Dune: what the climate of Arrakis can tell us about the hunt for habitable exoplanets

Frank Herbert’s Dune is epic sci-fi storytelling with an environmental message at its heart. The novels and movies are set on the desert planet of Arrakis, which various characters dream of transforming into a greener world – much like some envision for Mars today.

We investigated Arrakis using a climate model, a computer program similar to those used to give weather forecasts. We found the world that Herbert had created, well before climate models even existed, was remarkably accurate – and would be habitable, if not hospitable.

However, Arrakis wasn’t always a desert. In Dune lore, 91% of the planet was once covered by oceans, until some ancient catastrophe led to its desertification. What water remained was further removed by sand trout, an invasive species brought to Arrakis. These proliferated and carried liquid into cavities deep underground, leading to the planet becoming more and more arid.

To see what a large ocean would mean for the planet’s climate and habitability, we have now used the same climate model – putting in an ocean while changing no other factors.

When most of Arrakis is flooded, we calculate that the global average temperature would be reduced by 4°C. This is mostly because oceans add moisture to the atmosphere, which leads to more snow and certain types of cloud, both of which reflect the sun’s energy back into space. But it’s also because oceans on Earth and (we assume) on Arrakis emit “halogens” that cool the planet by depleting ozone, a potent greenhouse gas which Arrakis would have significantly more of than Earth.

Map of Arrakis
The authors gathered information from the books and the Dune Encyclopedia to build their original model. Then they added an ocean with 1,000 metres average depth.
Farnsworth et al, CC BY-SA

Unsurprisingly, the ocean world is a whopping 86 times wetter, as so much water evaporates from the oceans. This means plants can grow as water is no longer a finite resource, as it is on desert Arrakis.

A wetter world would be more stable

Oceans also reduce temperature extremes, as water heats and cools more slowly than land. (This is one reason Britain, surrounded by oceans, has relatively mild winters and summers, while places far inland tend to be hotter in summer and very cold in winter). The climate of an ocean planet is therefore more stable than a desert world.

In desert Arrakis, temperatures would reach 70°C or more, while in its ocean state, we put the highest recorded temperatures at about 45°C. That means the ocean Arrakis would be liveable even in summer. Forests and arable crops could grow outside of the (still cold and snowy) poles.

There is one downside, however. Tropical regions would be buffeted by large cyclones since the huge, warm oceans would contain lots of the energy and moisture required to drive hurricanes.

The search for habitable planets

All this isn’t an entirely abstract exercise, as scientists searching for habitable “exoplanets” in distant galaxies are looking for these sorts of things too. At the moment, we can only detect such planets using huge telescopes in space to search for those that are similar to Earth in size, temperature, available energy, ability to host water, and other factors.

Scatter chart of planets comparing habitability and similarity to Earth.
Both desert and ocean Arrakis are considerably more habitable than any other planet we have discovered.
Farnsworth et al, CC BY-SA

We know that desert worlds are probably more common than Earth-like planets in the universe. Planets with potentially life-sustaining oceans will usually be found in the so-called “Goldilocks zone”: far enough from the Sun to avoid being too hot (so further away than boiling hot Venus), but close enough to avoid everything being frozen (so nearer than Jupiter’s icy moon Ganymede).

Research has found this habitable zone is particularly small for planets with large oceans. Their water is at risk of either completely freezing, therefore making the planet even colder, or of evaporating as part of a runaway greenhouse effect in which a layer of water vapour prevents heat from escaping and the planet gets hotter and hotter.

The habitable zone is therefore much larger for desert planets, since at the outer edge they will have less snow and ice cover and will absorb more of their sun’s heat, while at the inner edge there is less water vapour and so less risk of a runaway greenhouse effect.

It’s also important to note that, though distance from their local star can give a general average temperature for a planet, such an average can be misleading. For instance, both desert and ocean Arrakis have a habitable average temperature, but the day-to-day temperature extremes on the ocean planet are much more hospitable.

Currently, even the most powerful telescopes cannot sense temperatures at this detail. They also cannot see in detail how the continents are arranged on distant planets. This again could mean the averages are misleading. For instance, while the ocean Arrakis we modelled would be very habitable, most of the land is in the polar regions which are under snow year-round – so the actual amount of inhabitable land is much less.

Such considerations could be important in our own far-future, when the Earth is projected to form a supercontinent centred on the equator. That continent would make the planet far too hot for mammals and other life to survive, potentially leading to mass extinction.

If the most likely liveable planets in the universe are deserts, they may well be very extreme environments that require significant technological solutions and resources to enable life – desert worlds will probably not have an oxygen-rich atmosphere, for instance.

