’t solved by one, two, or a hundred people starting to recycle (though that is a good end), it’s systemic change that is required to fix this problem. The end goal of doing this is to motivate the students to vote or to engage with their policy makers in some fashion. Them driving less is important, but the impact is not of the magnitude that we need.

I’m deeply uncomfortable with advocating for individual solutions. As a physical scientist teaching a physical science course at a public institution, it’s not really my purview to go into what solutions are politically feasible, unless asked. I explain the situation, I go through some of the solutions we have, and the implication is that the most effective one is to get involved politically. Because it is. That’s the solution to the community action; to involve the community in solving the problem.

My perspective

All of this has been from my individual perspective. I’m a straight white dude in my thirties. I look, and probably outwardly project, a more traditional set of values than I actually hold. That affords me a whole lot of privilege in certain situations. Particularly in conservative areas there’s a baseline respect that comes with students having to call you ‘Sir’, ‘Doctor’, or ‘Professor’. It works, I think, really well to act as a Trojan horse for these students as someone who is not immediately bothered within their views. I’m a person who presents as fairly stereotypical American male, so there aren’t quick barriers thrown up that my views are from someone with a more liberal set of values, similar to how when the words “climate change” are used, conservative individuals ignore the rest of the argument made.

So your mileage may vary. This advice may not work, some might actually be horribly counter productive for somebody who doesn’t have a similar background or the assumed respect that goes with being a white, male professor. I chose to keep my preferred pronouns out of my email signature while at SHSU, because that’s a clear sign I’m a lefty. Part of my privilege is that it’s not a life-and-death or job-or-no-job situation for me to fight for those rights. I don’t have the level of righteous anger of someone marginalized, targeted, or worse by our government, which allows me the privilege to not having to worry about getting into many possible unsafe situations. I opted to not engage on some issues in my first semester teaching, and to only deal with very specific battles. Making sure that I taught my course material, including those viewed as political, as effectively as possible seemed like a good first step.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Dr Andy Fraass from the University of Bristol School of Earth Sciences.  This blog has been reposted with kind permission from the Time Scavengers blog.

Courts can play a pivotal role in combating climate change

Calin Tatu/Shuttestock.com
The international community has widely acknowledged the severe threats posed by the impacts of climate change to a series of human rights, including the rights to life, health, and an adequate standard of living. But a stark gap has emerged between this acknowledgement in global climate policy – evidenced by a non-binding clause in the preamble of the Paris Agreement – and their actions to meet promised targets.
How can we hold governments accountable to their human rights duties? A Dutch case recently upheld by the appeals court might hold the answer.
In June 2015, The Hague District Court and a group of 886 concerned citizens, united by the environmental interest group Urgenda Foundation, made history. This, the first successful climate change case brought on human rights and civil law grounds, saw the Dutch government ordered to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a minimum of 25% on 1990 levels by the year 2020.
Three years on – against a backdrop of intense scrutiny and after an appeal lodged by the government – The Hague Court of Appeal upheld this decision on October 9. Indeed, it has gone significantly further in affirming the duties of care owed by the state to its people. The court considered the weight of the scientific evidence presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the recommendations of successive UN conferences to reach an informed conclusion on the required mitigation targets commensurate with the prevention of dangerous climate change.
Marjan Minnesma, director of environmental group Urgenda, arrives at court prior to the appeal. Jerry Lampden/EPA
Significantly, the judges reached this decision by applying the European Convention on Human Rights: the right to private and family life and the right to life more broadly. As such, this case reaffirms the existence of obligations on the part of the state to take concrete measures to prevent the infringement of these rights where the authorities are aware of the existence of a real and imminent threat.
These obligations were held to extend to industrial activities which threaten the rights of people within the state’s jurisdiction. Based on an analysis of the scientific evidence, the court concluded that climate change presents a real and imminent threat to the enjoyment of citizens’ rights as spelled out in the EU convention. They ruled that a 25% emissions reduction is the minimum required to fulfil the government’s duty of care.

