Selling ‘climate heaven’

Monday this week saw the Climate Change – Has the Media Got It Right? debate, organised by One World Media and held in the Guardian’s offices.

In a panel of journalists, editors and communications officers, speaking to an audience of (mostly) journalists, editors and communications officers, it was the Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of communications agency Futerra, and Thomas Schultz-Jagow, Oxfam Communications Director, who made the biggest impressions.

Thomas spoke about the difficulties of getting the press to cover the human impacts of climate change that were happening now, and said he wanted to “take broadcasters along on a journey”, to give them Oxfam’s perspective on effects in countries such as India. With a phase that was much used throughout the evening, he said climate change news “is not sexy enough”.

Solitaire presented a perfectly PR-packaged idea on how climate change solutions should be presented in the media. She said currently we are “selling climate hell”: trying to motivate people to change their lifestyles through threats of distant catastrophes.

A better solution she claimed, was to “sell climate heaven”, in that we need to package environmentally-friendly lifestyles as fashionable, healthier, and more desirable.

In this clip which I recorded with her after the debate, she explains what Futerra does, and what she thinks the media should be doing.

Solitaire Townsend by harrietvickers

It’s an appealing vision, and certainly anything which can reach people as yet little-inclined to change their lifestyle for the sake of the planet could be a help.

But it is just me, or does this commercialisation, glossing and potential trivialisation of the issue leave anyone else cold?


Climate change goals are “meaningless and hubristic”

International climate change goals such as keeping warming within 2˚C are “meaningless and hubristic”, says a leading professor in environmental and climate change politics.

“We cannot have such a thing as a climate change policy. Goals such as the 2˚C limit display complete ignorance about what science is telling us about climate change,” Professor Gwyn Prins, Director of the MacKinder Programme at the London School of Economics (LSE), told me.

Professor Prins was speaking in the wake of the Hartwell Paper – new research investigating the failure of the Copenhagen summit last December. It was the result of international work co-ordinated by LSE and was co-authored by Professor Prins.

The paper was urgently commissioned after the ‘crash’ in climate policy in 2009, to look at why policy has not caused any discernable decreases in greenhouse gas emissions in 15 years.

The authors write that the Kyoto protocol and policies so far are structurally flawed and doomed to fail. “We cannot have a climate change policy which has emissions reductions as the all-encompassing goal. It’s hubristic to think that our policies can change the climate, we simply don’t know enough about the complex linkages,” said Professor Prins.

However the scientists state that the past problems, failures and crises of policy should not be wasted.  They advocate a different, ‘Capability Brown’-style approach, writing that de-carbonisation can be achieved as a benefit contingent upon other, more social and humanitarian-based, goals.

These goals should be popular and pragmatic, including expanding energy access, energy security and, ultimately, making energy less expensive and more abundant. They write that future efforts should focus on “the raising up of human dignity”.

Their recommendations for these goals include working towards higher energy efficiency. However they put most emphasis on de-carbonising energy supplies. For this to be achieved they call for substantially increased investment into non-carbon energy sources to diversify supply technologies, with the ultimate goal of making these cheaper than fossil fuels. To aid this, they support the idea of a carbon tax.

The authors also say repairing fractured public trust is essential, and that this would happen in conjunction with the new approach they describe.

They say their paper is intended as a starting point, and more work is needed on the details. “We write this paper as a first, not a last word on the radical reframing that we advocate.”

Have a look at the paper here.

Geo-engineering – a hundred Dana attendees decide

Tim Fox final by harrietvickers

Myself and fellow Life of Pi blogger Jamie took advantage of the Dana Centre’s ‘generous host’ scheme last week, and took over their cafe for an evening. Conceived after a long afternoon in the pub, we (along with our friend Seil Collins) wanted to explore geo-engineering  – which, how and when of the sometimes sci-fi and far-fetched ideas cropping up in the media could actually be put into practice.

We also decided to borrow the TV show Dragons Den’s format (although this did get less and less overt as our fear of getting sued or at least shouted at by the BBC increased) to give it some pep, steal some of their publicity draw and to let those that turned up know what they’re in for and encourage them to get questioning the science. Plus come on now, we are still students.

Following up an Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) paper on geo-engineering approaches, Tim Fox, IMechE’s Head of Environment and paper lead author, Nem Vaughan, a researcher at UEA, and Lindsey Malcolm, an engineer with IMechE, all braved the stage to pitch artificial trees, biochar and using algae to convert carbon dioxide respectively.

Our scientific experts, Theo Paphitis-style, were tech journo Gareth Mitchell, business development consultant Keith Binding, the Royal Society Policy Centre’s Andy Parker, and climate change philosopher James Garvey.

