Towards A Sustainable Society – What is the Correct Role for Science?

Yesterday evening the Royal Society played host to the Institute of Environmental Sciences’ Burntwood Lecture, presented by former Friends of the Earth Director and Special Adviser to the Prince of Wales’ Rainforest Project: Tony Juniper.

All the major environmental issues of the last fifty years or so were mentioned: the effects of DDT accumulation in raptors; sulphur and nitrogen deposition creating acid rain, impacting on people, forests and livestock; CFC particulates causing ozone depletion; and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting in global climate change.

Tony emphasised the critical role that science played in firstly, the identification of these issues as serious problems for the environment and society, but also in making the case for effective policy change.

Policy change came in the form of the Montreal Protocol in order to end CFC use in domestic products and allow stratospheric ozone layer to recover. None of these issues have been ‘solved’ completely – although DDT was eventually banned in Britain and Europe, it is still used widely in malaria hotspots across Africa to reduce mosquito abundance and disease incidence. However effective steps have been taken around the world to reduce the relative impacts of these pollutants.

The emphasis of the talk was on the biggest challenge the world faces currently: climate change. With the previous environmental problems, the compounds requiring bans had effective alternatives (i.e. less harmful pesticides) or were an unimportant by-product of an important process, (e.g. CFCs from refrigerator coolants and nitrogen and sulphuric oxides from power stations). Unlike the aforementioned issues, tackling climate change requires massively reducing the output of GHGs; gases inextricably linked to the everyday lives of everyone on the planet in terms of food, transport and energy.

In summary, Tony’s talk covered well-trodden ground and seemed to lack any refreshing or challenging ideas. The message that the scientist’s role, is and will continue to be instrumental in tackling climate change and emerging threats, is an important one. It is imperative however that innovative ways continue to be sought to engage government, policy-makers and justify the case for change to the wider public.

Check out the Royal Society website here, and the Institute of Environment Sciences website here