Let’s Talk About Saving The World

SAVIGN THE WORLD

Artwork by Laurie Avon.

Climate change is the biggest threat to existence we’ve ever faced – the added irony being that we’ve brought it upon ourselves, yet don’t seem to care enough do anything about it. This is the eternal headache for environmentalists, and while the planet is speeding towards severe climatic change, there is still discussion between scientists about how bleak a scenario we should present. Some believe that a level-headed approach that preserves absolute academic integrity is the way forward, laying out data as if facts alone will be enough to inspire change. Others’ hearts pound and guts twist every time the weather is a bit unusual, and feel that we just need to scare people into action. These approaches don’t work. We’re still failing to connect with the people we hope – and need – to.

In order to align yourself with an audience and inspire change, you have to relate to, and with, their values. However, many of the core values held by environmentalists are intrinsically at odds with many of those held by the rest of the world. Environmentalists push for a scaling-back of industry, pollution and consumption, advocating and enacting sacrifices at individual and societal levels for the sake of the bigger picture, while the global economy is driven for a quick buck. This can be deeply annoying – at times even offensive – to those on both sides. How can we bridge such divides to bring about change?

So often, science communicators fail to inspire change because we fail to see that a transfer of knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to a transfer of values – but if we want people to feel passionately about the planet, the most important and profound impact will come from precisely this transfer. The conveyance of knowledge – and I know this grates with some scientists – is actually far less important.

Occasionally, conservation scientists will try to ‘value’ nature – that is, to contextualise the environment through qualities we already feel are important. Biodiversity Hotspots are catalogues of severely threatened ecological zones that have a high density of biodiversity. Biodiversity Hotspots are a ‘realistic’ approach to spending the limited pot of money made available for conservation: a way of delivering the most ‘bang for buck’ to investors. It’s a neat way of working with the system – but it’s not changing it for the better.

The criteria that designates Biodiversity Hotspots are ‘number of species’ and ‘percentage [of] habitat lost’. Both must score highly for a region to be classed as a ‘Hotspot’. This appeals to an inherent cultural phenomenon: scarcity drives demand. There is a clear reward to saving the last polar bear, or the last fragment of rainforest, or the most endemic-rich mountain range. By doing so, we can feel we’ve achieved something extraordinary. I get that.

We crave scarcity. Collectively, we go daft for limited-editions, fixed-term bargains and one-of-a-kinds. We prize and reward the fastest, strongest, smallest, etc. We are suckers for superlatives. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this: when I am telling an audience a story of climate change, superlatives are the difference between a story and a great story. They’re the difference between some polar bears and the last polar bears. The object may not change, but how we feel about it does.

When the appeal of superlatives drive conservation, however, something underpinning the approach worries me. No matter how remarkable an ecosystem is, no matter how biodiverse and pristine, or how useful a service it provides humanity – no Biodiversity Hotspot got its title before 70 % of the original habitat had been lost. Regions must be effectively doomed to qualify.

Could we reward scarcity so much that we actually wait for – or even cause – a situation to get worse before we are moved to make it better? Does a species have to be at the edge of extinction before we take notice? And if that’s how our audience currently engages with climate change, should we resign ourselves to it, pursue extreme climate scenarios for the sake of dramatic action?

Our systems of belief and our experience of the world is shaped by the words we use to define it. I hate the term ‘Biodiversity Hotspot’ because it’s unemotive and over-complicated. Defining it is an exercise in cliché, but if you’re going to talk about it to an audience, as I do, you’re going to have to. Explaining biodiversity should not simply elucidate the word, but provide the frame through which we conduct our work, our thought, and ourselves. Imagine how differently we might view the world if we understood biodiversity as:

• All the different plants and animals.

• Number of species.

• Genetic variation.

• What makes life worth living.

• What makes living possible.

How might our values and our priorities change if our definition was taken from different places in that list? All of the above are true for me, and while I will adjust the definition I use depending on my audience, I will never give an academic definition of ‘biodiversity’ without an equally emotive description. I would rather refer to anything to do with climate change as ‘Saving The World’.

Some have corrected me on this point, reasoning that we can only ‘save the world as we know it’. If you tell someone that it’s only the fate of the word as we know it that is at stake, somewhere in the back of their mind will be a little voice saying: ‘Well, change isn’t all bad… It’d be nice if it was a bit warmer…’ All you’ve given them is a get-out clause.

‘Saving The World’ conveys something more personal. To some, ‘The World’ is Planet Earth, and all the stuff within it. But to many others, ‘The World’ is their world: their home, their family, their friends; the food they eat and the things they like to do. That’s what we must recognise and respect as we communicate the need to save the world. We don’t necessarily need to scare people into action, or bombard them with science. We can connect with each other, and move people to change, using language that is true to shared values.

 

Andy Clark is an environmental filmmaker (The Top Of The Tree). His award-winning work ‘High Water Common Ground’ presents an environmentally-holistic and community-focussed approach to flooding in the context of climate change. ‘The Carbon Farmer’ deals with peatlands and climate change, and is due to be shared with UK Parliaments later this year.