Two hours and a debate covering the technological, ethical, social and political issues later, we got our game audience to wave around coloured cards in a ready-steady-cook immitation vote. Artificial trees came out on top, though not by a huge margin. IMechE’s vision of the M25 if this idea does get under way is below.

Reproduced with kind permission from IMechE

Reproduced with kind permission from IMechE

I borrowed Tim Fox after the event (me, a bit tired and slow, him, amazingly articulate even after three hours of talk and debate), and asked him to give me a run-down of the approaches IMechE endorses in its report, and why he thought geo-engineering itself had a place in the wider battle against climate change. As above, have a listen for yourself.

You can also read IMechE’s full report here.

When is a blogger/journalist/communicator not a blogger/journalist/communicator?

I went along to the ‘Science in the media: in rude or ailing health?’ debate at City University last night.

Behind the table at the front were blogger Ed Yong, Economist writer and ABSW chair Natasha Loder, Financial Times writer Andrew Jack and Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre. In the theatre seats were a good few City science journalism students, editors and journalists, some from Cancer Research’s communications and Alok Jha from the Guardian.

The debate was ostensibly to discuss the results of the new ‘Science in the Media: Securing the Future’ report. Speaking about this, Fiona Fox said that science journalism was in “rude health”. However, excellent specialist journalists were being let down by unscientifically-minded editors and sub-editors. She recommended rolling out scientific training for these people, especially in institutions such as the BBC. She also pointed out the need for libel reform.

However, bar some opening comments by the speakers, the rest of the discussion dropped the topics raised by the report. Sparked off by Ed Yong expressing his disappointment that the publication didn’t cover blogging and other direct-to-the-public media, much of the rest of the event took up the ‘bloggers vs journalists’ debate.

Fiona Fox said it was a pity that the report didn’t cover these channels, but with the number of working groups already on-board, they didn’t want to add another. She then ignited the panel and audience by saying that blogs, although often good, were not journalism. Natasha Loder retorted that she was a journalist and blogged, and asked whether this blog was journalism. It came close to journalism, said Fiona, but wasn’t. She claimed blogs lacked crucial objectivity.

At this point Ed Yong pointed out that the distinction wasn’t helpful. He said the future was all about “blurring boundaries” and that whether something was good science writing or not was all that mattered – more on his views here. He also compared the debate to the film Titanic: “Tedious. Goes on forever. Never leads anywhere interesting. No one gets anywhere…”

Still that didn’t stop the treading water and general flailing that took up most of the rest of the evening.

A lot of the debate centred around this idea of ‘objectivness’. Fiona claimed only journalists were objective; Natasha that they were ‘truth-tellers’, solely driven to provide a “public function through a commercial organisation”. However as Petra Boynton pointed out as the argument Tweeted on today, bloggers are “all for transparency and reflexivity, abandoned that ‘objectivity’ nonsense years ago”. With the wealth of writing coming out of charities, institutions, universities, students, protest groups etc etc etc, these ideas are much more relevant. If you know where it’s coming from, who’s paying for it and who it’s involved with you can make up your own mind.

Even Natasha Loder is subject to the political leanings, editorial decisions and other social stances of whichever commercial organisation’s paying her. Objectivity is too high a horse for any of us to climb on.

Also in the audience were people from Cancer Research’s communications department. They were similarly offended by Fiona’s remarks, saying they spent a lot of time keeping misinterpreted science out of the news, and felt it was unfair to be hierarchically placed beneath journalists. Rather than trying to draw distinct line between who can and can’t claim to be a journalist, isn’t it better to focus on who practices journalistic values?

Crudely, there seemed to be a division of generations and attitudes. Ed Yong and Alok Jha on the one hand welcoming and incorporating new communication channels, and Fiona Fox and (partly) Natasha Loder defending the status and quality of traditional writing mediums, and wanting to separate them. Fiona particularly seemed threatened by the “noise of the blogosphere”. Whilst she did have some genuinely interesting concerns – such as how to negotiate the maze and vast amount of information on the web – her solution was to demarcate and rigidly protect the traditional role of journalists.

After Alok Jha jumped in to declare that everyone on the panel but Ed Yong was “talking bollocks”, he stressed that the role of journalists was changing, but in an exciting and opportunity-opening way. Far from being replaced by bloggers, journalists would still be needed as gate-keepers, guiding and bringing in audiences to what they considered interesting arguments and writing; and that mobilized and engaged scientists would only help science journalism.

