Dr Iain Stewart: ‘We need to go forward as collectively as possible”

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

Dr Iain Stewart is a geologist known for BBC Science shows such as Men of Rock and How the Earth Made Us. His enthusiasm for geology and Earth Science is both infectious and unrelenting.

Most of us were lucky enough to have that one teacher at school who instilled a passion for a given subject. So when the BBC decided that they would use expert presenters, Professor Stewart, Brian Cox, Neil Oliver and the likes, they made a conscious decision to choose substance over style. The result is that we could all have a glimpse at the excitement that drives scientific enquiry on a daily basis.

These experts obtained a kind of academic Rock-Star status (no geological pun intended). Science and history had become cool, but more importantly it had become understandable and exciting.
Coupled with advances in production technology and computer graphics, far away galaxies and pre-historic renditions of Earth can now be created for our viewing pleasure.

Iain’s list of titles is exhaustive. He’s the chair of Geoscience and Society for UNESCO, the Director of Sustainable Earth Institute, and not forgetting, a full time educator at Plymouth University. But what Iain seeks most is informed change; for Government policy to be effective and reactive to science, not in theory but in practice.

Before working in television Iain was a committed academic, having spent ten straight years researching the planet, with a particular focus on earthquakes in the Mediterranean. He was approached for a minor involvement on a couple of BBC documentaries and “just loved it”, opting to pursuit a career in television as a full-time profession.

“I soon realised I would have to leave my job. My academic career just had too many short-term tasks, so I would have to leave to really get the television work going.

‘I’d been lecturing in 1990, at Brunel University and I handed my notice in. I went back home to Glasgow and started going around all the television companies including the BBC.”

The resignation paid off. Within a year or so Iain had landed his own documentary.

“At the time the BBC were in a real phase of adopting specialist presenters. But television goes through phases and they appear to be moving away from that now. There isn’t that attraction for the experts on TV now.”

Nevertheless, Iain’s expertise are still regularly called upon. He is currently working as an advisor for David Attenborough’s next show ‘Seven Worlds’.

As a scientist that covers ‘all things planet earth’, climate change is rarely absent from the conversation. Iain is supportive of the protests by Extinction Rebellion among others. And whilst the scientific details can become “garbled”, the message I’m assured, is essentially on point. Iain cites the earliest mention of fossil fuels affecting the climate, going as far back as the 1950s.

“If you nit-pick over some of the details about what the climate strikes say then you kind of miss the point. The person with the loudspeaker is effectively sending the same message as the climate scientists have been doing for 50 years.”

Getting the message out there is one of Iain’s specialities. The
initially baffling title of ‘Professor of Geoscience Communication’ involves studying how scientific data is communicated with the wider public and policy makers with the aim of fine-tuning how science is absorbed by the non-scientific community. Issues that are “important to the public but are very technically complicated”.

As an academic who’s worked in broadcast television, Iain is almost uniquely suited to this role. And, as he quite rightly points out, you can have all the scientific data in the world, but half the battle is in conveying the information effectively.

“I think ‘what can we learn from popular media?’ Scientists are great at doing the technical bits but conveying the information can be just as big a challenge.

‘It partly comes from scientists not wanting to be advocates, nor activists. They prefer to put it out there and expect change to happen. The activists may occasionally say things where we (scientists) kind of cringe and say – Oh God that’s not right. But the bottom line is that they’re the ones actually driving the political and societal change.

‘The science inevitably gets a bit garbled as it moves out of the
scientific sphere and into wider society. But maybe it has to, as long as it’s not an extreme misrepresentation or misconceptions that drives it.

‘There’s plenty of arguments within science about the nuances of climate change. The public aren’t really interested in those nuances. What they want to know is whether it’s happening, and that’s a yes or no thing. Scientists are generally uncomfortable with those binary yes/no questions.”