But that won’t stop humans from trying. For instance, Elon Musk and SpaceX have grand ambitions to create a colony on our closest desert world, Mars. But the many challenges they will face only emphasises how important our own Earth is as the cradle of civilisation – especially as ocean-rich worlds may not be as plentiful as we’d hope. If humans eventually colonise other worlds, they’re likely to have to deal with many of the same problems as the characters in Dune.The Conversation


This blog is written by Cabot Institute for the Environment members Dr Alex Farnsworth, Senior Research Associate in Meteorology, and Sebastian Steinig, Research Associate in Paleoclimate Modelling, University of Bristol; and Michael Farnsworth, Research Lead Future Electrical Machines Manufacturing Hub, University of Sheffield. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Introducing our IPCC blog series


This blog is the first part of a series from the Cabot Institute for the Environment on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent Sixth Assessment Report (IPCC AR6). This post is an introduction to the blog series, explaining what we’re aiming to do here and with a glossary of some climate change terms that come up in the later posts. Look out for links to the rest of the series this week.

What is the IPCC?

The IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Formed in 1988 by scientists concerned about the state of the global climate, they’ve been publishing assessment reports on the climate to advise policymakers and governments to act. This year they published their 6th assessment report (AR6), which has been described as their ‘starkest warning’ about the dangers of climate change. The report was built up of 3 Working Groups and over 2800 experts representing 105 countries covering different aspects, from the base science to the sociological impacts of a climate crisis. Alongside their assessment reports, the IPCC also publish special reports on key issues to explore them in more detail. These topics have included Land Use, Impact on the Ocean and Cryosphere and further clarifications on the goal of mitigating 1.5°C global warming.

The IPCC are the most trusted climate group worldwide, with their work being used in policy decisions all over the world.

What are the three Working Groups?

Each of the working groups focuses on a different part of the climate story, looking at causes, effects, and solutions.

• Working Group 1: The Physical Science Basis (WGI)

• Working Group 2: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (WGII)

• Working Group 3: Mitigation of Climate Change (WGIII)

What is this blog series covering?

The full reports are well over 1000 pages each, with many chapters, subchapters, and footnotes to wade through. As previously mentioned, the full report is split into the domains of the working groups.

Each report from the Working Groups is then filtered down into its own Summary for Policy Makers, which is still dense and features a lot of explanation of evidence. This is further broken down into the headline statements that get released to the press. Even at this level, it’s hard for ordinary members of the public to take the time to read all the evidence and digest the key points.

The aim of this campaign is to distil the key points in each Working Group report in a short, easily understood, and shareable blog as a tool for public outreach. As well as this, the campaign will feature voices from across the Cabot Institute for the Environment including IPCC authors from each of the working groups.

It’s a nearly impossible job trying to filter down the output of thousands of experts into a digestible snippet, but hopefully readers will come away more informed about the IPCC reports and the climate crisis than before.

This week, we’ll be sharing my report summaries here on the Cabot Institute for the Environment blog as well as on Twitter and LinkedIn, starting this Wednesday [27 July] on the output of Working Group I: The Physical Science basis. Keep an eye out for it!

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

Wheel of Time is set thousands of years from now, yet it’s still burdened with today’s climate change

The epic fantasy series has been turned into a tv show on Amazon.

Wheel of Time, the 14-book epic fantasy now turned into an Amazon Prime TV series, is a medieval-style adventure set in the Third Age of the World of the Wheel. While not explicit in the storyline, notes from the late author suggest that the First Age was actually modern-day Earth, which ended with a dramatic event (perhaps even climate change). From these notes, we estimate the show takes place around 18,000 years from today.

For climate scientists like us, this poses an interesting question: would today’s climate change still be experienced in the World of the Wheel, even after all those centuries?

About a quarter of carbon dioxide emitted today will remain in the atmosphere even 18,000 years from now. According to biogeochemistry models, carbon dioxide levels could be as high as 1,100 parts per million (ppm) at that point. That’s compared with a present-day value of 415ppm. This very high value assumes that the Paris climate goals will be exceeded and that many natural stores of carbon will also be released into the atmosphere (melting permafrost, for instance).

But the high carbon dioxide concentrations do not necessarily mean a warmer climate. That’s because, over such a long period, slow changes in the orbit and tilt of the planet become more important. This is known as the Milankovitch Cycle and each cycle lasts for around 100,000 years. Given that we are currently at the peak of such a cycle, the planet will naturally cool over the next 50,000 years and this is why scientists were once worried about a new ice age.

But will this be enough to offset the warming from the remaining carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? The image below shows a version of the classic warming stripes, a ubiquitous symbol of the past 150 years of climate change, but instead applied over 1 million years:

Annotated stripes
Warming stripes of Earth (and the World of the Wheel) for a million years. Today’s climate crisis will disrupt the Milankovitch cycle and its effects will last for many thousands of years.
Authors modified from Dan Lunt et al, Author provided

You can clearly see the 100,000 year Milankovitch cycles. Anything red can be considered anthropogenic climate change, and the events of the Wheel of Time are well within this period. Even the descending Milankovitch cycle won’t be enough to counteract the increased warming from carbon dioxide, and so the inhabitants of the World of the Wheel would still experience elevated temperatures from a climate crisis that occurred 18,000 years ago.

Simulating the weather of the World

However, some of the weather changes from the still-elevated temperatures could be offset by other factors. Those 18,000 years aren’t very long from a geological perspective, so in normal circumstances the landmasses would not change significantly. However, in this fantasy future magical channelers “broke” the world at the end of the Second Age, creating several new supercontinents.

