An open letter to Nigel Farage (and offer of a pint)

The right kind of wet. Defunct Derby brewery ad, Cambridge Blue pub

The right kind of wet. Defunct Derby brewery ad, Cambridge Blue pub

Dear Nigel

I was concerned for you on Channel 4 News tonight. I’ve never seen you looking uncomfortable in front of the camera before. Answering questions about climate change with water all around you left you short of breath and a bit panicky I thought. A pint in your hand would have helped settle the nerves. I’ll buy you one – it would give me a chance to talk through a couple of things (I’m with you on the straight glass thing by the way).

You said to the journalist: ‘I have no idea whether CO2 emissions are contributing to climate change’. I’m an Open University academic – a social scientist who also works with climate scientists and technology specialists, and can help you with that one. In the mid 1980s it was agreed by governments and the top science institutions around the world that humans might cause changes to the climate, and that we’d better look into it. That’s when the IPCC was born: a massive review of all the relevant science. The first report said that some uncertainties would decrease and some would increase over time. For sure some uncertainties have increased. But they have got much more confident about the role of humans in climate change with every report.

But this is difficult stuff to hear when everything we do seems to depend on fossil fuels. The result has been that many people with an interest have turned climate change into a truth war. Personally I find it much more helpful to instead think of climate science as a risk assessment, and climate policy as risk management. No sides, or battles, just different appetites for risk. The IPCC risk assessment came in years ago, with absolute clarity: the message was ‘don’t risk the future for the sake of cheap oil and coal’.

But you might say I’m missing your point: those contrarians who do think there is something in the science say the cure is worse than the disease – right? Wrong. Board members of some of Britain’s biggest companies, including auto, consumer goods, energy and water industries, can point to no regrets tech progress in key sectors that have been driven by commitments to act on climate change and pursue resource efficiency. They’re delivering better products to consumers, reducing bills and gaining market share. They’re fitter to compete globally too.

You and I also care about the quality of everyday life for those oft-mentioned but oft-neglected ‘hardworking ordinary British people’. But again I think you’ve got the wrong end of the stick. Things like green transport and housing policies can help to make people healthier, happier and richer across a lifetime, and reduce tax burdens around health care and welfare. T-shirt version: ‘climate action = better lives, lower taxes’. So long as the policy people start early and learn as they go.

But what if the IPCC are wrong? What if the maverick naysayers are on the nail? The most convincing (to me) climate contrarian arguments are rooted in the idea that we’ll be ‘lucky’, in other words, that climate sensitivity will be at the lowest end of the range of scenarios. This line is nicely summarised by the climate contrarian’s mascot scientist Richard Lindzen in his contribution to the UK House of Commons Climate Change Committee hearing on the IPCC’s latest report: ‘it is entirely possible there is no problem.’

But… Luck. Chance. Optimism. Hope. A bet. A gamble. A roll of the dice. How did that go with banking?

Yes. It is entirely possible that there is no problem, but almost all the good evidence available to me points in another direction. Happily most of the things that are likely to be required can, if well thought through, carry some huge benefits to ‘honest hard working British people and British businesses’.

Lets have that pint. Straight glasses. Cask ale. And talk more about the weather.



PS: the next time TV journalists do that thing where they make you stand in a flooded street and ask you about climate change you can say that the IPCC would stress that the capacity to directly attribute extreme weather events directly to climate change is years away, if its even possible. But if you do borrow that line of argument do please promise to read some of the other things they’ve got to say.

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New Year – New Weather – Happy? On trends and variations

iceboatcopy_zps3fbe56ebJust received a message from an OU geography graduate, with the above photo, that reads:

‘Just a short note to wish you a Happy New Year with a short update.
Record levels of Antarctic sea ice, Summer and Winter and record low temperatures in parts of the USA currently, in addition to a recent satellite record low Antarctic recording.
Of course this is weather but with no Global Warming since 1998 it is on it’s way to becoming climate. (A cooling climate)
Perhaps we should be looking at Sun spots rather than man made CO2.  Or then again, just following the money?  Even the Guardian has become comedy reading!
Best Wishes etc.’

