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.

Disabled people and climate change

A couple of weeks ago, I was approached by a journalist working for BBC Ouch, the disability branch of BBC News.  They had my name on file because of a piece I proposed to write for them last year, concerning how it is possible to be a climate scientist/activist and, at the same time, to be severely physically disabled – not something most people put together.  Given that, possibly uniquely, I am very much both of these things, I thought this would be a fairly novel and (I hoped) positive and uplifting piece. Unfortunately, they disagreed, and it never got published.  However, they clearly kept my name on file, and approached me several weeks ago asking me to answer some questions, all revolving around the impact of anthropogenic climate change on disabled people.  With some hesitancy, which I will explain below, I answered these questions, and the story came out last week; it was entitled “Climate change: Why are disabled people so affected by the climate crisis?”.

Before there is any misunderstanding, I have absolutely no problem with this piece; they did not misquote me, or misinterpret what I wrote. However, unfortunately they completely missed (or possibly deliberately ignored) the main thrust of what I wrote and, as I suspected, my main argument clearly didn’t go down well.  This is because of the main agenda of the piece which, as is clear from even the title, is very much along the lines of “Whatever is going on in the world, it is worse for disabled people”.  This is probably the antithesis of my own personal agenda, and therefore what I wrote simply did not fit.  However, in response, it was suggested I write a blog post here, not to criticise the BBC article but simply to make my own argument, in my own words.

As I said, I approached the questions with more than a little hesitancy, because I am very much not a disabled activist and have never really let my physical issues be a big deal.  Let there be no misunderstanding – I care very much about the issues of disabled people, but the subject does not dominate my existence and I strongly object to the (surprisingly common) attitude that it somehow should.  How racist would it be to show raised eyebrows when learning that a person of colour was not attending a Black Lives Matter protest, implying somehow that they should?  But I have received the equivalent reaction many times.  With that in mind, I was hesitant to answer the journalist’s questions, all the more so because it became immediately obvious that the agenda was the one described above i.e. it was focusing purely on how badly off all disabled people are, and that anthropogenic climate change is just another example of this. Of course, it is very true that many disabled people are indeed suffering greatly, for a number of reasons; but that is not true for everybody, and in my opinion is not a generalisation that should be made.

Moreover, as I explained to the journalist, what I wrote for them was not based on any in-depth scientific evidence or research.  What I wrote, and indeed what I now write below, was and is therefore only be treated as personal opinion and some conjecture on my behalf. Likewise, I cannot possibly speak for all disabled people, because the needs and challenges of someone who is visually impaired are completely different to those of someone who is hearing impaired, or in a wheelchair.  Moreover, as a caveat, most of my comments below relate to those people with a physical disability, as I have little experience with people with a learning or emotional disability.  Clearly, if somebody does not have the capacity to do everyday tasks, no-one would say they should be doing more to tackle anthropogenic climate change. This is why, in general, I do not like the word ‘disability’, because it is incredibly broad and covers an enormous range of issues.  Unfortunately, being disabled does not give me a magic clairvoyance to understand other disabled people!  I can, of course, sympathise and empathise, and I can hypothesise over the possible challenges, but with only as much authority as any other member of the public. Sadly, I don’t have any special insight.

Therefore, although I answered the questions to the best of my ability, the main thrust of my argument was different to what they clearly wanted. In short, I argued that firstly everybody (not just disabled people) is going to be impacted by anthropogenic climate change, and secondly that the  economically vulnerable will be disproportionately hardest hit.  Given that, for a variety of reasons, disabled people are often amongst the most economically vulnerable, this is why they will be amongst the hardest-hit.  So my argument is that disabled people will not necessarily be hardest-hit because of their disability (although there are some examples, discussed below), but rather because of their economic status; which is exactly the same for many other people, disabled or not, in the same economically vulnerable group. 

