Engaging the public to change the world:  The crucial role of science centres in creating global citizens

Last week’s GSI seminar speaker was Dr Natalie Whitehead, co-founder and co-director (with Dr Alice Mills) of Exeter Science Centre. Watch a short video about their project here. 

Their vision is to communicate science and empower the public to tackle global issues. Natalie and Alice established Exeter Science Centre as a community interest company in February 2020, and then as a charity in April 2021. Science centres have an essential role to play in creating global citizens, and there is currently an extreme lack of them in Devon and in the South West. Natalie and Alice are working to fill this gap by building a science centre at the heart of Exeter, to be up and running by 2030. The Exeter Science Centre team has a track record of positive engagement, including numerous visits to schools and last year’s extremely successful Climate Pop-up in Exeter’s city centre, that attracted thousands of people. 

Natalie and Alice are keen to work with scientists and academics to deliver issues-led, empowering projects for local communities in Exeter and throughout the South West, based on YOUR science research. To find out more get involved, email Natalie at: . Or share your thoughts with them here! 

Hearing story after story about the death of the high street in the UK, it is a palpable relief to instead hear of someone not only looking to revitalise it, but have their space connect Exeter (ever on the cusp of being a bigger city) to the wider world through critical global issues such as climate change. Exeter Science Centre is a tantalising opportunity for Exeter; one I hope that gets embraced, as it is clear that the group behind it are aware and alert to what needs to be done for widening participation in STEM. It is also clear that they are ensuring that the vision of what science is, and what it could be, is not just dominated by technocrats or capitalistic opportunists; in the space that Natalie and Alice are cultivating, contributors of all educational backgrounds, from poets to photographers, are embraced. It’s inspiring to hear such an all-encompassing view of what it means to engage with STEM, and to potentially have such a community-oriented, sustainable landmark as a physical location would be incredibly meaningful to the fabric of Exeter. 

Michelle Bieger, 4th year Astrophysics PhD student 

 

In a time where global issues such as climate change have never been more important, and with the trust between the public and scientific communities being continually politicised and strained, initiatives like the Exeter Science Centre have never been more valuable. Educating and empowering the public to make a real difference in tackling the global problems that face us all, and to restore faith and confidence in the scientific community are the first steps towards overcoming these pressing issues.  

– Simon Lance, postdoc, Astrophysics Group 

 

“Science and Discovery Centres will empower, inform and inspire people to become Citizens for the Future” — The Liminal Space 

 

Three ‘super-leverage points’ offer hope for climate breakthrough

The Breakthrough Effect: How to trigger a cascade of tipping points to accelerate the net zero transition launched today at the World Economic Forum in Davos. It is the most comprehensive report to date on ‘positive socioeconomic tipping points’. The report is produced by an international team including Systemiq and the Global Systems Institute (GSI), University of Exeter, and is a contribution to Systems Change Lab convened by the Bezos Earth Fund and World Resources Institute.

The report supports the Breakthrough Agenda, the First Movers Coalition and other initiatives working to make low-carbon solutions the most affordable, accessible and attractive option in each emitting sector. It highlights three “super-leverage points” that could trigger a cascade of decarbonisation across sectors covering 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With time running out to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the report shows how parts of the global economy could move rapidly towards zero emissions through targeted interventions to produce tipping points that not only cut emissions in one key sector, but support faster changes in other parts of the economy.

“Our report spotlights key opportunities to effect change that can produce huge returns in terms of decarbonisation. It identifies positive tipping points in the highest-emitting sectors of the global economy, and analyses the conditions required to trigger them.”

(Mark Meldrum, Systemiq partner and a lead author)

The three super-leverage points are: mandates for the sale of battery electric vehicles (BEV), mandates requiring “green ammonia” to be used in the manufacturing of agricultural fertilisers, and public procurement of plant-based proteins.

1: Sale of BEVs: Tipping point likely when BEVs hit sticker price parity with internal combustion engine vehicles. Greater deployment drives scale economies in battery production, further increasing cost advantage. Charging infrastructure roll out is key to overcome range anxiety.

 

2: Fertiliser: “Green ammonia”: Tipping point possible after 1st wave of green ammonia plants for fertilisers developed (~50 plants, ~45–50 Mt productionp.a.) to kick-off large-scale adoption – 2nd wave to benefit from de-risked investment. This can close the initial cost premium for green ammonia vs. grey ammonia through scale economies in H2 production.