 

[This article was originally published in It’s Freezing In LA! Issue 1, August 1st 2018, and has been re-posted here with thanks to Martha Dillon and Alice Attlee, and to Laurie Avon, who’s work you can see more of on Instagram.]

 

 

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That Time I Drove A Tesla…

A few months back I had to drive from Anglesey to Edinburgh and back in a day, and I figured that was the perfect opportunity to take the Tesla Model S for a spin.

Tesla vehicles are simply incredible. Ever since their first production contract in 2005, they have been setting new precedents in our expectations of what electric cars can be; from drive experience, to speed, to torque, to acceleration, to battery life and range, to safety, and basically anything else you care to care about. There is nothing on the market currently quite like Teslas.

I picked up a Model S (Tesla’s best-selling Sedan) from Manchester Airport, courtesy of White Cars (credit where it’s due), and instantly fell in love. Everything about the car aesthetically takes your breath away, from the sleek design, double-take-worthy lack of radiator grill, suave interior, very sexy driver HUD and flipping massive touch-screen multimedia system in the middle of the dash board.

It’s weird when you accelerate in a Tesla – as the above video will attest – because you hear absolutely nothing; for a *very* short time you feel the umph of acceleration press you into your seat, and then you’ve reached the speed limit and you should probably get a hold of yourself. It’s like it doesn’t bother to tell you, it just goes right ahead and is awesome.

Range is one of those big concerns with electric cars in general. By the time I’d driven the ~140 miles from Manchester Airport to Gretna Green, the Model S was telling me that if I wanted to get to Edinburgh at any enjoyable speed I should probably top up the charge, which would take roughly 16 minutes. More importantly, from my own biological perspective, I was ready for a wee and a coffee. I pulled up at one of the free(!) Tesla Superchargers, and by the time I was back at the car it was pretty much ready to go.

There’s the ‘review’ stuff out of the way, but here’s what I really love about Tesla.

A decade or so ago, when talk about this ‘climate change’ thing was starting to pick up, and we were starting to accept that we should probably start emitting less, there was a large-scale sulky reluctance to do anything. By and large the response of *most people* was to groan, kick their feet and get skeptical, mostly because we knew that we really liked most things powered by fossil fuels, and being told that we had to cut down on the fossil fuels was immediately equated with having to give up *all* those things that make our lives enjoyable.

TopGear was just getting good for crying out loud! Clarkson, Hammond and May were accelerating the public’s interest in driving like lunatics, bigger more epic [internal combustion] engines, blowing things up, laughing at caravans and environmentalists in almost equal measure, and steering firmly into perpetuating what I’m going to coin the ’20th-century dream’.

Meanwhile the call for an alternative to fossil-fuel burning automobiles had been quietly made, and while most motor-heads turned up their noses, Elon Musk (and a few partners) cooly asked “How hard can it be?” And unlike the TopGear trio, Tesla made something that worked. Really damn well.

And with that spark of mad ambition, Tesla began setting the bar on what the future is actually going to be like. Now we’ve got real-life Tony Stark, Elon Musk actually moving out of Tesla because he’s done all he can to revolutionise the world of motor vehicles, and is taking on world-saving challenges one after another, very cooly doing what no others have the ambition (or know-how) to do.

But throughout, Teslas are this incredible mark of what’s possible, and they don’t even make it look difficult. Environmentalism is still sullied by prejudice that it’s about sacrifice, strife and challenge. We environmental communicators struggle to connect with a large audience because to many, endangered lemurs stuggle to compete – in many ways – with the thrill of supercars. But Teslas have managed to embody how saving the world should feel.

And there’s the big difference: between having to change and wanting to change.

If the world carries on business-as-usual, we will have to change or we will die.
Tesla, Musk, and others are giving us ways to want to change, and that concept is a hell of a lot more appealing.

For those who are just reluctant to change and averse to progress, I proffer an analogy.
A few decades ago something came along that demanded change, and moved people powerfully to become something new. This something looked at the establishment and said ‘No More’, and in sticking-it-to-the-man gave people a feeling to aspire to and to embody. It was about breaking free of business-as-usual, it was about becoming something new, and feeling awesome.

That something was Rock N Roll. And while the music and the means evolve, the song remains the same. To hell with the nay-sayers. Stick it to the man. Be awesome.
A bad-ass new world awaits.

Saving the world should feel awesome.

Saving the world should feel awesome. Like the Tesla Model S.

 

 

[Disclaimer: This post is not sponsored, I’m just a raving fan of ambitiously making the world a better place.]

25 Years of Gove

This morning PM Theresa May, supported by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, released the government’s much-anticipated 25 Year Environment Plan.

The 25YEP is something that Mr Gove was quick to insist upon after his assignment to the role of Environment Secretary. Now, I’ll confess, I was not all too chuffed when that appointment was announced, as up to that point Mr Gove didn’t really have any track record of being an environmentalist, apart from being a publicly acknowledged climate-skeptic.

