Extolling the virtues of a hybrid meeting done well

Following a very successful three-day conference recently, I wanted to write a few words to extol the virtues of a hybrid meeting done really well.  Lots of people at the moment are enthusing wildly about getting back to in-person meetings and general socialising, but not all of us are quite so excited about this return to the old world.

If this makes me a miserable old git, then so be it.

The meeting in question was a Galileo Conference, entitled ‘The warm Pliocene: Bridging the geological data and modelling communities’ and held virtually and in-person at the University of Leeds from 24-26 August 2022.  It was sponsored by the NERC UK Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme, Past Global Changes (PAGES) and the European Geosciences Union (EGU), and was run by an organising committee led by Dr Aisling Dolan and Dr Heather Ford (from the University of Leeds and Queen Mary University of London, respectively).  The conference website can be seen at https://www.egu-galileo.eu/gc10-pliocene/general_information.html.  The conference focused on the mid-Piacenzian Warm Period (sometimes also known as the mid-Pliocene Warm Period, mPWP), an interval between approximately 3.3 and 3 million years ago when CO2 levels were roughly equivalent to today, global mean temperatures were 2-3°C higher than today and sea level was approximately 20 m higher than today.  This makes it an important analogue for a possible future.

Normally, here, I would continue with the science, but that’s not the purpose of this post.  The purpose of this post is the meeting itself.  The meeting took a hybrid format, meaning there were approximately 50 people in the room and approximately 50 people joining virtually.  I was in the latter group.  For ease, I will refer to the former group as ‘reals’ and the latter group as ‘virtuals’; let’s not get into a philosophical discussion over the validity of these terms.

Since the beginning of the COVID pandemic in 2020, and even more so since its ‘supposed’ end in 2022 (not a statement I agree with, but I’m in a minority), I have attended a great number of virtual and hybrid meetings.  Almost always, something has gone badly wrong; inadequate technology, glitching, freezing, inaudible lecturers, audio echoes, etc.  However, ‘The warm Pliocene…’ meeting demonstrated that with the right technology and, more importantly, the right know-how to use it properly, a hybrid meeting can indeed be done perfectly.  Here, I will cover the various elements of the meeting, how they have been done terribly in the past and how they were done flawlessly here.

Firstly, the main lectures (or short presentations), directed at everybody in the audience.  This, in theory, should be the easiest part to arrange of any hybrid meeting.  All that is needed is a camera (this is usually and most easily a laptop running Zoom, Teams or whatever, but could be a more sophisticated camera/microphone setup) pointing at the podium, a roaming microphone for the reals (so the virtuals can hear them), the slides shared via Zoom and a speaker (so the reals can hear the virtuals).  Sounds simple, right?


Without mentioning any names of meetings and their organisers, I have lost count of the number of times I have spent the entire time staring either at the lecturer’s crotch, or the top of their forehead.  Neither is particularly desirable.  Three things are important here: the direction the camera is facing, the angle (i.e. vertically) the camera is facing and the distance between the camera and the lecturer.  Get any of those wrong, and we are into crotch territory.  The camera needs to be far enough away to see the whole person behind the podium, but not too far away for them to resemble a matchstick.  It is not necessary to see the main screen at which the reals are looking, because the slides can easily be shared.  So the reals see a person next to a large screen containing their slides, whereas the virtuals see the slides directly and then the lecturer as a thumbnail in one corner.  Ideally, there needs to be a separate person dedicated to moving the camera/laptop; let’s call them the ‘controller’.  The controller is not the lecturer or the Chair, but is solely responsible for moving the camera left, right, up or down so that it is always facing the lecturer during the talk and then the audience during the following questions/discussion.  When anybody in the audience wants to speak, they use the same microphone that the lecturer was using.

Happily, the organisers of ‘The warm Pliocene…’ meeting got this spot on, constantly moving the laptop to the correct place depending on who was talking.  The only thing that might have improved this would be to have a dedicated virtual constantly communicating with the controller (perhaps via the chat), to say whether the camera needs to be moved slightly; but this is only really necessary if the controller cannot see themselves.

As an aside, the concept of being moved around by someone else in order to see properly is unfamiliar to many people but, given my personal circumstances, is very familiar to me.  Although most of the time I use an electric wheelchair and can therefore move myself, some of the time I use a manual wheelchair and therefore cannot.  Given that I am not really able to turn my head from side to side, in order to see somebody or something I need to be directly facing them.  I am therefore very used to asking “Please turn me a bit to the left” or similar.  The difference between turning me in person (i.e. turning the wheelchair) and turning me virtually (i.e. turning the laptop) is exactly what?!

Secondly, the poster sessions.  If you are at any train station or airport, anywhere in the world, and you see a bunch of nerdy-looking people holding long cardboard or black plastic tubes, you can be sure there is a conference somewhere nearby.  Traditionally, the idea is the poster is physically printed and displayed in a large room, and the author stands next to it at the allocated time and talks to people walking by.  This, in theory, is not so easy to do in the virtual space; again I have lost count of the number of failures using Zoom, where people haven’t known how to use the breakout room function, people have been lost in virtual space or people have all tried to talk at once.

Or, the now famous “You’re on mute”.

However, again, happily the organisers of ‘The warm Pliocene…’ meeting got it right.  There was a combination of traditional and virtual poster sessions; for the former, the reals were able to interact in the old-fashioned way, whereas the virtuals were able to view the posters that had been uploaded, in advance, to Padlet, as well as a two minute introductory talk that had been pre-recorded by the authors.  The virtuals could then post questions on Padlet, which could be answered by the author either instantly or later on.  For the virtual poster sessions, both the reals and the virtuals operated in virtual space; the reals were told to find a quiet corner of the conference centre and interact virtually using Zoom, whereas the virtuals were already on Zoom.  Within this virtual space, every poster presenter was assigned their own breakout room, where they would wait patiently for the audience to drop by.  Everybody could see a list of the breakout rooms, and could therefore choose to whom they wanted to talk.  If there was more than one person in a given breakout room, they would simply wait their turn to talk to the presenter; much like they would if they were they standing in a crowd around a physical poster and presenter.

