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Coronavirus effect casts pall over Cambridge Science Festival biodiversity talk

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‘Climate change and biodiversity: time for action!’ at Cambridge Science festival, from left are Lord Martin Rees, Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Oliver Morton and Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta. Picture: Mike Scialom
‘Climate change and biodiversity: time for action!’ at Cambridge Science festival, from left are Lord Martin Rees, Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Oliver Morton and Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta. Picture: Mike Scialom

Thursday’s Cambridge Science Festival event at the Babbage Lecture Theatre turned out to be the last event of this year’s schedule, which was cancelled on Friday morning due to coronavirus concerns, so it as unfortunate that the totality of the experience was rather less than the sum of its parts.

Titled ‘Climate change and biodiversity: time for action!’, the panel - chaired by science writer and editor Oliver Morton - consisted of Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta, Dr Emily Shuckburgh and Lord Martin Rees.

The introductory speeches veered towards the ornate. Prof Dasgupta, emeritus professor of economics at the University and a biodiversity specialist, leaned heavily on a mathematical equation to confirm that “perpetual GDP growth is a biospheric impossibility”. However, in a session for the general public another layer of complexity - a mathematical formula whose geometrical elegance very few will fully appreciate - isn’t necessarily of much immediate use. Nor did Prof Dasgupta’s tendency to describe nature as an “asset” help: to align ourselves as a species as above and beyond the normal rules of nature is a conceit that has been thoroughly exposed during the coronavirus outbreak.

Dr Shuckburgh, climate scientist, mathematician and director of Cambridge Zero, the University of Cambridge’s climate change initiative, followed, and unfortunately triggered my google metric: the alarm goes off when a speech could have been largely googled. A long (very long) litany of the woes facing the world - horrendous glacier melt, 1.1 degrees of global warming above pre-industrial levels, catastrophic deforestation and more - could all have been googled, and probably anyone at a Cambridge Science Festival would know this anyway. It shellshocks people to do this, and impairs the ability to think positively about the future. It’s not Dr Shuckburgh’s job to soft-peddle the outcomes, but there’s lots to be done and feeling hopeless about it all isn’t going to help.

“We need to be halving emissions, which is why the international negotiations later this year are so critical,” said Dr Shuckburgh, speaking of the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, in Glasgow in November. Until recently - and none of this is Dr Shuckburgh’s fault - that would have been okay, it’s just that in a few short weeks, the world has radically changed. There was BC and AD: it’s ‘Before Coronavirus’ and... after coronavirus? We now know that the world can halve its emissions quite easily, by stopping travelling so much and stopping making stuff which involves producing greenhouse gases. And the timelines involved in changing to a non fossil-fuel based society are so very far away, decades away, 2040, 2050. Suddenly, we don’t really know what’s going to happen by this time next month, let alone November.

The world is waking up to climate change far more slowly than it has to coronavirus
The world is waking up to climate change far more slowly than it has to coronavirus

Fortunately Lord Rees passes the google metric with flying colours. Of course he does, the Astronomer Royal since 1995 and Master of Trinity College needs no notes, no google, he has a notebook the size of a million books in his head, but he’s still immediate and in the moment, and his message of sustained agricultural change is pertinent. As an elder statesman at the university of life, his summary of the dangers we face if we continue our wicked ways was apposite: “We will destroy the book of life before we’ve read it.”

Things became quite sureally difficult during the Q&A. Asked by Oliver what they know now but didn’t four years ago, the panel chose to answer totally different questions. Prof Dasgupta said subsidies for businesses damaging the climate had to end. Dr Shuckburgh said the biggest change was in public opinion, and Lord Rees noted the “discussions on divestment, and discussions with oil companies such as Shell which wouldn’t have been possible five years ago”. Very true - and a terrible indictment of the snail’s pace with which the climate science has impacted public behaviour. Unfortunately, progress on turning climate change around has been pitifully slow, and the fact that the university is still “discussing” divestment says it all.

Lord Rees added: “We may be getting to a tipping point in public opinion.” He’s right there, though there are other tipping points too, and maybe a tipping point in human consciousness is now taking place - albeit for an entirely different emergency.

Questions about consumption, producing goods and food locally, indigenous people, the “spiritual” side of nature and farming followed. Interesting points, but too many weren’t actually questions, they were half-formed observations where the speaker is seeking validation or some sort of reassurance. One question about Greta Thunberg not getting a Nobel Peace Prize was clearly of little relevance, but everyone was too polite to say so. And still no mention of coronavirus - no mention of rewilding even. You could sense how climate science has been so marginalised in the last 30 years of increasing climate damage - and partly this is because there’s little sense of urgency in the academic world. Pity no climate change activists were invited. The snail’s pace of public awareness has been rudely interrupted by recent Extinction Rebellion protests. Their energy was lacking in the Babbage Lecture Theatre.

Finally the chair, Oliver Morton, lost his patience with a so-called questioner and said basically they had two minutes left and the question was going to use up the whole two minutes so what actual question did they want to ask?

Unfortunately it was too little, too late: the event was somehow unsatisfactory. The exclamation mark in the event title suggested a certain level of dynamism and to retreat behind equations and commonplace observations did little to take the discussion forward. And now the festival has been cancelled, which is terrible news for participants and speakers alike. Let’s hope it comes back next year.

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