Climate Change

Thematic Essay

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Climate Change and Sustainable Development

Saleemul Huq, International Institute for Environment and Development, UK and Jonas Dahlstrom, The International Centre for Climate Change and Development, Bangladesh.

As citizens of Planet Earth, we must accept the fact that without forests, plants, and water resources there would be no life, no future, no us. It is therefore rather worrying that on a daily basis we are inundated with newspaper editorials, magazines articles, and academic journals which inform us that humanity is continuously and seriously harming ecosystems around the world.[1] The pollutants and harmful emissions we generate coupled with our overuse of natural resources are directly responsible for melting glaciers,[2] disappearing islands,[3] the decline of animal and plant species,[4] and growing deserts,[5] These issues, in turn, lead to a shortage of food resources and land, causing diseases, armed conflicts, and other problems.[6]

The concept “development” is frequently used in relation to discussions of progress worldwide. This term is often defined as an improved standard of living or social or societal improvement. The majority of development is calculated in terms of economic growth. The argument, which has dominated the international development agenda, is that if the financial inflow improves, so eventually will other societal spheres improve.[7]

However, when referring to economic growth as “development” it is often forgotten that the intensified use of natural resources, which are often tied to economic growth, can cause unrecoverable social and environmental problems, particularly in developing nations. Therefore it is quite unsettling that we are using natural resources equal to one and half the Earth’s yearly resource production for our essentials.[8] Given that world population is calculated to raise to 9 or 10 billion before stabilizing, the current consumption trend suggests that natural resources from three Earths will be used 2050.[9] This paradox is obvious; we have only one Earth. One Earth where 50% of the population live on less than 2.5 dollars a day and certainly cannot be forced to live on less.[10] How can this issue be rectified?

In discussing possible remedies, the notion “sustainable development” has arisen. Although defined in many ways, the most frequent definition is found in the “Brundtland Report” from 1987:[11]

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and
  • the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs."

Here we are given a more nuanced picture of “development”, where checks and balances (governance) are included to guarantee that everybody, including the poor, will have equal access to opportunities. In theory this sounds easy; in practice and implementation, it is rather difficult.

Let’s agree that climate change continues to occur over time. Our continued emissions and use of resources affect other countries and future generations. This highlights the critical need for “global governance”; a set framework of guidelines which individuals, corporations and states should all be accountable to and respect. As no global government exists, it falls on individual nations to arrange such governance. Thus far, there have not been many success stories and the debate has been driven by national agendas, personal and cultural values and by a “fairness” approach. Global meetings and conferences have often ended in disagreements about who should pay, be seen as responsible and/or spearhead actions. The process for implementing change continues to move at a slow pace. Proposals perceived as unfair by certain parties have neither been ratified nor implemented internationally or nationally.[12] Global sustainability has yet to be achieved.

It has been argued in meetings (see Kyoto Protocol) that developing nations should be allowed higher emission rates to catch up on developed nations because the wealthiest 20% of the world account for 75% of the total private consumption.[13] However, due to higher vulnerability (poor infrastructure, weak economies, technical skills and institutions, reliance on agriculture, etc.), developing nations cannot afford the luxury of delaying the implementation of critical environmental policies. Due to limited adaptive capacity, they are highly vulnerable to the interlinked issues such as crop failure, shortage of food, increased unemployment rates, increased competition for scarce resources, societal inequalities, armed conflicts and forced migration. [14] For instance, 15 million people in Bangladesh alone are at risk of being flooded every year. Sustainable development is urgent.

The connection between climate change and the need for sustainable development is obvious. To adapt to climate change we need functioning sustainable development strategies in developed and developing nations alike.[15] We critically need global mitigation policies to avoid further disasters caused by rising sea levels and extreme weather trends.[16] Simultaneously, we need local adaptation processes (new crops and irrigation systems, capacity improvement in public administration and civil society and higher considerations to local skills) to prepare societies for the changes yet to come.[17] It has been argued that a focus on adaptation will also lead to poverty reduction, increased production, and the realization of opportunities.[18]

In future processes, it is particularly important that nations and localities increase institutional integration between ministries, private and public sectors, and local, international, and non-governmental organizations, and corporations. As climate change affects everyone, every agenda, every society, every individual should be included in future processes to achieve sustainable development. This is the greatest and most important challenge of our time. We can do it, but we must work hard, and we need to start now.