As I always tell my students, presenting a poster is actually a lot more hard work than giving a talk, and this is true in both the real and virtual world.

Thirdly, the discussion and breakout groups.  Again, in theory, this is not so easy to get right in the virtual world.  This is usually because of two reasons.  Firstly because of the same problem as above i.e. the breakout room function not being used correctly, and people not knowing whether they were supposed to be in the main virtual room or in a breakout room.  But secondly, because of people basically not knowing how to use Zoom.  As time goes by this is becoming less of a problem, but at the beginning it was ridiculous.  Almost every virtual meeting I attended in the first couple of years of the pandemic – and don’t forget that most of these were academic meetings, so everybody has a brain the size of a planet (except me, obvs, as I am always the dummy in the group) – began with everybody shouting “Can you hear me?” for the first ten minutes.

However, once more, the organisers of ‘The warm Pliocene…’ meeting managed to arrange everything seamlessly.  There was in a little bit of confusion, at the beginning of the first day, as to exactly which breakout room the virtuals were supposed to use, but that was quickly resolved and the rest of the days went very smoothly.  The reals were divided into groups of four or five, including a member of the organising committee who was responsible for leading the discussion, taking notes and then reporting back to everybody at the end.  Likewise the virtuals were divided into similar-sized groups and assigned to a breakout room, again with a member of the organising committee taking the lead.  After half an hour or so of discussion, everybody would return to the main room i.e. the reals would stop talking amongst themselves and turn back to the main screen and podium, whereas the virtuals would return to the main virtual room, which was again facing the main screen and podium.  People would then report back, either in person or virtually.  Given that the reals all used a roaming microphone when speaking, and the virtuals were projected visually on the main screen and audibly via the speaker system, everybody was able to hear everybody and a normal discussion could be had, whether real or virtual.

Lastly, the only part of the conference which, sadly, is almost impossible to translate to the virtual space is the socialising and indeed the scientific conversations had during these times, either over coffee, lunch or during the evenings.  I do not doubt that one day we will have Star Wars-style holographic projections on a small floating platform, meaning that in any given setting (such as round the restaurant table, or standing at the bar), there will be a mixture of real people and holograms that can interact as if they were physically present.

But we are not there yet.

In the meantime, this is probably the one and only part of a conference or scientific meeting in which the virtuals cannot fully participate.  I have had meetings where there has been an attempt at this, such as after the meeting where the virtuals are told to get a drink and then chat to each other via Zoom breakout rooms.  But this never works particularly well; either because there are too many people in one breakout room, meaning everybody talks at once or just a handful dominate the conversation, or because the organiser assigns people randomly to a breakout room, meaning you get stuck with a bunch of people you have never met and would possibly never choose to meet.  In the real world, over coffee, you can choose with whom you chat, or you can choose to sit in the corner and be unsociable.  In the virtual world, you can do neither.

Chit-chat or small talk always makes me uncomfortable, and this is exaggerated in virtual space.

To summarise, therefore: ‘The warm Pliocene…’ meeting was a masterclass in how to get a hybrid meeting right.  I firmly believe that the main reason it was so successful, for both reals and virtuals, is that (like in many aspects of life) it was completely inclusive.  I have been to several hybrid meetings where the virtual attendees are treated a little bit like second-class citizens, allowed to say their piece at the appropriate time but otherwise supposed to be quiet, because they are not really there, are they?  This is a shame, but common.  Sometimes it is completely unintentional, just an artefact of the organisers being too preoccupied with people actually in the room to remember about those who are not.  A lot of my friends and colleagues argue that attending a meeting virtually is not the same, but I completely disagree.  It is not the same if the hybrid part is done badly, yes.  But, as the organisers of ‘The warm Pliocene…’ meeting have shown, when it is done well, a hybrid meeting can be as enjoyable, if not more enjoyable, than being there in-person.

I want to finish with just a few, more general thoughts concerning fully virtual, hybrid or fully in-person conferences and meetings.  Moreover, some thoughts on how these principles translate into our university teaching, which was obviously 100% in-person before the pandemic, then out of necessity became 100% virtual and now is moving back towards the old world i.e. 100% in-person.

I should stress that I completely understand the vast majority of people who are very happy to go back to the old world, be that at work attending in-person meetings or generally socialising.  Concerning teaching, I completely understand that many students struggled during the various lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, and that many are very happy and indeed keen to go back to the traditional way of teaching.  This has resulted in a push, by most universities, to return to 100% in-person teaching as soon as possible.  But this university-wide policy has often resulted in a new reluctance, by many university IT departments, to invest in new technology to allow better hybrid meetings.  This, in my humble opinion, is very misguided.  We know, now, that virtual and hybrid meetings are possible, work well and, when done correctly, can be preferable for some.  To abandon this experience and technology in favour of the traditional way is a very big mistake.  There are three reasons why I believe this.

Firstly, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the next global pandemic is only around the corner.  This is not being pessimistic, but rather realistic.  The scientific community knew, way back in the 1980s, that concerning impact versus likelihood of occurrence, a global pandemic came first amongst all other natural and man-made disasters, as having both the highest impact and the highest likelihood.  But, when it did happen almost 40 years later, we were still not ready for it.  If we abandon our new experience of virtual and hybrid meetings and teaching, and do not invest in the technology to make this better, we will be caught with our trousers down once again.

Secondly, for the vast majority of the world (or rather, the Western world – much of the Global South is still suffering massively), COVID is over.  This is either because most people have had it and it wasn’t too bad, or most people are not vulnerable to it and don’t know anyone who is, or most people have had several doses of the vaccine and therefore (incorrectly) think they are completely shielded from it, or most people became so fed up with the restrictions that they simply don’t care anymore.  Either way, the fear (often of the unknown) has gone.  However, for some people – not many, but a significant minority – COVID is very much not over.  This might be because they are elderly, immunosuppressed or, like myself, have some other underlying condition which means they are still highly vulnerable to any respiratory-related disease.  For those people, COVID is still very much a real and present danger.  For those people, like myself, who have not yet caught COVID (or, at least, not that I know of) because of their super-cautious behaviour and actions – which is often disapproved of and ridiculed by even close friends and family, “You’ve just got to learn to live with it” – the fear of the unknown is still very much there.  Therefore, if we abandon virtual and hybrid meetings and teaching, there is a real risk that this significant minority will feel even more marginalised and excluded than they did before the pandemic.

