It's the Earth's future, stupid

March 30, 2007

Al Gore rallies UK academics to spread word about climate change, says Anthea Lipsett.

UK academics this week signed up for an interdisciplinary crusade against global warming launched by former US Vice-President Al Gore.

Mr Gore urged academics, business leaders, teachers and other specialists who attended a series of seminars at Cambridge University to spread the climate change message.

"These are not normal issues, and every discipline has expertise relevant to what society needs to construct an adequate response to this crisis," he told The Times Higher .

"Every academic discipline should engage to help society mobilise for the urgent responses necessary to solve the climate crisis."

Few academics are expert at telling the public about complex scientific issues simply and concisely. During the seminar, Mr Gore even pulled up Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, for using complex scientific terms.

Professor Rapley said: "I think it's great that he told me off for that.

"He quite deliberately took 15 minutes at the beginning of the seminar to explain that how you communicate requires a good deal of thought and skill.

I think the scientific community has a huge amount to learn from him."

Professor Rapley said that science had moved towards a more systematic approach, pulling in several disciplines to tackle complex subjects such as the future of the planet.

"We've had to reassemble teams of people who wouldn't normally talk to each other. You need a mix to solve really interesting problems. People come to the table with insights and approaches that wouldn't have happened otherwise, so it has benefited science all round. But there's still insufficient communication between social science and natural science," he said.

Sir Peter Knight, principal of Imperial College London's natural sciences faculty, said Imperial was running a big initiative on the consequences of climate change that involved several disciplines.

"If you don't have that mix of disciplines, you are inhibited," he said.

"The time for dealing with the consequences is now. Imperial has probably the world's best group in epidemiology, and climate changes affect the geographical distribution of diseases. Epidemiologists have an important role in working out what will happen to infectious diseases such as malaria."

Ian Leslie, Cambridge's pro vice-chancellor for research, said the seminar helped make the link with research inside institutions and would make academics question the way they engaged with the public.

"Most real problems require engagement across different disciplines and working against the organisation of traditional institutions. This is an example of a problem that requires that (approach)," he added.

Tim Lenton, a reader in earth systems analysis who collaborated with Gaia theorist James Lovelock during his PhD, said: "The most useful thing was the masterclass in getting the message across and how make the presentation to people who don't understand the science.

Nigel Arnell, head of Southampton University's Geography School, said research councils could work together more to fund cross-disciplinary projects on themes such as climate change.

Polly Courtice, director of Cambridge's Programme for Industry, which organised the event, said: "With such a wealth of knowledge in this university and elsewhere, we need to get people to engage with getting the message out to the public."


The Tyndall Centre is a virtual network of scientists, economists, engineers and social scientists working to develop sustainable responses to climate change through research and dialogue. It links the universities of East Anglia, Manchester, Southampton, Oxford, Newcastle and Sussex.

Reading University hosts the Natural Environment Research Council Centres for Atmospheric Science - the UK's core academic atmospheric research programme, including climate variability and climate change - and the Centre for Global Atmospheric Modelling, which specialises in climate variability and climate change science. The Walker Institute for Climate System Research was launched there in November 2006.

Cambridge University's Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research launched in January 2006.

nImperial College London has won a $25 million (£13 million) grant from the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment to research the consequences of climate change.

About 15,000 people and businesses have signed up to East Anglia 's carbon reduction programme since it began in 2004.

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