Science blog

Exploring science at the British Library

02 November 2021

Changing Climate, Changing Landscapes

“The people most affected by climate change are no longer some imagined future generation.”

Sir David Attenborough, speaking to world leaders at the opening ceremony of COP26

Lucy's COP picture
An installation of planet Earth at the COP26 venue in Glasgow,
photo by Dr Lucy Wallace


The British Library and the Institute for the Modelling of Socio-Environmental Transitions (IMSET) at the Bournemouth University are collaborating on a series of workshops, to be held after the COP26, to help us reflect on how communities have coped with environmental change in the past and the lessons we can learn as we respond to the effects of climate change happening right now. We will be drawing on discussions from the annual climate change conference COP26 and the latest knowledge about climate change adaptation, to explore how we can manage environmental change in three different landscapes across Britain, and how we can make those who live in these landscapes more resilient.

In preparation for these discussions, Dr Lucy Wallace writes from the COP 26 in Glasgow:

Climate change has always seemed far away, something that will affect someone else. However, in the last decade, narratives have shifted away from polar bears on melting ice caps, to breaking news about forest fires in southern Europe and flooding across Britain. This movement from far away, to closer to home, and from habitat destruction to something that can directly affect our livelihoods, is significant. However, if we just think about climate change as happening to someone else, somewhere else, where does that leave us?

The situation we find ourselves in today was not inevitable but rather is a result of actions we have both knowingly and unknowingly taken throughout the history of humankind. Since early humans started to settle in one place and make the first attempts to farm, we have been modifying the environments we inhabit for our own gain. This has had huge consequences for biodiversity and for our landscapes. By studying the past, we can increase our understanding of how we got to where we are now, identify the tipping points which led us here and work out what we can do differently in the future.

The past offers an alternative lens from which to view our current crisis. It enables us to widen our horizons by learning from examples of past societal resilience and to identify the underlying social cultural and ecological processes that make up that resilience.

For instance, we can explore data from past land management practices, and the impact these have had on the landscape. Asking questions about the sustainability of these practices during periods of environmental change, and what they meant for the communities of people who employed them, will be key in our fight to survive as we head into the coming decades.

Building resilient communities

Emma's COP picture
Detail from the Together for Our Planet installation, photo by Dr Emma Jenkins

To preserve a liveable climate, greenhouse-gas emissions must be reduced to net 0 by 2050. We need to accelerate action this decade to ensure we have a chance to meet this target. This need to reduce emissions is the key point currently being discussed by nation states at the COP26 and is always a highly politicised and contentious issue.

Whatever is agreed at COP26 though, we know our climate is changing now. We need to consider how we can protect our British landscapes, and how do we encourage resilience in the communities of people who inhabit them.

Climate change is not just increasing temperatures. The IPCC reports show us that climate change will result in more extreme weather events, such as storms, flooding, fires, and heatwaves.

Building resilience in our communities means we will be better placed to cope with these extreme weather events, or shocks, but how we build resilience will differ depending on the landscape we are looking at.

Complicating the issue is the fact that we have become less resilient to transitions - heavy management of our landscapes has decreased their capacity to cope with environmental change.

Turn tragedy into triumph

We need to work together to find new solutions which offer us a way forward. Building resilience to climate change cannot just come from politicians and cannot simply use a one-size-fits all approach. Involving all parts of society in the discussion is key. This will enable the co-creation of solutions for different landscapes, which will be vital for us to find a way through this crisis. These ways forward will leave no-one behind and will help us to find opportunities in the challenges we face as we move forward.

This new future has the potential to be a different type of Anthropocene to what has come before. Where before there was a lack of awareness of the true impact that we have had on the environment, we now have the knowledge that we need to do things differently, and we need to pull together to make it happen.

Join us for further discussion on 22/24/26 November. You can book your space here