Likewise, concerning teaching, although most students appear to prefer the traditional way, this is not a constant.  Based on my conversations with them, many students quite like a mixture of in-person and virtual lectures, seminars and discussions.  This might be for health reasons, or because they quite like the anonymity of being behind a screen.  When I was an undergraduate, over 20 years ago, if I had had the option of watching my 9 AM lecture in my pyjamas at home or making the 20 minute, bleary-eyed walk onto campus and into a cold lecture theatre, I know exactly what I would have chosen.  Moreover, for those students who need to have difficult conversations with their tutors – possibly bursting into tears because they did not get the grades they wanted – doing that over Zoom is, I would imagine, far more of a safe space than doing it in the tutor’s office.  To completely abandon virtual and hybrid communication would, therefore, marginalise these students as well.  Instead, the option of doing things virtually should be made available, now that we know it is a viable option.

Lastly, there is the issue of travel, which is more relevant to the scientific meeting or conference than it is to teaching.  This is particularly relevant to those in my profession; as somebody once said, climate scientists fly all over the world telling people not to fly all over the world.  This is something of which we have all been guilty.  Now, however, we don’t need to do this.  As long as whatever meeting or conference is prepared to put the technology and know-how to good use, I can attend any meeting I like, anywhere in the world, with minimal effort and zero carbon emissions on my part.  I agree, it is not quite the same and you certainly don’t get the change of scenery, but surely it is better, from an environmental perspective, than the old way?  Returning to ‘The warm Pliocene…’ meeting, it was not a large international conference involving thousands of people, but rather a relatively small meeting and workshop.  It was, however, international, and we had participants from all over the world.  For them to fly all the way to the UK for just three days, when they were able to participate fully in virtual space, is nonsense and goes against everything we are trying to preach.

So, in summary, virtual and hybrid meetings are not only possible, but can actually be preferable when done really well, as the recent masterclass demonstrated.  To abandon everything we have learnt over the last three years, in the knowledge of what it would do to a significant minority and the knowledge of what is probably going to happen in the future, would be utterly foolish.

This blog was written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Charles Williams from the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.

IPCC blog series – Working Group 2 – Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability



This blog is part of a series from the Cabot Institute for the Environment on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent sixth Assessment report, with this post covering the output of Working Group 2 and the impacts of climate change on society and ecosystems. This article also features a chat with Prof Daniela Schmidt, a Professor at the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol, and a Lead Author on the IPCC’s AR6 report. For links to the rest of the series, see the bottom of the post.

Welcome to the next post in this series on the IPCC sixth Assessment Report (AR6). Now that we’ve covered the background science to climate change, the next phase looks at the impacts on society, ecosystems, and the intricate fabric of everything in between – combining the science and aiding the transition of translating to policies that governments can implement to better the planet and mitigate the impacts.

This report is, in my opinion, the most alarming of the bunch – some scientists referring to this as the “bleakest warning yet”. Here are the key points:

The increased frequency of Extreme Weather and Temperature will have a cataclysmic impact – Everywhere will be affected

There is no inhabited region on earth that escapes the impacts of climate change. It’s estimated that over 3.3 billion people are living in areas highly vulnerable to climate change effects – largely extreme temperatures, leading to food insecurity and water shortages. Extreme weather events, such as tropical storms and flooding, are also set to increase in both frequency and severity.

As we’ve seen in recent years, wildfires have become more common (Australia and California making international news) and will continue to rise in frequency – wreaking devastation on communities and wildlife. This, along with the retreat of glaciers and polar ice caps, also results in a release of even more carbon to the atmosphere as the Earth’s natural carbon sinks continue to be dismantled. The ensuing feedback loop amplifies the warming, only serving to increase the severity of these events.

However, the impacts of climate change won’t be experienced uniformly across the planet…

The Impacts of Climate Change will not be experienced equally

This is one of the most important statements from all three Working Groups. It’s been well reported that sea level rise will be existentially cataclysmic for atoll island nations such as Kiribati and the Maldives, but there are other effects of climate change that will be unequally experienced. At the other end of the scale, Britain and other western European nations will see less drastic impacts, despite having some of the greatest contribution to the emissions at the root of the climate crisis. In summer, some parts of the globe are already becoming unliveable due to the extremely high temperatures. In India and Africa for example, where temperatures can exceed 40 degrees C, the number of deaths due to heat are increasing year on year. Poorer communities, especially those who work outdoors, are disproportionately affected as their occupation puts them at greater risk.

Some of the nations with the lowest development and therefore lowest contribution to climate change will experience the impacts more than some of the greatest contributors.

A Climate Crisis exacerbates other ongoing Crises

The effects of a climate crisis add an extra layer of complexity to all sorts of problems the world is already facing. Threats to food and water security because of climate change will increase pre-existing geopolitical tensions as resources become more and more scarce. Therefore, the likelihood of conflict and war increases – which in turn shift focus from fighting climate change. To some extent, we are seeing this already with the war in Ukraine, for example. In summary, climate change can increase severity of a crisis and limits the efficacy of response.

Impacts on ecosystems are already happening as well

Mass die-offs of species are well underway, particularly in oceanic ecosystems as sea temperatures rise and ocean acidification takes place. Deforestation and wildfires are destroying ecosystems.

When I spoke to Professor Daniela Schmidt, a lead author on the WGII report (more from her at the end of the article), she was quick to point out and stress the connections between nature and society, links often underestimated – “Negative impacts on nature will negatively impact people”. Nature, land-use, and conservation will be some of the key tools in helping mitigate the effects of climate change.

This is something to explore further with the next blog in this series on Working Group 3: Mitigation of Climate Change.

