Climate change: the kale smoothie of TV

This piece is based upon the attached report written by Joe on Climate Change and Television, published on December 1st 2016 by the International Broadcasting Trust and funded by the JJ Charitable Foundation.

Climate change has a reputation for being the kale smoothie of the television schedules: unappealing but also a somehow fashionable and even essential element of the diet. Disguise it in a fancy glass? Drink it down in one go and chase it down with something you actually like? Claim you want it but not actually touch it when it’s presented to you?

Over the last year I’ve talked to around forty producers and media executives about the responsibilities, challenges and opportunities that climate change presents to them. They tend to very consistently signal that climate change is an important but also thoroughly awkward topic for broadcasters. To paraphrase: ‘Everyone says we should make this stuff but no one except fanatics actually want to watch it’.

The Paris Agreement on climate change, signed in December 2015, marked a major global commitment to totally decarbonise economies and societies within a few decades. And yet there is a widely shared sense amongst experts that the penny hasn’t really dropped. They feel that the public and politicians don’t really appreciate what is at stake if we are to reduce the risks of climate change, and limit the damage it is expected to cause.

TV remains one of the most influential and accessible ways that people make sense of change in the world, and receive and respond to new knowledge. Yet climate change is an issue that seems designed to be ignored. It lacks the human angles and clear storylines that are so central to the majority of broadcast storytelling. Broadcasters also think that TV audiences are allergic to anything that could be construed as ‘preachy.’ But the last year or so does throw up of examples of climate change themes being engagingly presented to very diverse audiences. And important lessons are being learned about what works and what doesn’t.

One approach is to find the right places to plant relevant storylines within existing programmes. Natural history, travel, adventure and landscape shows all draw good audiences, and often have opportunities to weave in appropriate reference to climate change. This can be seen in the BBC’s Countryfile and Springwatch, and Channel 4’s Grand Designs and Food Unwrapped. Simon Reeve’s travelogue/current affairs hybrids for BBC Two frequently feature climate change related issues but manage to keep the audience tuned in. A recent body of ‘living off grid’ shows including Channel 4’s Eden can prompt questions about consumption and lifestyle. Sky has offered a package of popular rainforest shows that have clearly referenced the topic.

The right onscreen talent can make a big difference. Hence Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Fish Fight (Channel 4) and Hugh’s War on Waste (BBC One) have taken a campaigning tone to raise environmental issues about consumption. Most recently, Arctic Live (BBC Two) has demonstrated that live event television can have a real impact. It showed how one charismatic place, and its human and animal communities, seem already to be experiencing the consequences of climate change.

Nevertheless TV coverage as a whole of this vital but tricksy topic still feels like a ‘5 out of 10’ performance. And this huge and sprawling story isn’t about to go away. New ideas will be needed, and innovation requires risk taking. So I recommend that broadcasters should make a clear invitation for new ideas, and each of them should put budget and broadcast slots aside to this end. TV producers have to work in a buyers market because successful commissions are one in a hundred. So these signals would incentivize producers to develop and pitch proposals.

But they shouldn’t be the only people taking risks: climate researchers should risk wasting some of their time by advising TV producers on long-shot prospects. They should be patient supporters of concepts for new shows or approaches. And of course viewers should risk wasting some of their time by actually watching them, and take a little more time to tell the media what they think. Have programmes changed their thinking or actions? If not, what would make a difference?

I’m not sure it matters precisely how climate change is added to people’s TV diets. But the latest scientific research and the Paris Agreement mean that it really has become an essential ingredient. Governments all over the world will now have to report on their progress on climate change actions every five years. We already know that climate change policy objectives have been a massive stimulus for innovations in design and technology. If I report back again in five years time I hope that I will find that this tough but vital topic has also inspired some of the best innovations in television.


Posted in climate change, culture and climate change, media and environment

How do you *feel* about the European Union?


I have been spending time talking about the EU referendum with anyone I meet who is undecided or who disagrees with me. Indeed I spent a large chunk of Saturday in Cambridge marketplace talking ‘in-out’. For the record: I feel very strongly that the EU has achieved a great deal for my country, and also that it is a work in progress. Some of its key weaknesses need to be, but I believe can be, addressed. Voting to leave won’t mean that the Earth stops spinning but I feel it will be costly in many different ways, and for little gain.

But I also recognize that ‘laying out the facts’ isn’t enough in these conversations. Indeed one of the very striking features of the arguments and emotions displayed by online Brexiteers, and some of the people I’ve spoken to, is how closely they map onto climate contrarian views. Conversation, or social media, quickly reveals concerns about an encroaching state, a loss of control, technocracies, and exaggeration by experts and manipulation by ‘the establishment’. I can state with great confidence that trying to find ‘bigger facts’ will have no impact whatsoever, because its not about facts its about feelings.