Human rights alarm

The Urgenda appeal decision was handed down too early for the findings of the most recent IPCC report on global warming of 1.5ºC, which was published the day before the ruling, to be integrated into the judges’ reasoning. But these findings will significantly strengthen the evidential basis of future claims.
The IPCC report outlines the stark increase in the risks to human health, food and water security, and livelihoods associated with 2ºC of warming, when compared to 1.5ºC. The evidence presented on human health, including the increased risk of heat-related morbidity and mortality, projected with “very high confidence”, is particularly striking. The climate is currently 1ºC warmer than pre-industrial levels, and with the planet projected to reach 1.5ºC as early as 2030 if current trends continue, the alarm on the imminence of the threat to human rights has been sounded.
No legally binding human rights provisions or remedies are provided within the international climate change regime. And so we must turn to the courts to clarify state duties. The Urgenda case sets an encouraging precedent. And there are many more examples of rights-based claims being brought against governments in BelgiumCanadaColombia, the UK, and even against the EU institutions. This marks a sea change in the use of human rights to hold policymakers to account for their inaction on climate change.

The decision by the Netherlands court of appeals in #Urgenda immediately becomes the most important judicial decision yet on the application of human rights law to climate change. 1/10 https://t.co/8ioKxFEjly

— John H Knox (@JohnHKnox) 9 October 2018

A new approach

In the face of the severity and imminence of the environmental risks we face, the approach to human rights protection adopted by the Urgenda judges is crucial. If courts focus on the imminent risks to human life and health, cases brought forward by particularly climate-vulnerable groups should be prioritised.
Individuals most at risk from rising temperatures and extreme weather events – including those whose livelihoods, socio-economic status, and geographic susceptibility result in them being disproportionately affected – would have the strongest claims. Civil society organisations have a crucial role to play in facilitating access to justice for such individuals, for whom entrenched structural barriers often mean that individual access to the courts remains out of reach.
To effectively accommodate climate risks of this nature the existing legal doctrine will need to be adapted, bringing together environmental principles and human rights. The role of the courts themselves is being called into question by climate litigation: the separation of powers between policymakers and the judiciary is embedded in legal systems around the globe, yet the protection of fundamental rights is intended to transcend this divide. It is the duty of the courts to act as a check on executive action and, in this case, inaction, where the enjoyment of rights is in jeopardy.
Never before has the role of the courts been so significant in influencing the path of global policy. In the face of inadequately ambitious action by policy-makers, civil society movements and the courts are the agents of change securing climate action.The Conversation

This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Alice Venn, a PhD Candidate in Environment, Energy & Resilience and Unit Coordinator in Environmental Law, University of Bristol.  This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article
Alice Venn

What Al Gore taught me about effective climate change communication


Solutions to the climate crisis are within reach, but in order to capture them, we must take urgent action today across every level of society.  

~ Al Gore. 

Al Gore has always been a hero of mine. I distinctly remember watching ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ for the first time and the profound impact that it had on my view of the world. I personally believe that what Al Gore has done for the awareness of climate change is up there with the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. to the civil rights movement and Nelson Mandela to the abolition of apartheid. In fact, I have pictures of all three in my bedroom (sad, I know…). Often, they will cast judgemental looks from the side of the room and mutter under their breath that I haven’t made enough of a contribution to humankind today! I find that having such tough critics of my moral compass omnipresent often gives me a little more impetus to do something positive and temporarily clear my conscience.

After dragging my family along to the cinema in September 2017 to watch Al Gore’s moving sequel to ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, I decided to apply to the Climate Reality Training Programme – a training course delivered by Mr. Gore and his team to train individuals about the intricacies of public climate change communication and instigating change in your local community – perfect! Never in a million years did I think that Osh from West Wales would be selected, but so I was.

The training took place in Mexico City and I was lucky enough to use scholarship funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering to pay for my flights and accommodation. The training itself was run for free by Mr. Gore’s charity, The Climate Reality Leadership Training Corps.