To elaborate, my argument is that everybody is going to be hard hit by anthropogenic climate change, in many different ways, but that probably the most important thing concerning how hard an individual feels the impacts of climate change is their financial situation.  This is the case at both the international level (e.g. developing countries will be harder hit than developed ones, simply because the latter can afford to adapt to the impacts), and the individual level.  In other words, those individuals that are financially stable and secure will be much better placed to adapt to the impacts of anthropogenic climate change, and will therefore be relatively less hard-hit. Unfortunately, it is often the case that disabled people are not in this financially secure position.  This may be because of a number of reasons, such as either being unable to work because of their disability or being unable to find a job because of rampant (but well-disguised) discrimination. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), during the year October-December 2020, 53.6% of the 8.4 million disabled people of working age in the UK were in employment, compared to 81.7% of those who are not disabled1.  Likewise, the unemployment rate for disabled people was 8.4% during that period, compared to 4.6% for non-disabled people1.  So more or less twice as high.  As a result, during the same period 42.9% of disabled people were considered to be economically inactive, compared to only 14.9% of non-disabled people1This may be because of a lack of education; again according to the ONS, the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people with no qualifications is 41%, but this decreases as the level of education increases (it is only 15% for those with a degree or equivalent)1.  So I would argue that it is a multifactorial process; with possibly a lack of education, resulting in a lack of employment, resulting in a lack of financial security, being the main reason why disabled people will be amongst the hardest-hit. 

After the question “Why are disabled people hardest-hit?”, I was then asked how and in what ways, and what might happen in the future.  To quote some recent research, disabled people will be hit in the same way as anybody else, but simply harder2This I don’t dispute.  The example given in that particular piece of research is that of a hurricane, where a disabled person might need more social and medical support that someone without disabilities2We know that anthropogenic climate change has already increased the intensity of observed precipitation, winds and sea level changes associated with tropical cyclones3, and this is only likely to continue into the future.  Another example, perhaps more relevant to the UK, is severe flooding.  We have recently seen on the news, across Europe and in the UK, many images of houses and even entire streets being inundated due to extreme rainfall events causing flash flooding, and this is going to impact disabled people more than others in very physical ways; as a wheelchair user, I for example would not be able to get into a rubber dinghy to be evacuated.  There are many other examples of where there may be other, very severe complications for disabled people.  For example, disabled people may well have lots of equipment in their homes which, if the home was to be flooded, might be badly damaged; this is not just everyday equipment such as TVs, but rather some of this equipment might be critically needed for survival, such as ventilators or oxygen concentrators. Another  example, which is discussed in detail in the BBC article and was also highlighted by the other expert they interviewed, is extreme weather
events, either heatwaves or cold snaps. 
Again, this is a generalisation, but many disabled people are more sensitive to extremely hot weather, which can often exacerbate existing conditions4.  The only way to avoid problems with our rising temperatures would be to install air conditioning units, which are expensive and again brings us back to the financial security argument.  The same is true for cold weather, with many disabled people suffering greatly during very severe cold spells, again due to existing conditions (e.g. joint pain) being exacerbated.  Again, the only way to avoid problems here is to increase the level of heating, which again has financial implications.  We know that, as well as a general rise in temperatures, in the UK we are going to see an increase in extreme weather events, both hot and cold, and therefore the above problems are only likely to get worse5.

Finally, after the what, why and how, I was asked what needs to happen and whether I believe disabled people should be more involved in the fight against anthropogenic climate change.  As I explained to the journalist, I need to be a bit careful in answering these questions, because I see my role as a Climate Scientist as not to be preachy and tell people what they SHOULD be doing, but rather to be scientific and tell people what they COULD be doing.  It is then up to the individual to decide whether or not to take any action. Some Climate Scientists do not agree with this attitude, arguing that we should be preaching the good message, and I respect this way of thinking.  But I do not share it.

With that in mind, although I believe everybody can take some personal responsibility for tackling anthropogenic climate change, ultimately the problem is only going to be solved at the international level.  This of course means governmental action, working together globally across multiple countries and continents.  Governmental action is starting to happen, with the first concrete pledges coming from the Paris Agreement in 2015 and, at the time of writing, COP26 being in full-swing in Glasgow; so far signs are positive with, for example, a pledge to end all deforestation by 2030.  But it needs to go further.  More extensive governmental action is only going to happen if there is enough public pressure from the people that elect those governments.  As individuals, I believe that the best thing we can do to help this is simply to
talk about it; to understand it, to bring it into our everyday lives and conversations, and to get involved in lobbying both local businesses and (possibly more remote) government institutions. To use the dietary argument (discussed below), supermarkets are only going to keep stocking meat and fish as long as there is a public demand for it.  Banks and businesses are only going to invest in fossil fuel companies whilst they have customers; if their customers go elsewhere, to more environmentally-friendly competitors, things will change.

