My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
There has been some reaction (see here) to last night's fringe event organised by the RSPB at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
I was not there, but our own Westminster Wigeon gives this report from last night's events...
The last of the State of Nature Question Time events, at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, was certainly the liveliest of the three.
It was great to have Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for a full hour of question and answer. He was joined on the panel by Dr Mike Clarke, our Chief Exec, and Guy Newey, Head of Environment and Energy at the think tank Policy Exchange, under the chairmanship of journalist Charles Clover.
The audience was a mix of RSPB members and conference delegates, from a conservative councillor asking about farming to a “reformed twitcher” (Young Ornithologist of the Year 2008!) posing serious questions about the environmental credentials of fracking for shale gas.
Three topics really stood out, getting to the heart of the State of Nature report: the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); the role of Government in defending biodiversity; and the imminent threat of climate change.
One of the clearest messages of State of Nature is how much responsibility farmers hold in the protection and improvement of the natural environment. A local plant recorder had observed a steady decline in biodiversity in Lancashire over many years. She asked the Secretary of State how farmers could be encouraged to be better land managers alongside running a successful business. We were delighted to hear Mr Paterson restate his commitment to using reform of CAP to create incentives for farmers to look after the land and wildlife. In particular, transferring the maximum amount of money from support for production to support for agri-environment schemes could make a real difference for nature.
After a convincing case on CAP, our audience wanted to know what Government could do to reverse the decline in British biodiversity. In response, Mr Paterson described his plans for “biodiversity offsetting”, where developers could compensate for damage to habitats by funding replacements elsewhere.
RSPB has serious concerns about biodiversity offsetting, but we recognise its potential. A badly planned scheme could create the impression of green development while hastening damage to the environment. The Secretary of State clearly acknowledged the dangers of poor implementation and said that DEFRA’s system would ensure real gains for nature. We were pleased to hear him take on board the case for a mandatory scheme, in which developers are obliged to use proper offsetting measures.
The most provocative question of the evening came from the Chair, Charles Clover. He asked the panel how the UK should respond to climate change, in the light of the IPCC’s worrying new report.
Contrary to previous reports of Mr Paterson’s position, the Secretary of State explicitly recognised the human contribution to climate change. Sadly, the rest of his response was more complacent. He questioned the extent of anthropogenic contribution, using the tired line that temperatures have been fluctuating for centuries. He went as far as to identify possible benefits for the UK, such as extended growing seasons and fewer winter deaths from the cold.
It sounds like it was a lively event - I wish I'd been there! The Secretary of State’s firm CAP commitment and obvious determination to make offsetting work for nature are very welcome and I am glad that he interacted so openly with our members. I'll be saying more about these issues in future blogs - starting this week by offering our view on how the c£3.2 billion annual UK spend on the CAP can be put to best use.
But, on climate change I have to say that selective reading of the IPCC report is deeply unhelpful. The scale of human-induced climate change is unprecedented and the associated dangers are the global threats of droughts, desertification and extremes in weather that will have potentially devastating effects on society as well as nature. As RSPB scientists and reserve managers will tell you (and the statutory nature conservation agencies recently reported - see here), we are already seeing direct effects of climate change on wildlife in the UK and things are only set to get worse.
Facing up to climate change remains a real problem for all of government - not just Decc. Defra has specific responsibility for adaptation and the challenge for Owen Paterson now is to set out how his Department will develop a strategy to allow nature (and us) to cope with the many threats that climate change will bring. It seems like the next IPPC documenting the impacts of climate change on people and the natural world cannot come soon enough.
At 9am this morning, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its major report on the science of climate change. It is the first in a series of three that together represent an important milestone in the development of our collective understanding of the science behind climate change; and for the RSPB it is yet another reminder that if we want to save nature, we must redouble our efforts to address climate change.