[1] Boykoff and Roberts, 2007

[2] Xu et al. 2009. Also see the Guardian article:

[3] Australian Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, 2011

[4] Thomas et al. 2003

[5] Nicholson et al. 1998

[6] 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (various chapters)

[7] Beg et al. 2002:137

[8] See: 2014-06-24

[9] See: 2014-06-23; 2014-06-24

[10] See: 2014-06-24

[11] See: 2014-06-23

[12] Beg et al. 2002:137

[13] See:

[14] Smit and Pilifosova, 2007

[15] Beg et al. 2002:130

[16] See the IPCC report: Climate Change 2014 – Mitigation of Climate Change Website:

[17] Adger, 2005

[18] Beg et al. 2002


Adger, N., Arnell, N.W. and Tompkins, E.L. 2005. ‘Successful adaptation to climate change across scales.’ In: Global Environmental Change, Volume 15, Issue 2, Pages 77-86.

Australian Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, 2011. Climate Change in the Pacific: Scientific Assessment and New Research. Volume 1: Regional Overview. Volume 2: Country Reports. Website: (2013‐11‐08).

Beg, N. et al. 2002. Linkages between climate change and sustainable development, Climate Policy, 2:2, 129-144. Article:

Boykoff, M.T. and Roberts, J.T. 2007. ‘Media Coverage of Climate Change: Current Trends, Strengths, Weaknesses.’ In: Human Development report 2007/2008. PDF:

Nicholson et al. 1998. ‘Desertification, Drought, and Surface Vegetation: An Example from the West African Sahel.’ In: American Meteorological Society Bulletin 1998. PDF:

Smit, B. and Pilifosova, O. 2007. ‘Adaptation to Climate Change in the Context of Sustainable Development and Equity.’ In: IPCC Assessment Report 2007, Chapter 18. Website:

Thomas et al. 2004. ‘Extinction risk from climate change.’ In: Nature, 427.

Xu, Jianchu et al. 2009. ‘The Melting Himalayas: Cascading Effects of Climate Change on Water, Biodiversity, and Livelihoods.’ In: Conservation Biology, Issue 3, Pages 520-530. PDF:

2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. See particularly chapter 5 about the relation of ‘Eco-system conditions and Human Well-being’ by Levy et al. Website:

COP21: Progress at last?

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John Blewitt

There has been far more optimism and positive thinking surrounding the Paris climate talks than there was in Copenhagen a few years ago. At last, governments and big businesses, including some of the fossil fuel companies, realize that something must be done and done quickly. The COP21 talks in Paris were seen by many as the last chance we have of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Indeed, together with other nations China and the USA have pledged significant carbon reductions and although India is still planning to burn more coal it has an almost unlimited source of renewable energy that it has yet to tap fully.

So, hope remains. The increased efficiency and reduced cost of solar means that India could shift from having a fossil fuel based economy to a renewable one in a few short years. More generally, a significant public and private investment in renewable energy throughout the globe could save the day.

It is not surprising therefore that the world’s news media have hailed the results of COP21 as a great success, a landmark agreement, an opportunity presented and taken. However, the national implementation of the various pledges remains voluntary, a great deal of faith has been placed in technological innovation which will probably mean investment in ‘clean coal’, carbon capture and storage, more nuclear power generation as well as renewables. This suggests a policy framework that is in line with ‘business as usual’ rather than business with a qualitative and substantive difference.

Additionally, the ideology of economic growth still needs to be confronted and discussed. Governments, big businesses and business schools see it as the cure for virtually all our social and economic ills. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that even though the idea of ‘green growth’ promoted by various global foundations, think tanks, big businesses and governments has generated considerable interest, we continue to produce more and more stuff. This will not help the climate.