But I’m not too proud to confess that I have been very pleasantly surprised by Michael Gove’s first few months in the post – from taking unprecedentedly firm action on Neonicotinoids, to committing to the concept of paying farmers for the delivery of public services. And now with the *first* (*there will be many revisions) release of the 25YEP, he seems to be doing good.

I also appreciate the nod in the 25YEP to the fact that 25 years extends well beyond one political term – noting that it’s because we’re tackling issues that are far larger than a 5-year turnaround period. One could presume that Mr Gove intends the 25YEP to be a bit of a legacy piece for him – and personally I’m a bit torn between remembering everyone else who’s had a significant hand in this movement, and remembering how relatively limp his predecessors have been on environmental progress.

So what does 25YEP say?

From a blast through the 151-page document, the 25YEP is promising a pretty new (and needed) approach to environmental management (dare I say ‘stewardship’?) in the coming years.

The theme of ‘public money for public services’ is continued throughout – this argument being that, under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (the way agriculture works throughout the EU, just about), there’s this thing called ‘Basic Farm Payments’. BFP means that a Farmer will receive money just for being a farmer, based solely on the amount of land that they own. It likely leads to cheaper commodities (like milk being cheaper than water in recent years), but is fundamentally flawed in that the tax-paying public end up paying farmers lots of money, regardless of how productive the farm is. At it’s most extreme levels of social injustice, BFP gives tonnes of money to owners of vast areas of the uplands who provide next to nothing in food commodities. The land in question will be legally classified as ‘farmland’, but the legal requirements for that are just that a very small number of sheep have to occasionally be present for grazing. (I’ll direct you to Mark Avery and Guy Shrubsole for more on this debate). But in short, you can probably see why this jars with people who think they should see some kind of public service or return on their tax money.

To some legitimate farmers who do actually farm but, through geography and circumstance, still depend on BFP for the majority of their income, the idea of losing BFP is pretty scary. However, there is the promise that something better will be replacing it – and for people like the hill farmers of England and Wales who already take a strong stewardship role in maintaining their landscape, not just their flocks, they might actually finally find those services financially valued.

Something that the 25YEP is clearly quite proud of is the fact that it’s the ‘world’s first’ to utilise a Natural  Capital approach to environmental policy.

Natural Capital is, basically, putting a financial value on Nature. This has long been experimented with by environmentalists, and also pretty divisively debated between purists and pragmatists. In it’s crudest interpretation, Natural Capital states that everything has a value that is translatable into a financial figure. That ‘Puts a price on Nature’, it commodities beauty and intrinsic value, and opens our great Gaia up to thorough a ravaging by heartless capitalists. Some purist conservationists loathe and fear Natural Capital, as it is such a bastardisation of something that to them is sacred and priceless.

However, in practice it’s not that bad. We environmentalists have to come to terms with the fact that we are trying to change a fundamentally capitally-driven society, and at the same time I’m sure wouldn’t object ourselves for a little more financial recognition for all our efforts to save the world.

So in the case of Natural Capital in the 25YEP, it really just comes down to the fact that we need to value more the actual services that the environment provides us (like natural flood risk management, storing carbon, cleaning water, providing better food for longer, even looking nice) and particularly the nation’s farmers deserve to be remunerated for being the managers and maintainers of those services.

As the example it gives in the 25YEP:
“Our farms provide so much more than just food. They provide recreational activities to an estimated value of £200m for farms and nearly £300m a year for woods. Furthermore, the way farmland and woodland filter the air is valued at £182m and £794m per annum.
Which references UK Natural Capital: ecosystem accounts for freshwater, farmland and woodland

The way in which these figures such as these are calculated is usually with a degree of subjectivity, and it’s not to say “Ok, if we invest in £794m of air filters we could do away with woodlands”, but the point there is that the *value* of these environments is presented in a ways that fits with the rest of the economy (and the minds of economically-driven people).

“What’s your favourite bit of 25YEP Andy?”
I hear you ask.

Something that’s come as a genuine and pleasant surprise to me, given that it’s not been talked about much if at all (by Gove) in the run-up to the release, is the inclusion of Peatlands! Yay Peatlands! We really need to focus a lot of effort on peatland restoration ASAP, which is what I’ll be pushing for with the release of my upcoming film, The Carbon Farmer.

So overall, 25YEP is looking pretty good, in my opinion. It’s by no means complete, as there’s still a lot to work out in terms of how we’ll actually implement the ideas laid out in the plan, and fulfil these bold new ambitions, but the important thing is that ambition itself. The brazen ambition to do something radically new and different – and built of a pretty sound consensus of what environmentalists, the general public and farmers all agree would be a good way to go – is just what I was hoping to see.

Yay for Peatlands!

Watch This Video And Drink This Beer

Polar Bears are dying. But why should we care?