For myself, as a student testing the waters of science writing, the debate was disheartening. I see many interesting and exciting channels being opened up by the web. Maybe it can be overwhelming, difficult to navigate, pick out what’s worth reading, too fractured or difficult to financially support. These are all arguments just touched on last night, and ones I feel are far more relevant and interesting.

So when is a blogger/journalist/communicator not a blogger/journalist/communicator? It’s not a joke, just a silly argument.

Marked for life? – Predicting mental illness

This is my first post for a while as I’ve been pretty snowed under with coursework (and I’m still feeling my way with this blogging malarky to be honest) but I went to an event at the Royal Society of Medicine recently that I think deserves a post.

It was a debate on using biomarkers – indicators such as genes or brain activity – to treat, detect and predict mental illness. It’s quite a personal issue for me as my Mum has had chronic bipolar since her early 20s, which she’s had some really rough times with, and having seen her living with this I feel strongly about what the speakers were saying.

One potential use of psychiatric biomarkers they were discussing was using them to personalise drugs, predicting whether a treatment is likely to work for a patient. This I’m all for, at the moment patients often have to go through rounds of trial and error to find what suits them or what doesn’t cause them severe side-effects, as I well know from my Mum. Biomarkers could also shed light on the cause and processes involved in these diseases and again this all sounds good to me.

But I feel really uneasy about using them to predict risk of getting these conditions. Derek Bolton, a professor of philosophy and psychopathology at King’s College, said that anyone with a close relative with bipolar – so me and my sister – had a one in ten chance of developing it too. Even this was too much information for me, and if it was possible to screen for bipolar genetic markers there’s no way I’d want to know this. I think it would be really difficult information to deal with, especially as it would be something tied to my personality. I’d maybe want my doctor to know, but I’d definitely not want to.

I’ve written a piece on it for a competition (which I didn’t win, boo) so thought I’d give it an airing here. It’s another fiction piece, have just finished a module on narrative and creative writing! It’d be good to hear if anyone feels the same way.

Marked for life

Genetics is set to revolutionise healthcare, and psychiatry is on the cusp of this sea change. Our knowledge of mental disorders is broadening as scientists build a picture of biomarkers – indicators such as genes or brain activity which can predict or measure illness or response to treatment1,2. This research is already nearing clinical practice: Vilazodone is an antidepressant being developed alongside understanding of biomarkers which predict its efficacy in individuals, enabling targeted prescription3. Parallel to this the cost and speed of genomic decoding is plummeting, and a public healthcare-intended ‘lab-on-a-chip’ able to sequence DNA using nanolitre- (billionths of a litre) scale samples has been created4,5. The NHS is poised to exploit these developments, wanting to use genetics for personalised treatment6. It also plans to prescribe information in much the same way drugs currently are7. However fears about the use of psychiatric biomarkers are being aired. These include how best to communicate results, the effects on children of predicting life trajectories, and the commercial targeting of individuals based on their DNA8.

By 2020.

I nervously flip the prescription card over and over, running my finger over its magnetic strip. It’s so every-day looking; a simply, white bank-card shape with the NHS logo and my details. Ugh gross, my hands are so clammy they’re smearing the spotless plastic. Ok here goes, I’m ready. I’ve got to be.

I type in Here we go, ‘Personal prescription’ tab. Enter name, date of birth, prescription number…Click. It’s loading. I stretch my fingers to try and stop them shaking and wipe some of their dampness onto my jeans. “Welcome. Please read the information below before looking at your personal prescription”. Don’t think so, not now. I scroll down, yup, yup, agree, accept, click, click. Next. Deep breath. There it is.

“Diagnosis: Mild panic disorder”. Wow. I freak out over a GCSE maths exam and now I’ve got ‘mild panic disorder’. Dr Oliff told me after they read my DNA and looked at my brain scan results, but it’s shocking reading it. “The most important news of your life”, Dr Oliff said in the consultation as I was spitting into the cup. “The secrets to who you really are”. She pipetted it into this small device, it looked almost like a pregnancy test. And then five minutes later she downloaded the whole lot.

There’s a list of numbers and letters on the screen too. They’re the Bad Genes I guess: what’s wrong with me, why, what might be wrong with me later. The most important news of my life.

Except it wasn’t exactly news. The first thing my Dad did after the school rang, and got him to pick me up, was get me to gob in a test tube so he could send it off. “It’s the rest of your life, your education, your success, your career. We have to find out what’s wrong and sort it, ok? Who knows where it might lead? I’m sorry”. And then he wouldn’t let me read the report when it did come, just said we’d discuss it at the doctors! I’m old enough to drive and have sex but I’m clearly too immature to talk about what’s in my own cells. I’ve got to have this Vilazodone now. Dad insisted Dr Oliff prescribe it, kept saying how I’d have an “enhanced response” to it, and that my “side effect profile” suited it. Dr Oliff was well unpleased he’d got the genetic health analysis from the internet, but she prescribed it anyway, saying her results agreed Vilazodone was the one for me. There was a list of other stuff the internet said I should have but she wasn’t on board. Maybe he feels guilty, my Dad, like it’s half his fault.