We need to re-articulate our economic and social priorities to concentrate on well-being and social wealth rather than more stuff and more profit. We need to recognize that despite the attractiveness of green growth theories, actual increases in energy use and material throughput have yet to be completely decoupled from increases in GDP. We are still heading for a global climate temperature rise in excess of 1.5C.

It is imperative that businesses, governments, NGOs and ordinary citizens go beyond Paris and recognize that the future of our planet is intimately connected to changing the way we do business, organize our economies and live our lives. We have only one planet to live on and we are acting and producing as if we have three. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. We cannot arrest the rate of global warming unless we curtail economic growth, focus on well-being and integrate social responsibility fully with sustainability in our business practice. Like it or not, we are living in a post-growth world.

Blewitt, J.D. (2014) Understanding Sustainable Development, 2nd edition. London: Earthscan.

Blewitt, J.D. and Cunningham, R. eds (2014) The Post-Growth Project: how the end of economic growth could bring a fairer and happier society. London: LPP/Green House.

Case Study: Pleistocene Park

Pleistocene Park

Margaret Robertson

During the last Ice Age, known as the Pleistocene epoch, large herds of herbivores roamed the vast grasslands that covered nearly half the Earth’s land mass. As the woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, bison, yaks, deer, elk, and musk oxen grazed, they deposited tons of manure, fertilizing and reseeding the soil. These shaggy bulldozers suppressed forests and kept the grasslands open as they trampled trees and shrubs, allowing sunlight and rainfall to reach grasses. In the winter, grazers in search of food dug through the insulating snow cover with their hooves, exposing the ground to the cold and helping to keep the permafrost frozen. Wolves and massive cave lions fed on the herbivores and kept their numbers in balance. With the spread of humans, however, with their deadly and efficient hunting technology, these creatures vanished, and with them the grasslands. Trees began to move in.

Today, the plains of northern Siberia still occupy a climate that is optimal for pastoral grassland ecosystems. In the far northeast corner of Eurasia, Russian scientist Sergei Zimov is building a 40,000-acre preserve known as Pleistocene Park, working to transform larch forests and willow shrub land to grasslands in order to reestablish the working ecosystem of the mammoth steppe. Zimov is striving to reproduce the conditions of the Pleistocene grasslands, not to copy the details one-to-one but to reestablish the processes and functions that kept the steppes open and the permafrost frozen. The first step has been to reintroduce small herds of musk oxen, bison, deer, and Yakutian horses. Targeted bulldozing with a tank simulates the disturbance that a pair of adult mammoths might have produced. Zimov says, “Today we have no mammoths, so I use a tank” (Wolf 2008, 69). Once herbivore populations become stable and begin to grow, he will reintroduce predators, including foxes, wolves, and Siberian tigers. There may be fluctuations in populations for a time, but eventually it is expected that the ecosystem will be self-maintaining. When the reserve reaches that state, the nonprofit Pleistocene Park foundation will work to expand the park (Davis 2011).

Zimov believes that restoring a stable mammoth steppe ecosystem across northern Siberia could play a significant role in preventing runaway climate catastrophe, by keeping

500 billion tons of Pleistocene carbon frozen in the permafrost (Wolf 2008, 67). According to Zimov, Siberian permafrost is among the world’s largest reservoirs of organic carbon, holding 150 percent more carbon than all the world’s rainforests (Zimov 2007, 111). If this permafrost melts it will trigger releases of huge quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas with 25 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide.

In the summertime, grasslands are light in color and have a much higher albedo than dark forests, keeping the ground cooler. In addition, research shows that what determines the accumulation or thawing of permafrost in the first weeks of spring is whether the grassland surface is blanketed by white snow, or whether black tree trunks reach above the surface, absorbing sunlight (Wolf 2008, 67). In the wintertime, it is actually the absence of snow that helps protect permafrost. Herds of herbivores will trample through the wintertime snow cover, exposing the ground to colder temperatures and preventing the permafrost from melting.