First of all I’ll qualify what Polar Bears represent; they’re essentially the figure-head of Climate Change. They’re the Charismatic Megafauna, the Umbrella Species, and other conservation jargons that fundamentally mean ‘interesting to people and fundamental to an ecosystem’. They always have been, and always will be. I remember when I was first hearing ‘Global Warming’ being talked about at school; the Polar Bears were the first poster-children of the climate catastrophe. The now over-used image of a lonely Polar Bear on a shrinking iceberg was quickly latched on to and spread far and wide as a way of making people care (by breaking their hearts) about the threat of a warming global climate.

One of my [retrospectively] worst memories as a climate activist was actually hearing people whom I respected shooting the polar-bear image down, shouting “You don’t understand Polar-Bear Ecology,(They were not ecologists themselves…)Polar-Bears are great swimmers, they’re really happy in the water, you’re making a big fuss about nothing!
For the record – that’s a petty way to be a climate skeptic, and a big fat red-herring.  

So to address the ecology first of all, the Arctic ice-caps are melting catastrophically quickly, and that is very bad news for Polar bears. That’s because Polar Bears aren’t just bears that happen live around ice; ice is fundamental to their survival, because they are very specially adapted to hunt within an icy marine environment.
No ice, Polar Bears can’t eat. And just to demonstrate that, here’s that phenomenal clip from The Hunt:

Climate Change has been a tricky issue to communicate effectively for decades, because it’s all been projection into the future – with somewhere between dry hypotheses and all-out-threats of what’s to come from climate scientists. It’s been too intangible, and as such, deniable – or at least, put-off-able. Only in the last couple of years have we had anyone start to point to major climatic events and say “This! This is the impact of climate change, happening now!”

Over the weekend, I’ve seen a video circulating that puts climate change into more brutal reality than much we’ve seen before. One-off weather events can still be dismissed as co-incidence, but after more than a decade the grim reality of the Climate Change Poster Child is really being revealed. The Prophecies are coming true, and it’s heartbreaking. If I didn’t believe it was important, I wouldn’t share this with you.

This is what Climate Change looks like.

Why should people care about Climate Change? Because it means the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth. Because it means severely threatened food security. Because it means the death of coral reefs. Because variety is the spice of life, and biodiversity is the majesty of existence. Because life without life isn’t worth living. Because it bloody hurts.

Sci-Commers: What drives people to action? There’s two core things that influence behaviour – people move away from pain and towards pleasure.
Which is why your work is only half-done if you only beat people up with Climate Change – they need something to DO, to avoid pain, and to grasp pleasure. You have to provide that pleasure, to ensure positive action.

So would you like some Polar Bear-associated pleasure? How about this:

Those hop-loving beer-pirates at Brew Dog have released Make Earth Great Again – a phenomenal protest brew in response to *someone* saying they might withdraw their country from the Paris Agreement.  Make Earth Great Again is an imperial-strength Saison, brewed at a higher temperature than most beers, and with ingredients including actual melted ice caps (glacier water) and endangered Arctic Cloudberries. The result is a crystal-clear, golden brew of activism in a glass, and it’s utterly delicious. Spicy, citrus-y and sweet with a hint of dry acidity, culminating in a beer that’s a perfect accompaniment for a slow afternoon with friends, a conference of parties, or Die Hard marathon. I’m not a brew guru providing bevvy review here – I’m just trying to say that climate activism can be freaking wonderful.

Further to just making a delicious and potent point in this brew, Brew Dog are also giving all proceeds from Make Earth Great Again to 10:10 – a community-focussed climate-action charity doing some really awesome work. So do your part and buy some now.

So it’s incredibly important that we know what’s at stake here, but it’s also desperately important that we make people feel good about taking positive, straightforward action, so that our very worst predictions may not have to come true.

Blue Planet II DESTROYS A Plastic Ocean In Under 5 Minutes

“Pilot Whales have big brains, and can certainly feel emotions” – Blue Planet II. Image courtesy of BBC.

In one of the most powerfully emotive TV sequences to ever have been broadcast, Sir David Attenborough made the case to end plastic pollution in Sunday night’s Big Blue episode of Blue Planet II.

The series so far has been absolutely mesmerising, as we’ve discovered a fish that uses tools, been transported to depths of the ocean never-before explored, been captivated by resourceful Anemone Fish, hypnotised by Cuttlefish, and overall carried away by shot after shot of natural beauty and wonder.

But this last episode was a true exception to everything we thought we knew about Natural History Storytelling and Science Communication.

After criticism of previous series being ‘preachy’ (turns out people still don’t like to hear about how we’re fucking everything up through climate change), there was the lingering fear that, with everything threatening ocean health at the minute, we could get caught up in a bit of climate change woe in Blue Planet II. However, thus far in the series there was only the slightest of nods towards climate change – in the Coral Reef episode, in the mention of oceanic warming and acidification leading to coral bleaching (I don’t think ‘Climate Change’ was even explicitly mentioned) in a way that left viewers not feeling too beaten-up at all.

Come the climax of the Big Blue episode however, and we were to suffer an emotional gut-punch unlike anything I’ve ever experienced – and I’m so so glad that punch was thrown.

Plastic can be found even in the most remote parts of the oceans, and has the ability to concentrate toxic chemical pollutants on it’s surface. Image courtesy of BBC.

