Imagine planet B – Reflections on the GW4 Early Career Researcher Symposium: ‘Climate Change: Science & Society’

January 28, 2021
Jennifer Michel

On behalf of the GW4 Climate Symposium organising committee, Dr Jennifer Michel from the University of Exeter, reflects on how the two-day online event helped advanced their knowledge and thirst for answers.

The GW4 Alliance launched an exciting new initiative in 2020, bringing together Postgraduate Researchers (PGRs) and Early Career Researchers (ECRs) to deliver a flagship symposium focused on either Climate or Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR). The Climate Symposium held in December 2020 addressed three broad themes: impacts of climate change, mobilizing societal change, and sustainable solutions.

Over the past centuries, the climate has changed fundamentally, but so too has human perception of the weather and our natural environment. We stopped hunting mammoths and dancing around our campfires (ok, the latter sometimes we still do). In a relatively short stretch of time we invented the internet, stock markets, vaccines, cars and planes. We (believe we) conquered the world, while we changed from a generation of climate change deniers to a generation of extinction rebellion activists.

It is today relatively certain that our blue planet’s atmosphere is ephemeral and the persistence of the human species in this place is not eternal. Whatever your beliefs—and who knows the truth?—we can be sure that the climate debate has been, and likely will remain, a very emotional one. The stakes are high. Climate scientists are amongst the most passionate researchers. They are deeply engaged in the most complex matters of life on planet Earth in the heroic endeavour to save the world. But they alone will not make a difference. Everyone needs to understand the science. Greta Thunberg said “our house is on fire”. She might be right. But we need to keep cool and take a step back.

How can we determine effective actions? What follows after we have demonstrated on the streets and in front of parliament? Some people in suits invest in Tesla, while others pursue the Green New Deal. But do either help? Does the span of uncertainties exceed our capacities to distinguish the most reasonable path? Which collective actions do we need? How meaningful can each of our contributions be? How much comfort and consumption do we REALLY want to give up? Will individual action be enough to compensate for inaction elsewhere? How can we motivate and reward ourselves for positive action? Can we determine who is responsible for climate change, and should we hold them accountable? What is climate justice? Who gets to judge? Who’s offended? Who’s biased? And what’s fair?

We didn’t get answers to all our questions during our Symposium. In fact, we went home—no, we actually stayed home—with even more questions than before. Some questions could be meaningfully rephrased and others extended. We also could expand our horizons beyond our own disciplines. Brianna Croft, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED) reminded us that those who contributed least to anthropogenic climate change in the least developed countries are those most severely affected. David Stainforth, Professorial Research Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, stressed that we all need to be humble: we mustn’t forget to admit the limitations of our models and theories. Maya Elliott from the UK Research & Innovation’s Global Food Security programme explained how we can likely only ever find strategies, but not solutions.

Nevertheless, in the end, speakers and attendees all agreed that this world needs action. Positive action. Effective action. Meaningful action. During the event we were all impressed by the amazing research that our panel and participants presented. We learnt really cool and interesting things on all sorts of topics, including stress-tolerant plants, mighty microbes, and climate extremes from heat stress to frost; and from agricultural soils to mega-cities.

It was in a way reassuring to see that answers can be found. But still having questions is important: it’s what drives science and societies forward. Sometimes the question is just as important as the answer. As early career researchers, we have the freedom—and the duty—to ask ‘silly’ questions to become the scientists who are dreaming up the ideas which might make this planet liveable for all.

We need to think about our needs. But for now, we just need to try and keep calm and carry on. In applied research – in the lab and in the field – things seldom ever work out entirely as planned. Now, more than ever, scientists need to be resilient. The same is true for societies. Our planet surely is.

We feel privileged to have been provided a (virtual) space by GW4 to come together and wonder about what will change our climate and our societies for the better. It was a pleasure running this symposium and I would like to take this opportunity to say once again a massive thank you from the organising committee to GW4, all our invited speakers, presenters, and participants. We didn’t know what it would be until it happened. It definitively would have been impossible without you.

For more information visit the GW4 Climate Change: Science and Society website.