Thus the urgent and primary goal of the work at Pleistocene Park is not just ecosystem restoration but the prevention of runaway global warming. Zimov and his research partners continue to live and work in one of the harshest climates on Earth because they believe that restoring mammoth steppes may offer the best chance of preventing climate catastrophe.


Davis, Marcy. “Pleistocene Park.” Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter, January 18, 2011.

Donlan, C. Josh. “Restoring America’s Big, Wild Animals.” Scientific American, June 2007: 70–77.

Fraser, Caroline. Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution, 298–99. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009.

Wolf, Adam. “The Big Thaw.” Stanford, September/October 2008: 63–69.

Zimov, Sergei. “Pleistocene Park: Return of the Mammoth’s Ecosystem.” Science, vol. 308 (May 6, 2005): 796–98.

Zimov, Sergei. “Mammoth Steppes and Future Climate.” Science in Russia, 2007: 105–12.

Case Study: Climate Change Controversies

Climate change controversies

John Blewitt

Let’s start with some questions:

  1. What is climate change?
  2. What is causing it?
  3. What effects will climate change have, and is having?
  4. Should we care?
  5. If we do, why?
  6. If we do not, why not?

Where climate change is concerned there are known knowns and known unknowns. For example:

  • The extent of global warming – known and extensive.
  • The extent to which it is ‘natural’ or man-made, i.e. anthropogenic – known: anthropogenic.
  • Recognizing that it is anthropogenic, what we should do about it and on whom the burden should fall – to be decided.

For Mike Hulme (2009) there has being a growing consensus around the veracity of anthropogenic climate change for many decades:

  • The science of climate change had been building since Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier and John Tyndall in early/mid-nineteenth century.
  • But 1988 was the year that the idea of anthropogenic (man-made) climate change came into public consciousness.
  • The University of East Anglia published a report that 1987 had been the hottest year in the 130 years of record keeping.
  • Major international conferences on climate change, e.g. Kyoto 1997, Copenhagen 2009.
  • UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established in 1988.

However, some politicians and big corporations, particularly within the fossil fuel industry, supported and financed campaigns that cast doubts or denied the growing consensus. In 2003, Senator James Inhofe remarked:

With all the hysteria, with all the fear, all the phoney science, could it be that manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American People? I believe that it is. And if we allow these detractors of everything that made American great (…) if we allow them to destroy the foundation, the greatness of the most highly industrialized nation in the history of the world, then we don’t deserve to live in this nation under one God.

For Mike Hulme, this questioning of science and expertise is at least in part because we are trying to apply an Enlightenment view of science which is neutral, objective and suggests certainty to a ‘post-normal’ situation where the stakes are very high and radical urgent decisions are required. In other words, we expect science to be ‘an objective adjudicator’ between ‘truth’ and ‘error’ when what in fact we need is a dialogic co-production model:

In this ‘co-production’ model of knowledge and policy there is recognition that both the goals of policy and the means of securing those goals emerge out of joint scientific and non-scientific (i.e. political or value-driven) considerations.

Attempts to agree on national and international policies and actions to combat climate change and reduce carbon issues by 10, 20, 50 or even 90 per cent have not been very successful. Relatively little has been achieved and talks go on and on. A large part of the problem is political. As climate scientist Dieter Helm has said:

Any package with a title of matching ‘20’ numbers has got to be primarily political. The probability that the correct answer to the question of what to do about climate change is even approximately 20 per cent overall reductions … is close to zero.


Helm, D. (2013) The Carbon Crunch. New Haven, CT, Yale University Press.

