Switch on for brighter outlook

March 25, 2005

One academic can change a light bulb, but together we can change the world, argues Jonathan Ward

Recent media coverage of climate change has offered little in the way of hope.

Everyone knows we must cut emissions of greenhouse gases, but not how we go about doing so effectively. The public needs guidance but the Government has shown that it cannot be trusted to put the environment first.

It is time the academic community shouldered a greater share of the responsibility for tackling climate change. This means not just supplying the grisly facts but starting to instigate action, leading by example.

We should use our skills and resources to turn higher education institutions into sustainable, climate-friendly microcosms. And we should undertake a much broader research remit into the necessary cultural, political and economic shifts that will be required both to limit the problem and to deal with its impact. Once our own house is in order, we can then lead the country.

Universities have an enormous role to play in enlightening the public about how climate change will affect us and a duty to help adapt to a life restricted by low-carbon consumption levels. We are indulging in behaviour that can be deemed pathological when you consider the readily available information on the impact of emissions.

It is not enough for the academic community to use energy-saving light bulbs, recycle materials and ride bikes to work. All are honourable measures, but in no way sufficient for the task in hand. We have to do better than this.

When you fly out to your next far-flung conference, contributing yet more emissions, stop and ask yourself: is this necessary? Could you not embrace the technology at your fingertips to avoid non-essential travel? Do you check whether the food you consume has been imported over great distances? Do you try to avoid driving to work without passengers? These questions demand answers.

Taking action at a personal level lays the foundations for a genuine collective response. As things stand, we are not in a position to avert or cope with the crisis that climate change will bring. There is an urgent need to do more than just observe, record and predict events. Climate change must be put high on the agenda across the spectra of university disciplines. It must become an essential fixture on the nation's curricula.

Too much of our climate-change research is limited to the sciences at present.

Worryingly, we have barely begun to explore the alternative political, social, economic and technical systems that we will need to survive and prosper in a low-carbon, resource-scarce environment.

Lack of a positive vision has prevented us from winning public backing. We must use all of our faculties to become carriers of hope, providing inspiration and devising concrete pathways along which others can follow.

When confronted by seemingly insurmountable tasks, we tend to declare that the individual cannot possibly make a difference. It is about time we overcame such negativity.

We face the greatest challenge in history. As a collective, the academic community must tackle climate change in the manner that it deserves. This is one occasion where humankind simply cannot afford to wait until a crisis is upon us before we react. By then it will simply be too late.

Jonathan Ward is a research assistant for the human radiation effects group at Bristol University and an associate of the Crisis Forum (www.crisis-forum.org.uk).

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