It’s become increasingly common knowledge in recent times that plastic pollution is a colossal threat to the environment. We’ve all seen the images of dead albatross chicks bursting with plastic shrapnel. We’ve seen the agonising clip of a Sea Turtle having a plastic straw painfully removed from it’s nostril. And A Plastic Ocean is available on Netflix for all to enjoy – and that’s even recieved global renown from some very influential sources (and worth a watch if you need more anti-plastic ammo).

A Plastic Ocean is certainly a substantial coverage of a severe issue, including elements that even the most savvy environmentalist may still be surprised to learn, and it certainly inspired my partner and I to upgrade our eco-lifestyles further and switch to fully bio-degradeable toothbrushes (we already avoid plastic packaging and single-use items as much as possible). BUT, and this is a big BUT, A Plastic Ocean‘s impact is still limited *mostly* to people who already really care already about the environment and are passionate about taking action to make the world a better place. It preaches, mostly, to the converted.

What’s the tell? It’s a documentary about activists, doing activism. There’s a little bit of a story about whales, which just starts you off on an emotional journey, but then it moves head-long into consumerism, pollution, and mostly-human suffering. And you know the take-home message – that plastic sucks – as soon as you’ve read the title. While there is a journey of discovery, it’s a package journey of discovery, where you’ve familiarised yourself with the itinerary online and you know what you’re signing up for.

Now watch Blue Planet II. For 40 solid minutes you are purely immersed in the greatest photography and fantastical wildlife that the world’s leading experts in Natural History Programming currently have to offer. Without anthropomorphism, you are transported into the lives of some of the most incredible animals on Earth in a way that is almost overwhelming. If you’re a committed environmentalist, you do know what’s probably coming, that the sucker-punch is inevitable – you’d even be disappointed if Sir David didn’t deliver it – you’re bracing yourself but are so encompassed by his storytelling you can hardly blink or breathe. And then, when you’re becoming completely lost to The Big Blue… it’s upon you. Plastic.

I wasn’t timing it, but in what can’t have been more than 5 minutes of screen time Sir David Attenborough delivered more information on the severity of plastic pollution, and a more powerful call to action to rid the world of plastic in all it’s malevolent forms than A Plastic Ocean managed in it’s full 1 hour 40 minutes of more ‘pure’ SciComm.

Blue Planet II’s coverage of plastic pollution was not dragged-out, exaggerated or preachy. Sir David simply and respectfully did what he does best; he told the story of life on Earth in 2017. I don’t feel that he intended on beating his audience into submission – maybe he’s out-grown that, as some activists do. I personally felt that his approach was much wiser – to open our hearts to the issue, and let us hear his contemplative call to action quite peacefully on our own.

As I’ve said, I would’ve been disappointed if plastic pollution had been omitted from the series entirely, but I was never expecting it to be such a powerfully moving inclusion.

Thank you, Sir David, for continuing to guide and define our appreciation of nature, and thank you also to Executive Producer James Honeyborne and the rest of the Blue Planet team for utilising the power you have to profoundly inform and move people so responsibly.

The Carbon Farmer

I’m working on something new, and it’s called The Carbon Farmer. Take a look:

So I guess a valid question is ‘Why am I making a film about bog?’

Peat moorland is something we’ve got a lot of in the UK. There’s over 400,000 Hectares of peatland in England and Wales, and it covers over 70% of Scotland’s land mass, so it’s a big, boggy deal.

However, we’ve not looked after our peat well for the last few hundred years, in a variety of ways. Around the industrial revolution, particularly as northern towns like Manchester and Sheffield started pumping out a whole lot of coal smoke, the bogs of the Pennines started to acidify (peat bogs are naturally acidic places, but this was too much for them), and the vegetation that forms the foundation of life on the peatland basically died.

Peat Degradation in the Peak District

Some seriously degraded peat in the South Pennines, taken from the shoot for High Water Common Ground – which was actually the inspiration for The Carbon Farmer.

Elsewhere in the UK the peat’s been even more actively damaged from some retrospectively poor decisions a few decades ago. Around the 50’s-60’s it was observed that there was all this land ‘going to waste’ in the uplands – a whole load of bog not doing nothin’ for nobody. So the official government decision back then was to cut big drains into the peat in an attempt to dry the landscape and make some viable agricultural land out of if.  *Unfortunately* that didn’t go to plan; the land has never become really viable agricultural land, even for grazing sheep. All that’s happened is the drains have got bigger, and the bog has stopped functioning.

A 'grip' (drain) cut into peat a few decades ago.

But really, why’s that all a bad thing? Who cares about bogs for their intrinsic bog-ness?