We have yet to see the full report, which will be published on Monday, but the headlines in the summary document are straightforward:
We are more certain than ever that climate change is due mainly to human activities – The IPCC conclude that the “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, and since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia.” The global average temperature has risen by 0.85oC between 1880. Scientists are 95-100% certain that human activity have been the dominant cause of this warming. That’s about as sure scientists are that smoking causes lung cancer.
Climate change continues apace – Whilst the rate of surface temperature increase has slowed in recent years, the overall trend is one of rapid warming. Each of the three most recent decades has been warmer than all previous decades for 150 years, the sea level is rising at an increasing rate, most glaciers and ice sheets are shrinking, and temperature extremes, such as heat waves, are becoming more common.
We are on the path to dangerous levels of climate change – If the world carries on as it is, average global temperatures will rise well beyond the universally agreed limit of two degrees above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. For wildlife, such a scenario is disastrous - a scientific review in Nature suggested that this degree of climate change risked committing up to a third of species to extinction.
A gloomy outlook that could dishearten even the most devout optimist, particularly when some commentators continue to aggressively reject the science. Yet I am going to be optimistic and see this report for what it is: confirmation - to the highest degree of certainty we can reasonably expect - of the risk of a climate crisis and what we must do to avert it.
We get to choose the world we want (figure from the IPCC fifth assessment report)
The good news is that we have made considerable progress over the past few years. Since the last IPCC report in 2007, here in the UK we had the Climate Change Act introduced, a world-leading piece of legislation that continues to drive the low carbon transition in the UK. The Act was a result of the tireless efforts of many, including RSPB supporters, as well as politicians working together from all of the major parties, in the interests of the current and future electorate. It was an extraordinary achievement that should act as a reminder to everyone that acting together we can make the break from the daily grind and do the right thing for our common future.
Since then, the recession - alongside aggressive climate sceptism - has redirected political and public attention and threatened to unravel efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. In reality, however, progress has continued to be made, and I believe that there are now signs that we are coming out of this difficult and fractious period. The US and China have begun to take serious action, for example, whilst the international negotiations have made progress - most of the world’s countries have now agreed to a global goal of keeping climate change to within safe limits and have recognised that more needs to be done to achieve this.
All of this makes me believe if we take responsibility and work together, we can avoid dangerous climate change, and, in doing so, build a better world that would allow nature and people to prosper.
This morning, the Independent Panel on Climate Change will publish its fifth report on the science of climate change. If we were living in a rational world, this would be the moment that we stopped sleep-walking to climatic disaster for wildlife and the poorest people of the planet and started weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.
But, I expect many (usual suspects) will pile into the debate and seek to rubbish the science. This serves to create uncertainty, confusion and atrophy - exactly what the sceptics want.
Yet, the IPCC will be presenting their findings based on thousands of articles published in scientific journals. And, as luck would have it, I was given a timely reminder of the importance of these journals by the telly on Wednesday night.
Professor Brian Cox (one time keyboard to D:Ream and fast-becoming the nation's favourite scientist) discussed the role of peer-reviewed science in his excellent Science Britannica series. Before you are bombarded by non-scientist climate sceptics over the coming days, it is worth watching and listening to Brian. He says...
"Publishing is the reason why science gets us to the best view as to the way nature works. Scientific journals can be trusted...what's printed in them is as close to a statement of fact as you could ask for. And we can trust in that science thanks to peer review... Peer review is an attempt to introduce rigour to distinguish between tested hypotheses and speculation."
And this is why RSPB staff in our recently-rated 'outstanding' science department are encouraged to publish their own research in journals - and they do so, prolifically.
In his programme, Professor Cox interviews Dr Philip Campbell, the editor of Nature, about peer-review and uses the science of climate change as a case study. Dr Campbell explains that "The climate system is enormously complex...it is only over time and a lot of scrutiny and a lot of cumulative evidence that you end up convinced that it is really happening. I would so love to show that climate change is not happening because it threatens my grandchildren's future but we don't seem to be getting papers that show that it's wrong."
The IPCC report needs to be heard and all of us have a responsibility to respond.
I'll offer our view of the findings as soon as I can.