My reply reads:

Hi xxx

Happy New Year to you too

From the tone of your email I suspect you hold quite fixed views on the topic of climate change, but I strongly urge you to explore the best available sources on climate change research. The IPCC website contains various levels of depth but there are plenty of other resources too. I think you would quickly find that sun spots have not been considered a viable explanation for the levels of change that have been observed over the period.

You might want to consider this engaging little cartoon about the difference between trend and variation. I’ve chosen a site where its embedded in an article that expands on the different ways people read data depending on the assumptions they start with.

One thing I would say at a personal level: i’m puzzled why anyone would think that researchers want climate change to be true. Everyone I know working in this field would dearly love to discover that the conclusions almost every climate scientist’s work is pointing to are wrong. Climate change seems likely to bring significant waste and suffering, albeit highly unpredictable.

Personally I find it helpful to understand climate science as a risk assessment and climate policy as a risk management process in its wake. More on this at my blog (see link below). If it had been communicated in this way rather than as a ‘truth war’ as it has sometimes been, including e.g by Al Gore, then I think many of the people figured as contrarians/skeptics/deniers (I think the first term is the only one that works, though there are problems with all such ‘groupings’) would be happy to take at face value the hard work of investigation that is going on.

Best wishes


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The world in a wardrobe


Later today I’m contributing to a Festival of Ideas event organised by Zoe Svendsen linked to Metis Arts and co’s World Factory project. I’ll be talking about sustainability, fashion and the clothing industry, basing my contribution on a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Sustainability and Fashion, (eds Kate Fletcher and Mathilda Tham) due out next summer. Here is an excerpt from the draft conclusion. Rather than writing a few thousand well referenced words on the geography of care I wrote an essay about the life of the contents of my grandmother Betty’s wardrobe across her 100 years. I’m saving all the fun bits e.g. about what she did with WW2 parachute fabric for the chapter and event today, but this offers the concluding argument.

We may be making a mistake in implying that there is a need to move ‘from’ unsustainability ‘to’ a new unimaginably distant and radically different state. The composition of and care for the garments in Betty’s wardrobe over a century can be patched together into an account of a more sustainable life with clothing. Many of these elements are covered in far more detail in other contributions to this book, but they can be shoehorned into a paragraph.

Investing in some pieces of long lasting quality rewards the maker and the owner. These are heritage items where the expertise and skill of the designers and makers needs to be well rewarded, but the garments carry and communicate value for many years. Learning and practicing skills of mending, maintaining and refreshing clothes is a satisfying thing to do that increases self-respect and independence. If time and enthusiasm is short, people can spend small amounts of money rewarding someone else’s skill in order to keep good clothes going. Consideration for the well being of the makers of textiles and garments is an obligation upon the wearer. Awareness of the realities of their lives is within easy reach (though eyes are easily averted). The business of buying clothes can be done within a fairer economic system that supports the welfare and striving of people near and far, as the British post-war settlement demonstrated. The price paid for ‘good’ clothes should permit decent and secure lives all the way along the supply chain, whether it stretches across a few miles or a few continents. Innovation should be treasured just as much as the classic piece. New developments can result in pleasure and surprise but also less environmental and social cost if the right priorities are set in design and manufacturing training and practice. Researching the whole life cycle of a product, and stripping out waste and harm with the rigour that economic globalization has previously only applied to cost will result in dramatic reductions in resource consumption in production, use and disposal of garments. Price signals that reflect or are driven by changing social pressures and values can be a powerful and rapid way of expressing ethical commitments and a shared vision of the future. Assigning adequate prices to the value of labour and of material inputs, including water, crops and fossil fuels provides intuitive ways of delivering change at pace and scale throughout a system.

Can we really imagine all of these things happening? To do so it is necessary to look away from the static political imaginary of the present time – one concerned solely with the idea that salvation lies in another burst of impact-blind consumption and GDP figures going up. Rather it helps to look back and reflect upon the scale and pace of technological, economic and political system changes across the last century. Human beings need to remind themselves that the devices and systems we live with aren’t mysterious natural forces to be endured, but rather human artefacts that we can drive towards deliberate purposes. The Edwardian household economy of service, the colonial economy of resource exploitation and the stark class divide in life chances of 1930s Britain were all transformed in the course of only the first half of her lifetime. At the time these changes were going on some if not all of them would have been met with some trepidation, if not opposition, by people of Betty’s class and background, but it is now difficult to imagine that the world could be otherwise.

