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Fires, flamingos and foliage: The impact of global climate change

University of Leicester launches new Centre for Environmental Research on 18 October

A new think-tank is being launched at the University of Leicester bringing together expertise from different disciplines in order to tackle climate change and other environmental issues.

The Centre for Environmental Research (CERES) will provide access to world-class research into the way people affect the environment and how environmental change in turn affects the way we live.

Its formal launch on 18 October will occur during the University’s Big Green Week from 15-19 October 2007 and will feature a mini-conference, on 17 October, on Climate Change.

The conference aims to introduce University staff and students to the complex web of environmental issues and to present some case studies involving interdisciplinary approaches. The Centre will be led by two Co-directors with a physical and social sciences background: Professor Heiko Balzter and Dr. Jenny Pickerill.

The CERES launch events offer a window onto the rich diversity of environmental research at Leicester. One of the aims of the Centre, as Professor Balzter states, is “to provide a mechanism for bringing together research on human dimensions of environmental change in the Faculty of Social Sciences with expertise in biophysical and biogeochemical processes in the Faculty of Science”.

The Centre will set up a web site in the autumn, which will facilitate access to the broad environmental research expertise. Government agencies, companies and prospective and current students with environmental interests will be able to use the web site as a one-stop shop for finding out about researchers and their environmental research projects from all disciplines, research groups and smaller environmental research centres.

The CERES Mini-conference on 17 October will open with a presentation of evidence for ‘unequivocal’ global climate change recently compiled by an international expert panel that grabbed the public attention this year. In this talk Professor Balzter from the Geography Department will show the extent of climate change in Siberia that already occurs today. The talk includes results from satellite-based forest fire monitoring carried out in a European research project which was set up to monitor the Kyoto Protocol. Professor Balzter said “We wanted to know how much forest burns in Siberia every year. The changes from one year to the next can be huge, sometimes tenfold. Our data suggests that the climate around the North Pole plays a role in determining the extent of fires.”
Dr. Jorg Kaduk, also from Geography, will shed some light on the impact warmer winter temperatures have on leaf greening. Fans of the popular Springwatch programme on the BBC have been noticing an earlier emergence of blackthorn and hawthorn blossoms. They may be surprised to learn that the true picture is very complex. Dr. Kaduk’s mathematical model of how global warming affects plant greening in spring has shown how warmer winter temperatures can actually lead to later leaf greening times in some plants. The models and previous observations show that the advance to earlier leaf greening is less than formerly anticipated.
In his talk ‘Flamingos Flying in the Face of Global Change’ Dr. David Harper from the Biology Department will talk about the uncertainties as to how global climate change will affect three chemically unique saline-alkaline lakes in Kenya’s Eastern Rift Valley. Dr. Harper is a water biologist who has carried out research and consultancy for a wide variety of national agencies, including DEFRA, English Nature (now Natural England) and the Environment Agency. For the past twenty-one years he has led a research team studying the ecology and sustainable management of the Kenyan lakes, funded by the Earthwatch Institute. The three large lakes support about two million “Lesser Flamingos”, about whose biology little is known because of the hostile environment in which they live. Dr. Harper said, “One of the many unsolved mysteries about them is why, at irregular intervals, large numbers of them (hundreds of thousands) die”. He has been investigating this problem for the last five years with funding from the Darwin Initiative and with the collaboration of animal health veterinarian Lindsay Oaks, from Washington State University.
After Dr. Harper’s talk attention turns to the human, social and political impacts of climate change with a photo exhibition from Dr. Pickerill, Co-director of the Centre, and a talk from Professor Robert Garner, author of the widely read books Animal Ethics (2005) and The Political Theory of Animal Rights (2005). His work in this area continues the attempt to relocate theoretical consideration of non-human animals from green political thought to the mainstream political theory agenda. Professor Garner has recently broadened his research interests to encompass the impacts of climate change on the interests of humans and non-humans. In his talk ‘Politics, Interests and Climate Change’ he examines the political face of climate change, locating its character in the existence of competing interests and values. Prof. Garner will justify the claim that ‘the apparently intractable nature of climate change derives more from its political character than its scientific or technical core, and that the degree to which conflicting interests in the climate change debate exist can be exaggerated’.
Conference participants will have the opportunity to view Dr. Pickerill’s photo exhibition of Low Impact developments during the break. Dr. Pickerill’s research focuses on the interrelationships between environment, society and technology. In projects funded by the British Academy, ERSC and Leverhulme Trust she examines the rhetoric, aims, practices and outcomes of environmental groups and activists – white and indigenous, urban and rural – who seek environmental protection and social justice. Here she showcases the work of Lammas, a group proposing to create a Low Impact settlement in Pembrokeshire making use of the new Low Impact planning policy in the county’s development plan. The settlement is to be based on a traditional village model and Lammas’s main aim is to facilitate a low impact lifestyle for individuals and families. Dr. Pickerill’s photographs are part of a research project and illustrate ‘a range of homes designed to minimise their environmental impact. They are environmental in their construction, maintenance, and in the ways in which they are lived in. Many of them are also autonomous – operating with their own non-mains electricity and water supply, and with minimal visual impact. “These experiments offer us small-scale solutions and inspiration for radically rethinking how we construct and live in our homes”, says Dr. Pickerill.

The Centre for Environmental Research will also be welcoming an invited keynote speaker, Professor David Western, chairman of the African Conservation Centre, Nairobi. Professor Western, an honorary graduate of the University of Leicester, will deliver a talk on the future of the African Savannas at the Centre’s formal launch event.

Ather Mirza | alfa
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