Believe in the power of your own voice. The more noise you make, the more accountability you demand from your leaders, the more our world will change for better.

~ Al Gore

I arrived in Mexico City unsure of what to expect. I had read all the pre-material on the flight (in and around a binge watch of the latest movies… as you do), but I was still pretty apprehensive. Luckily, the moment I arrived at the conference and started chatting to the other delegates, I realised that I was surrounded by people just like me from all over the world – a load of enthusiastic tree-huggers looking to do a little bit more than using a bag-for-life at Sainsburys, a keep-cup at Costa and a passive-aggressive tone with housemates about the recycling – I was in my element.

The first session of the day was opened by the man himself, Mr. Gore. He delivered a powerful and poignant speech to begin the training. He talked about the severity of the current situation and the growing need to act:

  • CO2 is being released into the atmosphere faster than at any time in at least the last 66 million years. [1]
  • As a result, global temperatures have increased significantly. We are at a point now, where what would have been considered an ‘Extremely Hot’ day (i.e. a 0.1% frequency event) between 1951 and 1981 now occurs 14.5% of the time! [2]
  • 17 of the 18 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001. [3]

He then went on to talk about some of the devastating consequences that we have already observed. Notably, he drew links between changes in climate to both the ‘Syrian Refugee Crisis’ and the ‘Beast from the East’:

The Syrian Refugee Crisis


  • Between 2006 and 2010, 60% of Syria’s fertile land was turned into dessert due to severe droughts as a result of record high temperatures. [4]
  • 80% of their livestock was killed. [4]
  • This drove 1.5 million people into Syria’s already overcrowded cities coping with the influx of refugees as a result of the Iraq war. We all know what happened next…
  • In 2015, the crisis reached its climax with millions fleeing Syria for Europe. As a result, thousands died, and huge political unrest was created across the continent.
  • A paper published by the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PANS) ‘ in 2015 stated that the probability of the severity of the droughts was increased by 2-3 times as a result of climate change. [5]


The Beast from the East


  • On February 25th, 2018, the temperature at the North Pole was 28°C higher than normal. [6]
  • The North Pole is usually protected from the warmer temperatures of Southern Latitudes by a natural phenomenon called the Polar Vortex.
  • However, in February/March of this year, a surge in temperature caused the polar vortex to split. This created two areas of low pressure over Northern Europe and North America, resulting in very cold temperatures and large snowfall in both areas. [7]
  • The reason this is important is because the poles serve like a refrigerator for the planet, reflecting solar irradiation back into space. With rapid melting events like those seen in February/March, the ice mass at the North Pole decreased, reducing the pole’s ability to reflect the irradiation and accelerating the warmth of the planet.

Of course, no speech about climate change would be complete without mentioning everybody’s favourite antagonist – yep, you guessed it… Donald Trump. Simply mentioning the name of Trump in a room full of environmentalists was bound to get a laugh. Mr Gore summed it up concisely:

We need to put a price on carbon in the markets, and a price on denial in politics.

~ Al Gore

However, as has become a trademark of Mr. Gore’s speeches over the years, he didn’t leave his audience in the depths of despair about the mess that we find ourselves in. He went on to talk about the positive news and the reasons for hope:

  • In 2000, the International Energy Agency (IEA) projected that there would be 30 gigawatts of wind power worldwide by 2010. In 2010, this estimate was exceeded by a factor of 7 and in 2017, global wind energy capacity rose to 539.6 GW, or about 18 times more than the IEA’s projection for 2010. [8]
  • In 2002, a top solar industry analyst projected that the global solar market would grow 1 gigawatt annually by 2010. The actual growth of the solar market in 2010 turned out to be 17 times that, with 17 gigawatts of solar capacity added that year. The world installed a record 98 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity in 2017, far more than the net additions of any other technology – renewable, fossil fuel, or nuclear. [9]
  • According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, by 2040, wind power could draw $3.3 trillion in investment and see a fourfold increase in capacity. [10]
  • China installed 53 GW of solar capacity in 2017, more than the total installed solar capacity of any other country in the world. [11] This has driven a dramatic decrease in the cost of solar and an increase in the robustness of the technology.

