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UN Association Member Tells of Climate Change Crisis

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‘The United Nations: Working to Save the Biosphere and Our Future’ 
a talk by Richard A Shirres, MSc (App.EnvSc), MICE, C Eng

Addressing a large public audience at the latest Bolton School Girls’ Division enrichment lecture, the speaker, Richard Shirres, asked, in relation to climate change and its effects, “should we be afraid?” and his unequivocal answer was “yes”.  The consequences of climate change, he warned, are imminent, numerous and dire.

Richard’s detailed and impassioned presentation focused on the United Nations and its work to save the biosphere and our future.  Richard charted the history of the UN from the internationalist vision of the founders of the League of Nations after World War One, through to Churchill and Roosevelt in 1941 agreeing that a body should be set up called the United Nations and to its actual formation in 1945 with the intention of maintaining international peace and a respect for human rights.

The UN was not initially focused on environmental issues but quickly realised that it needed to be.  As Dag Hammarskjold (Secretary General from 1953-61) said, the United Nations “was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”

Richard told how during the fifties, sixties and seventies there was a global environmental awakening.  He charted the UN’s developing, yet little recognised, role in championing global ecological stewardship and referenced a burgeoning number of conferences, conventions and international frameworks for actions.  He stressed the importance of the UN building consensus.

Richard explained how, despite numerous scientific studies and indisputable evidence, the UN’s ambition to increase global action on climate change was and still is undermined by denialism and mis-information campaigns funded by rich powerful organisations and billionaires.  He likened these people to those that had denied the harmfulness of tobacco and asbestos.  He told of the Rio Earth Summit, in 1992, and his delight at the Paris Agreement of 2015 but argued that still more work needs to be done and now.  He worried that out of 17 countries surveyed by a YouGov poll in 2016, Britain was among the least concerned about climate change but applauded Greater Manchester for declaring a climate emergency and stating its aim of going carbon neutral by 2038.

The talk informed the audience of how the richest 10% on the planet are responsible for almost half of the total carbon dioxide emissions and how there would need to be 5 Earths if the world’s population lived like the US and 3 Earths if they lived like the UK.  From the UN’s special report of October, 2018, he also told of the massive difference between average global warming at 1.5°C as opposed to 2.0°C; with the latter causing more extreme weather, sea level rises, glacier retreat, food security threats, droughts and heatwaves, ocean acidification, ecosystem disruptions and extinctions and the complete loss of coral reefs as well as social disruption to hundreds of millions of people.

Ending on a more positive note, Richard gave an overview of recent UN work and worldwide eco-projects and possible solutions, including green infrastructure proposals for Bolton Town Centre.  Referencing Greta Thunberg and the need for protest and action, he also quoted the late scientist Frank Sherwood Roland who said: “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”

Richard is a retired chartered engineer, with a second degree in applied environmental science, is a member of the United Nations Association and Bolton’s Civic Trust.  Richard’s experience in the last few decades relates to urban and landscape-scale climate change adaptation.  Now retired and living locally, he latterly worked recently as the Project Technical Specialist on the Ribble Estuary realignment project at the RSPB’s bioreserve at Hesketh Out Marsh East.

A pdf of selected slides from the presentation is available here, a one page handout of ‘What We Can Do’ is here, a four page report about the Paris Agreement is here, a one page brief about the Paris Agreement is here, an introduction to the UN, its acronyms and Sustainable Development Goals is here.

This talk was part of a series of Arts and Sciences Enrichment Evenings hosted each year by the Girls’ Division. Click here to view the full programme of events for 2019/20. Subscribe to our mailing list to receive updates and reminder emails about forthcoming Enrichment Evenings.


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