There is nothing original in my analysis when I reveal that the underlying concerns I have found centre on fears: fears about migration, the economy, and the loss of identity and control. These are all part and parcel of experiences of economic and cultural globalization. This makes opposition to the European Union project of the last three decades somewhat ironic given that, in my reading at least, it can primarily be understood as a continent wide attempt to cope with and thrive within the conditions of globalization.

Perhaps the most striking comparison with climate change in all of this is the dismissal of expertise in the face of uncertainty. What other cause has so united leading figures from amongst economists; unions; big business; the Bank of England; faith groups; universities; medics and on and on. Yet the polls hang in the balance.

In the field of climate change the processes whereby a person’s prior ideology, or strongly held feelings, inform the way they respond to claims about climate science or policy have been widely researched and described. One of the things that some of us who are concerned to build a robust political foundation for action on climate change have learned from all this is that insisting ever more loudly on ‘killer facts’ or the scale of consensus amongst relevant experts has probably already achieved all that it can. Indeed it may now be counter-productive in relation to those constituencies that are undecided. ‘Rational arguments’ are unlikely to win doubters over on the basis of the scale of consensus on a topic.

Perhaps Tony Blair portrayed the strongest political instincts of any in the ‘remain’ camp when he argued the need for the demonstration of much more ‘feeling’ in the Remain campaign. So here is some feeling from me:

The EU has made me feel much safer. The collapse of state socialism in Central and Eastern Europe could have been far more traumatic and dangerous without the EU to give a stable framework for transition to democratic societies. Take a look at non-EU member states to get a sense of the difference. And with a slightly longer view: within my lifetime the European institutions have helped Greece, Spain and Portugal leave behind juntas and dictatorships and for most of the last forty years these countries have enjoyed secure freedom, and a large portion of prosperity. Closer to home the existence of the EU helped the Northern Ireland peace process and helped keep the UK together at the Scottish independence referendum. The grim facts of today’s youth unemployment, especially in southern Europe, can’t be simply pinned on the Eurozone – we are nearly a decade into the worst global economic recession in a century. This makes me feel more convinced rather than less that the best route lies in formal structured collaboration and debate within a community of countries. The alternative is to see two dozen plus competitors wrapping themselves in their flags and shouting for local short-term interests.

I feel pleasure and relief at the difference in the quality of the air I breathe and water I drink and swim in. These are things I have no control over, and pollution respects no border, but because of the EU my air and water is safer, both at home, but also if I travel to the East of Poland or the West of Ireland. I also feel glad when I stop to note that the EU has made almost all the gadgets in my house cheaper to run and less polluting.

I feel carefree delight at travelling across a great continent without having to spend time and money on visas and planning. I feel pleasure at being English in Europe as I travel unimpeded.

I feel some relief knowing that regulations in my workplace and also in the company I part own have made everyone safer and protected their rights. This is ‘red tape’ that saves and improves lives. Pass me another roll of it. Indeed some of the most annoying red tape I’ve come across derives not from the EU but from large corporations that want to pass legal liabilities down the line. The EU is one powerful mechanism for standardizing this stuff, with a chance of making life simpler and reducing transaction costs. We’ve seen that global corporations need taming by coordinated action, and I feel the EU offers me and my colleagues the best chance of protection from them.

I feel relief that the EU has slung a lifeline to some of the poorest and often most ‘peripheral’ regions of the UK. Renewal and investment projects have brought benefit to some of my favourite places including Cornwall and Wales. This has happened in a period when UK mainstream political parties have offered little in the way of regional policies. The benefits that have flowed show that our investments in the EU are just that: pay in to take out. I feel thankful that these parts of Britain are a little better off than they otherwise would have been.

I feel personally a little richer – both in terms of cash and culture – when I look back over my lifetime and reflect on the fact that goods and people have become ever freer to flow across that time. I sense that my life has been a little more interesting and a little more comfortable because of the EU. (and I feel more than a little baffled to hear Tories – Tories! – argue against the free movement of goods and people. It has long been one of the central planks of their ideology).

There are things I feel angry about too, and things I fear, so I’m sympathetic with some of the ‘Leave’ arguments. I feel that the pork barrel politics that brought the fisheries and agricultural policies of the EU into being have had serious environmental and social consequences that we’re only starting to sort out now after decades of damage. I also fear that the EU isn’t up to the task of protecting the UKs smaller businesses and public services from the might of global corporations (though I acknowledge the EU has a far better chance of standing up to unfettered corporate interests than a lone country).