Honestly, many of us won’t realise it, but bogs do a lot for most of us. Bogs naturally filter impurities from water that we like to drink (which degradation messes up, cos if you’ve got bare peat then rainwater washes that peat away and then utilities companies have to spend lots on filtering it out). Bogs provide recreation space for walkers and habitat for ground-nesting birds, wading birds, predatory birds, (loads of birds, really), supports insect communities on which many birds feed, and loads of other wildlife (which degradation messes up, as who wants to nest or wade or graze on a big swathe of rubbish bare peat?).
And my personal favourite – healthy bogs naturally ‘clean’ air and actively sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Healthy peat bogs are carbon sinks.
But of course, degradation colossally messes that up too, as when peat becomes degraded it swaps from carbon-sink to carbon-source. Yep, once the water level drops more than just a bit below the surface, millennia of built-up peat starts oxidising and actively releasing CO2 and methane into the atmosphere.

Because peat is so easy to overlook as a bog (as I’ve said, it’s only 70% of Scotland and a huge chunk of the rest of the UK); because peat is not a uniform depth across the UK and is in different states of degradation; because it’s a little bit challenging to put a number on how much damage is done by degraded peat, it’s never actually been calculated or included in national (or global) carbon budgets before.

Until now. Recent research, commissioned by DEFRA and supported by the IUCN NCUK Peatland Programme, has put the first figure on Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions from UK Peatlands, and here it is:

UK Peatlands currently release 16 Million tonnes of CO2(equivalent) every year.
It’s “(equivalennt)” CO2 because it’s a mixture of Greenhouse Gasses, and Methane has a more potent effect on climate change than CO2, but less of it is emitted in a molecular sense.

I’ll put that figure into some context. For the last few years the UK government has been committing to reducing our annual GHG emissions, and the current figure is that the UK is currently cutting emissions by a total of 32 Million tonnes of CO2(equivalent) per year.
So to rephrase; half of our national annual efforts in reducing our emissions are completely undone by the degraded state of our peatlands. We’re seriously taking one step back for every two steps forwards. In my personal opinion, any campaign that’s targeting cutting emissions from any major source – such as the energy sector, which is still the biggest emitter – is seriously lacking if it’s not simultaneously addressing peatland restoration. And I will respectfully note that no current big campaigns are because we’ve never taken this into account before, but a new revelation like this should provide the opportunity to revise some strategies. There are always opportunities to do better, and peatland restoration promises serious bang-for-buck in the Carbon game.

The energy sector is still the largest emitter, but we are addressing that.

It’s not that we could create some hugely powerful carbon-sequestration system if we restored health to UK peatlands, (I mean, that is what we’d create through peatland restoration, but the rate is sequestration is very very very slow). Rather, what we will make an impact by doing is halting a substantial emitter that we have the power to completely shut down – and in so doing effectively double our annual efforts in reducing GHG emissions from all sources.

Arguments against combatting climate change through peatland restoration:

  • “It’ll take attention off the energy sector and other GHG sources – particularly if you create anything resembling a carbon-sink”.
    Right. When Henry told Liza there was a hole in his bucket, was she concerned that if Henry fixed the hole he’d stop collecting water? Did she tell him not to get distracted form the task at hand, and to compensate for the hole by putting more water in? No, everyone on the farm agreed that the best thing to do was to fix the hole, then they could all carry on with their lives.
    I know we’ve had some big-business emissions-apathy to overcome in the past, but we’ve worked damn hard to overcome that and gain momentum on sustainability, climate action and emissions reductions. Reducing emissions from all sources will still be unquestionably important, and frankly we’ve done well up until now at reducing emissions from the energy sector by increasing efficiency – but that’s a finite transition. We need to find a new way of reducing national emissions soon, because the only way the energy sector could become much more emissions-free is if we were to start investing in renewables more. Say………….
  • “It’s traditional management that’s been practised for generations.”
    Let’s dig into that statement; are we saying that “being a farming family in this area, primarily rearing sheep (or surviving through other methods)” is traditional, or is it “Actively destroying healthy peat” is traditional? – Because those things are not the same, nor are they to be confused. The core of this issue is that most people can carry on doing what’s good for them and what they identify with if we can just get this peat-health thing right – and odds are that they could be mutually supportive with a bit of practice.
    But if you’re just that much of a conservative that tradition-for-tradition’s-sake is all the discussion I’m going to get from you, then I’ll have to bring up the other traditions like slavery, recreational opium, pillaging and hedonism that have (by and large) fallen out of fashion, despite decades of practice.

There are other arguments surrounding peat and moorland management, but I’m not going to go into them – in part that’s because, rather like peat emissions used to be, they contain blurry bits. They’re also volatile issues that tend to polarise a debate, and are their own entities that I’m not going to make this project a part of. The Carbon Farmer is very much a ‘common-ground’ project, and the fact is that there isn’t anyone out there saying “Peat degradation is a good thing” – from any perspective. That’s what we agree on, we’re happy to do so, so that’s what we’ll work on.

So what’s the plan?

We have before us a time of great potential change for environmental management in the UK, looming towards us in the form of Brexit. It’s true that, for a long time now, EU regulations have been the highest level of environmental protection available in the UK, but there’s now good reason to hope that we might be able to actually make things even better. Secretary for the Environment Michael Gove has been making some very promising noises since taking office about “Managing land for public benefit” – and there’s a great swell of support for that notion from all relevant communities (which, just to be clear, is basically everyone – as what greater public benefit is there that combatting climate change?). Of particular note, the agricultural community is very open to the idea of managing land for greater public benefit – they’re just waiting to be given the means to do so and to still manage viable farms.