Hulme, M. (2009) Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Case Study: Climate Advice from the Amazon Rainforest

Biochar: Climate Advice from the Amazon Rainforest

Margaret Robertson

When people discuss climate stabilization, they often talk about the need to reduce the quantity of carbon dioxide humans emit from their vehicles and power plants. While it is true that these reductions will limit how much the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration grows, and this is important, cutting emissions does not address the carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere—the 400 ppm already there. Climate scientists tell us that even if the concentration were to stabilize at 400 ppm, at that level we would still be facing unpleasant and possibly catastrophic climate impacts as a result (Hansen 2012). We need to do more, if we want to avoid extreme weather events, floods, droughts, and other nasty surprises: we need actually to extract existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

A clue about how to do this lies buried in the soil of the Amazon rainforest. Over the last 150 years, archaeologists have been puzzling over anomalous pockets of deep, black, and rich soil that appear within the otherwise thin, red, and infertile Amazon soil. Local people call it terra preta, Portuguese words meaning “black earth.” Analysis of the soil shows that the blackness and the fertility come from charcoal left by pre-Columbian civilizations hundreds to thousands of years ago (Bruges 2010, 26). The charcoal which they produced and used to improve soil fertility resulted in soil that remained productive for centuries. Local farmers still seek out this dark, compost-like substance, which is prized for its remarkable ability to revive soil productivity and to remain fertile for very long periods of time.

Today such charcoal is known as “biochar.” Biochar is made by pyrolysis, the heating of organic material at relatively low temperatures, less than about 1300 degrees Fahrenheit, in the absence of oxygen (Lehmann and Joseph 2009, 1). (Activated charcoal is a slightly different substance that has been activated by steam or chemicals, usually at higher temperatures. It is used in applications such as in filter media and by conventional landscapers mopping up herbicide spills.) In pyrolysis the outer layer of the substance oxidizes, or burns, but the inner portion does not; people who are meat-eaters will recognize a similar phenomenon occurring in grilled steaks (Flannery 2009, 78). In pre-industrial cultures people made charcoal by piling up wood and crop waste, setting it afire, then heaping soil on top so that the pile would smolder for a long time. In modern technology, pyrolysis is gas-fired and accomplished in closed containers, and can even be run using synthetic gas produced in other pyrolysis processes.

Biochar is charcoal; when charcoal is produced in order to be added to soil as a supplement, it is called biochar (Lehmann and Joseph 2009, 1). It can be made from any organic material. Feedstock could come from any organic sources including agricultural waste, tree trimmings, manure, rice husks, or compost.

Adding biochar to soil has many benefits, including soil fertility. The structure of charcoal provides myriad microscopic surfaces which microbes can colonize, while hyphae, tiny hairs from mycorrhizal fungi, penetrate and interlace through microscopic cavities. Microbes and mycorrhizae are fundamental components of soil fertility. Biochar also increases soil’s ability to hold water; that means it helps mitigate the effects of flooding and makes land more resilient during droughts, both of which are predicted to become more severe as the climate changes. Using charcoal to enhance soil fertility also cuts the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, thus decreasing emissions of the highly potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (Bruges 2010, 89).

But the biggest benefit of using biochar is its role in stabilizing climate. Plants pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and become temporary carbon sinks, but when they decompose or burn, they return that carbon to the air. Converting their biomass to charcoal instead renders that carbon inert, keeping it out of the atmosphere. This biochar can then be added to soil, where it magnifies fertility while sequestering carbon for the long term. Charcoal is a form of carbon. As paleontologist Tim Flannery points out, the fact that charcoal in the form of carbon-14 can be used in dating ancient archaeological sites is testament to its long-lasting stability (Flannery 2009, 79). Climate scientists are studying biochar’s potential as a long-term carbon sink closely, because of its ability to lock up carbon in stable form for long periods of time—for at least centuries and in most cases millennia. There is a multiplier effect, too: not only is organic waste used to produce biochar, which locks up the carbon long-term, but if that organic waste had been allowed to decompose, it would have resulted in emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane, emissions which are avoided by processing waste into charcoal.

Sequestering carbon in the soil with biochar is quite different from carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS captures carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels and puts it into the ground. If we can stop burning fossil fuels, we will not use CCS. We will, however, still need to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in order to lower its concentrations to safe levels.