3: Alternative Proteins: A tipping point may be triggered once plant-based alternatives reach cost parity with animal protein and equivalent attractiveness (taste, texture, nutrition). This will be influenced by a number of factors particularly social and cultural norms.

 

This report is part of a Bezos Earth Fund partnership supported by a £1 million grant. The University of Exeter team are now leading a community of researchers working on a full “State of Tipping Points” report looking at both positive socioeconomic tipping points and negative climate tipping points in time for COP28 in November.

“We need to find and trigger positive socioeconomic tipping points if we are to limit the risk from damaging climate tipping points”

(Professor Tim Lenton, lead author and GSI Director)

To receive information on news and events related to the Tipping point Alliance please email  and put ‘Subscribe’ in the email title.

Second highest-scoring climate paper of 2022 for news and social media attention

Congratulations to David Armstrong Mckay et al. whose paper ‘Exceeding 1.5°C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points’ was ranked second in Carbon Brief’s‘The Top 10 Climate papers in 2022 for news and social media attention’.

The paper provides the first comprehensive assessment of climate-related tipping points since the 2008 paper “Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system”. It identifies 16 climate-tipping elements and finds a “significant likelihood” that multiple tipping points will be crossed if global temperatures exceed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

“The world is already at risk of some tipping points. As global temperatures rise further, more tipping points become possible. The chance of crossing tipping points can be reduced by rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions, starting immediately.”

(Dr David Armstrong McKay, University of Exeter)

The rankings come from Altmetric scores, which are based on factors including news coverage and social media mentions. Each of the articles received extensive media coverage, reaching many millions of people worldwide.

According to Carbon Brief 667 news stories from 397 outlets mention the paper. It received the highest number of mentions in blog posts and Wikipedia pages of the top 25 climate papers and is featured in 6,145 tweets. The papers overall Altmetric score was 6,573.

Exeter affiliated authors featured highly on the list, further congratulations is extend to them:

“There has been huge interest in our research on climate tipping points during 2022, and I am over the moon to have three papers in the top 10.”

(Professor Lenton, Director of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute)

(Image and data from Carbon Brief 18/01/2023)

Positive tipping points for the sustainable growth of shellfish aquaculture

By Dr Lisa Bickley

Shellfish mariculture (the farming of bivalve shellfish – mainly mussels and Pacific oysters) is an important part of the rural economy of England and other devolved nations of the UK. As low trophic aquaculture species, shellfish are a highly sustainable source of protein with high nutritional value. Shellfish can also provide a number of additional ecosystem services, including habitat provisioning, nutrient assimilation and carbon sequestration, and in turn can potentially play a wider role in supporting productive, resilient and ecologically diverse coastal and marine economies.

Sustainable expansion of the shellfish sector is an important component of national strategies within the UK to increase seafood consumption, offering benefits to food security, the environment and human health. Despite these multiple benefits, this growth has not yet been realised.

A recent project, funded by the University of Exeter’s Knowledge Exchange Culture Programme and supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has been examining the application of the Positive Tipping Points Framework developed by the GSI in partnership with the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU), for catalysing the sustainable growth of shellfish aquaculture in England and Wales.

The project team (Tom Powell (of the GSI) and Charles Tyler, Ross Brown and Lisa Bickley (of the Centre for Sustainable Aquaculture Futures and Biosciences) recently led a multi-stakeholder workshop to evaluate the positive tipping point approach to identify key opportunities and interventions to unlock future potential of bivalve shellfish mariculture to contribute to sustainable food production in England and Wales.

The workshop was attended by a cross section of participants representing industry, policy, regulatory and academic stakeholders. The workshop focused initially on five case studies from around south west England, covering new policy developments, new risk-based methods for assuring product safety, and new quantitative evidence of both positive and negative interactions between shellfish aquaculture and the environment. Following a review of the accumulating evidence on the current status and constraints of the sector, participants worked together to identify key opportunities and leverage points, interventions and enabling conditions, and optimal sequencing of interventions for maximising the potential for positive change.

The resulting report and policy brief (in preparation) will be publicly available and circulated to regulators, statutory authorities and consultees, industry bodies, water companies, watchdogs and academics.

It is hoped this work will provide a template for applying the positive tipping points approach to other food productions systems, including other aquaculture sectors.

Workshop participants, Reed Hall, University of Exeter 15 September 2022. Photo courtesy of Ross Brown.