Proof-of-concept artwork for The Carbon Farmer, in production.

The Carbon Farmer is being produced to present the concept of facilitating peat restoration through agricultural subsidies to the general public, the agricultural community, NGOs and UK parliaments, in the hopes that we can keep this focussed as a priority over the next couple of years of policy revisions.
To do so, at time of writing I’m working with the IUCN Peatland Programme, Scottish Forum on Natural Capital and Moors For The Future, and I’m establishing collaborations with a number of other organisations to bring this project – and this future – to life.

The Simple Joy of Long-Tailed Tits

I recently had the pleasure of tagging-along for a day with a friend on her PhD field research on Long-Tailed Tits, and discovered that they are utterly delightful little beings.

Caitlin Higgott, a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, is now in her second year of studying the nest-building behaviour of Long-Tailed Tits. However, on the day that I met her (and tried not to interrupt her science too much whilst making a video of her working), she was focussing a lot of her attention of a wider monitoring project on ‘Helpers’.

If one bird’s breeding attempt fails [ie. chicks get eaten by crows or similar], then that bird and it’s breeding partner can either try again and lay a new clutch of eggs, or they can go and help their relatives in providing food for their nieces and nephews” she explained.

This is very cool, and helping to nurture another’s young is a pretty rare behaviour to see out in the animal kingdom, beyond the the most social animals (Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Elephants, some monkeys such as Spider Monkeys and pack animals like Lions or Wolves – but even then it’s rare to find simply helpful animals without it being some hierarchal structure thing where everyone just looks after the Alpha’s offspring), and ‘Eusocial’ in the case of colony-forming insects (Ants, Wasps, Bees etc. – and that’s because they’re all more related to their siblings than they are to their own offspring!).

In short, Long-Tailed Tits aren’t just adorable to look at; deep-down they’re just lovely characters.

But one of the most impressive things that I soon discovered while out with Caitlin, is that Long-Tailed Tits can freaking HOVER!

Hovering is a very impressive talent, that again, is very rare to see elsewhere in the animal kingdom. The only birds with a real reputation for being able to *truly* hover are the Hummingbirds (of course), and the Kestrel (one of the most delightful things to commonly see on the roadsides of rural Lincolnshire).

All said and done though, Caitlin may be right in her research that one of the most simply brilliant things about Long-Tailed Tits is the way they build their nests.

It’s like something out of a fairy tale.
(a Disney one, not a classic Grimm one).

Before Caitlin started working on Long-Tailed Tits, I’d never even really heard of them. Since discovering them and all of their wonderful quirks, I think they’ve become one of my favourite British birds. They’re just utterly lovely, and in a world that is such a mess, it’s nice to find these spirits of pure joy flitting about our towns and countryside.

How To Fight Climate Change

Happy #EarthDay and #March For Science!

In short, here’s how to fight climate change (and save the world):

  1. Vote conscientiously. Get informed on different parties’ policies on climate and environment and how they intend to tackle them.
  2. Offset your carbon emissions with Saving Species.
  3. Reduce the amount of plastic that you use and throw away.
    (Watch A Plastic Ocean on Netflix if you want to know why).
  4. Reduce the amount of beef and dairy in your diet – or cut it out completely (Watch Cowspiracy on Netflix if you want to know why).

and check out everything else in Your Save-The-World Starter Pack 🙂

But here’s a big question that people often ask:-

WHY SHOULD YOU BOTHER???

Amidst all the chaos in the world, the sheer magnitude of the climate change problem, it can be very easy to ask “What kind of a difference can I really make?”
You are, after all, just one person. How can one person’s lifestyle change actually do anything to change the world?

My old answer used to be that even if it seems inevitable, can you really be comfortable knowing that your actions are personally and directly contributing to the destruction of everything you love? (take rainforest destruction, the bleaching of the great barrier reef, or the threat of food and water security for your children and grandchildren as examples). Can you contentedly be a part of that? Or will you take a stand and say “No, I will do what is in my power to not be a part of that“?

That old answer is fairly powerful, in that it makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, but there’s no assurance that you will actually make a difference – and that’s what you understandably really want.

Here’s my new answer:

We’ve recently seen the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump.
How many people said those things could never happen? How many people cast their votes the way they did because “they never thought it would actually happen“; because they “Just wanted to make a point“?

In the last year the world has been completely turned upside down, and we’re desperately close to irreparable damage on a host of issues – not least of which is climate change.

It’s a bizarrely bitter-sweet assurance that’s come out of the last year’s of turmoil:

IF YOU BOTHER TO TRY,
YOU CAN CHANGE THE WORLD.

(now go change it for the better 😉 )

 

The Top Of The Tree on Kickstarter!

