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Why my fears about climate change made me cross the line that separates academia from activism

Posted on 27 June 2019 by Guest Author

James Dyke, Senior Lecturer in Global Systems, University of Exeter

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

Everybody seems to be talking about climate change again. This time, a great deal of the coverage has been sympathetic to the idea that we are facing an emergency that demands drastic action.

Extinction Rebellion’s protests caused some outrage, but also some surprising support. Swedish campaigner Greta Thunburg has been widely admired, David Attenborough has been spreading the word with urgency, and primetime programming has led to serious discussions about climate change across living rooms, offices and social media.

So is this the fabled tipping point in public opinion which will see widespread support for radical changes? That is a question that can only be answered in hindsight.

Yet despite the significant surge in interest and concern, most people are probably unaware of what climate change really means: that it’s not just about nudging our emissions a bit lower or taking incremental action generally. This is a challenge that is perhaps unprecedented in all of human history.

Crossing the line

Given that I teach climate change to university students, I can (and do) talk for hours about the importance of global temperature change, or ecological impacts.

But these are academic concerns in the sense that they are almost completely separated from what climate change means to me, my family, friends and pretty much everything else I care about. It’s taken me some time to realise that I was in a sort of denial about climate change. I was able to compartmentalise it.

Reflecting on this led me to take a step over the line that separates academia from activism. I have colleagues and friends who are strict observers of this separation of states. Some of them have deeply principled concerns that advocating for particular climate related policies could undermine their professional objectivity.

Others have little desire to be the subject of the online abuse which often comes with sticking your head above the parapet and into the public debate.

I had these same reservations. But over time they have been gradually worn down by the steady drum beat of bad news and insufficient action. My personal tipping point was an otherwise unremarkable lecture to one of my undergraduate classes.

I was discussing atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over time, and pointed out that this has been increasing ever since they were born. On each one of their birthdays, there was more CO? in the atmosphere than on the same day the previous year. Every additional birthday cake candle celebrated another one, two, or even three per cent annual increase.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrarion Carbon Tracker.

As I spoke, I looked into the faces of a generation that had been completely failed by their predecessors. It is a failure which came despite two decades of the science being perfectly clear that increasing CO? concentrations would produce further warming, and that dangerous changes to the global climate were lurking.

And… Action

That was when I realised that the positive professional and personal changes I had managed to make were hopelessly inadequate. Yes, I avoided flying where possible, and yes, I had largely eliminated meat and dairy from my diet.

I cycle rather than drive. I had switched to a green energy supplier. All that was good. All that was important. But I keenly felt the need to do more.

So I decided to make a documentary about climate change – about what drives it and what we can do individually, and together, to ensure a stable natural world for our children and future generations.

Why a film? It was a chat with a good friend, film maker Paul Maple of Global Documentary, about our shared frustrations over the lack of climate change programmes being broadcast which led to plans to make our own.

I had no idea what would be involved, and Paul didn’t tell me – perhaps from fear of scaring me off. That was over three years, a thousand miles of travel around the UK, terabytes of data, and countless coffee-fuelled hours in the editing suite, ago.

All of that work has now been rendered down to the 39 minutes of The Race Is On: Secrets and Solutions of Climate Change. In making the film, we were extremely fortunate to be able to interview leading figures in climate change science, economics and activism. I wouldn’t be able to name them all here without also naming the 67 people who contributed to the crowdfunding of the project and so help turn our initial sketchy plans into reality.

A film for a future

Early on, we agreed that a film, no matter how slick, could only be one part of an engagement strategy. So we planned community screenings, in which the film would be followed by panel discussions and town hall style meetings. We also produced a companion website containing information on practical steps we can all take to reduce our climate impacts.

The journey from academic to film maker activist is not something I can unreservedly recommend. I’ve had to park aspects of my professional and personal life, given how all consuming the project was. And now I seem to have taken up a new role as distributor and promoter, as the film will have no value unless people watch it.

But while I hope that this will be more than offset by generating positive impact, it’s also true that on a personal level it’s been worth it. I’ve met some incredible people, been allowed to go places and do things that otherwise would have been out of bounds (it’s amazing what you can get away with when accompanied by a film crew), and learnt new skills that have helped both my teaching and research.

The Race is On.

The film project has been a labour of love. At times, a stress test, and finally a ragged race to deadlines – so something like a microcosm of the civilisation-scale climate challenge we all now face.

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Comments 1 to 16:

  1. Advocacy by climate scientists on the climate issue sounds great to me, whether in interviews with scientists, books or movies. Especially if we get to hear little bit of their own take on the issues and their worries about the future, as well as the facts and figures, because this will really connect with people by personalising it.

    People don't trust media journalists reporting on the science and will trust scientists more. However going on protest matches would probably alienate the public, and making movies leaves you open to accusations of being in it for the money, so profits should go to charity.

