Sustainable Geoscience for Our Future: An interview with Professor Chris Jackson
Meet the Department Research and impact 13th April 2021
In this interview, our Chair in Sustainable Geoscience, Professor Chris Jackson, discusses the ways that research, study and science communication in Earth and Environmental Sciences maps onto the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Chris also considers the title ‘sustainable geoscience’ and how, by defining this term, we can establish directions in geoscience going forward.
Broadly, what is involved in the role of Chair in Sustainable Geoscience?
First, ‘sustainable geoscience’ is probably best understood by looking at the two words separately. ‘Sustainability’ encompasses the idea that we can live harmoniously within the natural world and with the natural resources that we find. The sustainability aspect suggests that we are going to use resources in such a way that they are still there for use by future generations. Second, ‘geoscience’ is the application of science to understand the structure and evolution of the Earth. We know what ‘sustainable’ and ‘geoscience’ mean separately, and in my mind, ‘sustainable geoscience’ speaks to the application of geoscience towards sustainability issues. That could range from geohazard assessment and mitigation, to water security, to contaminated land remediation because of our previous explorative or exploitative actions at or just below the Earth’s surface.
How do you see the work of staff and students in UoM’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences contributing towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals?
Indeed, within the framework of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, there are several areas where geoscientists can make important contributions. For example, when considering the so-called ‘solid earth’, we need to better understand how earthquakes are generated and how volcanoes behave before and during eruptions. Nearer to the Earth’s surface, we need to determine how Earth-water interactions control the distribution and quality of fresh water. It is critical to understand that many of the topics covered by ‘sustainable geoscience’ are not new; many if not all of those research activities have been taking place for decades, if not longer. Using the term sustainable geoscience allows us to bring together these socially important topics and collectively repurpose them for the future, whilst simultaneously better communicating their aims, methods, and importance to the public and policy makers.
If there is still negative baggage attached to geoscience, namely, the historical association of the subject with the damaging impacts of natural resource (e.g., fossil fuels, minerals), then the contributions of geoscience to the many and varied sustainability goals will potentially be lessened. This relates to the ‘student’ aspect of the question: problems with recruiting students into the geosciences may partly reflect the fact that the subject is no longer perceived as having societal relevance or benefit, and/or long-term career prospects. Rightly or wrongly, geoscience careers have historically been thought to only lie within mining, and the fossil fuel energy sector. That’s not the case anymore, partly as a function of the growth of careers for geoscientists outside of these sectors, as well as a shrinking of these sectors themselves. There are numerous areas in the UN Sustainable Development Goals where, as a geoscientist, you can still apply your understanding of the Earth’s structure and evolution, but to something which is more progressive and will probably have far more longer-term benefits to people in the future. This relates to what we teach students once they enrol on degree programmes as well: sustainable geoscience spans lots of fascinating topics, including isotope geochemistry, marine geology, and geohazard analysis, in addition to science communication (i.e., how best to communicate important topics to the general public and policy makers). Ultimately, the science is only going to be as useful as its degree of public acceptance, or, public adoption of elements of science-based policy. We need to be able to speak to policy makers to try and positively shape behaviours around any given sustainable geoscience area. We have seen this with coronavirus over the past year – the general understanding of virology and immunology has increased through policy and science communication.
In summary, it is important for staff and students to at least be aware that there is a space for geoscience in achieving sustainability goals.
Do you think the remit of the work in Earth and Environmental Sciences can contribute towards achieving every one of these goals? The goals that particularly stood out as connected with geoscience include 13/ Climate Action; 14/ Life Below Water; 15/ Life on Land; 7/ Affordable and Clean Energy; 11/ Sustainable Cities and Communities.
I think it has now been shown that geoscience can contribute to roughly 14 out the 17 UN Sustainability Goals.
Life below water (SDG14) involves an understanding of oceanography (the way oceans behave), but also sediment-water interaction dynamics, so, how sediment moves on the seabed and how that impacts ecological niches and therefore biodiversity on different parts of the ocean floor.