Insight from IPCC AR6 Lead Author Professor Daniela Schmidt 

Daniela Schmidt is a Professor of Palaeobiology, Cabot Institute member and a key author on the IPCC’s WG2 report.

How did you get involved with IPCC AR6 and Working Group II in particular?

“I was a lead author on the fifth assessment report, working on the ocean chapter. I have since worked on reports for the European Commission on food from the ocean. I volunteered for this cycle with the expectation of working with WGI but I was assigned work on WGII, which was challenging because it was way out of my comfort zone. Working on this report has changed the way I will conduct research in the future, and has taught me to be more open to the complexities of life”

What’s one key point you’d like to get across from the WGII report?

“The official key strapline from AR6 is that the evidence is clear, climate change is real and happening right now. It’s a rapidly closing window of opportunity to do something about it.”

“One of the main things I like to communicate is that if we don’t hit 1.5 degrees C targets, then 1.7 degrees C is still better than for 2 degrees C example. The point is that every increment matters and that we can’t give up if we miss targets. I think it’s important to tell people that if we are overshooting 1.5 degrees C, yes, there will be consequences, some of which are irreversible, but we can still come back.”

“I also try not just to talk about climate change. Much of the adaptation action for climate change incidentally will, in my view, help to make the world a better place – providing clean drinking water, clean energy, habitable homes and ensuring there is nature surrounding them


We recommend taking a look at the IPCC’s full reports and report summaries for yourself if you seek to further understand the evidence and reasoning behind their headline statements.

Going further, potential solutions and climate change mitigations will be covered in greater detail in our summary of WG3’s report titled “Mitigation of Climate Change”, will be the next blog in this series, featuring a chat with IPCC AR6 Lead Author Dr. Jo House and contributor Viola Heinrich.


Andy Lyford

This blog was written by Cabot Communications Assistant Andy Lyford, an MScR Student studying Paleoclimates and Climate modelling on the Cabot Institute Master’s by Research in Global Environmental Challenges at the University of Bristol.

IPCC blog series: Working Group 1 – The Physical Science Basis

This blog is part of a series from the Cabot Institute for the Environment on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent AR6 report (IPCC, AR6), with this post covering the output of Working Group 1 and the physical scientific basis of climate change. This article also features a chat with Professor Dan Lunt, a Climate Scientist at the University of Bristol who focusses on paleoclimates and climate modelling, and a Lead Author on the IPCC’s AR6 report. For links to the rest of the series, see the bottom of the post.

The IPCC begins their 6th Assessment Report by explaining the physical science basis and publishing the finding of Working Group 1 (WG1) in August 2021. This means that, rather than considering the impact on humans, ecosystems and societies covered by later working groups, this report only looks at the effects on the planet from a physical standpoint. Consider this part of the report to be describing the problem, where later reports describe the impacts and then the possible solutions.

Here are the key points from WG1, detailing the physical science basis:

Human activity has unequivocally caused a change in the global climate.

If you were in any doubt before, let this be the sole key message you take away from this report.

Human activity has caused widespread warming of the land, ocean an atmosphere, affecting weather systems, ecosystems, and the cryosphere (areas covered by ice such as mountain glaciers and the polar regions).

One of the main drivers of this change has been Greenhouse Gases (GHGs), which have been observed to be increasing in atmospheric concentration since as far back as 1750 and the beginning. These gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), come from human processes that burn fossil fuels – transport, energy production, intense cattle farming for example.

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere act like blanket, trapping rather than heart from the sun, warming the Earth. We also know from studying past climates that the Earth will get warmer with greater atmospheric CO2 levels.

Changes to the climate are happening at an unprecedented rate.

Figure 1: Graph from AR6-WG1 showing the unprecedented levels of warming seen in the last 2000 years.

You may have heard that the Earth’s climate has naturally ebbed between periods of hot and cold. This is completely true, however it can be a misleading statement that completely undersells the issue. Human activity has caused the planet to warm at an unprecedented rate. We are currently undergoing thousands of years of warming in just a few decades (fig.1) – much to fast for adaptation from the world’s ecosystems.

As such, the Earth will take millions of years to recover and reach an equilibrium. I highly encourage you to check out climatearchive.org’s simulations of the next million years using cutting edge modelling data – created by the Cabot Institute for the Environment’s Sebastian Steinig.

Climate change is ALREADY affecting every inhabited region on Earth, with observed increases in extreme weather and climate extremes.

Many people believe that the climate crisis is far off in the future, a problem to prevent before it arrives. However, this is not the case. It’s already happening under our noses. And everywhere. Every inhabited region in the world currently experiences an increased likelihood of an extreme weather event, extreme heat drought, or extreme precipitation. This summer for example, temperatures in the UK have been modelled and subsequently measured to creep above 40°C, unprecedented for a region with a usually temperate climate and setting national records.

Increased warming leads to an increase in effect and creeps towards a tipping point from which recovery is impossible.

You might have heard phrases like “2 degree C future” or “1.5 degree C rise” in the news, but what do these really mean? These numbers refer to the global mean temperature rise using a rolling average of the previous 20 years, relative to the temperature measured between 1850-1900 when climate change started to begin. Currently, the average global temperature anomaly sits above 1 degree C of warming (fig.1).

The Earth system is remarkably robust, but not quite robust enough to maintain an equilibrium with such rapid warming in a short space of time. One place where this is most stark is the cryosphere – parts of the Earth usually covered by ice all year round (glaciers, polar regions for example).

Melting has already begun and will continue to happen for decades even if emissions magically ended tomorrow. This is incredibly troubling, since the cryosphere also happens to be huge carbon store in the form of methane trapped in the ice. This creates what’s known as a feedback loop, where the effects of warming lead to greater warming in themselves.

Through studying paleoclimates, the IPCC reports that climate sensitivity and therefore “tipping point” sits at around 3 degree C, resulting in total climate breakdown.

Significant and immediate action limiting Greenhouse Gas emissions will be a major key in fighting climate change.