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  2. Considering that WAR is the #1 guilty party in climate degradation,

    "The money misspent on the Iraq War—a war for oil let's not forget— could have purchased the planetary conversion to renewable energy... The Pentagon uses more petroleum per day than the aggregate consumption of 175 countries (out of 210 in the world), and generates more than 70 percent of this nation's total greenhouse gas emissions, based on rankings in the CIA World FactbookLINK

    And considering that the #1 perpetrator of war on the planet is the USA, we may quite logically conclude that to avoid total climate meltdown and probable extinction of most life forms, the ability of the USA to continue its Masters of War strategy must be rapidly and radically reduced, i.e., eliminated. Warfare must be our first target, for all other measures to ensure continued survival, even taken together, if warfare continues, will not meet with overall success.

    And considering that those who now wield military power in the USA have not the least intention of reducing war at all, much less radically and rapidly, it is therefore imperative that a newly invigorated, well-financed, anti-war movement be a primary project for all biophiles, those who love life. So where is the anti-war, peace movement today? Submerged in protests for a dozen comparatively unimportant issues, I fear. LINK


    An excerpt from my book

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB]  "The Pentagon uses more petroleum per day than the aggregate consumption of 175 countries (out of 210 in the world), and generates more than 70 percent of this nation's total greenhouse gas emissions"

    As others have noted, this doesn't pass the sniff test.  While the US Military is the US Government's biggest emitter, if the US military were a country, it would only be about the 55th-biggest emitter.


    Shortened and activated URLs.  Self-promotion link to your book snipped.

  3. I think that perhaps more than education, documentaries to combat misinformation that teach topics like:
     - political/economic biases & propaganda
     - free market fantasies that underlie them
     - fact-checking
     - basic logic, recognition of fallacies & categorization
    Websites exist to counter deniers claims, but after using them most days for over a year now, there don't seem to be any that are both complete and very importantly: convenient enough to understand and counter fossil fuel propaganda and denier ideologies...and insults! :)

    I would be very interested in working on such a project, if others were interested.

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  4. Welcome, James Dyke. Climate scientists have certainly sounded the alarm for mankind. Your film will only help. So, thank you for this.

    But, did you realize that climate scientists do a disservice to the cause when they keep telling politicians there still is a 'pathway' to 1.6C (or whatever)? First, all they hear is they can keep burning fossil fuels, and second, you have stepped outside your expertise and into the political space.

    With your estimates, if you factor in the time for politicians and the global economy to change we are OUT OF TIME NOW (reduce fossil fuels to zero in the next ten years).

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  5. Salience at #2,

    Wars are objectionable on numerous grounds, and it is likely true that the total money spent on the Iraq war could have financed a global energy transition. However, the problem is even deeper.

    There is enough money now that can be freed up to accomplish that transition, without even imposing beyond a moderate burden on anyone. The problem comes from the priorities and mindset of those who hold power. The 2008 financial crisis cost somehwere around 15 trillion to the World economy; likely enough, once again, to perform an energy transition. At any given time, the rich and ultra-rich have something like 7.6 trillion stashed away in tax havens, hidden for the exclusive purpose of not having to give up a portion of it.

    That behavior comes from people who have no material worries whatsoever. If I had a bad cancer diagnosis, despite living in the most privileged part of the world, obtaining and undergoing the treatment would drain all my resources, require me to sell my house and possibly use my retirement savings, even though I have a good profession, savings, and a credit rating in the mid-800s. The rich and ultra-rich would experience none of that. They would only have to endure the distress of the disease and treatment.

    Despite the fact that their position is privileged to this historically unprecedented extent, they are utterly convinced that they must not have even a litle less money than the theoretical maximum they can possibly extract from this world. That's the real problem. Of course, some of them enagage in philanthropy, but even they would not be ready to a profound change that would render it impossible in the first place to obtain wealth expressed in a high power of 10 of that of the lowest paid employee in their empire. Historically, they all have pushed very hard to outsource all activity to places where they did not have to play a fair role in the game, paying people miserable wages, having little to no tax liabilities, no environmental or social responsibility and generous lattitude to obtain favor from local officials. Philanthropy seems kinda cheap after that goal is realized.

    The technologies exist for accomplishing at least a partial energy transition that could dramatically reduce emissions at the 15 years horizon. It is not happening because governments are at the back and call of people for whom short term profits are more important than anything.

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  6. Philippe Chantreau @5 ,

    yes, it is all a matter of attitude.

    A golden cartoon from 1970-ish ( Punch magazine ) shows two plump middle-aged businessmen (cigars & Homburgs) in the back seat of a Rolls-Royce driving through central London.  One says to the other: "Yes, I am grossly over-remunerated . . . but I am not grossly over-remunerated enough."

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  7. True that

    Some good news, however.

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  8. And that's without even trying hard...

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  9. Eliminating Animal Agriculture from the planet would buy a lot of time since its contribution to the climate problem is so large.  We can do without animal agriculture much easier than we can do without fossil fuels, although the elimination of both, with large population reductions, could put us back on track to a survivable future.

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  10. "The Race Is On" didn't speak a word about Animal Agriculture, or did I miss that somewhere?

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  11. @9 Swampfoxh,

    Animal agriculture is about 5% of global emissions, but it could potetially sequester all emissions from all agriculture, if changes were made in the methods used.