Needless to say, it was incredible to watch the passion and conviction with which Mr. Gore delivered his material. He is a truly gifted orator. Communicating the harsh realities of climate change, coupled with the strong message for hope was something that really gave Mr. Gore’s presentation weight. Rather than feeling depressed about the situation, as is often the case when listening to a speech about climate change, this speech left me feeling empowered. Striking this fine balance was a key emphasis of the training to follow.

The next few days of the training flew by in a blur of presentation coaching, climate change and solutions workshops, networking events and various other activities. It was truly inspiring to learn about all the incredible things that people had achieved in their own respective communities. A key aspect of the training was the commitment required following the event. We each had to commit to making 10 ‘acts of leadership’ once we arrived back at home. This could include contacting our local MP to discuss climate change, delivering presentations on the subject, arranging events and so forth.

So far, I have delivered a presentation to my fellow Royal Academy of Engineering scholars and contacted both my Member of Parliament and my Welsh Assembly Member. I have arranged to meet my MP in Westminster, and I intend to present to him about climate change and urge him to instigate action. For my other acts of leadership, I intend to present at a series of secondary schools. I have been lucky enough to be elected Engineers Without Borders’ Outreach Officer for this year, and we have 6 school visits in the pipeline for the Bristol area. I have also organised to go back to my own secondary school in West Wales to present.

Overall, the training was an incredible experience – something that I have taken a lot away from, both in terms of the knowledge and confidence that I have gained to present about climate change and the lasting friendships that I have made with other delegates. I would urge anybody passionate about tackling climate change to attend a training course run by the Climate Reality Leadership Corps (a link to their site to find out about the next training can be found here).

I’d like to leave you with a list of actions that we can all do as individuals to make an impact:

  • Contact your local MP and set out your concerns regarding climate change (I have a template that you are welcome to use – see the bottom of the article for my contact details)
  • Vote for candidates that have a strong stance on combating climate change
  • Buy less meat, milk, cheese and butter and more locally sourced seasonal food – and throw less of it away
  • Drive electric cars but walk or cycle short distances
  • Take trains and buses instead of planes
  • Use videoconferencing instead of business travel
  • Use a washing line instead of a tumble dryer
  • Insulate homes
  • Demand low carbon in every consumer product


 Will our children ask, why didn’t you act? Or will they ask, how did you find the moral courage to rise up and change?

 ~ Al Gore

Please feel free to contact me with any questions at: osianllyrrees@gmail.com


[1] RE Zeebe, et al., Nature Geoscience, March 2016
[2] NASA/GISS; Hansen, et al., “Perceptions of Climate Change,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 10.1073, August 2012 – Updated 2016
[3] National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “GISS Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP): Global-mean monthly, seasonal, and annual means,” last updated February, 2018. 
[4] NPR Staff, “How Could A Drought Spark A Civil War?,” National Public Radio, September 8, 2013. 
[5] C. Kelly, S. Mohtadi, M. Cane, R. Seager, and Y. Kushnir. Climate change in the fertile crescent and implications of the recent syrian drought. PNAS, 112:3241–3246, 2015.
[6] Washington Post, “North Pole surges above freezing in the dead of winter, stunning scientists”, Accessed September 27th 2018
[7] The Carbon Brief, “Explainer: The polar vortex, climate change and the ‘Beast from the East’”, Accessed September 27th 2018
[8] Global Wind Energy Council, Global Wind Statistics 2017 (February 2018). 
[9] ** UN Environment, “Banking on Sunshine: World Added Far More Solar Than Fossil Fuel Generation Capacity in 2017,” April 5, 2018 
[10] Bloomberg New Energy Finance, “Global wind and solar costs to fall even faster, while coal fades even in China and India,” June 15, 2017
[11] Mark Osborne, “China officially installed 52.83 GW of solar modules in 2017,” PVTech, January 18, 2018.

This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Osian Rees, from the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering.
Osian Rees