The one silver lining the report alludes to is that IPCC scientists are confident that the climate crisis is caused primarily by greenhouse gas concentrations, therefore we know the solution – reducing emissions quickly and effectively will mitigate against the worst warming in a big way. Pursuing a net-zero CO2 strategy and limiting other GHG emissions will be absolutely necessary. Working Group 3’s report on the Mitigation of Climate Change goes into greater detail on how governments can work together to go about this. This will be published on 29 August 2022.

Insight from IPCC WG1 author Professor Dan Lunt

Professor Dan Lunt is a Professor of Climate Science, Cabot Institute member and a key author on the IPCC’s WGI report.

How did you get involved with IPCC AR6?

Dan Lunt

“I was involved with the previous IPCC report, AR5, providing some data and graphs for a section on polar amplification in past and future climates (the disproportionate warming of the polar regions relative to the rest of the Earth system). This time round, a call went out around four or five years ago for authors to work on the upcoming Sixth Assessment Report. I applied for and was chosen to be a Lead Author on Chapter 7 of the AR6 report – a section focussed the Earth’s radiation budget and Climate Sensitivity, as well as on paleoclimates as evidence for the patterns of global warming, such as polar amplification.”

What’s one key point you’d like to get across from the work of Working Group 1?

“For me, what I would interpret as the key message would be climate change is already happening, and it’s happening all over the globe. It’s unprecedented in terms of its magnitude and its speed of change, relative to the past tens of thousands of years. It’s unequivocally caused by human activity.”

“One of the new key points in this assessment report is that there’s a lot more evidence now that there are changes in the frequency of extreme events. We now have enough data to say that this increased frequency is human induced. So that’s more droughts, floods, extreme heat events etc.”


We recommend taking a look at the IPCC’s full reports and report summaries for yourself if you seek to further understand the evidence and reasoning behind their headline statements.

As we’ve discussed the scientific basis for climate change, you may be wondering what the real-world impacts. The specific impacts on ecosystems, global health and on human society will be covered in greater detail in our summary of WG2’s report titled “Impacts, Adaption and Vulnerability”, publishing tomorrow (Thursday, 28th of August).


This blog was written by Cabot Communications Assistant Andy Lyford, an MScR Student studying Paleoclimates and Climate modelling on the Cabot Institute Master’s by Research in Global Environmental Challenges at the University of Bristol.

Andy Lyford



Human health is entwined with the health of our planet


It’s a short time since COP26 finished in Glasgow. Many colleagues from the University of Bristol were there to discuss their research and share knowledge with those who are making decisions about policies that impact everyone’s futures. When we think about climate change, we often think about the health of the planet and the natural world, but the health of our planet is entwined to the health of the human population too. Here, Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Director, Rachael Gooberman-Hill, gives a timely update on our research looking at the intersection between climate and health.

We’re already seeing local and global impacts of climate change on human health. The World Health Organization states that in the 20 years from 2030 to 2050 climate change will cause around 250,000 additional deaths per year, which is a timeframe that starts in just eight years from now.

These, arguably preventable, deaths will relate to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat. Health impacts of climate change will disproportionately affect people who are already vulnerable in other ways, including people who are young, old, living with other conditions, or living in situations of vulnerability including poverty and other dimensions of disadvantage. Climate change is associated with changes in infectious diseases and non-communicable conditions, such as mental health difficulties. Heat and extreme weather events have major impact on health, cause forced migration and these issues are global in scale. In the UK, extreme weather events and heat are already visible and are likely to become more common and more impactful.

Embedding climate in current research

Broadly speaking, research efforts include work to reduce rise in our planet’s temperature and attempts to address, mitigate, and adapt to the impact of the rises that are already happening. At the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute we are working with the Cabot Institute for the Environment. As researchers, we can change focus of our research, can embed climate in the research that we are already planning or doing, and we can also consider that all of the research that we do is already impacted by climate change and will already have much to add to the evidence base that can underpin change and make a difference.

Mapping activity in climate research

The University of Bristol has a world-leading track record in environment-focused research already. We recently mapped the research activity in this area and identified 39 climate and health related research projects and over 150 members of our research community working in this area. We work on many topics, including extreme weather events, heat, water and sanitation, animal health, crops and nutrition, and social impacts of climate change. The University is an active member of the Met Office Academic Partnership (MOAP), we contribute considerable and internationally recognised expertise to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), including in the crucial assessment reports which provide the scientific evidence base. We’re active in the GW4 Climate Alliance, comprising the Universities of Bristol, Cardiff, Bath, and Exeter.

Potential to pivot

There is real potential now to build this area even more. Many members of our University are deeply concerned about climate change and many are doing work that helps, or want to do so. We are a community whose research is often driven by our sense of social responsibility and we’ve seen before how our desire to make a difference can drive new focus. In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic we saw large parts of the University’s research community turn skills and attention to the virus and its impact. At the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute we supported over 90 projects that focused on COVID-19 and owe thanks to everyone for the vast effort that has been put into research with real world impact. The effort to focus on COVID-19 showed how our expert researchers can pivot quickly onto new topic areas, although other topics remained urgent and important alongside our pandemic-related work.

Supporting more climate research

The Elizabeth Blackwell Institute wants to support the desire and need to work on climate change and health, whether that’s to enable people to pivot to the area, build on existing work or to encompass climate change into existing workstreams. We’ve already supported projects focused on climate change and health, with particular emphasis on interdisciplinary research. We want to support even more. As we move forward from COP26, please consider how your research can address climate change and health and let us know about your plans and ideas.


This blog is by Elizabeth Blackwell Institute Director, Rachael Gooberman-Hill . View the original post.

Rachel Gooberman-Hill

Violence and mental health are likely to get worse in a warming world

As heat levels increase, mental health conditions are likely to worsen.

Extreme weather has been the cause of some of the biggest public health crises across the world in recent years. In many cases, these have been enhanced by human-induced climate change. For instance, in 2003, high summer temperatures in Europe were believed to cause 50,000 to 70,000 excess deaths across 16 European countries.

Globally, it’s been estimated that a total of 296,000 deaths over the past two decades have been related to heat.

But heat doesn’t just affect physical health. It can have equally serious effects on mental health conditions. Research has shown that rising temperatures are associated with an increase in suicides and in violent behaviour, as well as exacerbating mood and anxiety disorders.