My last feeling is of irritation at the EU’s failure to explain itself to Europeans, or to ‘matter enough’. One very smart ‘leave’ campaigner who was old enough to have campaigned in favour of joining the EC in 1975 tested me on my awareness of the Eastern region’s MEPs: I had to confess embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. This isn’t a democratic deficit – it’s simply a lack of interest – and that’s from someone that cares.

The EU’s greatest failure is in explaining the simple fact that its institutions are rooted in democratic decisions by EU citizens: the Council of Ministers is populated by our ministers; we vote for MEPs; the Presidency rotates around our elected leaders and the Commissioners are proposed by our elected governments. If we don’t like the results of democracy we have to engage, debate and vote with a bit more vigour. But to develop (mostly) workable and productive agreements across a large area we have to accept there will be give and take. The extent of European democracy and unity is an amazing achievement when you look at the continent’s often-terrible 20th century history. However I feel distress at how a lack of interest in these achievements (my own as much as anyone else’s) might result in a ‘leave’ vote.

Of all the EU’s failings, the failure to explain itself, and to generate a sense of trust in a constructive collective of nation states is perhaps the greatest, and could have dismal consequences for the great majority of people. I’m going to be spending more time talking and leafleting to try to convince more people to vote ‘Remain’. But I’ll start by telling people how I feel.

NOTE: Thanks to Jonathan Rowson for noting my incorrect use of the word ‘disinterest’, now corrected.

ADDENDUM:It has been striking to me since posting this that in exchanges in social media and old fashioned conversation there is widespread evidence of ignorance of the democratic basis of all the key EU institutions and processes. OK they’re not always that intuitive or lovable, but I find it odd that they are dismissed as undemocratic in a country that has an unelected second chamber and a hereditary (OK, kind of constitutional) monarchy. Here is a quote from an exchange with a Czech colleague whose very smart children have attended British schools:

‘…my children have either completed or nearly finished their school education in the UK. As both of them confirmed, they have never studied or learned anything about the EU in their 14 or 10 years of school attendance. Is anybody ever asking the question why this is the case? xxx studied politics for his A-levels. To my shock, it was one year of British politics and one year of US politics. Who makes these decisions? How relevant is US politics to British students? When I asked the teacher about EU politics, he replied: It’s part of British politics (in reality no EU politics was taught).’

Posted in risk, Uncategorized

Culture and Climate Change: Scenarios


Photo: Roger Harrabin, BBC Environment Analyst announces our award winners at Jerwood Space, 23 May 2016.

This week we announced the Award Winners of our Culture & Climate Change: Scenarios networked artist’s residencies. We gathered at the Jerwood Space, reflecting the fact that the Jerwood Foundation is one of the core funders of this innovative work (along with Ashden Trust, the Open University and Sheffield University). This is the latest phase in our work at the culture-climate join. We have been working to create an open and discursive space via events, workshops, podcasts and publications since 2010, building on the team’s varied experience in this field across twenty five years.  After a welcome from Jerwood’s Shonagh Manson the initiative was introduced by project leader Renata Tyszczuk, whose current research on scenarios shapes the work, and project producer, Clore Fellow, Hannah Bird, who has worked at the climate change research-arts join for many years. The BBC’s Roger Harrabin provoked the crowd with the complexity of ‘decisionmaking under uncertainty’ with just one (imagined) domestic scenario about waiting for his brother to come out of the shower. After the three artists talked about their first thoughts in response to the brief poet Nick Drake  concluded the evening with a reading from his book Farewell Glacier. These poems were inspired by his Cape Farewell organised trip to Svalbard. It is available to purchase here. Here is the press release announcing the winners:

We are delighted to announce Emma Critchley, Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping and Zoë Svendson as the selected artists for Climate Change in Residence: Future Scenarios.

Working with artists’ moving image, photography, installation, theatre and performance, the chosen artists will undertake a new kind of residency programme which embeds them within climate research and policy knowledge networks, rather than within one institution. They will engage with climate scenarios, and explore and extend the ways in which society engages with the range of possible future climates.

Announced at Jerwood Space last night, Shonagh Manson, Director of Jerwood Charitable Foundation said “These networked residencies will put culture and artistic practice at the heart of conversations about our climate futures. The artists selected have demonstrated a keen hunger for dialogue and exchange around these issues, which passionately inform their work. These residencies will harness the imaginations of talented artistic individuals for the benefit of the scenario planning network whilst simultaneously providing a unique research environment in which each artist can further their own practice and projects.”