Looking into a lifetime of wearing and caring for clothes has demonstrated a whole set of practices and experiences that are present today or within easy reach, from care for clothing to care for others through modifications to the economy. This century long life story confirms that system changes are possible, and can be determined by positive goals. It includes the development of personal and professional skills, the responsible judgments of consumers, rigorous environmental protection and guaranteed reward of workers as well as changes to the regulation and pricing of global commodities. These are ways in which we can, across the space of just one generation, choose to ensure that we wear is, in all senses, ‘good value’. 


Bibliography and suggested reading

The piece has been written as an unreferenced essay, but the following suggested readings are drawn from human and environmental geography and science and technology studies. They have informed the argument and would support any exploration of notions of geographies of care around fashion:


Barnett C, Cloke, P, Clarke, N and Malpass A (2011) Globalizing Responsibility: The Political Rationalities of Ethical Consumption, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester

Cook et al, I. (2004). Follow the thing: papaya. Antipode, 36(4), 642-664

Latour M. and Weibel P. eds (2005) Making Things Public: Atmospheres of democracy MIT Press, Cambridge MA

Massey, D. (2004) Geographies of Responsibility, Geografiska Annaler 86 B, pp. 5-18

Veblen, T. (2009) The Theory of the Leisure Class, Oxford University Press, Oxford

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We’re all in this (test tube) together

In the wake of contributing to the Battle of Ideas ‘New Environmentalism’ debate yesterday, and a twitter exchange with OU colleagues Mark Brandon and Simon Kelley I recalled this 2008 post I put on OpenLearn about a really smart piece of climate change communications. So I’m posting it here on my own blog. My understanding is that most of the organisers and vocal participants at Battle of Ideas seemed to come from an old Trotskyite tradition, and carried their inbuilt opposition to environmental concerns into the room (and gripped tightly onto them). I didn’t hear or see much to contradict Jenny Turner’s piece in the LRB about where BOI is coming from [EDIT 8 hours on:NB Ben Pile tweeted to emphasise that he felt this LRB piece to be a 'hatchet job'. I acknowledge that I'm not in a position to judge the politics of the piece. There were specific passages that I recognised from my experience of Battle of Ideas - may get back to post more one why just b/c they seem relevant to a discussion of 'new environmentalism' or, in my terms, the relationship between environmental thought and modernism - thanks Ben - you were one of the 'nice people'...] . I had not been looking forward to contributing to the event, but had some interesting conversations and met some nice people, and in any case feel its an obligation on academics to accept invites to talk publicly about their ideas, so a worthwhile weekend at the office. I may find time to write more on this unusual experience later in the week, but either way I hope Greg’s video might offer another way into serious consideration of climate change research and policy for people who feel alienated by the idiom of environmentalism.

The best piece of climate change communications that I’ve come across in years does not come from the BBC, Hollywood, or a massively overpaid ad agency. Rather it’s the work of a geek-and-proud-of-it 38-year-old science teacher from Independence, Oregon. His line is that the American public is making a mistake approaching climate change as a question of whether the science of climate change is finished or not. Instead we all need to look at this as a risk management problem.

This ten-minute video ‘The Most Frightening Video You’ll Ever See’ looks pretty unpromising at first sight. Greg Craven has posted a homemade film that is structured as a dialogue between himself and a devils advocate (Greg in a silly hat). The piece is delivered straight to camera with the odd chemistry class explosion thrown in to keep the kids happy. It is structured as a logical argument that he believes leads conclusively to an argument in favour of action to limit the risks of climate change.

The argument is a version of Pascal’s Wager, that is, the argument put by the French philosopher Blaise Pascal more than 300 years ago that you may as well believe in God as belief may bring big rewards but carries few risks, whereas, scepticism carries dreadful risks, but few rewards. In fact Greg’s use of this kind of decision matrix is on much safer terrain that Pascal’s, because it is rooted in physics and economics not theology. Here is a version of his matrix:

Action on climate change No Action on climate change
Climate change science is false Economic harm with no immediate benefit No climate change and no costs to the economy
Climate change science is true Disaster averted Environmental, social, political & economic disaster

His incredibly efficient script acknowledges the simplifications in his argument. He adds some subtlety to all of these positions. For example in the case of the top left box action on climate brings plenty of economic benefits – including energy security. But ultimately he suggests we shouldn’t wait to see what the laws of physics are going to throw at us but should get on with reducing the risks of climate change with urgent action.