‘The Territory’ film screening and panel Q&A, Exeter Phoenix 30 November

My perspective – blog by Katie Milsom, first year Astrophysics PhD student

The Territory’s title scene for the movie shows a satellite image of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. There are scars across the landscape where humans have created roads through the forest. The scars expand as we watch, the forest shrinking as trees make way for farmland. I find myself wishing for it to stop. I feel helpless; there are people out there who are making the decision for the rest of humanity to destroy this rainforest.

The movie follows the lives of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people who live in the rainforest. Their love of the forest is infectious – I find myself wanting to swim in its rivers and lie under the canopy. As the movie progresses, we learn more about their lives in the forest, but also their connections with each other and people in the outside world. They know the politics involved in keeping the forest safe and they understand how important the Amazon is to every country across the world.

We also see the perspectives of the people wanting to cut the forest down. For me, it was difficult watching them burn the forest, and saw down huge trees which have been standing for years. The Amazon stores so much carbon for us. We need this rainforest. There are 3 million species living in the Amazon. It feels precious, like a gift from the Earth that we have no right to destroy.

Watching the destruction on the forest was heart breaking, I could feel the melancholy with every tree struck down. Seeing the Uru-eu-wau-wau people work tirelessly to protect it was inspiring, a balm to my sadness. They are a symbol of hope for the amazon. Between the panel of experts showcased at this event, the Brazilian peoples who don’t live in the forest but care deeply about it, it strikes me there are enough people out there who care, and that we are equipped to do something about this. Just as we need the Amazon to protect our environment, the Amazon needs us to protect it.

‘The Territory’ film screening and panel Q&A, Exeter Phoenix 30 November

Blog by event organiser: Michelle Fabienne Bieger, fourth year Astrophysics PhD student

The Territory is a film that seeps into your consciousness, lingering in the chill of your bones. The authenticity of any media can always be measured by how closely your memory of it, after first viewing, matches your impressions of it after the second. Rewatching it (https://3degreesreading.github.io/books/theterritory.html) honed my impression of how the film was crafted, but my core feelings and memory of the story it at hand was unwavering, and indeed, perhaps even stronger.

It’s hard to find anyone who watches The Territory and comes away emotionally untouched. The cinematography flickers between delicate and brutal, reflecting the Amazon and its relationship to man in doing so. It always invites the viewer to place themselves unjudgementally in the shoes of whoever’s perspective we are gracefully occupying.

It felt easy to organise a panel for this event—the film laid out the threads of the issues at the heart of deforestation deceptively clearly. There are political and economic motivations—the deep recession of 2014 in Brazil was a strong factor in the election of populist Bolsonaro in 2018, who’s charisma and neighbour-next-door attitude won a victory reminiscent of Trump in 2016 in the United States.

There are the cultural motivations—farmers, who have been promised land rights by social and religious contract; tribe members, who have had a connection to their home and showcase these ties by the mere ease in which they pass through dense forest. There is, of course, the science behind it all, looming in the background, spelled out by one of the main characters, Bitate. The Amazon is the heart of the world, he says. No Amazon, no CO2 scrubbing, no liveable global climate.

I am so grateful to have heard from our panel members. Richard and Lucy laid out so clearly what’s at stake, in terms of the climate science.  Lucy and her family’s personal experiences seeing the diminishing Amazon rainforest riveted the audience.

Malcolm reminded us of the fact that the story behind this is bigger than just one tribe, bigger than just Brazil: the Amazon spans many Latin and South American countries. The consequences to the people involved are so very real, not just because of losing land, but because standing up to human rights infringements is dangerous to one’s own personal safety when going up against conglomerates and governments.

Chendi did a stupendous job laying out the difficulties that lie in holding corporations and countries to account—and that there is a distinct difference between creating regulation, and what it takes to actually enforce it. Monitoring data is desperately needed in order to fill in the gaps for sustainable finance. Chendi also did a fantastic job of showcasing how complicated and complex these problems are—sustainable regulations in one country in the Global North can create unsustainable knock-on effects in the Global South.

The audience members also deserve heaps of accolade; they helped make this the community event that I hoped for. It was a shame the panel section couldn’t go on any longer, as we were just getting into very meaty audience questions. I look forward to organising future film events and welcome any feedback from attendees.

A year with the Global Systems Institute

By Darcy Howle, GSI Student Intern 2021-2022

It is coming to the end of my year long placement at the Global Systems Institute (GSI) and I wanted to reflect on my experience of what a fantastic year it has been.