I check the rest of the treatment section. A cognitive behaviour therapy site, a support forum, a relaxation exercises site. Right, ok. Onto the next stage of the prescription. My mental health for the rest of my life. My hands are properly shaking. Prognosis. Dr Oliff went through this with me and Dad but I couldn’t take it in then. She explained the percentages and what it all meant but my head was spinning too much. “Genetic biomarkers”: another list of Bad Genes. “fMRI results”: more confusing numbers and letters. “Risk of chronic panic and anxiety disorder: 75% – high”. Fuck. “Risk of clinical depression: 65% – moderate-high”. Double fuck. Wow. I try and stretch my fingers again. 65%? That’s fairly certain right? It’s my entire body that’s shaking now. I mean, much more likely to happen than not? I always knew it was in my family but I hadn’t thought what that could mean for me. What does 65% mean for me?

I thought I had just my exams to worry about.


1. Donati, R. J. and Rasenick, M. M. (2008) Lipid rafts, G proteins and the etiology of and treatment for depression: progress toward a depression biomarker. Future medicine, Vol 3, No 5, 511-514, doi: 10.2217/14796708.3.5.511.

2. McMahon, Francis J. et al. (2010) Meta-analysis of genome-wide association data identifies a risk locus for major mood disorders on 3p21.1. Nature Genetics, Vol 42, No 2, 128-131. doi: 10.1038/ng.523.

3. Rickels, K., Athanasiou, M. & Reed, C. (2009) Vilazodone, a novel, dual-acting antidepressant: current status, future promise and potential for individualized treatment of depression. Personalised Medicine, Vol. 6, No. 2, 217-224. doi: 10.2217/17410541.6.2.217

4. Blazej, R. G., Kumaresan, P. and Mathies, R. A 92006). Microfabricated bioprocessor for integrated nanoliter-scale Sanger DNA sequencing. PNAS, 103, 7240-7245.

5. De Mello, Andrew. (2009) HYPERLINK “”The Lilliput laboratory: chemistry & biology on the small scale. Royal Society  Clifford Paterson Prize Lecture. Webcast. [Online] Available from: HYPERLINK “” [Accessed 26 February 2010].

6. Department of Health. (2008) Our inheritance, our future: realising the potential of genetics in the NH.  Progress review. [Online] Available from: HYPERLINK “” [Accessed 24 February 2010].

7. Stilgoe, Jack and Farook, Faizal. (2008) The talking cure: why conversation is the future of healthcare. Demos. Page 11. [Online] Available: HYPERLINK “″ [Accessed 24 February 2010].

8. Singh, I. and Rose, N. (2009) Biomarkers in psychiatry. Nature, Vol 460, 202-207.

Man flu

Is man flu a reality, or are down-trodden men across the world complaining about bad colds in order to illicit sympathy from their significant others? A tough, and crucially important, question, I’m sure you’ll agree. The Daily Mail, those bastions of accurate science reporting, would have you belive that science has solved this myth: research, they reported last year, has shown that women have stronger immune systems. Hooray! Man-flu is real, so we’re allowed to complain about it, gents!

Only, as ever, The Daily Mail were talking rubbish. This wonderful rebuttal by the NHS revealed how the research didn’t tell us any such thing. In actual fact, the work was carried out in mice, and looked at how susceptible said mice were to bacterial infection. Flu, though, is a virus. So, results showed that, in some cases, female mice managed to fight off food poisoning more effectively that their male counterparts. Which is almost the same as experiments based around humans and influenza, right? Err, no, sorry Daily Mail.

So where does that leave us? I’m sad to say that it probably just means that men just like a good moan.