Studies in England and Wales conducted between 1993 and 2003 have revealed that, when temperatures were above 18°C, every 1°C rise in temperature was associated with a 3.8% increased risk of suicide across the population.

Between 1996 and 2013 in Finland, every 1°C increase in temperature accounted for a 1.7% increase in violent crime across the country. It has even been estimated that 1.2 million more assaults might occur in the United States between 2010 to 2099 than would without climate change.

The association between high temperatures and mental health is an active area of research. Scientists have found that some health consequences of increased heat, like disturbed sleep and levels of serotonin – a hormone critical for adjusting our feelings, emotions and behaviours – might play a role in triggering the appearance of mental health conditions.

A world map coloured red, with darker areas indicating greater temperature rises (up to 6°C).
This map shows the projected changes in daily temperature extremes at 1.5°C of global warming compared to the pre-industrial period (since 1861).
Author provided

Sleep deprivation often occurs during heatwaves, which then may lead to frustration, irritability, impulsive behaviours and even violence.

Extreme temperatures, such as those observed during heatwaves, are also found to be associated with some forms of dementia and disturbed mental health states, especially for those who are already in vulnerable conditions such as psychiatric patients.

And low levels of serotonin are associated with depression, anxiety, impulsivity, aggression and occurrence of violent incidents.


In the future, heatwaves will be hotter and last longer. Temperature records are likely to be broken ever more frequently as the world continues to warm. In north-west Asia, for example, temperatures could increase by 8.4°C by 2100.

A world that is on average 1.5°C warmer will see many average regional temperatures rise by more than this. This problem is compounded as the population – and therefore the number of people living in cities – increases. By 2050, it is projected that two thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas.

A city in summer
Cities are often hotter than rural regions, exacerbating negative mental health effects caused by heat.

Urban environments are known to be warmer than their rural surroundings, a phenomenon known as the “urban heat island”. Climate projections show not only that cities will warm faster than rural areas, but that this effect is increased at night. This may further exacerbate the effects of heat extremes on our sleep.

Both adaptation to and mitigation of climate change will be necessary to lessen these potentially devastating effects as much as possible.

Options for adapting our lives to a warmer world could include increasing air circulation within buildings and adjusted work hours in times of extreme heat. Paris, for example, has already created a network of “cool islands”: green and blue spaces such as parks, ponds and swimming pools which provide places to seek refuge from the heat.

Most simply, educating people on the potential impacts of heat on mental health, aggression and violence – allowing them to understand exactly why it is so important to support initiatives that help keep our planet cool – could support better mental health at the same time as fighting the climate crisis.

—————————————–The Conversation

This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment members Dr Mary Zhang, Senior Research Associate in Policy Studies, University of Bristol; Professor Dann Mitchell, Associate Professor in Atmospheric Sciences, University of Bristol, and Dr Vikki Thompson, Senior Research Associate in Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Dann Mitchell
Mary Zhang
Vikki Thompson



Read all blogs in our COP26 blog series:

Life of breath: Understanding air pollution and disease through the Arts

Media vita in morte sumus.  Image from You Tube.

I have written on the Life of Breath blog about the symmetry between breathing as life, and breathlessness as death (as it appears in the words of the haka – see ‘I will not be drowned’).  The line media vita in morte sumus (‘in the midst of life we are in death’) was supposedly composed around the end of the first millennium, but is now believed to be a much older phrase, encapsulating a still older idea: that understanding something means encountering and attempting to understand its counterpart (1).  Just as All Hallows and All Saints are separated by nothing more than midnight, life and death cannot be separated from (nor understood without) each other. The Life of Breath project is a five-year senior investigator award funded by the Wellcome Trust (PIs Prof. Havi Carel at the University of Bristol and Prof. Jane Macnaughton at Durham University), considering breathing and its ‘pathological derivative’ breathlessness as two halves of a whole.

This sense of opposing ideas, linked and hinged in the middle, can also be found in some of the causes of breathlessness, such as smoke. Smoke resists definition. It can be dirty, as in Blake’s poem ‘London’ (‘Every black’ning Church appals’) or at the beginning of ‘Paradise Lost’ (‘a pitchy cloud of locusts’); or it can be cleansing, for example when fumigating a building. It can be a tool, to give food flavour and longevity, or to stupefy bees; or it can be a silent killer in a house fire, more dangerous than the fire itself. Smoke can also be holy, as in the veils of smoke and incense that surround God in the Old Testament. Steven Connor speaks of the God encountered in the Old Testament as ‘a smoky God … His ineffability and unapproachability are signified in the cloud of smoke’ that descends on Mount Sinai, and notes the duality I just mentioned, stating that ‘Smoke can be life, spirit, meaning itself; but it is also horror, filth, chaos’(2).  It seems natural, then, that we can find smoke both comforting (smokers may enjoy the smell of cigarette smoke, church-goers the spicy smell and ritual of the thurible) and disturbing: something that causes us to cough or wheeze, or which, over time, permanently compromises our ability to sing, speak or breathe (3).

Nelson’s Column during The Great
Smog, 1952.  Image taken from
geograph.org.uk via Wikipedia

This last is our most pressing concern when we consider smoke discharged directly into the air, whether it is via an exhaust pipe or a chimney (what Connor calls ‘the sewer into the sky’). These ideas are also bound up in historical approaches to breathlessness, respiratory diseases and conditions, and their relationship with smoke and air pollution (4).  A member of the project advisory board, Mark Jackson, notes that, before chronic or seasonal respiratory conditions such as asthma were properly understood, patients were given conflicting advice. Those suffering from hay fever or ‘summer sneezing’ were often told to treat their condition with ‘fresh air’, visiting the coast to inhale the supposedly clean sea breezes (5).  Elsewhere, Jackson tells us that during the Industrial Revolution, asthma sufferers might be given the opposite advice and told to breathe sooty air for its supposedly antibacterial properties (6).  Both Connor and Jackson write about the Great Smog of 1952, which killed several thousand people in the capital through exacerbating or inducing respiratory and cardiac disease. Here we might note another pair (the heart and the lungs) that cannot be easily separated, as we discussed at the first meeting of the core project team (see ‘Taking a deep breath’). Jackson notes that the link between pollution and disease was already well established before the Great Smog, and before the 1956 Clean Air Act it led to (7).  He states that the Act focused on ‘visible’ pollution, specifically prohibiting the emission of ‘dark smoke’, but paid less attention to invisible pollutants such as sulphur oxides and carbon monoxide.