To answer the question over whether I believe disabled people should be more involved in the fight against anthropogenic climate change: I don’t just believe disabled people need to be more involved, I believe EVERYBODY needs to be more involved!  I believe that everybody can do something, if the motivation is there.  I completely appreciate that disabled people often have lots of much more pressing matters, and these should absolutely not be trivialised. Many disabled people might well argue that they cannot possibly worry about anthropogenic climate change given their own challenges and issues, and for them that might be true.  But it is not a universal law.  That being said, I do accept that when it comes to policy and structural reform, there is a danger that minority groups such as the disabled are ignored or (more likely) simply forgotten about; the case of plastic straws, mentioned in the BBC article, is a classic example of where this happened. The only way to avoid this is for disabled people to be more involved in the decision-making process from the beginning, not included as an afterthought.

So what can individuals, including disabled people, do on a personal level to tackle anthropogenic climate change?  The standard list of things to do is fairly well publicised these days, but given that this piece is about disabled people I will frame some of the answers within that context.  I will also give some examples of what I do on a personal basis but, to stress what I said above, I am not arguing that anybody SHOULD do these things. 

Firstly, people can cut down on transport, and in particular flying and the use of cars.  Concerning disabled people, and in particular wheelchair users, air travel is and has always been extremely challenging anyway, so may not be much of an issue. But it is certainly something to think about.  For myself, I am lucky enough that I am able to use air travel (although it is far from easy), and historically have flown all over the world for both work and pleasure. These days I am acutely aware of the hypocrisy of this, and have therefore cut down massively; I will never again take any domestic flight, and will allow myself international air travel very infrequently and only when absolutely necessary.  On these occasions, I will attempt to offset my carbon emissions by donating to one of the many green projects and programmes that are now available; this, of course, requires some level of financial security, which I am blessed enough to have.   In terms of cutting down the use of cars, this is probably going to be one of the biggest problems for many disabled people (certainly myself) because public transport is generally very inaccessible.  Things have improved over the years but nowhere near enough, especially for example in the London Underground.  Therefore my car is the only option.  Many disabled people with cars, including myself, use the Motability scheme6, and whilst this is generally brilliant, there are currently no electric or hybrid wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) available using the scheme.  Even if an electric or hybrid WAV was available, it would undoubtedly be very expensive, which brings us back to the financial security argument again. Likewise, the advice of leaving your car at home and cycling to work is probably not very useful to many disabled people!

Secondly, people can make changes around their home, such as improving insulation, installing solar panels, or switching to an environmentally-friendly carbon-neutral energy company.  Again, it is often not so much the disability that is stopping people from doing any of these, but rather the cost.  All of these things are expensive, some (such as installing solar panels) more than others. Given that, as discussed above, disabled people are often in the economically vulnerable category, these may not be viable, but if they can be afforded then they could be considered. For myself, I live in a ground-floor apartment by the river (therefore potentially vulnerable to flooding!), with my block externally managed by an agent, and therefore have no control over things like insulation or installing solar panels.  I am, however, lucky enough to be financially comfortable, and therefore I use a more expensive but 100% carbon-neutral energy company.