Although there is a sense of hopelessness when it coming to the unscalable issue of sustainability, the academics, and other members of the GSI remain positive at their outlook on the future. Working for the GSI has given me a glimpse of how academics are able to collaborate with artists, social scientist, policy makers, the community and other stake holders to create and implement solutions on a regional and global scale. It is remarkable to watch projects such as Global Carbon Budget Office, OPALS and the GSI policy network develop over the course of my year placement.

The concept of systems thinking, a focus of the GSI, has really opened my eyes to the importance of transdisciplinary research. It is the idea that all things are interconnected therefore to solve an issue sustainably all aspects of the system involved need to be considered. Moving forward, I aim to implement this this concept into my future work.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time working with the wildfire lab. It exposed me to an area of research that I hadn’t experience before. Working towards a tailored UK fire danger rating system built on my previous lab and fieldwork experience.

Over the course of COP26, the GSI received great media coverage and I was given the opportunity to help with the campaign.  This showed me how important it is to communicate with the public and share our research to create the greatest impact possible. By doing this more people will act against the climate crisis and help secure a flourishing future.

I want to thank the members of the GSI for being friendly and welcoming to me. I was fortunate enough to be given the responsibility of organising the 3-day GSI Retreat where I was able to meet the 50 core members of the GSI community. Everyone was open to listen to my ideas and input despite how new I was to the team and how early I am on my academic journey. In particular, I want to thank Andy Richards and Anne Nicholls who I have worked closely with over the past year and have made my experience so positive.

GSI Workshop: Exploring synergies between Earth sciences and astronomy

Blog by workshop convenor, Dr Raphaëlle Haywood

The GSI Workshop: Exploring synergies between Earth sciences and astronomy took place on 18 February 2022, bringing together around 40 academics from a wide range of disciplines, both in person and online. Prof. Tim Lenton talked about Exo-Earth system science at Exeter. He emphasized that we need to get the message out that planets beyond the solar system are being discovered. Tim discussed what life might look like on exoplanets and our prospects for detecting it. Simple life emerged on Earth as soon as conditions were favourable, so we can expect it to have evolved on many other planets. Tim argued that “life is not a passive actor set on a stage”; it completely transforms its planet, so we should be able to detect biosignatures  on exoplanets in coming decades (notably with upcoming direct-imaging missions). On the other hand, complex life, including ourselves, results from some very difficult and improbable transformations, so it is unlikely to exist elsewhere.

The Pale Blue Dot was a recurring theme throughout the Workshop. Prof. Tim Lenton pondered: “[We are] thinking about how common life is. Is it going to touch us emotionally in a way that allows us to reflect back on our own presence and existence on Earth, [and will this help us] alter our relationship with Earth?” (slide by Prof. Tim Lenton).

Jake Eager talked about his ongoing PhD work Towards coupled modelling of the biosphere and atmosphere for Archean-like climates. Jake focuses on terrestrial planets that orbit small, cool M dwarf stars. These are the most common stars in our galaxy, and have long lifetimes, which could give life more time to emerge. If life exists on these exoplanets, it might resemble life that existed on Earth during the Archean (about 3 billion years ago) more closely than present-day life. Jake is using the Met Office’s Unified Model for Archean Earth to estimate methane concentrations for these planets. Jake’s work shows that by modelling the atmosphere and biosphere together, we can ultimately improve our understanding of both.

Dr Arwen Nicholson talked about Biosignatures independent of population dynamics. Arwen has created a simple model based on an Archean Earth-like planet that considers air-ocean exchange, carbon-silicate cycling and a very simple biosphere in the form of microbes which produce methane, which then acts as a strong biosignature for the planet. By varying the death rate of microbes, Arwen finds that the concentration of methane in the atmopshere, and thus the planet’s biosignature are relatively insensitive to the detailed properties of the biota.

Prof. Tim Naylor presented the Terra Hunting Experiment, of which Exeter is a major partner. Terra Hunting is the world’s most viable experiment to discover terrestrial, temperate planets orbiting stars like our Sun within the coming decade. For this, Terra Hunting will measure the wobble of 30 stars, on every observable night over 10 years. Based on the occurence rate of these planets (as measured by recent surveys such as Kepler), we expect to discover a handful of planets with similar mass and stellar irradiation as Earth. These planets will be prime targets for direct imaging in the next 20-30 years.