    “The number one public enemy is the cow. But the number one tool that can save mankind is the cow. We need every cow we can get back out on the range. It is almost criminal to have them in feedlots which are inhumane, antisocial, and environmentally and economically unsound.” Allan Savory

     The way the majority of animal husbandry is done today is indeed a net emissions source. So sure boycott it now. That's fine. But please don't stand in the way of people attempting to change the methods by which we do agriculture. It's counter-productive. Regenerative agriculture is the only proven technology with the potential to be a large enough to reverse AGW. And regenerative agriculture needs animals used properly to complete many key ecosystem functions we lost when we killed off all the wild animals.

    “As the small trickle of results grows into an avalanche — as is now happening overseas — it will soon be realized that the animal is our farming partner and no practice and no knowledge which ignores this fact will contribute anything to human welfare or indeed will have any chance either of usefulness or of survival.” Sir Albert Howard

    Without those key ecosystem services, nothing we do will have any chances at all of reversing global warming. Yes we still need to reduce fossil fuel emissions. But alone the evidence shows it will not be enough. This is what we are locked into unless we drawdown massive quantities of legacy carbon into the soil and lock it in there for hundreds if not thousands of years.

    Climate urgency: we've locked in more global warming than people realize

    Arctic now locked into devastating temperature rise, UN report says

    Evolution of global temperature over the past two million years


    There is only one. I repeat only one technology we have today that is capable of sequestering that quantity of legacy carbon at a fast enough rate to "unlock" global warming, and that is regenerative agriculture.

    Can we reverse global warming?

    How to fight desertification and reverse climate change.

    'In the early 1970s, it dawned on me that no one had ever applied design to agriculture. When I realised it, the hairs went up on the back of my neck. It was so strange. We’d had agriculture for 7,000 years, and we’d been losing for 7,000 years — everything was turning into desert. So I wondered, can we build systems that obey ecological principles? We know what they are, we just never apply them. Ecologists never apply good ecology to their gardens. Architects never understand the transmission of heat in buildings. And physicists live in houses with demented energy systems. It’s curious that we never apply what we know to how we actually live.'-Bill Mollison

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  12. In all these well intended discussions about global warming and animial agriculture you have to look at what people  are most likely to do. There is no point living in a fantasy land of expecations.I can see people reducing meat consumption for a variety of well known reasons, and I hope we all do this, but its really hard to see the whole world becoming vegan or something reasonably close to this, even if there was some theoretical case in favour of it. Humans are omnivores by nature, something we should always remember. People like eating meat and its a good source of energy.

    This being the case we should do all farming including cattle farming in environmentally sustainable ways and that sequesters soil carbon. Not sure that I go along fully with Red Barons big claims and I have to be true to my own reading of the evidence, but there is still some significant potential there to sequester soil carbon and regenerative agriculture makes a good case for itself in terms of general environmentalism with soil carbon as a side benefit. We should use all the tools we have when they make sense like this.

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  13. In regard to ruminant methane production, at University of California, Davis, studies are being done to address this problem. It had been reported that a type of red seaweed when added to supplemental feed greatly reduces it, in the high ninety percentile. I can't comment on the modality. I suppose that, if it supresses methanogenic microbes, it would interfere with nutrient uptake. If it fosters methanotrops on top of the normal digestion of celluose, it might be less so.

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  14. @13 3-d construct

    It's fine but the reason is that seaweed digests/decomposes much easier.

    I have explained multiple times here at skeptical science they (and many other climate scientists who are weak in biology) the issue with methane has nothing to do with the cow. It's the grass. Lignified carbon and celulose carbon are extremely difficult to break down and recycle.  So whether it is a worm, or a caterpillar, or a termite, or a compost pile, or fire, or slow oxidation in standing dead material, or a cow, there will be some methane released. The cow and other wild ruminants with their highly evolved reticulorumen are actually some of the more efficient of the many ways to break down and recycle old biomass. Termites for example produce much more methane!

    Nevertheless, a well managed grassland biome including att the various insects animals and worms are a net negative for methane and actually cool the planet. The only time a cow can be considered a net source is in the factory farming business model. So clearly this idea that livestock are causing AGW is highly misleading. And so what seaweed digests easier? All it means is something else will need you digest that grass besides a cow, something far less efficient and very likely to be a greater methane source that the cow would have been. 

    Meanwhile the real culprits to increasing methane are actually warming and melting permafrost and arctic ice along with natural gas leaks. And the largest agricultural emissions source for methane is paddy rice production, not livestock.

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  15. @Saliance #2: You state

    "The Pentagon ...generates more than 70 percent of this nation's total greenhouse gas emissions."

    According to the World Bank, US defence spending in recent years has been about 3 to 4% of GDP. The claim of 70% is not believeable without more supporting info, and frankly undermines the credbility of the rest of your post.  Please explain.

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    Moderator Response:

    [DB] Thank you for noting that.  The claimant has been challenged to support that claim.

  16. Ah ha! Perhaps "this nation" is one not mentioned in your post.

    But even so, taking a path through solving war to get to the solution of our CO2 issues seems like an even bigger challenge.

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