To find out how the climate would work in the World of the Wheel, we used an exoplanet model. This complex computer program uses fundamental principles of physics to simulate the weather patterns on the hypothetical future planet, once we had fed in its topography based on hand-drawn maps of the world, and carbon dioxide levels of 830ppm based on one of the high potential future carbon pathways.

According to our model, the World of the Wheel would be warm all over the surface, with temperatures over land never being cold enough for snow apart from on the mountains. No chance of a white Christmas in this future. Here the story and the science diverge, as at times snow is mentioned in the Wheel of Time. The long-term effects of climate change may have surpassed the imagination of its author, the late great Robert Jordan.

An animated map with arrows
A simulation focused on where The Wheel of Time events take place, showing surface winds (white arrows).
climatearchive.org, Author provided

The World of the Wheel would have stronger and wavier high-altitude jet streams than modern-day Earth. This is likely because there are more mountain ranges in the World of the Wheel, which generate atmospheric waves called Rossby waves, causing oscillations in the jet. There is some limited evidence that the jet stream gets wavier with climate change as well, although this is likely to be less important than the mountain ranges. The jet would bring moisture from the western ocean on to land, and deposit it north of the Mountains of Dhoom. Surprising then, that this region (The Great Blight) is so desert-like in the books – perhaps there is some magic at play to explain this.

Our simulation of the World of the Wheel, showing the jet stream (red and yellow arrows), surface winds (white arrows) and cloud cover (white mist). Source: https://climatearchive.org/wot.

Winds would often revolve around two particularly enormous mountains, Dragonmount and Shayol Ghul, before blowing downslope and reaching far across the land masses. The peak of Dragonmount itself is nearly always surrounded by clouds, and this is because the mountain is so large the winds travelling up it force surface moisture to higher altitudes, thus cooling it, and forming clouds.

The fact winds would be so different from modern-day Earth is predominantly caused by topography, not the underlying increased temperatures from climate change. Nevertheless, in the World of the Wheel, it is clear that despite the extremely long time since carbon polluted the atmosphere, the inhabitants are still exposed to warmer than usual temperatures.

Acknowledging just how long the effects of climate change will persist for should be a catalyst for change. Yet, even after accepting the facts, we face psychological barriers to subsequent personal action, not least because comprehending the timescales of climate change requires a considerable degree of abstraction. But, given the known changes in extreme weather from climate change, and given how long these changes will remain, we must ask ourselves: how would the mysterious and powerful Aes Sedai stop the climate crisis?The Conversation


This blog is by Caboteers Professor Dann Mitchell, Professor of Climate Science, University of Bristol; Emily Ball, PhD Candidate, Climate Science, University of Bristol; Sebastian Steinig, Research Associate in Paleoclimate Modelling, University of Bristol; and Rebecca Áilish Atkinson, Research Fellow, Cognitive Psychology, University of Sussex.

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

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



Paul F. Hoffman visits the University of Bristol


Paul F Hoffman of Harvard

On the 24th and 25th of September, Professor Paul F Hoffman of Harvard University (USA) kindly offered to visit the University of Bristol for two days. Fresh from fieldwork in Namibia, Paul agreed to give two talks: one upon Cryogenian glaciations and another upon the interaction of climate scientists and geologists.

Snowball Earth – Image from COSMOS

Paul is perhaps most well known for his part in the development of the Snowball Earth theory, suggesting that during the Cryogenian (850 to 635 million years ago) ice covered the entire globe, from the poles to the tropics. This theory is based upon multiple strands of evidence including palaeomagnetics, sedimentology, isotopic analysis and numerical modelling. Paul succinctly summarised these ideas while also discussing some new results published in Science two years ago. The authors of this paper suggest that during the breakup of Rodinia, a proterozoic supercontinent, the eruption of the Franklin Large Igneous Province (LIP) in Canada (716Ma) may have produced a climatic state more susceptible to glaciation. Although there have been many critics of Snowball Earth, it seems Paul remains loyal to the theory.  A wine reception was held afterwards within the School of Geography and allowed for further discussion amongst staff and students.

Paul gave a second talk on 25th September to a selection of PhDs and PDRAs who attend the Climate Journal Club (see below for details). Paul chose to give a more anecdotal, but nonetheless interesting, talk on the co-evolution of climate scientists and geologists during the last 250 years. His talk focused upon the development of a theory: from indifference to hysteria, followed by rejection and then finally acceptance. I asked him where Snowball Earth stands. He replied that it was somewhere in between hysteria and rejection!

Maybe in 50 years time we will know whether Paul was right all along…

For more details, see the following references:

Hoffman, P.F., et al (1998) A neoproterozoic Snowball Earth. Science, 281, 1342
MacDonald, F.A., et al (2010) Calibrating the Crypogenian. Nature, 327, 1241

This blog was written by Gordon Inglis who runs the Climate Journal Club at the University of Bristol.

For more details on attending the Climate Journal Club (bimonthly event designed to allow PhD and PDRAs to discuss a selection of climate-themed paper), please email Gordon.Inglis@bristol.ac.uk