The use of biochar to sequester carbon has been endorsed by climate scientist James Hansen (Hertsgaard 2013) and atmospheric chemist James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory. In a 2009 interview in the magazine New Scientist, Lovelock was asked whether a ban on carbon emissions could save us from climate change. He answered with a sharp no, then added, “There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal” (Vince 2009). According to the Worldwatch Institute, just converting global organic waste materials such as food scraps, wood waste, and crop stover to biochar could sequester the equivalent of 594 million tons of carbon dioxide per year (Scherr and Sthapit 2009, 36).

We need to employ multiple strategies simultaneously to limit the quantity of greenhouse gases we add to the atmosphere, and then to reduce the concentration of gases already there. In addition to sharply curtailing the burning of fossil fuels, other solutions include reforestation, no-till farming, and adding charcoal to soils.

No-till farming is an important element because turning over soil suffocates aerobic microbes, who need oxygen, and exposes anaerobic microbes to the air where oxygen is toxic to them. No-till farming leaves these creatures in the zones which suit them. Biochar can then be added as a soil supplement mixed with compost or mulch. This offers the multiple benefits of rendering the nutrients and microbes more stable and durable than they would have been in compost or mulch alone, improving soil fertility, and increasing the soil’s ability to retain water, while sequestering carbon. After biochar is first added to soil, insects and small mammals do the preliminary work of fragmenting it. Earthworms eat and excrete particles, carrying them deeper into the soil and mixing them with soil to form rich, stable humus. After the biochar is broken into smaller sizes, microbes and chemical changes continue to break it into even smaller particles.

Unlike technological strategies for lowering carbon dioxide concentrations, biochar is simple. The challenges are mostly logistical and managerial. Researchers around the world, including Johannes Lehmann, a professor of agricultural science at Cornell University in New York, and a research team at the UK Biochar Research Centre at the University of Edinburgh, are working on technical and policy details of implementation. Scientists and engineers are also researching the other products of the biochar pyrolysis process: about a third of the carbon matter can be turned into a synthetic gas that can be burned in place of oil or coal to generate electricity, and another part of the process can produce a kind of crude oil that could be used in place of petroleum to manufacture plastics.

In addition to its climate stabilization potential, the use of biochar can offer great benefits to poor, rural farmers in terms of soil fertility, water retention, and financial gain, an example of the triple bottom line in action. One organization working at a local scale is a company called Carbon Gold, a partnership between Dan Morrell of Future Forests and Craig Sams, founder of Green and Black’s organic chocolate and former chair of the UK’s Soil Association. Carbon Gold operates with the dual mission of helping to mitigate climate change and supporting sustainable food production. As Tim Flannery says, the properties of biochar “allow us to address three or four critical crises at once: the climate change crisis, the energy crisis, and the food and water crises” (Harvey 2009).


Bruges, James. The Biochar Debate: Charcoal’s Potential to Reverse Climate Change and Build Soil Fertility. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2010.

Carbon Gold.

European Commission Joint Research Centre, European Soil Portal. “Soil Projects: Biochar.”

FAO. “Global Soil Database: Including Potential to Sequester Additional Carbon in Soils.” UN FAO, 2008.

Flannery, Tim. Now or Never: Why We Must Act Now to End Climate Change and Create a Sustainable Future, 77–83. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009.

Hansen, James E. “Climate Change Is Here—and Worse Than We Thought.” Washington Post, August 3, 2012.

Harvey, Fiona. “Black is the New Green.” Financial Times, March 3, 2009.

Hertsgarrd, Mark. “Could Photosynthesis Be Our Best Defense Against Climate Change?” Mother Jones, July 2013.

International Biochar Initiative.

Lehmann, Johannes. “A Handful of Carbon.” Nature, vol. 447 (May 10, 2007): 143–44.

Lehmann, Johannes and Stephen Joseph, eds. Biochar Environmental Management: Science and Technology. London: Routledge, 2009.

Lehmann, J., J. Gaunt, and M. Rondon. “Bio-char Sequestration in Terrestrial Ecosystems—A Review.” Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, vol. 11 (2006): 403–27.

Scherr, Sara J. and Sajal Sthapit. “Farming and Land Use to Cool the Planet.” In State of the World 2009: Into a Warming World, Worldwatch Institute, 30–49. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2009.