The majority of in-person participants mingled at tea and coffee after the talks (which are available to watch on the GSI’s Youtube playlist). Stay tuned for more talks and opportunities to discuss this exciting topic in future events! Please get in touch with  if you have any ideas and suggestions.

The Climate Change, Conflict and Migration Nexus: Through the Lens of the Syrian Civil War

Blog by Tabitha Watson

Over the past few decades, there has been increasing conversation – and significant news coverage – linking climate change, conflict and migration. However, analysis of the topic remains largely qualitative and anecdotal in nature. This lack of quantitative data makes the development of robust, evidence-based policy challenging, leading to the growth of more reactionary approaches (e.g. securitisation of migration). In this context, with growing nationalism and xenophobia, it is vital to gain a more nuanced, data-driven perspective on the situation. This is where the concept of whole-system analysis of the climate change, conflict and migration nexus comes into play.

Although all three aspects of the nexus have been conclusively linked, the majority of quantitative studies have tended to address pairwise interactions. There is vibrant academic debate over the role of climate; its role in both conflict and migration has been disputed. However, regardless of the current perceived significance of the global climate, without drastic mitigatory action we are projected to vastly exceed the 2C threshold set out in the Paris Agreement. This will have severe consequences for large swathes of the population, and there are likely to be knock-on effects that ripple across society. It is, therefore, important to consider the ways in which this could impact both mobility and security.

In some spheres, the ongoing Syrian civil war is considered to be one of the first climate-affiliated conflicts. To unpack this, and the controversy around it, it is important to delve a little into the context. Historically, Syria has been relatively fertile and agriculturally productive. However, since the 1980s, it has experienced three severe droughts. The most recent of these, starting in 2006/7, has been recorded as the worst in 900 years. As an exacerbating factor, this drought came on the heels of a deep and long-term agrarian crisis; this had been brewing for decades as the Syrian regime pursued an agrarian development plan which relied on the super-exploitation of water resources, especially groundwater. Groundwater extraction, in turn, relied on the availability of cheap diesel – kept that way by massive government subsidies.

For a variety of reasons, Assad chose to remove these subsidies in 2008/9. This caused the price of diesel to rocket up by over 300%, rendering vast areas of land unviable and causing the displacement of at least 1.5 million people from rural to urban areas. The infrastructure in cities and towns was already sub-par, and it has been argued that the influx of the rural population caused some degree of tension on top of pre-existing ethnic fractures and tensions within Syrian society.

So, with the scene in Syria set with drought, loss of livelihood, mass displacement,  creaking national infrastructure and a general undercurrent of discontent, the Arab Spring began rippling out from Tunisia across the Middle East. In March 2011, pro-democracy protests in Syria were crushed with deadly force. This sparked further protests and, as we know, spiralled into the ongoing conflict. As various factions became involved and the fighting intensified, people began to flee and seek refuge. This has been framed by Western media as a migration ‘crisis’. Here, we see the contested link between climate and conflict snowball into conflict leading to migration. This can then be seen to lead to a different type of, largely ideological, conflict in the destination countries.

However, the presence of a climate signal in the outbreak of civil war in Syria is disputed. Geopolitical events have muddied the water; this is especially sensitive in this case, as the Assad regime have sought to push the climate-conflict narrative in order to absolve themselves of the blame for fomenting the catastrophic agrarian crisis that preceded the drought. Some commentators have also pointed out that neighbouring countries experienced a similar lack of precipitation but did not topple into civil conflict. Therefore, there must have been some Syria-specific factors. However, neither of these arguments are mutually exclusive of a climate signal.

It is important to note that those who argue that there is a climate signal are not stating that climate change is a primary cause of the conflict, rather, that the presence of the drought exacerbated existing conflict precursors and ‘oiled the wheels’, causing the conflict state to occur faster than it may otherwise have done. The question, for both sides, is: would the agrarian crisis alone have been sufficient to trigger the civil war?

To answer this, modelling the climate change, conflict and migration nexus as a complex system is the next logical step. It will allow for the identification of emergent properties, such as a conflict, from the combination of social, environmental and political variables. A vehicle for complex systems analysis is agent-based modelling. Here, the system is made up by a set of agents, each with bounded free will. By programming these agents with relevant parameters, it should be possible to gain a bottom-up perspective of human behaviour under different conditions and scenarios. Through this, it should be possible to elucidate the significance of each factor within the climate change, conflict and migration nexus in relation to each other.