Thirdly, people can make changes concerning their shopping, recycling and dietary habits.  Again, there is a financial element here, because for example buying organic food is undoubtedly more expensive, and therefore this may not be viable for those who are economically vulnerable.  Online food shopping has becoming increasingly popular, with most supermarket chains now offering deliveries, and (again conjecture) this is something many disabled people undoubtedly benefit from; the downside of this is that there is always a lot of plastic involved in whatever is delivered, whereas someone able to go to the supermarket would be able to choose loose fruit and so on.  But there are ways around this, the main supermarkets are slowly improving, and there are more independent companies now that deliver environmentally-friendly groceries and food.  So, as before, if it can be afforded, things like buying organic and cutting out plastic could be considered.  For myself, I use an independent company that delivers local, organic, sustainable and environmentally-friendly groceries, delivered either in compostable bags or brown paper bags; undoubtedly, this is more expensive, but I am fortunate enough to be able to meet this cost.  Likewise, when it comes to recycling, this is something that everybody can do, regardless of being disabled or not.  If a person is able to throw something in the bin, they are able to put it in the recycling bin (where appropriate).  If they are not able to throw something away themselves, because of a disability, then it is hopeful that they have someone to do it for them, be that a friend, family member or official carer.  That person can therefore use the recycling bin.  Personally, I recycle absolutely everything, and have a composter in my small garden for anything that can go in it. 

Finally, and probably the most controversial one in this category: changing dietary habits.  I am not going to argue that everybody should be vegetarian or vegan; especially for many disabled people, who have very specific diets and would not be able to cut out the protein and vitamins included in meat, fish and dairy, this would not be possible.  Physical health and how it relates to diet should be one of the more important priorities for any individual, disabled or not, therefore there should be no blanket advice.  However, if an individual (disabled or not) is able to reduce their meat consumption, especially red meat such as beef and lamb, even if only two or three days a week, then that is something that could be considered.  In the UK, only a 20% reduction of meat consumption, as well as a 20% reduction in agricultural land being taken out of meat production, is needed to reach our CO2 net zero target by 20507; based on a working week, this is only one meat-free day per week.  For me, I used to be an ardent meat eater, not because of disability issues but because I enjoyed it; however, over the last 10 years or so, I have been cutting down dramatically and, as of last year, I am now almost completely vegetarian and, many days of the week, vegan. 

Lastly, as discussed above, probably the most important thing that everybody can do, disabled or otherwise, is to simply talk about anthropogenic climate change and get involved in tackling it in some, even little, way.  I am not arguing that everybody needs to be an expert or even have a deep understanding of the subject, but even a mild interest is a step in the right direction.  For everybody able to, getting involved, even in a small way, is something that can be done by all, including disabled people.  It does not have to involve going on marches, blocking motorways or gluing oneself to railings, which many disabled people (including myself) would not be able to do physically.  But it can involve talking to people (such as friends and family members), talking about it on social media, and joining climate-related groups; the latter, in particular, has become easier since the COVID pandemic, with virtual meetings now commonplace, something which is much easier for many disabled people if they struggle to leave their home.

To end this post with some positivity, and indeed the way I ended what I wrote for the journalist, I believe there are many good reasons to be hopeful when it comes to tackling anthropogenic climate change, whoever the individual is and whether or not they have a disability.  The ways of doing what needs to be done are well understood, and the science is clear on how to do things like Carbon Capture and Storage or how to reduce our carbon footprint on an individual level.  The problem, and the concern, is the apparent lack of motivation and willpower to do these things, both at the individual and political level.  Unfortunately many of the above things that individuals can do will involve a loss of some sort (be it financial, social or personal lifestyle changes) and many people, such as those with disabilities, may not be able to manage that loss. Only time will tell if these attitudes will change; there has certainly been a dramatic shift in the last ten years, but this needs to continue.  At the political level, meetings such as COP26 will be vitally important, but again only time will tell if these result in actual action or just more discussion. 


1Powell, A. (2021).  ‘Disabled people in employment’.  House of Commons Library,
UK Parliament.  https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/CBP-7540/CBP-7540.pdf.  Accessed 16/10/21.

2Liebmann, D. (2021).  ‘The Intersection of Disability and Climate Change’.  Harvard Graduate School of Education.
https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/21/03/intersection-disability-and-climate-change.  Accessed 16/10/21.