UK Biochar Research Institute.

Vince, Gaia. “One Last Chance to Save Mankind.” New Scientist, vol. 2692 (January 23, 2009).

Group Activities

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  1. The pointy end of global climate change

    Submitted by: Blanche Higgins, RMIT University, Australia

    Activity description

    • Watch the trailer for the award-winning 2010 film There Once Was an Island: Te Henua E Nnoho
    • The activity is a role-play enactment of a conference that we imagine takes place in Auckland, New Zealand, to consider what should be done when the residents of the Pacific Island of Takuu are forced to abandon the coral atoll on which they and their ancestors have lived for thousands of years due to a devastating tidal flood.
    • Divide the group into the following five delegations ‒ could be individuals ‒ for the role-play: a) representatives of the island community; b) representatives of the New Zealand government; c) representatives of the Australian government; d) representatives of the Papua New Guinea government; e) representatives of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
    • Each delegation prepares for the meeting by considering what they can or cannot do in relation to the plight of the climate refugees.
    • Enact the round-table conference for whatever time can be allocated but no less than 20 minutes.
    • Hold a debriefing discussion in which all participants ‒ no longer in their roles ‒ discuss what it felt like to be in such negotiations.
    • Discuss the following: Did the talks make any headway? What were the biggest obstacles and what possibilities emerged from the talks?
  2. Environmental justice activity

    Submitted by: Blanche Higgins, RMIT University, Australia


    You ‒ individual or group acting as an individual ‒ are an environmental officer/planner working for a local council. The council has decided to build an e-waste recycling centre somewhere within its jurisdiction in order to reduce its ecological footprint. However, residents know that e-waste recycling produces some toxic air and water pollutants. You are responsible for recommending a preferred location for the plant to the elected council. The options are:

    • An old industrial estate where the surrounding population has high numbers of refugees and recently arrived migrants, and where household income levels are generally low; or
    • A park where the surrounding population is middle income and mainly white.

    The options have been reported in the local newspaper and the residents in the vicinity of the park in question are up in arms about the possibility of losing the park.


Make a clear recommendation and provide a dot-point rationale for your decision.

Discussion questions

  • To what extent do you think your own identity (e.g. race, gender, ethnicity) and life experience (e.g. family background and life history) influenced your decision?
  • What values underpinned your decision? Did they include considerations of equity, aesthetics, justice, social harmony?
  • Do you think your personal values are in line with those of people living in the community most directly affected by your decision? Do you think your personal values should carry more weight than those of the affected residents and, if so, why?
  • Can you justify your decision in terms of the RMIT Principles of Sustainability introduced in Chapter 2?

Human Dynamics of Climate Change

The impacts of climate change will not be experienced in isolation, but will affect humans in the context of the way we live.

The 'Human Dynamics of Climate Change' map aims to illustrate some of the impacts of climate and population change in the context of a globalised world. You can download the map and the supplementary information below:

HDCC map (PDF, 12 MB)

HDCC map supplementary information (PDF, 629 kB)

There are two types of information included in the map ‒ present-day human dynamics, and projected future changes in climate and population between a present day baseline (1981‒2010) and the end of the 21st century (2071‒2100).

Used with permission from the metoffice.

Recommended Routledge Books

Supplementary Reading





Free Journal Articles

Sam Wong, ‘Climate change and sustainable technology: re-linking poverty, gender, and governance’
Antony R. Orme, ‘Climate Change in Eurasia: Perspectives over Space and Time’
Susan A. Crate, ‘Climate change and ice dependent communities: perspectives from Siberia and Labrado’
Takafumi Ohsawaa & Peter Duinkera, ‘Climate-change mitigation in Canadian environmental impact assessments’

Video Links

  1. Why we disagree about climate change, Professor Mike Hulme

    Duration: 1:18:25

    2011 lecture sponsored by the Australian Broadcasting Commission Big Ideas programme. Also available on Youtube:

  2. The Cultural Dimensions of Adaptation to Climate Change,Neil Adger

    Duration: 3:31

    In this 2012 presentation, former Tyndall Centre researcher and geographer Neil Adger talks about the need for cultural change in response to the onset of global climate change.

