Stephen Matthews is a member of the University's Communications Team. Since last summer, he has been supporting the work of the Climate Emergency Group. Here he offers some personal reflections on the climate debate and our request that teams take time through Summer Term to discuss these issues.
When did YOU first hear about climate change?
For me, it would have been June 1988. NASA scientist James Hansen’s testimony to a US Senate committee made the nightly news. I was in my final month of secondary school and, though global warming was certainly of interest, I was perhaps more focused on saving for an Interrail pass.
I understood something was wrong, but what could I actually do?
While Hansen’s evidence lit a fuse for some, the years that followed brought little in the way of momentum, despite a succession of ever-more trenchant reports vying for the headlines.
In 1992, the Rio Earth Summit brought a commitment to "stabilise" greenhouse gas emissions. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol set binding targets for almost 40 mainly-industrialised countries, and the European Union. Then, in 2006, former Vice-President Al Gore received global coverage for his film An Inconvenient Truth. Finally, it seemed, climate change and the need for action had reached the mainstream.
Yet, 15 years on from the last of these ‘watershed moments’, most countries are still missing the most important targets. Why?
There can be no single, correct answer. Climate change presents such a fundamental challenge to the ways in which we live, and in so many ways. Effective climate action needs genuine commitment at all levels. The challenge is immense and the barriers manifold.
But one explanation for our lack of progress might be apparent from the list of milestones above: much of the debate on climate change has happened at a level that few of us feel equipped to engage with.
How might this affect our individual responses? Do we have the information we need? Perhaps some of us are simply left feeling that this is "not for us"? Or maybe we are just intimidated by the almost incomprehensible immensity of the challenge we face.
In the internet age, we can hardly blame a lack of information, but a failure to identify, agree, and then implement local, relevant, positive solutions has led to stasis.
In December, the University declared a climate and ecological emergency and in March we launched a consultation that will run until July, asking what WE can do to address this - still - rapidly-developing situation.
To be workable, our approach must take account of the specific challenges we face, as a university and as individuals. It must harness not only the expertise within our community, but the vital experience of every one of us: our day-to-day knowledge of the ways we work, the places we work in and the things we can change.
The best ideas rarely develop in a vacuum. We need to talk and, where possible, bring together voices from across our community, to share different perspectives.
In the midst of a global pandemic, this is not straightforward, but we need to start somewhere.
As Rob Davey noted in his recent blog, work on our new Sustainability Sub-Strategy (SSS) is already underway. It is a genuine team effort, but the 13 working groups that underpin its development still represent only a fraction of our community.
So, across Summer Term, we are asking teams to take time to discuss some of the areas that will be included in the SSS. The Sustainability team have pulled together some excellent information to help frame those conversations – this basic structure has already been shared with Heads and managers. We will also be sharing further resources after each session, for those who want to dive deeper, but this is really just context: the focus in these meeting should be on YOUR thoughts. What can we do?
Next week, we will start by asking teams to think about the University’s carbon emissions and how, together, we can reduce them: we must map our route to net zero. In the weeks that follow, we will be asking you to focus on travel; on how to encourage biodiversity on our campuses; and on our approach, as a university, to both education and research.
Through these sessions, we hope to also highlight successes, including those in our own university. These positive stories - these small steps to better living - are vital: they show us all that progress can be made and how.
You may feel team meetings are not the best place to discuss such things and that is, of course, fine. If you would prefer to host your own discussions, or contribute independently, you can. There are no barriers to making your voice heard.
As we move through Summer Term, we hope to also offer some additional sessions, hosted by the Sustainability Team. These sessions will provide further opportunities to consider different perspectives.
The Climate Action Plan that will result from the SSS will shape our approach for the next five years. This is vital work and we need your help to make it as good as it can be. We hope you will take time and take part.
You can find out more about both our declaration of a climate and ecological emergency and how to contribute to the consultation mentioned above on our dedicated webpage.
Communications Officer, University of Essex
Stephen Matthews is a member of the University's central Communications team, with responsibility for the School of Law, Human Rights Centre and East 15 Acting School. Stephen also supports the work of the Climate Emergency Group and sits on the organising committee for Holocaust Memorial Week. Prior to Essex, Stephen was an award-winning filmmaker, working in TV, advertising and corporate communications. He also wrote and directed campaign films for charities including Friends of the Earth, Sustrans and World Development Movement.
19 April 2021
Categories: The Climate and Ecological Emergency, Sustainability, Alumni