Who’s right on climate: 200 scientists or a taxi driver?

The taxi driver taking me from Waverley Station wasn’t sure that the climate emergency was human-driven. Sure, he said, it’s a good idea to plant more forests, but actual climate change? Maybe it was sunspots, maybe a natural cycle …

He wasn’t the most extreme I have heard, but there’s always someone in the pub or the office who’ll say our environmental problems are a bit exaggerated, we will manage because we always have, the nuclear apocalypse didn’t happen so why should we expect this one to …

He dropped me at the Royal Botanical Gardens (RBGE) in Edinburgh. I’m sure the 200 or so scientists and conservationists meeting there for the RBGE’s Scottish Biodiversity Science for Nature conference wouldn’t say they were 100% sure all climate change was driven by people – that would be unscientific. After all, the only things we can ever be really sure of are death and taxes…

Exciting times at the SBS conference…

But what the scientists did have to say, about climate change, the biodiversity crisis, and the whole web of interrelated environmental changes we’re making, removed any remaining complacency in me about what kind of action is needed. Let’s take a look at some of them and what they had to say.

After the introductions, first up was Dr Mark Eaton of the RSPB. Not a crusty, then, and not a bloke who would be likely to spread alarm without good reason; the representative of a highly-respected conservation charity, who rattled through the State of Nature Summary, the document published earlier this year with all sorts of worrying statistics for the UK.

They included the idea that more than one in 10 of the 6,400 species assessed in Scotland for the report are in danger of extinction from Great Britain. There were declines in abundance, distribution …there were also some statistical positives, but on the whole Dr Eaton didn’t seem too chuffed.

Next was Debbie Bassett – I’ll dispense with titles in the main, just assume they’ve got a PhD in baffling stuff, unless I say otherwise (in which case they’re probably writing up their thesis as we speak…). She works for Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the government wildlife agency, where she’s the biodiversity strategy manager. So, a civil servant, paid to take a balanced view.

She spoke about the IPBES report, details of which were published in May 2019, which told us nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history, the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, and grave impacts on people around the world are now likely.

The biggest drivers of these changes, she said, were land and sea management and exploitation, but with third-placed climate change coming through on the rails.

And she spoke of the need to make this information, these ideas about nature, part of the mainstream discourse: “This is a truly pivotal time for people and nature,” she said. Her focus was on people and how they had to get the message and she urged us to talk to strangers about these issues: “We are doing good things but it’s just not enough,” she said.

Clive Mitchell, also from SNH, gave a nice simple explanation of why things need to be done by 2030: Since 1950 we’ve already produced half the extra carbon needed to drive the climate past the level where it’s going to be at all tolerable; current forecasts show us producing the rest in the next 11 years without big changes. I’d say that worried him.

The list went on: there was Rachel Tierney (not a doctor, but sharp as a tack) telling us about the Scottish Biodiversity Information Forum, which seeks to make all the bits of data about Scottish wildlife, plants, and nature in general, available to scientists and researchers, and the public.

Important? Yes, and especially so in the context of getting the message across to people about habitat loss, changes in populations – the changes humans are bringing about, directly and indirectly to the landscape. If you’ve got the data, it’s quite hard for taxi drivers or politicians to dismiss what you’ve got to say (unless of course they’re the ones who like to dismiss experts and present “alternative facts” …).

Professor Mark Blaxter from the University of Edinburgh is playing a big role in the Darwin Tree of Life programme to try to sequence the genomes of all the plants and animals in the UK. This, he says, could transform the way we do biology, and lead to new drugs, new bioengineering techniques – and of course it will put us in a position to know better what we’re losing.

Richard Lilley told us about the importance of seagrass, which stores 15 per cent of the carbon stored in our oceans; he is busy on a project helping to restore it around the UK. Roxane Andersen from the University of the Highlands and Island had come from Thurso to tell us about the benefits of peat restoration, locking up carbon in the most efficient store for it there is.

One of my favourites was Kirsty Blackstock, who’s not a biologist at all but a social scientist at the James Hutton Institute. Its website tells me her special interests are “governance, particularly public and stakeholder participation in environmental policy-making and implementation.”

Exciting stuff, but not only that, she’s also a whizz on Giddens’ Double Hermeneutics. (The fact that she made this stuff sound interesting just emphasises the level of expertise, passion and purpose these folk have.)

That Giddens thing is, I gather, the idea that while natural sciences like biology study stuff in a one-way process, with no feedback from what you’re studying, social science has a two-way understanding thing going on: the people and groups you study are looking at you and learning from what you do. Rocks and animals don’t do this – although  anyone who’s been caught in the curious gaze of a grey seal bobbing up next to a boat might argue that’s not quite true…

The message I got from her was that it’s all very well knowing stuff, but getting people to understand it, and connect with the natural environment, is what’s important.

This took me back to Debbie Bassett’s point about talking to strangers, spreading the word – persuading people.

As well as a lot of interesting ideas for future features and stories (and apologies to any scientists reading this who feel I have traduced their work or their presentations: I do my best to understand), that need to communicate was the essence of what I took from this event.

So instead of vaguely muttering to the taxi driver : “Well, the scientists kinda do think climate change is all down to us, but yeah, hmm, your sunspots theory is interesting…” we need to look at what scientists really do know, and have the tools to persuade people that we need to act, on carbon emissions and the interlinked problems of loss of habitat, biodiversity and species.

Whether it’s a bloke in the pub or a politician, they need to know how the land really lies. The views of 200 scientists, or those of a taxi driver: who do we really think knows best?