Emma Critchley is an award-winning underwater visual artist working with photography, film, sound and installation who has exhibited internationally and nationally. Concerned with the human relationship with the underwater environment, She has recently undertaken residencies in New York, Barbados and Singapore. Critchley will use the residency to explore the psychological impacts of sudden flooding and how seismic events shift people’s perceptions of the world, especially within the scenario of the Anthropocene.

“This residency is a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with a diverse reach of climate researchers, using scenarios as a way to distill the complex and multi-faceted research involved in climate change and create imagined spaces that allow room to stop, reflect and invite challenge and debate.”


Lena Dobrowolska & Teo Ormond-Skeaping are a Polish-British artist collaboration working with conceptual documentary photography and artists’ moving image who have won many awards and prizes, and exhibited across Europe. During the residency they will investigate their interests in glacial recession, climate induced migration, drowning islands, the psychological pressure of climate change and the prognosis of a difficult future scenario, amongst others.

“We are working with the Anthropocene and climate change as a cultural paradigm of our time that shapes the way in which we imagine our future. Over the course of the residency we intend to utilise current climate, environmental, geological, economic and socio-political phenomena to illustrate the visceral reality of different hypothetical future scenarios.”


Zoë Svendsen is an internationally renowned theatre director and dramaturg who creates research-driven interdisciplinary performance projects exploring contemporary political subjects. She has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Young Vic, New Wolsey Theatre where she is Associate Artist, TippingPoint and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin amongst many others. Following her recent performance project, World Factory, Svendsen will use her residency to further explore the relationship between ethics and action, the economics of climate change and the tragic absence of real action against it.

“I am very excited by the residency – both by the idea of the ‘network’, and also by the chance to think more fully about the future, and the implications for human interactions that are implied in climate change scenarios, but which often are not fully fleshed out.”

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Hats off to Frederick Soddy

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Photo: Frederick Soddy, Lindau 1952. Source: The Frederick Soddy Trust

Here are my notes for a talk at the 60th Anniversary celebrations of a Trust set up by a Nobel Laureate to support (mostly) human geography projects. The event was a great celebration of the generosity of the Trust and all the people who give plenty of time to making it work, not least Soddy’s solicitor Peter Bunker who set it up in the first place. Peter shared very entertaining memories of the man, and of the extraordinarily diverse projects that the Trust has helped to set in train.

Hats off to Frederick Soddy, and indeed to all those grant giving trusts whose generosity and creativity help researchers and teachers to expand all of our horizons.

We are gathered to celebrate the work of the Frederick Soddy Trust. In other words we are here to celebrate creativity and generosity. There is the creativity of the people that started the trust (comprising Soddy and his solicitor, Peter Bunker) and of the people that it invests in. There is the generosity of the original founder, but also of the trustees and reviewers who give their time to create new opportunities for others. All of us who have been funded by The Trust owe thanks to both Soddy and all of the people who have served across sixty years.

In my case the Trust invested in a bundle of activity that included publications, a website and events, all coming under the heading of the Interdependence Day project. The work was founded in a partnership between myself, based at the Open University Geography Department, Renata Tyszczuk of the University of Sheffield architecture school and Andrew Simms, researcher and campaigner, together with his colleagues at the new economics foundation. We held two sell-out events here at the RGS that made great use of the varied spaces in this wonderful building.

In particular the Trust supported, and – notably – released matched funding, for our ATLAS of Interdependence. (editors in addition to me and Renata were Nigel Clark (Lancaster) and Melissa Butcher (Birkbeck), both formerly of OU Geography).  Matched funding or contributions in kind came from the Geographical Association for learning materials on the theme of interdependence, and also from the Open University and Sheffield University.

Full accounting of the value of Frederick Soddy Trust investments would also have to acknowledge the fact that the achievements of the Interdependence Day project have helped to build the confidence of other funders. In different ways, the project has sown the seeds of 2 million pounds of investment by the AHRC in our Earth in Vision and Stories of Change projects, both of which are inspired by the sense of ambition, experiment and risk that the Trust backed with the Interdependence Day project and its ATLAS.

The Frederick Soddy Trust was established just as the International Geophysical Year was being planned. The IGY of 1957/58 created the foundations for a new view of humanity’s place in the world. The IGY sparked the launch of the first satellites, and a truly global investigation of the atmosphere, geosphere and more, and the interactions between them. It started in motion collaborative global research that has revised our understanding of what it means to study ‘the whole life of an area’, to borrow a phrase from the Trust’s founding principles.