As well as ignoring or dismissing pollutants that we cannot see, perhaps it is a natural human response to look on the vastness of the sky or the ocean, and assume that their sheer size dwarfs anything discharged into those spaces, rendering it dilute and harmless. As suggested by the invisible poisonous gases wafting stealthily around our towns and cities (or, indeed, our supposedly clean countryside and coastline), very often we are oblivious to that which threatens us. However, complacency offers us no protection from the consequences of air pollution, particularly for respiratory health. For example, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is now the fourth most-common cause of death worldwide, but there is no comprehensive history of breathlessness in a clinical context, a lacuna that the Life of Breath project aims to fill. The project will also attempt to situate breathing and breathlessness in their proper context via an interdisciplinary approach that draws on patient experience and clinical practice, as well as other relevant disciplines, such as medical humanities, history, philosophy, literature and anthropology, using each area to inform the others.

The funeral sentences in the Book of Common Prayer include the line ‘in the midst of life we are in death’. They go on, ‘Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts’. As the Life of Breath project indicates, our lungs have secrets, too.


  1. The phrase media vita in morte sumus is sometimes attributed to Notker I, also known as Notker the Stammerer, a Benedictine monk and poet. He is supposed to have coined it after observing a half-built bridge stretching shakily out over a chasm.
  2. Steven Connor, ‘Smog’, a talk broadcast on Nightwaves (Radio 3), 2nd December 2002, to mark fifty years since London’s Great Smog.
  3. See Steven Connor’s essay ‘Whisper Music’ for his (and Aristotle’s) comments on coughing.
  4. Steven Connor, ‘Unholy Smoke’, a talk given at Trailing Smoke, Art Workers Guild, London, 12 November 2008, accompanying the exhibition Smoke.
  5. See Mark Jackson, Allergy: The history of a modern malady (London: Reaktion).
  6. Mark Jackson (2004), ‘Cleansing the air and promoting health: the politics of pollution in post-war Britain’, in Medicine, the Market and Mass Media: Producing Health in the Twentieth Century, eds. Virginia Berridge and Kelly Loughlin (London: Routledge).
  7. Jackson, ‘The politics of pollution’.

This blog is written by Jess Farr-Cox in the School of Arts at the University of Bristol, Research Secretary on the Life of Breath project.

A full description of the scope of research, including all the different research strands, can be found on the About the project page of the project website.

Do people respond to air pollution forecasts?

In 2010, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published a report on air quality in which they concluded that “poor air quality probably causes more mortality and morbidity than passive smoking, road traffic accidents or obesity”. Concerned that the Government was still not giving air quality a high enough priority, the Committee published another report in 2011. To date, the Committee’s main recommendations have not been implemented. Amidst new evidence on the negative effects of air pollution on health and a court case that found the UK Government guilty of failing to meet EU air quality targets, the Committee published a third report on air quality last week.

One of the Committee’s recommendations is that the Government works more closely with the Met Office, the BBC and other broadcasters to ensure that forecasts of high air pollution episodes are disseminated widely together with advice on what action should be taken. The Committee’s rationale is that information about air pollution allows individuals to take action that reduces exposure. However, avoidance behaviour, such as staying indoors, imposes a cost on individuals that might exceed the perceived gains.

A BBC weather forecast for Bristol showing the commonly
encountered “green” air pollution forecast.

In a paper published this month in the Journal of Health Economics (Link with free access until 22 January 2015) I investigate responses to air pollution warnings in England. I obtained data on the air pollution forecasts issued by Defra from 2002 to 2008. During this period the daily air pollution forecast was freely available via the internet, a Freephone telephone service, Teletext and with the weather forecast on the BBC website. The forecast was disseminated using traffic light colour-coding, with green indicating low levels of air pollution, amber moderate and red high levels. “Red” forecasts were extremely rare (3% of forecasts) and “green” forecasts very common (70% of forecasts), so a change from “green” to “amber” (27% of forecasts) was akin to an air pollution warning. Hence, I define an “amber” or “red” forecast as an air pollution warning.

Air pollution warnings and hospital emergency admissions

First, I looked at indirect evidence of avoidance behaviour by estimating the relationship between air pollution warnings and hospital emergency admissions for respiratory diseases in children aged 5 to 19 years. I controlled for actual air pollution levels and therefore essentially compared days with a certain level of air pollution for which an air pollution warning was issued with days with the same level of air pollution for which no air pollution warning was issued. If parents and children do respond to air pollution warnings by reducing their exposure or taking other preventive measures, we expect fewer emergency hospital admissions on days for which an air pollution warning was issued compared to days with the same level of air pollution but no warning.

Looking at all respiratory admissions I found no effect. Looking at a subset of respiratory admissions – admissions for acute respiratory infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis – I also found no effect. Only when I examined another subset of respiratory admissions, namely admissions for asthma, did I find that air pollution warnings reduce hospital emergency admissions, by about 8%.

Presumably, it is less costly for asthmatics to respond to an air pollution warning. Standard advice for asthmatics is to adjust the dose of their reliever medicine and to make sure they carry their inhaler with them. Other types of respiratory disease require far more disruptive preventive measures such as staying indoors, making the cost of responding to air pollution warnings larger than the perceived gains.