Life on land (SDG15) requires an understanding of how the solid earth and cover materials (e.g., soils) interact with the atmosphere, and knowledge of how geology controls environmentally important niches.
Affordable and clean energy (SDG7) is clearly a key topic and one of the more contentious ones! Some people may see sustainability as stamping out the use of fossil fuels in the very near future. In reality, the energy transition is going to occur at different paces in different parts of the world depending on what the local energy resource is. Some places don’t have the geology or the atmospheric conditions to pivot immediately to solar energy or wind energy, and they don’t have the economy to do so, and so they are maybe going to be reliant upon fossil fuel based economies in the longer term. It is therefore unfair to stunt development in different parts of the world because other parts of the world have already done that. It will undoubtedly be contentious that there are still going to be people contributing to fossil fuel-based research in science and engineering, but I personally think that research is completely valid because fossil fuels are still in the energy mix, and fossil fuel-based economies are still going to be part of the global economic framework going forward.
Sustainable Cities and Communities; a lot of that particular goal talks to geohazards. As cities expand and population centres become more focussed around cities and less widespread throughout rural settings, those cities are going to grow into areas where there’s just more dynamic and rapidly changing geology and geomorphology! Coastal communities will be at greater risk from marine flooding, and as inland cities grow they may be at greater risk to flooding from rivers. In high-altitude areas like mountains, cities may be more exposed to hazardous earthquakes generated by plate tectonics. Geologists have still got a huge role to play in understanding those risks as well. The research that takes place in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and some of the research I do related to Earth magnetism, earthquake generation, and submarine landsliding is going to feed-in to the Sustainable Cities piece of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Many of the Sustainable Development Goals sound ambitious – perhaps beyond the scope of the individual. Do you think that everyday people can help towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Can you think of any changes an individual could make, or actions we could take?
Yes! Part of this is an awareness of the problem, and if you’re aware of the climate crisis, and you care about your immediate situation and that of the generations to follow you, that’s a really good start. There are individual actions that you can take, and they can feel futile in the face of some of the big mass-polluters or some of the bigger, corporate level issues that we can’t as individuals deal with, but, there are still a number of individual actions that you can (and I think, should) take. Individual actions can add up to local policy changes and local changes, and they could hopefully have a ripple-effect to influence things at council level and then on to regional and national, governmental level in terms of influencing policy. Electric car ownership, for example, might need affordability incentives through policy changes like tax breaks for people who own them– you need stimulation for people to adopt measures. There are forces that can be brought to bear to incite change.
Do you think that science communication is an important strategy in achieving the UN goals, and, is this something you would encourage students in Earth and Environmental Sciences to explore?
Science communication is very important because a lot of the work we are doing is aimed at influencing behaviours or promoting action that will be of benefit to society. One thing I’m aware of for example is that if we are going to go and work in the global South with our current geoscience knowledge and tools, we need to be in a dialogue with those populations to understand how they work with the land, how they view resource use, and how they view progressive policies. It is no good trying to simply transplant a way of doing things from the global North or from the West. I think having a cultural awareness is a crucial part of what we do as scientists and what we teach our students moving into the future. Part of this is realising that you could work anywhere in the world, but even if you don’t, even if you work in downtown Manchester in the end, you will be working with people from different backgrounds, belief systems, values, and ethical standards. Having a cultural awareness will optimise our solutions through working together. In terms of our students, Prof David Schultz delivers media, outreach and engagement modules about how science is translated to policy and how science is translated through the media, and this is a key function of science communication.
In the following video, Professor David Schultz interviews Professor of Sustainable Geoscience Christopher Jackson of the University of Manchester about his career, research into paleoclimates, the fossil-fuel industry, and science communication.
Atmospheric sciencebiodiversitybiosphereclimate crisisClimate sciencecontaminated land remediationEarth magnetismEarthquakesEnergy and resourcesEvolutiongeochemistrygeohazard mitigationGeologylithospheremarine geologyoceanographyPhysical GeographypolicyResearchscience communicationstudysubmarine landslidingsustainable geoscienceUN sustainable development goalsvolcanoeswater security
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