Anyway, why am I reporting news from almost a year ago, and why now? Well, I’m currently conducting a man-flu experiment all of my own, sample size n=1. Yes, that’s right, I have a cold, I feel sorry for myself, and writing this meant I could avoid watching day-time TV for ten minutes. Any fellow sufferers should head over to they proudly claim to ‘Be There When She Don’t Care’. Sounds wonderful. Now, where’s the bloody Lemsip? *Sniffle*

Twenty-something technophobes

I’ve always been a fairly middle-of-the-road in my adoption of technologies. There was always a computer in the house when I was growing up, for which I’m phenomenally grateful: if it wasn’t for that, my technological enthusiasm wouldn’t be what it is. But despite a healthy start, I’ve never been at the fore-front of what’s going on, technologically speaking. I’ve always hung back slightly, waiting to see if something works on a basic level before jumping aboard. Or at least, I never used to be, but as time progresses, I feel like I’m changing for the better, adopting earlier. But, maybe it just appears that way because my peers aren’t adapting in the same way as me… 


Before I go on, it’s worth being aware that this is something that really gets to me: twenty-something technophobes. We’re a generation revered to be the first that have grown up with tech, savvy with digital communication, comfortable with computers. Let me tell you, though: it’s a huge myth. Certainly amongst my friends – though most can log-on to a PC and knock out a rough spreadsheet or document – I can think of quite a lot that are just awkward about the whole idea of technology. But, there’s not enough space for me to jump down your throat about everything here, so let me start with something tech-lite: social networking. 


There are a dizzying number of sites knocking around that let you live your social life (partially) online, and you don’t need me to list them for you here. It’s probably fair to say that Facebook has become almost requisite, so I’m tempted to discount that in this argument. After all, I know people that use it over their email (I mean, why?), and one friend felt she had to start using it as to not bother was to the detriment of her social life. So, people do use Facebook, granted. But, certainly amongst the friends I choose to socialise with, there appears to be a reluctance to become involved with any other social networks, and there’re a couple of recurring in motifs in their reasoning. Allow me to guide you through them. 


1. Social netoworking is a waste of time. “I’ve ignored twitter on pretty much the same grounds as I stopped using Google chat: it’s just another inane way of wasting my time.” I paraphrase a number of people, but as they see it, extra forms of communication are a waste of time. Why they see other media – email, text messages – as wasting less of their time is quite beyond me. These people are happy to send trivial, jokey email, rich with links, pictures, video and audio; quite how they’re fooling themselves that doing it via Twitter would be a bigger waste of their time is beyond me. I mean, if they opened their eyes for long enough to learn what a retweet was, they might even see that they might waste less time if they used Google Buzz, or Twitter or whatever, to send these links. They might even entertain more people, and make new friends along the way. But, sorry, my mistake, it’s a waste of time, isn’t it? My last thought: please don’t suggest to me that something’s a waste of time if you’ve never even used the fucking thing, as you simply do not know. 


2. Social networking is just weird. “I don’t like the idea of talking to people online.” A couple of points to cover here: firstly, you do it all the time already. You use email, Facebook, you’ve probably grown out of using MSN Messenger but you used to; you live in a world where digital communication is taken for granted, and you take it for granted too. The fact that you see other streams of digital communication as weird is entirely irrational, and if you use email, you have no argument to counter with. Secondly, what type of backward looking Luddite are you? If you’d been knocking around at the same time as Alexander Graham Bell, you would probably have told him that “speaking over a wire – it sounds a bit funny to me”. And yet, actually, being called a Luddite probably harms your delicate, hummus-eating, guardian-reading sensibilities, doesn’t it? Mmm, shame. Maybe if you try new communication methods out, you might realise it’s just the same as every other digital technology you use. Really. 


3. Web 2.0 leave me cold. “I don’t know how Web 2.0 I am at heart.” Hmmm, an odd one this. You see, I’m partly in agreement: Web 2.0 is a marketing ploy (ooh, isn’t he cynical), so on that technicality, I’d agree. However, as far as I can tell, this is a non-excuse. It’s rather like suggesting to me that you don’t like mackerel because you don’t know how Omega-3 you are at heart: here’s something great and perfectly useable, but I don’t like this new fancy branding, sorry. Reinforcing this, i was given this excuse over Twitter! Anyway, as I say, I include this reason more for my own amusement than anything else. 


4. Social networking scares me. A last minute entry. Oooh, magic box in corner of room, it light up, it show me picture and word from other side of world. Oooh, werido want to talk to me with it. Must be a peado! The Sun say so. Get over it. 


You might have the impression that I run around, banging a big drum, shouting “LUDDITE!”  loudly in people’s faces until they join tumblr. I don’t, I promise (or at least, not that I can remember). But, I don’t take well to silly, petty little excuses about not using new technologies. Certainly, do not talk about something being unsuitable before you’ve even tried it. Do you listen to people who claim not to like, I don’t know, falafel, if they’ve never eaten it? Of course you don’t, they’re stupid. And maybe so are you. 


Phew, glad that’s over. Coming up in future instalments: ‘Why bother Googling something when you could just ask someone stupidly trivial questions and waste their time?’ and ‘Can you help me set up my printer, only, I’ve never done it before so I might break something’.