The ATLAS allowed us to draw together the varied threads of thought, debate and creativity that had made up the interdependence day project into one volume. It brought together geographers, architects, economists, artists, writers, campaigners and others to explore new ways of making sense of the dense web of interconnections generated by globalisation and global environmental change. The support of the Trust was vital in practical terms, but just as valuable was the less tangible sense that someone else thought that you might be onto something. One senior colleague described our venture with a raised eyebrow as ”quirky”, and didn’t mean it, I think, in a good way. Certainly it is an eccentric mix. But we aren’t about to apologise for that, particularly at an event that celebrates a founder who made an important contribution to the journal Nature in the form of a poem, the Kiss Precise (Frederick Soddy, The kiss precise, Nature, 137 (1936) 1021. 2.).

I am delighted to report that one publication coming out of our risky venture led BBC radio programme bulletins at the beginning of the day and the ITN Six O’Clock News at the end of it, provoking fresh thought amongst audiences about the ecological perversities of particular forms of trade. (The ITN graphics team who produced the giant animated gingerbread man leaping across a digital map may have helped us in this…). Another report was the first widely published discussion of the off shoring of UK carbon emissions to China, a theme that from that point on became a prominent element of debates about national carbon accounting. All this is suggesting that the world might need more rather than less ‘quirkiness’. We need to invite and sustain more sideways, provocative and fresh thinking. And this means creating well prepared seedbeds for diverse disciplines and professions to progress the difficult work of interdisciplinary collaboration. The Soddy Trust tends one such seed bed.

But it’s not always easy. When editing and managing a collective volume, decisions about the cover image can take as long as writing the book. Happily this was not the case with our ATLAS. NASA’s Earthlights image, a composite of photographs of the Earth at night, nicely summarised our story. On the one hand it is a magnificent expression of human achievement and ingenuity. Billions of electric lights are extending human capacity to talk, read, write and in so doing make better sense of the world. This illumination leaves us all better equipped to cope with events, come what may. But geography perhaps above all other disciplines has also told stories about inequality, suffering and waste. The nightglow portrayed by the Earthlights image is by no means equally distributed.

And of course knowledge of climate change, and biodiversity and habitat loss, also alters the way we read the image. No longer an uncomplicated celebration of human ingenuity, we have to recognise an uneven distribution of responsibility and vulnerability in a global environmental system that is being transformed in dangerous ways by humans.

A note on geography – and I should say I speak with the dangerous zeal of the convert, having jumped ship from social and political sciences (where they couldn’t even spell the word environment in the early 1990s). Geographers have a disproportionate opportunity – no obligation – to explore these responsibilities and vulnerabilities. In the last couple of decades this institutional meeting place of the natural and social sciences, and humanities, has played a particularly constructive role. It is the primary context within schools where teachers and learners address these issues. Of course many disciplines in universities are playing a big part, but these are challenges that require openness to varied insights and traditions. They require acceptance of imperfect syntheses. Geographers are natural synthesizers, and tend to be more comfortable than most working in intellectual and physical borderlands.

I’ll close with reference to one quietly charismatic example of this. It is another project that received Frederick Soddy Trust support, and also an RGS Neville Shulman award. One of my Open University colleagues, Johanna Wadsley, was one of the team leaders. Again, significantly, these awards helped unlock other institutional backing. The Hugging the Coast project was a research expedition of six women researchers, including two young Indonesian researchers. Taking to Kayaks, they investigated all dimensions of seaweed gathering in an Indonesian archipelago of the coral triangle: ecological, economic, cultural. This kayak based expedition had all the ingredients of the classic Boy’s Own Paper Edwardian expedition but with the moustachio’d gentleman amateur’s places taken by professional women. They conducted innovative social science research and public engagement work and came back with some great teaching case study material. This is just one more example of how the generosity of founder and trustees can unlock the creativity of others’ to make better sense of ‘the whole life of a particular area’. Thank you from all of us.

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Who is the next David Attenborough? You are.


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Some of us need to work on our camera presence and thousand yard stare… me, Sir David and my OU and Earth in Vision colleague Kim Hammond on probably the most fun day at work I’ll have for a very long while. (photo Jeremy Bristow)

David Attenborough has left more tracks across the broadcasting landscape than any other human being, and his 90th birthday is a good moment to reflect on what makes him special,” says Dr Joe Smith, OU Professor of Environment and Society, who is leading a research project entitled Earth in Vision, exploring environmental change through the BBC archives from 1960 to 2010. In this article he uncovers some of the traits that help assign David Attenborough the title of ‘national treasure’ and looks at what the future holds for environmental TV programmes and presenters…

David Attenborough’s 60-year career has built up an astonishing archive of footage and sound, but also a vast stock of public trust. This has been sparingly deployed, often to the frustration of environmentalists. For decades now broadcasters and commentators have been trying to identify ‘the next David Attenborough’. However, it’s not as if the job has become vacant: in recent years he has been as busy as ever. Nevertheless his birthday prompts us to offer a new and provocative answer to the question. Changes in the media mean that you can be. We all can be. But you will have to sign up to some simple principles that we share below.

