This semester, head of the European Centre Professor Lora Fleming and myself have started the brand-new undergraduate module “Living with Environmental Change”. Somewhat complicatedly, we are teaching this module to students in different years and in two different locations: the St. Lukes campus in Exeter and the Penryn Campus in Cornwall. At the former campus we mainly teach Biomedical Sciences students and in Cornwall we teach a mix of Geography, Biology and Environmental Sciences students. It has been a steep learning curve setting up a module for the first time, but it seems to be going very well. Very broadly, our module investigates the impact of environmental change on human health. And a broad range of impacts that is! Pollution and resource depletion affect human health directly and indirectly through effects on the environment in myriad ways. Overarching themes include (of course) climate change, effects of social inequality and the ageing of (many) populations. As the module is so diverse, we rely to a large extent on guest lecturers. Luckily, there are many excellent scientist at the university of Exeter (as well as some from other institutions) available to give lectures on their active research in this field. I’d like to highlight the module on the blog as it progresses by showing some slides of these lecturers.One important realization is that we actually know most of the dangers the environment poses to human health, the direct ones and the somewhat less direct ones (such as some of the effects of climate change or long-term exposure to chemicals). So the science behind ‘living with environmental change’ is actually relatively straightforward and the real challenges to try to change things around for the better lie in the domains of politics, society and economy. Dr. Hywel Williams studies how debates on climate change play out on social media (amongst other things such as phage-bacterium coevolution). Social media is now an integral part of most peoples lives; probably most of the students following the course consume their news via news apps and twitter on their smartphone rather than buying news papers. Hywel has studied a number of climate change related hashtags used on twitter and used network analysis how opinions are formed.
See here a twitter #globalwarming follower network where dots represent users that have been categorized (using a paid army of tweet-scrolling students) as being climate activists (green), climate sceptics (red), non-unanimous (yellow) or other (black, specifically, followers of Aerosmiths Global Warming tour and Pitbulls Global Warming album….). Hywel could glean some very interesting patterns on how opinions are formed, by for instance analyzing different hashtags or differences between retweets and mentions. Unfortunately, figures such as the one above demonstrate that the debate is extremely polarized, and that there is little meaningful dialogue between the two camps. A completely different aspect of Hywel’s work is to use social media as a way of ‘remote sensing’, for instance tracking UK floods using instagram, or California wildfires using twitter (see below). Finally, he highlighted some of the biases associated with this type of work, for instance, most people are not WEIRD.Another speaker we were fortunate to host was Dr. Duarte Costa who talked about the PULSE project in Brazil. This project is a collaboration between scientists in Brazil and the UK and involves the detailed spatial and temporal mapping of current and predicted climate conditions, disease incidence and socio-economic parameters. We need to take into account all these factors to be able to understand and predict health impacts of climate change, see the figure below (and have a look at the new PULSE Health Mapper website).Average temperatures are set to rise considerably in Brazil, up to 8°C by the end of the century under the ‘business as usual’ scenario. And Brazil is already pretty hot. The government is barely coping to manage day-to-day healthcare issues and is in no way prepared to deal with the adverse health effects prolonged, high temperatures will pose (imagine doing construction work at 40°C and the heat strokes and the extra accidents caused by any dizziness or lapses in concentration). Except for heat, water is a main problem. Sao Paolo had a recent watershortage with reservoirs down to 8% capacity without any measures taken as it was nearing election time. When water restrictions were finally in place, these were mainly in place in the poorest neighbourhoods, resulting in social unrest. At the same time, far away in Acre province, massive floods blocked the only road giving access to the rest of the country. This province thus was for months reliant on neighbouring Peru for supplies, highlighting potential national integrity and security issues. Below the increase over time in ‘heatwave’ days under two climate scenario’s. For more information, see one of Duarte’s recent publications here, and a recent publication by Hywel’s here.Michiel