Gently funny but with deadly serious intent; clever but self-deprecating, I find this pitch-perfect. Despite Al Gore’s best efforts plenty of people, particularly in the US are sceptical, or at best confused, with regard to climate change science or policy action. One of the great things about Greg’s approach is that it invites all those people into a conversation about what risks they’re willing to take. It doesn’t brand them as foolish or greedy, but instead lets them listen to a reasoned conversation between Greg and his alter ego.

He embodies the contradictory emotions and thoughts that a lot of people carry around on this topic. And he encourages critique from viewers, resulting in updated versions of his argument. As with all things on the World Wild Web it is difficult to judge the tone and verify the source of some of the comment. I wasn’t sure whether the posting that said ‘this is scary – halfway through I went out to buy a Prius’ is a first class ironist or in need of quite a lot more study time on the subject.

But I find it really intriguing that a nerdy teacher can put together a ten minute film that is viewed by over four million people across a year, and then have a dialogue with anyone that chooses to respond. I’m no blind techno-optimist, but it is handy that the Internet came along at precisely the same moment as ‘the greatest challenge facing humanity’. Last word to Greg:

‘This is likely to be the greatest threat that humanity has ever faced. Think that’s overblown? Maybe. But can you be so certain that you’re willing to bet everything? Because we only get to run this experiment once. Hopefully this idea of risk management will be what ends the debate. How the world ends up? Well that depends in part on you and what you do next. We have greatness within us: innovative, giving, determined. It’s time for the best in us to come out.’

Posted in climate change, media and environment, risk

The New Environmentalism?

Tomorrow I’m contributing to a debate on ‘the new environmentalism’ at the Battle of Ideas at the Barbican. It has had me dusting down a book I wrote for Granta in 2006 ‘What Do Greens Believe’. General argument within is: ‘very diverse movement that has had a huge influence but lost its responsiveness, its appetite for cultural innovation and is not sufficiently self-critical’. I don’t think there is a ‘new environmentalism’ as such – just more prominence for some of its strands including techno-optimism. But I can’t really argue with a word of Wangari Maathai’s speech at her Nobel prize investiture (though personally I’m made a bit queasy by the badging the non-human natural world as having a gender).

‘It is 30 years since we started this work. Activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process. In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.’

Wangari Maathai (2004) Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, Oslo, Norway, accessed on 9/11/05

Is there anyone on the planet that has spent any time thinking about it that would now deny that the economy depends on ecology – that we are part of a ‘larger family of life’? The promotion of that simple but vital insight is a great achievement of environmentalism new and old. But we clearly haven’t connected that consciousness to everyday life, business or politics to anything like the degree required.  Although ‘we’re all environmentalists now’ (OK I exaggerate) we haven’t clarified these ideas in politics or ethics to the extent that is likely to leave us and those generations that follow us safe and happy. Two (I think mutually supportive) directions to take for environmentalism today: 1. spend a great deal more time with the subject of political economy, and make sure that politics does far more to reward good things like satisfying work and innovation and taxes bad things like resource depletion and pollution 2. go out and enchant people with the idea of a happy, rewarding daily life lived to the full IN and WITH the natural world. Less talk of threats to distant places in space or time and more talk of how to make every place good to be in.

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Climate change and the media: time to turn the page?


Image: Screen grab from

How has climate change been made into a form of public knowledge? I’m giving a keynote at the Deutscher Geographentag 2013 in Passau this Saturday.  I will draw on some past academic research as well as my experience of advising on programmes, designing and facilitating seminars for media and specialists and co-commissioning broadcast and online content related to climate change. I’ll be exploring the specific challenges of representing climate change knowledge, debates and actions in the context of substantial changes in media culture and practice.  I’ll be drawing on some of the following references, as well as an essay I’m working on that I’ll post here in short form in a week or two.

