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Confronting the realities of climate change at Cambridge Science Festival

From fashion and farming to policy and individual choice, every aspect of our life is being affected by climate change – one of the most critical and pressing issues of our times.  

With daily apocalyptic warnings telling us that we are heading towards catastrophe and time is running out, it is no surprise that this year’s Cambridge Science Festival (11-24 March) is dominated by events that take an in-depth look at some of the stark realities, latest findings and potential solutions.

One of the headline events is with the centenarian Dr James Lovelock, widely regarded as the father figure of our climate concerns. On Thursday 14th March, he talks with Chris Rapley and Helen Czerski about climate change and asks if we can fix it in Climate change: an evening with James Lovelock. Only three months after COP24, we hear if Lovelock remains optimistic. Is Gaia alive? Will the Earth self-regulate whatever we do? James Lovelock is an independent scientist, environmentalist and futurist. He is best known for proposing the Gaia hypothesis, which postulates that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system.

A further event on the same day looks at how a long-term perpective is essential for understanding present and future global warming. Such a perspective is often lacking in policy debate. Professors Ulf Büntgen, Mike Hulme, Christine Lane, Hans W Linderholm, Clive Oppenheimer, Baskar Vira, and Paul J Krusic discuss and describe how we investigate the past, what we have learned from having a long-term perspective on climate change, and the challenges faced in applying this knowledge to the policy making process in The long-term perspective of climate change. The panel explore natural climate change, discuss why we should continue investing in the study of past climate variability, and consider how we manage our way through current and future climate changes.

Festival goers can hear Professor Ulf Büntgen again in Tree rings at the interface of archaeology, climatology and ecology on 19th March. During this fascinating talk, he presents brand new findings and explores modern tree-ring research and how it is being used to help map climate change across millennia. He explains that by reconstructing historical climates through tree rings, scientists can analyse if the recent warming is unusual.

During the talk, Professor Büntgen introduces four new research findings that relate to global plant distribution, cyclic insect outbreaks, the effect of summer rainfall on truffle production, and how the latest extension to the world's longest tree-ring chronology (six new subfossil pine samples have been discovered that date back over 14,000 years, making them the oldest samples in the world) is helping our understanding of climate changes in the late glacial period.

On Thursday 21st March, Abigail Burns from the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) explores the future directions for global agriculture and conservation given the increasing pressures such as population growth and climate change. In Farming of the future: alternative options for agriculture and conservation, she focuses on some of the positive movements within the agricultural sector towards more sustainable and climate-aware farming.

Ms Burns said: “The impact of agriculture is generally underrepresented in discussions around sustainability. Our industrial food system currently provides huge quantities of food waste, whilst having massive impacts on biodiversity. Meat consumption is on the rise – driven by increasing populations and the rise of affluent diets – contributing to catastrophic climate change. On the flip side, climate change is increasingly impacting agricultural production causing shifts in crop range and erratic water availability amongst other impacts.

“In this talk, I explore some of the tried and tested strategies both within the UK and further afield, as well as those more 'out-of-the-box' ideas to get you thinking... underwater farms anyone?” 

Other related events at the Cambridge Science Festival include:

  • An introduction to tree-ring research (11 March, 14 March, 18 March, 21 March). An explanation of how tree rings are used to investigate past climate and environmental variability several centuries to millennia back in time.
  • Fashion the future (13 March). Clothing and textiles account for 12% of global greenhouse emissions, and this industry is the world’s second largest industrial polluter. Is fashion a frivolous affair, or could carefully choosing what we wear make a big difference to tackling the climate crisis?
  • Creating a wildlife tour with the arctic Sami (14 March). Cambridge Natural History Society President, Kevin Hand, tells the story of how a crazy road trip in Finland and Norway turns into an experience that involves and celebrates Sami culture and their intimate relationship with nature.
  • Switchable polymerisation catalysis: ordered block polymers from monomer mixtures (14 March). Professor Charlotte Williams, University of Oxford, discusses her development of new switchable catalysts that allow the production of polymers with tailored properties suitable for application as rigid plastics.
  • Catalytic activation of renewable resources to make polymers and fuels (15 March). Professor Charlotte Williams, University of Oxford, discusses the development of catalysts able to transform carbon dioxide into methanol, a process which may deliver more sustainable liquid transport fuels in the future.
  • Past climate variability and human history (15 March). An exploration of how climate variability helped to shape human history and how climate changes affected human and social wellbeing in the past.
  • Plastic planet (16 March). Should waste plastic just be banned or are there other sides to the story: packaging can save huge amounts of resources if used and disposed of wisely? Dr Claire Barlow looks at the big picture around the environmental consequences of plastics for packaging and examines the alternatives.
  • Meet your friendly neighbourhood climate scientists (19 March). British Antarctic Survey climate experts meet with the public for an open conversation.
  • Writing the Anthropocene: Megan Hunter in conversation (19 March). What would life be like after a climate catastrophe? Author, Megan Hunter, discusses how fiction is proving as important a medium as science in the environmental debate.
  • Polar ocean: the dead end of plastic debris (19 March). A significant concentration of plastics debris is found in both polar oceans. The impact of this debris on the sensitive polar ecosystem could be profound. Pelagic marine ecologist Dr Clara Manno, British Antarctic Survey, explores the current research and existing situation in the polar regions.
  • Discovering planetary boundaries: known knowns and known unknowns (20 March). Researchers from the Global Sustainability Institute, Anglia Ruskin University, discuss how human activity impacts on the Earth. They explore how risk and uncertainty can be incorporated into modelling to predict safe levels of change, while acknowledging the limits to our own understanding of how these factors can influence each other.
  • There is no plan(et) b: a survivor’s guide to the make or break years (21 March). Professor Mike Berners-Lee, Lancaster University, offers a big picture perspective on our greatest environmental and economic challenges and considers what we might do to help improve the lot of humanity on this - our only - planet.

Download the full Cambridge Science Festival programme here.  Bookings open on Monday 11 February at 11am.

Keep up to date with the festival on social media via Facebook and Twitter #csf2019.


Cambridge Science Festival brings science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine to an audience of all ages through demonstrations, talks, performances and debates. Run by the University of Cambridge, the Festival draws together independent organisations in addition to many University Departments, Centres and Museums.

This year’s Festival sponsors and partners are Cambridge University Press, AstraZeneca, MedImmune, Illumina, TTP Group, Science AAAS, Anglia Ruskin University, Astex Pharmaceuticals, Cambridge Science Centre, Cambridge Junction, IET, Hills Road 6th Form College, British Science Week, Cambridge University Health Partners, Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology, and Walters Kundert Charitable Trust.

Media Partners: BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.


Image credit: Joshua Brown on Unsplash