3Collins M., M. Sutherland, L. Bouwer, S.-M. Cheong, T. Frölicher, H. Jacot Des Combes, M. Koll Roxy, I. Losada, K. McInnes, B. Ratter, E. Rivera-Arriaga, R.D. Susanto, D. Swingedouw, and L. Tibig (2019). ‘Extremes, Abrupt Changes and Managing Risk’. In: IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, M. Tignor, E. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Nicolai, A. Okem, J. Petzold, B. Rama, N.M. Weyer (eds.)]. https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/3/2019/11/10_SROCC_Ch06_FINAL.pdf.  Accessed 16/10/21.

4Harrington, S.  (2019).  ‘How Extreme Weather Threatens People with Disabilities’.  Scientific American.
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-extreme-weather-threatens-people-with-disabilities/.  Accessed 16/10/21.

5UK Met Office (2021).  ‘Effects of climate change’.
Accessed 16/10/21.

6https://www.motability.co.uk/.  Accessed 16/10/21.

7The Lancet Planetary Health (2019).  ‘More than a diet’.  https://www.thelancet.co


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment member Dr Charlie JR Williams BA DPhil FRGS, Climate Scientist and Research Fellow in the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol as part of our COP26 blog series. You can follow Charlie on Twitter at @charliejrwill.

Dr Charlie Williams



Learning lessons from the past to inform the future

A fairly recent blog post on the EGU blog site reiterated the compelling comparison between the current COVID-19 crisis and the ongoing climate emergency, focusing on extreme events such as hurricanes, heatwaves and severe rainfall-related flooding, all of which are likely to get worse as the climate warms (Langendijk & Osman 2020).  This comparison has been made by us Climate Scientists since the COVID-19 crisis began; both the virus and the disastrous impacts of anthropogenic climate change were (and indeed are) predictable but little was done in the ways of preparedness, both were (and are still being) underestimated by those in power despite warnings from science, and both are global in extent and therefore require united action.  Another comparison is that both are being intensively, and urgently, researched across the world by many centres of excellence.  We don’t have all the answers yet for either, but progress is being made on both.

When it comes to understanding our climate, there are several approaches; these are, of course, not mutually exclusive.  We can focus on present-day climate variability, to understand the physical mechanisms behind our current climate; examples include, but are not limited to, ocean-atmosphere interactions, land-atmosphere feedbacks, or extreme events (see Williams et al. 2008, Williams & Kniveton 2012 or Williams et al. 2012, as well as work from many others).

Alternatively, we can use our current understanding of the physical mechanisms driving current climate to make projections of the future, either globally or regionally.  State-of-the-art General Circulation Models (GCMs) can provide projections of future climate under various scenarios of socio-economic development, including but not limited to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Williams 2017).

A third approach is to focus on climates during the deep (i.e. geological) past, using tools to determine past climate such as ice cores, tree rings and carbon dating.  Unlike the historical period, which usually includes the past in which there are human observations or documents, the deep past usually refers to the prehistoric era and includes timescales ranging from thousands of years ago (ka) to millions of years ago (Ma).  Understanding past climate changes and mechanisms is highly important in improving our projections of possible future climate change (e.g. Haywood et al. 2016, Otto-Bliesner et al. 2017, Kageyama et al. 2018, and many others).

One reason for looking at the deep past is that it provides an opportunity to use our GCMs to simulate climate scenarios very different to today, and compare these to scenarios based on past.

These days I am primarily focusing on the latter approach, and am involved in almost all of the palaeoclimate scenarios coming out of UK’s physical climate model, called HadGEM3-GC3.1.  These focus on different times in the past, such as the mid-Holocene (MH, ~6 ka), the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM, ~26.5 ka), the Last Interglacial (LIG, ~127 ka), the mid-Pliocene Warm Period (Pliocene, ~3.3 Ma) and the Early Eocene Climate Optimum / Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (EECO / PETM, collectively referred to here as the Eocene, ~50-55 Ma).  All of these have been (or are being) conducted under the auspices of the 6th phase of the Coupled Modelling Intercomparison Project (CMIP6) and 4th phase of the Palaeoclimate Modelling Intercomparison Project (PMIP4).