Direct evidence of avoidance behaviour: visitors to Bristol Zoo

To find direct evidence of avoidance behaviour, I examined daily visitor counts to Bristol Zoo Gardens. Zoos are attractive destinations for families with children. Even with some animal houses under cover, most people will consider a zoo visit to be an outdoor activity and therefore susceptible individuals might adjust their plans to the air pollution forecast.  I found that lower temperature, more rain and higher wind speed reduced visitor numbers but found no effect of air pollution warnings on visitor numbers. Only when I looked at members – visitors who have an annual membership that entitles them to unlimited visits for a year – did I find that air pollution warnings reduce visits by about 6%. For members it is less costly to respond to air pollution warnings as they tend to be local residents who can just drop in for a quick visit. Thus, the perceived gains from postponing a visit are more likely to exceed the cost of postponing than for day visitors.

This graph shows monthly means of visitors to Bristol Zoo Gardens, daily maximum temperature and monthly total of air pollution warnings. Day visitors (grey bars) are far more responsive to temperature (yellow line) than to air pollution warnings (purple bars). Members’ visits (green bars) seem to be fewer in months with more air pollution warnings (purple bars).

Overall, my results show that whether individuals respond to air quality information depends on the costs and benefits of doing so: where costs are low and the benefits clear, responses are higher. This finding suggests, that wider dissemination of high air pollution forecasts as recommended by the Commons Environmental Audit Committee may not bring about the desired prevention of adverse health effects from air pollution. The Committee’s other recommendations aimed at lowering air pollution levels are more likely to succeed in preventing ill health.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Katharina Janke, Research Associate in Applied Microeconomics and Health Economics at the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at the University of Bristol.
Katharina Janke

Fostering interdisciplinarity in sustainable development

On 15 October 2014, we had a fascinating talk from Prof. Wendy Gibson from the University of Bristol’s School of Biological Sciences launching the University’s ‘Sustainable Development and Poverty Reduction: Capacity Building in the face of Environmental Uncertainty’ network.

The Cabot Institute is supporting a number of ventures to foster an interdisciplinary network of academics across the University, whose work can be included under the broad ‘development studies’/’international development’ umbrella, due to its direct or indirect impact on sustainable development and poverty reduction in the Global South.

Uniquely, at Bristol, this includes academics working in the social sciences, but also in Physical Geography, Earth Sciences, Public Health, Engineering, Biological and Veterinary Sciences, to name but a few.  This ‘International Development Discussion Forum’ will have a regular monthly slot and it is therefore hoped that participants will come regularly, not because they may be specialists in the topic of that month’s presentation, but in order to hear the kinds of questions that parasitologists, or engineers, or lawyers, for example, raise for development research; questions that they can, in turn, contribute to from their own discipline.

Coping with parasitic diseases in Africa


Trypanosomes in human blood.
Credit: University of Bristol

The topic of Wendy’s talk was the extensive research she has undertaken as a parasitologist on the tsetse fly as a vector for trypanosomes, parasites which cause African sleeping sickness, or HAT – Human African Trypanosomiasis.  In light of the global media coverage of the Ebola outbreak, Wendy’s measured reminder about the ongoing impact of a lower profile disease such as HAT, on people and animals in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa, was sobering.  Not only does the disease have a devastating impact on affected communities, but diagnosis and the treatment of the disease are extremely unpleasant and involve protracted intervention.  In situations in which people are coping with a range of daily hardships that impact upon their livelihoods, including drought, poor forage and a range of different diseases affecting human and animal populations, disease-focused approaches often fail to recognise this reality.

Interdisciplinary challenges in rural healthcare

After the talk, participants were asked to focus on three specific challenges identified by Wendy:

  1. How to maintain momentum in control programs as we move towards disease eradication.
  2. How to prioritise disease risks with a finite health budget.
  3. How to get different government departments to co-operate on shared goals.

Given that the subject clearly raised so many issues relating to the challenges of public health care in sub-Saharan Africa – including issues relating to rural (as opposed to urban) poverty, governance and the state, aid and non-governmental organisations – discussions were wide-ranging.  Rather than proffering standard academic critique of the material presented, participants were asked to focus on what they, positioned as they are within their own discipline, could bring to the table.  Consequently, it was fascinating how different tables touched upon similar issues but nevertheless raised specific insights depending on the differing make-up of the tables and the expertise included on them.

Specific challenges identified included:

  •  ongoing problems with top-down interventions,
  • the forging of rural (and regional) networks,
  • the difficulties in specifying the costs of such a disease,
  • raising the profile of a such a low-profile disease when its symptoms may take some years to become manifest, and
  • the difficulties of co-ordinating NGOs, aid, and governments in relation to healthcare priorities, particularly when healthcare demands are seen to ‘compete’ with each other.

And discussions continued into the networking drinks as participants identified a number of practical and funding obstacles in undertaking the kind of real interdisciplinary research that could be of such value in responding to some of the challenges relating to a disease such as African sleeping sickness.

Quotes from participants

“I knew that some of my research might be usefully applied in developing countries, but the complex challenges and the feeling that I lack a track record in ‘development research’ put me off. Through the forum I am learning about that world, and it has been a real eye-opener. I had no idea that so much was going on across the University in this area, nor that my naivety would be treated so generously in the friendly and open discussions that we’ve had so far.”
Dr. Eric Morgan, Veterinary Parasitology and Ecology

“As a scientist I want my work to be “useful”. However, translating knowledge into effective and successful, practical outcomes takes more than just generation of that scientific knowledge. This is being increasingly recognised by funders, many of whom now have a focus on interdisciplinarity, particularly for delivering outcomes that can make a difference to people living in developing countries (e.g. the Newton Fund, but also some Research Council funding calls).  While the topic of this workshop was not within my scientific field, it was fascinating, and gave me insight into the realities and difficulties of implementing change that really does require the bringing together of many different aspects of knowledge.  I met some colleagues that would be great to collaborate with in the future in order to better deliver effective outcomes.”

Dr. Jo House, Geographical Sciences

Future discussion

On 11 November 2014, the Cabot Institute will be supporting the next discussion forum in this series in which Prof. Thorsten Wagener will be giving a talk on his ongoing work in the field of sustainable water management.  His research focuses on a systems approach, which he argues is needed to adequately understand this dynamic physical and socio-economic system with the goal to provide water security for people and nature.

This blog has been written by Dr Elizabeth Fortin, Cabot Institute, University of Bristol Law School.