Technical developments can keep climate action on track

At the upcoming CAT Conference, October 5-7 2018, Peter Harper will be giving a keynote talk on the urgency of changes needed to meet environmental challenges, and how recent technical developments could help us succeed.


“You can’t get a quart into a pint pot”.

I have been using this simple old proverb to illustrate some of the curious features of climate change.

Sometimes I start a lecture with a ‘pint pot’ (transparent for the sake of visibility) and a quart pitcher full of water. The pint pot is placed upon a tray that has alka-seltzer-type tablets dotted around that fizz when they come into contact with water. They represent the environmental impacts we are trying to avoid. I begin gradually pouring water into the pint glass. At first nothing happens – so what’s the problem? – until it reaches a threshold: it begins to dribble down the glass onto the tray.

At this point I invite the students to try to “solve” the problem. Some try using paper towels, while some raise the tablets off the tray with coins (a classic example of throwing money at a problem to solve it!). But the water keeps coming, inevitability soaking through the towels, reaches the tablets and the tray dissolves into a fizzy mess.

There are many important principles at play here: the existence of thresholds, cause-effect time-lags, the possibilities of technical interventions and risk probabilities. From here the students move on to calculations such as the quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, how quickly there are being added and removed, and most critically how long to the threshold beyond which we see runaway climate change? The analogy with the simple water demonstration is obvious enough, although the thresholds are somewhat fuzzier. The arithmetic is straightforward.

Based on a risk factor of 25%, students calculate that we have somewhere between ten and twenty-five years to the threshold where much greater risks are incurred – where there are irreversible effects that no amount of money can correct. Students often double-take at this point. Surely not? Surely if we were this close to the brink the matter would have greater public currency? But however much we redo the calculations, we come to the same conclusion.

However we look at it, the urgency is huge, and the stakes could hardly be higher. Yet there are solutions that do not entail a return to the stone age. At the upcoming CAT Conference I’ll be giving a keynote talk on this subject, and exploring the way recent technical developments could help us meet the challenge of keeping climate change in check. Do come and join us – we need as many people as possible on board if we are to succeed.

CAT conference, 5-7 October 2018

Join us for this year’s CAT conference, 5th-7th October

We’ll be exploring raising ambition for climate action, with talks, seminars, tours and workshops centred on working together to build sustainable solutions.

Visit www.cat.org.uk/conference or call Penny on 01654 705988 for more information and to book your place.