Figure 1: Calendar adjusted 1.5 m air temperature climatology differences, mid-Holocene and last interglacial simulations from the UK’s physical climate model, relative to the preindustrial era: a-c) mid Holocene – preindustrial; d-f) last interglacial – preindustrial. Top row: Annual; Middle row: Northern Hemisphere summer (June-August); Bottom row: Northern Hemisphere winter (December-February). Stippling shows statistical significance (as calculated by a Student’s T-test) at the 99% level. Taken from Williams et al. (2020).

These five periods are of particular interest to the above projects for a number of different reasons.  Before these are discussed, however, the fundamentals of deep past climate change need to be briefly introduced.  In short, climate changes in the geological past (i.e. without human influence) can either be internal to the planet (e.g. volcanic eruptions, oceanic CO2 release) or external to the planet (e.g. changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun). Arguably, it is changes to the amount of incoming solar radiation (known as insolation) that is the primary driver behind all long-term climate change. Theories for long-term climate change, such as the beginning and ending of ice ages, began to be proposed during the 1800s. However, it wasn’t until 1913 that the Serbian mathematician, Milutin Milankovitch, developed our modern day understanding of glacial cycles. In short, Milankovitch identified three interacting cycles concerning the Earth’s position relative to the Sun: a) Eccentricity, in which the Earth’s orbit around the Sun changes from being more or less circular on a period of 100-400 ka; b) Obliquity, in which the Earth’s axis changes from being more or less tilted towards the Sun on a period of ~41 ka; and c) Precession, in which the Earth’s polar regions appear to ‘wobble’ around the axis (like a spinning top coming to its end) on a period of ~19-24 ka. All of these three cycles not only change the overall amount of insolation received by the planet, and therefore its average temperature, but also where the most energy is received; this ultimately determines the strength and timing of our seasons.

With this background in mind, and returning to the paleoclimate scenarios mentioned above, the MH and the LIG collectively represent a ‘warm climate’ state.   During these periods the Earth’s axis was tilted slightly more towards the Sun, resulting in an increase in Northern Hemisphere insolation (because of the larger landmasses here relative to the Southern Hemisphere).  This caused much warmer Northern Hemisphere summers and enhanced African, Asian and South American monsoons (Kageyama et al. 2018).  The increase in temperatures can be seen in Figure 1, where clearly the largest increases relative to the preindustrial era (PI) are in the Northern Hemisphere during June-August (Williams et al. 2020).  By comparing model simulations to palaeoclimate reconstructions during these periods, the models’ ability to simulate these climates can be tested and this therefore assesses our confidence in future projections of climate change; which, as mentioned above, may result in more rainfall extremes and enhanced monsoons.

In contrast, the LGM represents a ‘cold climate’ state which, although unlikely to return as a result of increasing anthropogenic GHG emissions, nevertheless provides a well-documented climatic period during which to test the models.  Going back further in time, the Pliocene is the most recent time in the geological past when CO2 levels were roughly equivalent to today, and was a time when global annual mean temperatures were 1.8-3.6°C higher than today (Haywood et al. 2016).  See Figure 2 for the increases in sea surface temperature (SST) during the Pliocene, relative to today.  This annual mean temperature increase is clearly much higher than the current target, as specified by the Paris Agreement, of keeping warming below 1.5°C (at most 2°C) by the end of 2100.  Importantly, the CO2 increases and subsequent warming during the Pliocene occurred over timescales of thousands to millions of years, whereas anthropogenic GHG emissions have caused a similar increase in CO2 (from ~280 parts per million (ppmv) during the PI to just over 400 ppmv today) in under 300 years.  The Pliocene, therefore, provides an excellent analogy for what our climate might be like in the (possibly near) future.

Finally, going back even further, the Eocene is the most recent time in the past that was characterised by very high CO2 concentrations, twice or more than that of today at >800-1000 ppmv; this resulted in temperatures ~5°C higher than today in the tropics and ~20°C higher than today at high latitudes (Lunt et al. 2012, Lunt et al. 2017).  The reason the Eocene is highly relevant, and of concern, is that these CO2 concentrations are roughly equivalent to those projected to occur by the end of 2100, if the Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5 scenario, also known as the ‘Business-as-usual’ scenario, which was used in the most recent IPCC report (IPCC 2014), becomes reality.  The Eocene, therefore, provides an excellent albeit concerning analogy for what the worse-case scenario could be like in the future, if action is not taken.