  3. Hydrosphere

    Duration 5:15

    A 2011 video from Oxford University Press, Canada, on the impacts of climate change on planetary water cycles.

  4. Trend and Variation

    Duration: 1:05

    This YouTube video from Teddy TV provides a lovely demonstration of the difference between long-term trends and fluctuations – or more specifically ‘climate’ and ‘weather’. It is particularly useful in that it addresses the correlation between specific weather events and ‘climate’ as an historical trend.

  5. How to work with wicked problems, KL Kennisland

    Duration: 5:13

    This Youtube clip comes from the Amsterdam-based KL Kennisland ‘social innovation’ agency ( It is a concise and accessible introduction featuring good use of graphics.

  6. BBC World Debate: Why Poverty?

    Duration: 47:18

    As part of an initiative with 50 other international broadcasters, the BBC hosted this debate in Cape Town in 2012. The panel included Vandana Shiva, Tony Blair and two African political leaders.

  7. The cost of inequality

    Duration: 18:11

    In this 2013 TED talk, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz focuses on the growth of inequality in the US.

  8. Peak Everything, Parts 1-5, Richard Heinberg

    Duration: Approx 9:00 for each part

    In five short video presentations, Heinberg discusses the main ideas outlined in his influential 2007 book titled Peak Everything: Waking Up to the Century of Decline.

  9. Global Warming: Do the Math, Bill McKibben

    Duration: 10:47

    A 2013 television interview with high-profile environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben.

Blogs and Websites

  • Excellent blog on climate change

    Climate Progress

  • A great source of global climate change news and analyses

    Responding to Climate Change

  • Critical blog on the various ethical implications of climate change

    Donald A. Brown’s Ethics and Climate Blog

  • Website with a wealth of current environmental opinions, debates and analyses

    Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

  • An interesting blog encouraging discussions about the critical issues the world is facing

  • A personal website examining the interconnection between global issues

  • NASA provides useful and up-to-date data regarding environmental impacts on Planet Earth

  • The Pacific region is highly exposed to climate change and has many lessons to share with the rest of the world. This website is a valuable source concerning the environmental impacts here

  • Here you find the informative Millennium Assessment Reports about how ecosystems are impacted by environmental change

  • This is the official website of the international climate change activist network, initiated by Bill McKibben, aimed at taking advantage of new communication technologies. It includes a list of resources that can facilitate climate change activism

  • TED talk by James Hansen, climate scientist, Why I must speak out about climate change

  • A website produced by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the insurance company Allianz with support from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. It defines what is meant by a ‘tipping point’ and discusses the likely implications of 12 possible climate tipping points from around the world

    Climate Tipping Points

  • This is the official website of the Geneva-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Through it you can access information about IPCC working groups, assessment reports, other publications, and speeches or presentations made by IPCC members. Note that fragments of IPCC assessment reports are available from a wide range of websites and blogs but the full reports are made available only through the official website

    Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

  • The UK-based Tyndall Centre brings together scientists, engineers, economists and social science researchers to consider the impacts of global climate change and some possible responses. It has been a valuable source of information since it was founded in 2000, with Professor Mike Hulme as its inaugural director

    Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research

  • The official website of the United Nations Development Programme provides information on global efforts to reduce extreme poverty

    UN Development Programme

  • The website of the German Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy provides information on the Institute’s members and research groups and projects. You can access research reports and other Institute publications. Through the website you can subscribe to the WI Newsletter

    Wuppertal Institute

  • The US-based Austin Center for Design provides access to publications and other resources related to the concept of ‘wicked problems’

    Austin Center for Design

  • - This is an infographic that has been put together using statistics about consumption and the impact this is having on our planet. The idea was to create something that was visual instead of data lists and graphs. We hope that the Infographic will highlight the message of over consumption and encourage people to waste less food.

Article: Restorative Land Use

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