Hundreds of scholars and students alike attended the conference, which focused on the need to “adapt” to climate change rather than prevent it.
On Friday 16th November a packed Jeffery Hall gave host to UCL Climate Action Society’s flagship event, the Sustainability Symposium. The conference brought together speakers from a variety of fields, all with the shared aim of raising awareness of an impending climate catastrophe and discussing how to reduce the most harmful human impacts around the globe.
President of the Climate Action Society, Aliza Ayaz, began proceedings addressing the need for an “intellectual approach”, in order to avoid the “frenzy” that has become associated with action on climate change. Her opening speech outlined how climate change affects both developed and developing countries, yet can be especially damaging to poor and vulnerable communities. She stated that “there can be no lasting peace without climate action,” and emphasised the need to focus efforts not just in the field of academia and research but across many other different areas of society such as law, politics, and business.
Following Ayaz was Richard Jackson, the Director of Sustainability at UCL. His ten-person team work to embed sustainability across all university activities, as well as increasing the sense of community amongst the UCL student and staff body in order to help tackle climate change together. Campaigns such as ‘Ditch the Disposable’ are currently helping the university reach their target of 85% recycling rates, while the ‘Wild Bloomsbury’ project seeks to create more green spaces on campus and reduce the environmental impact that comes with city living. Jackson placed special emphasis on the “need for honesty” and the importance of “increasing community participation” in order to make action on climate change a social responsibility for everyone. Despite the 14% carbon reduction on the UCL campus over the past decade, Jackson made clear that more must still be done.
The first guest speaker to address the audience was Rupert Read, a Green Party MP candidate and chair of the think tank Green House, who delivered an emphatic message on the “partial or complete collapse of civilisation” due to climate change. Building on the importance of being honest when discussing the realities of this phenomenon, he called for drastic action to be taken in the form of protesting and refusing to accept how governments and politicians have dealt with – or failed to deal with – climate change. He claimed that our generation will not live to grow old unless “something drastic” is done, and pointed towards serious action in the form of decommissioning nuclear power plants and labelling government ministers “criminals against humanity” for their inability to tackle these problems decisively.
The next speaker, Renee Ayeen Karunungan, a climate tracker and climate campaigner at the UN Paris summit, discussed the relationship between sustainability and art. Her stance on the political nature of art demonstrated how it can be used as a form of protest, especially in relation to the argument against the sponsorship of art galleries by large oil companies and other major pollutants. As she stated, “art may not change the world, but it can change the way we view the world.”
Senior curator at the ZSL, Paul Pearce-Kelly, used his platform to cast light on the ecological impact on the marine environment, in particular coral reefs. As 2018 is International Year of the Reef, Pearce-Kelly stressed the importance of coral reefs in a marine ecosystem, and the impending threat of the “sixth mass extinction” if the destruction of such species continues. His sentiments were echoed by UCL Physical Geography Professor Anson Mackay, whose talk explored the contribution of habitat loss and over-exploitation of natural resources to the climate catastrophe. He called on the student population to get more involved, whether by voting or even just paying more attention to events unfolding around them. Speaking to Pi Media, Professor Mackay reiterated the need to “raise awareness about all the various issues linked to climate change” and said that the approach needed is one of “tackling them one by one”, on both an individual and collective level.
Professor Mackay was followed by Dr Morgan Phillips, co-director of the Glacier Trust, a charity helping vulnerable communities in the Himalayas adapt to climate change. He too expressed the need for adaption, something that only 0.89% of academic articles on climate change analysed in the last year have focussed on. He pointed out that humans are very good at “maladaptation” – temporarily fixing a problem with no real permanent solution. In an interview with Pi Media, he called on students to spread the “positive stories about great projects” doing work against climate change, as “it is the collective action that will make the difference”.
The conference ended on a note of optimism with Joss Garman, UK Initiative Director at the European Climate Foundation. Garman pointed towards some of the positive changes that have already been implemented, such as the phasing out of coal as a power source in the UK. He said there were “reasons to be hopeful”, for instance the projections for electric cars to be rolled out, and the “fast paced nature of technological change”, enabling developing economies to progress in different ways without relying on industry.
The overall message of the symposium suggests that the debate surrounding climate change has shifted – if it can no longer be prevented from happening, then its effects must be minimised. One of the recurring themes of the conference was the importance of student involvement, and the responsibilities that lie with the generation that will inherit these issues.
Thanks to UCL Climate Action Society for putting on the Sustainability Symposium.