Earth in Vision: 100 programmes, 50 years

Our answer to this playful question is derived from work on an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project Earth in Vision that has seen us working with 100 programmes from across 50 years of BBC environment and natural history programming, and interviewing 30 programme makers and presenters, including the man himself.

When the question is put to David Attenborough he tends to point out there are plenty of other presenters, and viewing figures for the Desmond Morris shows of the past, or for new formats such as the ‘Watch’ programmes (Springwatch etc), with team-based presentation, bear him out.

Secondly, he notes that he was lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and that for most of his career he has not had to compete with such an array of channels and media platforms. Gone are the days when you could literally fit all the big household names in television in your own front room.

‘Living national treasure’

And he adds that natural history film making has long been a big team effort, and that he is primarily the front man who depends on sound and camera crew, specialist advisors, editors, producers and many more. Of course his care in making these points only adds further lustre to the badge of ‘living national treasure’.

But David Attenborough, and natural history media producers more generally, have long been criticised by environmental researchers and NGOs for their failure to tell the truth about environmental harm. Film makers get excited by a close-in shot of a fascinating behaviour by an engaging mammal, perhaps caught for the first time with great technical virtuosity and determination. But they might neglect to show that a wider angle on the same scene would show a habitat diminished or threatened by human actions. Attenborough and many of his colleagues have consistently replied that ‘you cannot care for what you don’t know’ and that great storytelling about the natural world can help to build awareness and concern.

Bad box office

Furthermore, channel controllers and commissioners remain convinced that ‘bad environmental news makes for bad box office’. They get and keep their jobs by having strong gut instincts about what audiences want, and they have been almost universally of the view that climate change is a ‘creative challenge’ that generally needs to be ‘smuggled in’ rather than presented head on.

There have, however, been some key moments when the boundary between ‘natural history’ and ‘environmental’ programming has been dismantled. In 2000 he fronted State of the Planet which for the first time threaded together and updated a body of his past natural history programming in order to summarise humanity’s environmental impacts. In 2006 he invoked his – and our – responsibility to future generations when explaining to popular newspapers his decision to make a two-part series that sought to summarise the threats, and available actions, related to climate change. The blockbuster OU/BBC co-production Frozen Planet series that followed found a more natural integration of climate change and other challenges into the main script of what was outwardly a ‘traditional’ blue chip natural history series. But in the case of all of these series Attenborough has been careful to ensure the sound academic footing of the script. In the case of Frozen Planet the OU’s Mark Brandon was the academic advisor, and the climate change two parter drew on experts from three faculties, including me, Mark and climate leadership specialist Stephen Peake.

Another of David Attenborough’s consistent qualities is his technological prescience and commitment to innovation. When he made his very first programmes as presenter, Zoo Quest, he was ordering his own safari suit and heading out with a skeleton crew to film the capture of exotic animals to bring back to London Zoo. Files in the BBC’s paper archives show that he was determined that they be filmed in colour, even though the UK was still years away from colour transmission (an event driven by Attenborough when he held the post of BBC Two Controller). He badgered colleagues until the extra film stock costs were accepted. Those films will now be screened for the first time in colour on BBC television to mark his 90th birthday.

‘Because he tells the truth’

Our recent interviews with other producers and presenters as part of the Earth in Vision project (find out more on the blog) suggest that the natural history community is now far more willing to tell more complex stories – including the sharing of ‘difficult’ news and the posing of direct challenges to audiences. And it is also clear that digital and social media make the notion of ‘audience’ somewhat dated. Most 15-year-old children will be carrying a record and edit suite in their pocket, and have the capacity and opportunity to communicate insights and awareness of change amongst peers. The next phase of our work plans to explore these.

There is no need to wait for the post to become vacant to apply to be the next David Attenborough. Anyone equipped with a smart phone can fill the boots. You just need to be curious and honest, be open to innovation and work hard at your storytelling. We have held a series of workshops to explore what citizens, teachers and learners might want to do with digital broadcast archives. In the course of one workshop we asked what made David Attenborough special. One of the mums present said ‘his voice’ but her 10-year-old simply said ‘because he tells the truth’. Sharing well-told stories about our fascinating but threatened world is a job we should all be taking up.

Note: versions of this piece will also appear in shortened form here and there.