Figure 2: 1.5 m air temperature climatology differences, Pliocene simulation from the UK’s physical climate model, relative to the preindustrial era.

Understanding the climate, how it has changed in the past and how it might change in the future is a complex task and subject to various interrelated approaches.  One of these approaches, the concept of using the past to inform the future (e.g. Braconnot et al. 2011), has been described here.  Just like in the case of COVID-19, it is our responsibility as Climate Scientists to work together across approaches and disciplines, as well as reliably communicating the science to governments, policymakers and the general public, in order to mitigate the crisis as much as possible.


Braconnot, P., Harrison, S. P., Otto-Bliesner, B, et al. (2011).  ‘The palaeoclimate modelling intercomparison project contribution to CMIP5’.  CLIVAR Exchanges Newsletter.  56: 15-19

Haywood, A. M., Dowsett, H. J., Dolan, A. M. et al. (2016).  ‘The Pliocene Model Intercomparison Project (PlioMIP) Phase 2: scientific objectives and experimental design’.  Climate of the Past.  12: 663-675

IPCC (2014).  ‘Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’ [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)].  IPCC.  Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp

Kageyama, M., Braconnot, P., Harrison, S. P. et al. (2018).  ‘The PMIP4 contribution to CMIP6 – Part 1: Overview and over-arching analysis plan’.  Geoscientific Model Development.  11: 1033-1057

Langendijk, G. S. & Osman, M. (2020).  ‘Hurricane COVID-19: What can COVID-19 tell us about tackling climate change?’.  EGU Blogs: Climate.  https://blogs.egu.eu/divisions/cl/2020/04/16/corona-2/.  Accessed 24/7/20

Lunt, D. J., Dunkley-Jones, T., Heinemann, M. et al. (2012).  ‘A model–data comparison for a multi-model ensemble of early Eocene atmosphere–ocean simulations: EoMIP’.  Climate of the Past.  8: 1717-1736

Lunt, D. J., Huber, M., Anagnostou, E. et al. (2017).  ‘The DeepMIP contribution to PMIP4: experimental design for model simulations of the EECO, PETM, and pre-PETM (version 1.0)’.  Geoscientific Model Development.  10: 889-901

Otto-Bliesner, B. L., Braconnot, P., Harrison, S. P. et al. (2017).  ‘The PMIP4 contribution to CMIP6 – Part 2: Two interglacials, scientific objective and experimental design for Holocene and Last Interglacial simulations’.  Geoscientific Model Development.  10: 3979-4003

Williams, C. J. R., Kniveton, D. R. & Layberry, R. (2008).  ‘Influence of South Atlantic sea surface temperatures on rainfall variability and extremes over southern Africa’.  Journal of Climate.  21: 6498-6520

Williams, C. J. R., Allan, R. P. & Kniveton, D. R. (2012).  ‘Diagnosing atmosphere-land feedbacks in CMIP5 climate models’.  Environmental Research Letters.  7 (4)

Williams, C. J. R. & Kniveton, D. R. (2012).  ‘Atmosphere-land surface interactions and their influence on extreme rainfall and potential abrupt climate change over southern Africa’. Climatic Change.  112 (3-4): 981-996

Williams, C. J. R. (2017).  ‘Climate change in Chile: an analysis of state-of-the-art observations, satellite-derived estimates and climate model simulations’. Journal of Earth Science & Climatic Change.  8 (5): 1-11

Williams, C. J. R., Guarino, M-V., Capron, E. (2020).  ‘CMIP6/PMIP4 simulations of the mid-Holocene and Last Interglacial using HadGEM3: comparison to the pre-industrial era, previous model versions, and proxy data’.  Climate of the Past.  Accepted


This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Dr Charles Williams, a climate scientist within the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. His research focusses on deep time to understand how climate has behaved in the warmer worlds experienced during the early Eocene and mid-Pliocene (ca. 50 – 3 Mio years ago). This blog was reposted with kind permission from Charles. View the original blog on the EGU blog site.

Dr Charles Williams