Smith, Joe (2013). Media coverage of tipping points: searching for a balanced story. In: O’Riordan, Tim and Lenton, Tim eds. Addressing Tipping Points for a Precarious Future. Proceedings of the British Academy. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press / British Academy

Pre publication draft available at:

Smith, Joe (2011) Why climate change is different: six elements that are shaping the new cultural politics, in Butler, Robert; Margolies, Eleonor; Smith, Joe and Tyszczuk, Renata eds. Culture and Climate Change: Recordings. Culture and Climate Change, 1. Cambridge: Shed.

Freely available at:

Smith, J. (2005) Dangerous news: media decision-making about climate change risk, Risk Analysis vol. 25 no. 6, 1471-1482 ISSN 0272-4332/05/0100-1471

Smith, J. (ed.) (2000) The Daily Globe: Environmental Change, the Public and the Media, London, Earthscan 263pp ISBN 1-85383-664-8

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How Much Land Does A Man Need


Photo: Zosia, Easter 2013, Joe Smith

It isn’t possible to mark a birth date for the modern conservation movement and its conjoined twin environmentalism, but the hat feather boycotts of more than a century ago offer as good a date as any.  They were driven by concern at the ‘murderous millinery’ that consumed vast quantities of exotic birds. These permitted the enthusiastic displays of wealth that marked the growth of the exploding middle classes at the end of the nineteenth century. Figgis and Co. alone shift 1,580 Condors’ worth of hat in 1911. In the same period the sight, sound and smells of the cars of wealthy motorists led to this ‘luxury apt to becoming a nuisance’ being taxed for the first time. Toad of Toad Hall is an Edwardian environmentalist tract.

The first wave of contemporary environmentalism was marked in the early 1970s by cultural works that explored consumption in everything from children’s books to apocalyptic films. Dr Seuss’ 1971 The Lorax centres on the chopping down of Truffula trees to produce the ‘Thneeds that everyone needs’. Sci fi film Soylent Green is a consumption driven narrative of a rather different kind, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘human resources’.

Across more than a century campaigns and creative works have helped to shape an environmentalism that is organised around concerns with excess, denial and jeopardy. The die was set early. The result is that one of the most significant ethical and political innovations of the last two hundred years has struggled to find an idiom that sits comfortably or authentically with ideas of progress. Progress is a difficult word. But it is so deeply embedded in the way we organize discussions about politics, economics and our own community or individual lives that it is essential that anybody interested in making changes to the way the world is needs to work with it. Put another way, environmentalism needs to talk about the making, getting and maintaining of happy hats as much as ‘murderous millinery’.

Personally I’m much more responsive to any discussion that seeks to bind thinking about environment-human relations into ‘the rest of life’. This might relate to the nature of work, friendship, or how we think and feel about our place in or contribution to the world.

Tolstoy’s parable How Much Land Does a Man Need? helps me in this respect: it explores sufficiency and the good life by reference to its opposite. It notes the Devil’s nimble work in distracting people with the prospect of unearned but also unrewarding gain. An extraordinary promenade theatre work by dreamthinkspeak took me back to Tolstoy’s themes this week. It prompted similar questions for me about work, economy, consumption and personal ambition, though they offered a collective rather than individual human narrative. Environmentalism needs to connect with these everyday and macro concerns if there is to be any significant break in trends in habitat destruction, greenhouse gas emissions or resource depletion. Regarding this, I’m always puzzled when environmentalists express concern that environmental issues tend to come around fourth in ‘top five/ten concerns’ polling (a pretty consistent position over 25 years or so). Do we really expect people to prioritise abstract, distant or future concerns over issues such as tax, health or security? Rather the research and policy community need to work harder to show how environmental risks and opportunities are embedded within these everyday concerns, whether these concerns belong to the governor of the Bank of England or head of the IMF, or yours or my mum/dad.

Tolstoy plots the unhappy progress of ambitious peasant Pahom as he seeks more land than he could possibly need. On a larger canvas, but in much the same vein the wonderful In the Beginning Was the End walks the audience through a half-century of economic, technological and social development that leaves us in a state of utter atomization and alienation. A route to redemption was signalled by a very humane/human revolution in the customer care centre of the long-tentacled corporation they conjured. No such redemption for Pahom. The answer to Tolstoy’s question: ‘six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.’
Happy Easter.

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