For the last year nearly I’ve been producing this film about flooding and what we can do now, and it’s nearly finished! But to really finish it off well, and to spur this ever-growing High Water project into an even greater resource, I’ve just launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter and, well, take a look:

I spent the last week touring the country, taking to the stage and presenting material from High Water Common Ground at the National Flood Forum’s Conference titled “Are We Planning To Flood?” in London, at the CERT Cumbria Flood Expo in Carlisle, and at the ‘Sniffer‘ conference in Edinburgh #FRM2017. What a week!

Presenting the HWCG trailer at the NFF conference in London 🙂

Thus far I’ve received a seriously positive response from the people I’ve been speaking to and sharing sneaky in-production cuts of HWCG with, so it’s looking good for this film to make a good impact when it’s released later this year.

But what about this Crowdfunding? Please support the campaign, by sharing it and spreading awareness – but also, it’s a crowdfunding campaign, so like all of these things, if you’d like to see it brought to life then please pledge (even a small amount) to make it real.

Here’s the thing – I’ve realised over this production that one film’s just not going to cut it. There’s a huge amount of information and personal stories that need sharing in HWCG, but there’s so much more to the flooding picture. There are more examples to learn from, more research to explore. And there’s also this fundamental principle (which does feature quite heavily in HWCG) that one size does not fit all. This is not a panacea. Ultimately, to solution to flooding in any catchment is going to be bespoke to that catchment. So how do we find that solution? Partly it is a case of learning from others, but recognising what will work in a unique situation.

To that end, I’ll soon be creating a full library of short films to cover every aspect of flood risk management, of course told from the perspectives of the people who live and work alongside these solutions. http://www.highwaterfilm.co.ukthe ultimate flood risk management resource!

And that’s really what this crowdfunded’s about – it’s about connecting people, to help them to understand the issues faced by flood-threatened communities. To learn from other’s mistakes, and other’s best-practise.

Innovative and engaging science communication, on a subject that readily effects thousands of people’s lives every year. If you think that sounds like something worth having, like something that could make a difference, then please please, support High Water Film on Kickstarter.

RIP Tilikum

Tillicum

Of all of the losses or great, loved and impactful figures of the last year, one most recently has left me struggling to know how I feel. Tilikum, the Killer Whale, has died.

Thousands of people worldwide are familiar with Tilikum from his star status at SeaWorld, where he has entertained and enthralled audiences for years. However, the spotlight was really shone on Tilikum a few years ago in the feature documentary Black Fish – which, if you haven’t seen it, I wholeheartedly encourage you to watch it now. You see, Tilikum – more than any other Orca in history – lived up to his “Killer Whale” title.

(Critical note: it is *almost* completely unheard of for Orcas, aka.“Killer Whales”, to attack humans in the wild.)

Tilikum suffered a frankly horrible life. Abducted from the wild and from his mother’s side at an inhumanely young age – something which those involved confess in Black Fish as being one of the most heart-breaking experiences of their lives – and forced into captivity and public entertainment. This is not something which is ever good for marine mammals like whales, dolphins, etc. and it often manifests in obvious ‘unhealthy’ behaviours and physical symptoms. But in Tilikum, this trauma manifested more powerfully than in most. When he was 10 years old, he took his first human life, that of Keltie Byrne, in the middle of a public show in Canada.

Despite this event, Tilikum was kept in captivity, and would later be responsible for the deaths of two more people – one civilian, Daniel Dukes, and one trainer, Dawn Brancheau, during his time at SeaWorld.

This story so far is bleak, it’s morbid. And that’s the way that it was set to continue until Gabriela Cowperthwaite made the documentary Black Fish and revealed Tilikum’s tale to the world. Tilikum’s heart-wrenching story made him the poster child for captive animal abuse the world over. The use of captive marine mammals for public entertainment instantly received massive and unforgiving public attention – and none more so than SeaWorld.

It has been a long fight, but in the last year SeaWorld finally agreed that they would cease breeding further animals in captivity. Essentially saying that, when their currently captive animals die, that will be the end of their live shows.

Globally, wonderful progress has been made – almost entirely as a result of inspiration from Black Fish – in the regulations on transporting and keeping animals for entertainment. The power of Tilikum’s tale has been transformative to the modern world. And that is why I don’t know how I feel about his death.

Tilikum was a Killer Whale. He killed three people.

He also lived a utterly horrible life, suffering conditions that no sentient creature should be subjected to.

But because of his life the world is a powerfully better place for his kind, for humanity, and for every other creature that we interact with. Tilikum has done more for cetacean conservation than any other non-human in history. To me, his death simply brings to light the impact that he has had.

I am glad that SeaWorld have one less Orca to exhibit. I’m happy for Tilikum that his suffering is finally over. And I mourn him, out of sadness for his life, and for what he has inspired people to do all over the world.

As we go into 2017, renegotiating new-years resolutions and hoping for a year generally brighter than the last, please join me in raising a glass in Tilikum, the Killer Whale. Remember that from atrocity we have the power to act with overwhelming love, respect and kindness, remember that we can learn from our mistakes, and remember that you can change the world.