Review of Sara Mukherjee talk on 7th June 2010

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a talk by the ex-BBC environment correspondent Sara Mukherjee. This was hosted by the relatively new Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy as part of their Distinguished Lecture series.

The Centre itself opened only in 2009, and is staffed by an equivalent of three full-time employees. They have a big job on their hands to ensure that the Centre is viewed  as a national resource rather than just “the Cambridge lot”, as Executive Director Chris Tyler told me after the lecture. It will be interesting to see if they succeed in this laudable aim. They certainly seem to be going about things in the right way, by working with people from all over the country and facilitating the communication of government officials with academics and, to an extent, with industry. The Centre is funded by an independent donor, which means that it is not heavily tied to the University and should hopefully weather the storms of the economic situation, although more funding is being sought.

The title of the lecture was “Our Easter Island Moment – is it already too late to save the environment?”, and Mukherjee returned to her metaphor of the Easter Island statues and the lost civilisation they represent throughout her talk. What did the last person, chopping down the last “tree”, think as he did it? And how do we view this preventable disaster now?

Mukherjee informed us right from the start that she had recently taken voluntary redundancy from the BBC and was relieved to be able to tell us her own views rather than putting on a balanced BBC face. What follows is my own understanding of the main points, so I apologise for anything that I have misunderstood or reported incorrectly.

She painted a gloomy picture of a doomed environment, apathetic public, politicians who care only about what the newspapers say, and newspaper journalists and editors who simply don’t understand or care about what is happening, but are out to find the next story. Her main point was her belief that the Climate Change Act will be thrown out at the exact time when it would be easiest and most beneficial to take it forward.

Apathy: According to an Ipsos Mori poll, the percentage of people in the UK who believe that climate change is real has gone down from 44% to 31% in the last year, probably largely as a result of the UEA “Climategate”. The fact that the scientists involved were exhonerated of any wrongdoing was apparently not an interesting enough story for the tabloid papers to give it as much attention as the gave to the possibility that the wrongdoing might have happened.

Newspapers and their journalists: Newspapers have a disproportionate hold over politicians, and journalists and editors care more about headlines than about getting the story right, or if there is really a story there at all.

Politicians: Most of them do understand the issues around climate change, but they are slaves to public opinion (which is really newspaper headlines). Yesterday the climate was big news but now it is the economy, so politicians have abandoned all the good work that was done.

Her solution  to all this doom and gloom was to suggest better education of bright students from all backgrounds, perhaps a system akin to the old grammar school system to enable those from poorer backgrounds to learn more, and to pay those in positions such as physics teachers enough to attract the best people to the profession and to keep them there. A well-educated workforce equals a financially stable workforce, and the public can vote for their politicians based on a good understanding of the issues they are campaigning on.

Mukherjee does seem to have a big chip on her shoulder about her own origins in an Essex Council estate, but perhaps this is not without some cause. In a democracy, the majority need to recognise there is a problem before it can be addressed. I for one hope that we still have the time to address it.

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