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Culture & Climate Change: Scenarios residencies – audio from event at Arts Admin on 27-1-2016

Please follow this link to a dropbox folder holding a recording from this event that forms part of our Culture and Climate Change: Scenarios programme, and particularly our pilot programme of three ‘networked artists residencies’:

This will allow those that couldn’t attend to catch a good portion of what went on. Note that recording was limited to my iPhone being pointed at a too-distant speaker. I apologise, but you should be able to hear everything bar some of the questions.

Project lead Renata Tyszczuk of the University of Sheffield School of Architecture talks on the origins of scenario thinking and why that history matters today; Mark Maslin of UCL outlines the science-policy relationship; Kate Fletcher and Dilys Williams of the London College of Fashion Centre for Sustainable Fashion point to the ways in which culture, climate change and the future come together in their work and project producer Hannah Bird also answers questions about how our experimental network residencies will work. I’ve edited out Tony White’s reading of his provocative short story The Holborn Cenotaph because the emphasis here is on the background context and practical information about the residencies, and because Tony will want to choose when and where he shares that.

Thanks to the contributors, visitors and of course Arts admin for hosting the evening. Thanks also to the Jerwood Foundation, Ashden Trust, The Open University and University of Sheffield who are supporting the residencies.


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Culture meets climate change – A herogram to producers



A capacity crowd of artists and writers at ArtsAdmin for our climate scenarios workshop

This is a herogram to the producers who make new creative work possible, and particularly those people and institutions who have gone out of their way to stimulate cultural responses to climate change. This ‘thank you’ feels a little overdue to be honest: the work myself, Robert Butler and Renata Tyszczuk have been doing together under the heading of Culture and Climate Change has depended on collaboration with the arts producers Vicky Long and Hannah Bird, and a further network spreading out beyond them. Vicky drove the delivery of our events and publication for Culture and Climate Change: Recordings, and Hannah has done likewise for ‘Narratives‘ and now ‘Scenarios‘.

Last night I enjoyed a really interesting and enjoyable few hours talking climate scenarios, and  the role that the arts might play in thinking about (past and) future climates. This was part of the Culture and Climate Change group’s Scenarios initiative, which includes three pilot artist residencies. The deadline for applications is 15th February.

Some great ideas and diverse provocations from academics: Kate Fletcher and Dilys Williams from the London College of Fashion Centre for Sustainable Fashion; Mark Maslin from UCL Geography and Renata Tyszczuk from University of Sheffield School of Architecture (Renata is the lead on our group’s Scenarios work). Clore Leadership Fellow and freelance arts producer Hannah Bird took everyone through the goals and process around the residencies (many aspects of which she designed) with great clarity.

We are experimenting with the notion of ‘network residencies’, and don’t think this has been tried before. Our goal is to support three selected artists as they follow climate scenario knowledge around networks rather than lodging them at one node. It is a pilot – lets see how it goes.

But partly prompted by a piece I read recently about the relatively invisible infrastructure of talent and hard work that makes good movies possible I want to pause and acknowledge the role of the producer. In our immediate work Hannah brings a sympathetic, though critical, understanding of both the arts and research worlds, and the capacity to give structure to ideas. I’ve learnt that it’s about much more than ‘making sure stuff gets done’. It is a subtle, creative and vital practice that is generally only noticed by the rest of the world by its absence.

We benefit from further producer experience via our advisory group. Our network residency project has been devised in collaboration with Rose Fenton who runs the Free Word Centre (home of a number of our meetings, and also generous host of a couple of our Culture and Climate Change: Narratives events) and Judith Knight who co-directs ArtsAdmin (our venue last night). The writer Tony White is another member of that group, bringing his experience of his own residencies and of supporting others (as well as his own interest in the question ‘where are the war artists of climate change?’).

My experience of all of these individuals and their organisations is that they are dogged, creative and generous. Above all generous because the work of the producer in this territory is as an enabler who rarely enjoys the spotlight shone on the successful creative people they commission or support. So I just want to list some of the bodies that I know have peddled very hard indeed to make space for creative people to respond to climate change. In alphabetical order, here is some of the work based in the UK that has supported what is now a very wide range of cultural work on climate change, and hence played a positive role in helping society make sense of this ‘difficult new knowledge’. Email me if I’ve missed something or someone that really deserves a mention – apologies in advance… (

Arts Admin have put on a string of their biannual ‘two degrees’ festivals but also many other events and support work. The festivals have included interventions spread across London but also make space to encounter work and debate the themes at their atmospheric Toynbee Hall home in Whitechapel.

