Cambridge Festival of Ideas tackles the threat of environmental collapse

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What action do we need to take to save the planet? And how do we get everyone on board?   These are the central questions underpinning many of the climate change and environment-focused events at this year’s Cambridge Festival of Ideas, which runs from 14th – 27th October and hosts over 250 free events based around the theme of ‘change’.

Several of the events offer solutions, such as new research into innovative economic models and the role of governments. Speakers include Ed Miliband.

The scientific consensus on climate change is clear, but how do we get everyone on board for the kind of radical action required to save the planet? In From climate change science to radical action (16 Oct), author Hugh Warwick; former Director General of the National Trust, Professor Matthew Gandy; Professor of Climate Change Policy, Laura Diaz Anadon; and Lola Perrin, an environmental activist, musician, member of Extinction Rebellion and founder of the group ClimateKeys, discuss what needs to be done.

Hugh Warwick believes part of the answer is broadcast media. He comments, “For a long time, the broadcast media feared presenting the reality of the threats the natural world faces. It fed us beautifully filmed and narrated chocolate box lids. Now, it feels, that there is a little backbone creeping into that world.”

Other areas to be covered during the talk include the role of governments throughout the world based on new and emerging evidence.

Environmental justice may be the defining issue of the next decade as we attempt to respond to the most pressing challenges facing society, tackling the dual problems of climate change and wider economic and social injustice. There are no easy answers but failing to respond is not an option. Ed Miliband and Emily Shuckburgh discuss the challenges ahead in Environmental justice: Ed Miliband and Emily Shuckburgh in conversation (17 Oct).

The topic of climate change and economics is further explored in Economics and climate change: from getting it wrong to making it right (25 Oct). Economists Matthew Agarwala and Dimitri Zenghelis from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, University of Cambridge, reveal how global economics must change. They discuss how the 20th century saw unprecedented gains in global welfare; life expectancy more than doubled, literacy rates more than tripled, and the proportion of people living in extreme poverty fell. But alongside these improvements, the global economic system generated 1.5 trillion tonnes of CO2 emissions. It is now clear: business as usual will cause climate catastrophe with the potential to wipe out a century of progress.

Presenting their most recent research, Agarwala and Zenghelis argue that misleading statistics can help explain how the 20th century economic model got progress so wrong and discuss how to fix it. Results show that 21st century sustainability cannot be measured with 20th century statistics: as economies evolve, so too must our tools of measurement.

This discussion presents new ways of measuring carbon in the global economy, uncovers the distributional effects of climate change, and explains how economists can both get and make the future right.

Another event tackling economics is Decarbonising Cambridge: investments, the estate and land use (19 Oct). This talk examines the changes needed in the financial system to fund the rapid decarbonisation of the global economy; it begins with a crash course on how the financial system works, and critiques some of the most prevalent approaches to environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing. With Dr Ellen Quigley, the new Advisor to the Chief Financial Officer (Responsible Investment) at the University of Cambridge.

The food we eat also plays a part. In Supergrains: as super as they could be? (26 Oct), a panel explores the knotty issue of food sustainability, looking at how changes in what we eat affect our health, economies, and the natural world. With Dr Shailaja Fennell – Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, Department of Land Economy; Dr Sarah Dalzell – Nutritional Scientist, MRC Nutrition and Bone Health; Dr Richard Sidebottom – Researcher, Department of Land Economy; and chaired by Professor K Narayanan – Professor of Economics, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay.

Further events related to environment and climate change:

  • Nature’s recovery: changing how we think about conservation (15 Oct). Experts from Cambridge Conservation Initiative and the National Trust’s Wicken Fen explore how restoring nature at the landscape scale can benefit us all.
  • The bird life of Cambridgeshire: for better or worse? (17 Oct) Birds represent a top tier in our biodiversity and are indicators of change. How has the bird life of our local environments in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire changed? There have been winners and losers; for better or for worse?
  • Climate conversations (18 Oct and 25 Oct).  A community networking event where participants work their way through a ‘menu’ of conversation topics relating to the climate emergency. ‘Intergenerational Justice’ in week one, and ‘Fast Fashion’ in week two. Presented by The Philosophy Faculty, in collaboration with Extinction Rebellion Cambridge.
  • 2050: A new world (19 Oct). Is your community futureproof? How will we adapt to climate change? What would you be willing to change for a resilient life? A decision-making game event that explores how our choices could impact society in 2050.
  • Re-play: swap & talk about toys and plastics (20 Oct). Debate, conversation and activities for all the family on the environmental impact of plastics and other materials used for toys.
  • Earth talk: saving a species – black-tailed godwits in the UK (22 Oct). Dr Jen Smart, Principal Conservation Scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, explores Project Godwit: an ambitious RSPB and Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust project that aims to prevent the black-tailed godwit from becoming extinct in the UK.
  • Calling all Cambridge change agents! (25 Oct) What is education’s role in global change for a sustainable world? Learn about the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and find out how you can make a positive impact on the world. Discussion and hands-on activities.

The Festival sponsors and partners are St John’s College, Anglia Ruskin University, Heffers, RAND Europe, University of Cambridge Museums and Botanic Garden, Cambridge Junction and Cambridge University Press. The Festival media partners are BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Independent.

 *The programme is available in hard copy around Cambridge and online here.

Bookings open at 11am on 23rd September 2019. Follow the Festival on Twitter at and on Facebook at



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