Ashden Directory, which focused on material relating to performance and climate change from 2000 to 2014. Some of the writing that generated has been pulled together in Landing Stages (eds: Wallace Heim and Eleanor Margolies who have both supported varied activities in this field). Robert Butler is the writer and now also academic researcher who started the Ashden Directory, and with me and Renata Tyszczuk drives the Culture and Climate Change activity.

Cape Farewell, led by artist David Buckland, has produced expeditions and exhibitions that have drawn some leading cultural figures to the topic across 15 years, but also shared news of much wider work, e.g. through their recent partnership work with Projet Coal in creating the inclusive (online networked) festival ArtCOP21. The team currently includes Lucy Wood and Liv Gray.

The Culture and Climate Change group has been very lucky to work with Hannah Bird but also Vicky Long who were the team that put in the hard miles that made some of Cape Farewell’s most influential expeditions happen. Bullet Creative (who have helped us on a number of projects now including, currently, Stories of Change) are the design team that have made sure that work in this field is presented as engagingly as possible online and in print.

The Free Word Centre have invited writers of all forms, but particularly creative writers, to climate change themes, above all through their Weather Stations international collaboration and Weatherfronts workshop. That workshop was produced in collaboration with Tipping Point and our Culture and Climate Change group on account of the correspondence with our Narratives book and events.  Their climate related commissions and support work has ranged from enabling established international writers to creating opportunities for young Londoners. NB: Tipping Point and Free Word are putting on another workshop this summer.

The Happy Museums Network deserves mention. Wider than climate change, they want to push forward the idea that museums can play a much bigger role in promoting more sustainable societies. The network has been driven by Tony Butler, now head of Derby Museums Trust, Lucy Neal, Hilary Jennings and more. Lucy drew together a treasure house of a book showing how artists can make a positive difference in the world: Playing for Time.

Invisible Dust has been commissioning work linked to environmental change since 2009. It was founded by Alice Sharp, and has managed to pull together over £1m for commissions since starting out. In their own words: ‘Invisible Dust brings together artists, technologists and scientists to help illuminate these consequences and bring a sense of something human and fantastical to very invisible problems’.

Platform play a different role to the others mentioned here in that they have always had a clear and strong campaigning line (above all against the negative impacts of the fossil fuel industry). They are probably the longest established body working in this field in the UK, and their work includes research, commissions, campaigns and ‘interventions’ including most recently unofficial climate change teach-ins in major galleries that enjoy oil sponsorship.

Regen SW Arts and Energy Programme, led by Chloe Uden, demonstrates what can be done at both a regional and sectoral level to connect the arts to climate change. A particular focus has been to find engaging – often fun – ways of encouraging more positive visions of a renewably powered future.

TippingPoint have convened many thousands of conversations between researchers and arts/culture people via their open-space based events, and also commissioned work – often supporting development phases that later blossom into major works. Peter Gingold who devised and runs TippingPoint has always put huge effort into ensuring a healthy mix of established and emerging talent at their events, and this is also reflected in the commissions. They are planning a big gathering this summer Doing Nothing is Not An Option, including the chance of commissions, at Warwick Arts Centre, focused on the performing arts.

Finally – here is a hat tip to a (growing) band of communications rather than arts focused initiatives that are working more directly, but also creatively, to develop communications and policy that can help society walk more lightly on the Earth. These spring to mind: Climate OutreachCreative Carbon Scotland; Do the Green Thing;  consultancy Futerra; and Julie’s Bicycle . Although they are diverse in terms of audience and approach these bodies are pretty consistent in arguing that addressing climate change is also generally going to make the world a better place. This was a strong signal coming out of the work Renata Tyszczuk and myself did with Andrew Simms and the new economics foundation around the Interdependence Day project and our book Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth? (spoiler alert: our answer is no…). So a last credit to the ‘producers’ (though they didn’t carry that title) then based at the new economics foundation who made that book and the related reports and events happen: Corrina Corden and Ruth Potts.

News-based climate comms are another whole topic, but for now I would point to the brilliant Carbon Brief, Energy and Climate Information Unit and Climate News Network. All serve distinct needs and audiences. Academics and policy people can learn an awful lot from their combination of pace, clarity, and a sense of a good story.

Now if you want a break from thinking on climate change then do sign up for the Free Word Centre’s free words, or get the twitter feed. A simple reminder of human diversity and ingenuity. It brings cheer and stimulus any day of the week. Those are the qualities that might just get us all through the next hundred years in reasonably good shape. So long as we have some good producers.

Today’s word is, fittingly, tausendsassa:

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 15.44.00

Free Word Centre’s ‘Free word of the day’ 28-1-16

Posted in climate change, culture and climate change, media and environment, Museums and galleries, Uncategorized