But it’s undeniable that the climate change debate has become deeply politicised. Like so much of our discourse, the climate change argument is as polarized as Brexit among the public. It’s depressing to state that in 2019, knowing someone’s stance on the role of free-markets can predictably indicate their level of concern on climate change.

Furthermore, some prominent left-wing journalists continue to claim that the end of Capitalism is essentially the only hope for the planet; it just so happens that the downfall of Capitalism was a battle cry to many of those same journalists all along.  Some on the left have, arguably, used the climate change debate as a vehicle to smuggle in an anti-capitalist narrative.

All the while, many who lean right politically, simply refuse to acknowledge the possibility of humans affecting their environment or have a fatalistic attitude to the possibility of doing anything about it. Either way, both sides are entrenched in ‘Group-think’ warfare, with both camps sticking their fingers in their ears.

Whilst Professor Stewart acknowledges that aspects of our consumer society exacerbate global warming, he’s also seen progress to the contrary. “Strangely, one of the loudest voices in the climate change conversation is the Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney. There’s lot the pressure on major fossil fuel companies to change course, and a lot of it is coming from the financial sector.”

As I try to keep up, Iain goes on to explain that many of the big investment banks have a circumstantial interest in protecting the environment. After all, investment banks like stability, so the protecting the environment is part of that. “That instance of using a financial position is a quite a strong force for change.”

For Professor Stewart the real challenge is effecting change whilst working ‘within’ the system. As for the downfall of Capitalism as a solution?

“No, I wouldn’t go that far. Too often climate change becomes a partisan political issue. Any solution will need what we call an ‘equitable transition’. If there are companies that use fossil fuels, as we shift across to renewables, the pace of change needs to be enough so that we don’t leave people’s way of life completely behind. We can’t have social disenfranchisement where parts of society will oppose any change because they would see their way of life disappear. I think we need to go forward as collectively as possible and that’s the thorny issue.”

But how does a Western country that has enjoyed sustained material wealth for so long, suddenly call time on emerging economies like India or China? Does this not reek of hypocrisy? How can we tell developing countries to clamp down on materialism and fossil fuels that the West has enjoyed for so long?

“It’s absolutely true. We’re the ones who have been burning fossil fuels which has given us the advanced society that we have. If we rein in our energy efficiencies and use different types of materials, that’s where we can hope others follow.

‘There’s a long way to go, but if the West can create renewable energy sources at a low-cost then other countries will adopt the technology.

‘People focus on population but really it’s the consumption of those population’s affluent middle-classes that is the real factor. You have to think about how we affect that transition. How do you do it in India, Malaysia or central Africa who are all desperate for a better way of life and well-being.”

For Iain, an increase in education in those countries is an essential goal. “In a low-income existence people are naturally focused on getting richer. But as that happens people in developing countries also focus on their broader wellbeing. That’s when people start to think about environmental issues, but it’s a luxury in a way.

‘That’s why leadership needs to come from the West, not to wag the finger but to try and educate people about the tragedy of unchecked growth. When you go to central Africa or India now, they are really moving fast on renewable sources of energy.”

Iain isn’t just hoping for change. Having mastered the art of conveying science into plain speak, he now hopes to influence Government policy directly, having recently signed up to a Parliamentary scheme to better understand the world of politics and how he can explain the science in a way that results in effective policy change. As for a full time move into politics?

“No, I don’t think so. My goal was to inform the public about science and I have to think about where am I best placed to do that. Is it on television, making a documentary under which I have very little control? Or is it doing what I do now but getting closer to politicians to find out what they need from us – the scientists.

‘Scientists are great at wagging the finger at politicians and saying this is what the facts say. But that’s not much help for politicians who have to deal with a wider spectrum of lenses through which to view certain issues, be it economic or social.”

Making films about natural wonders inherently comes with some air miles. And Iain doesn’t seem to take his experiences for granted. When pushed for a standout place, I can’t help but notice that he keeps reverting to home when I’m yet to ask about it. How he has often thought about moving away from Devon and just finds himself asking…. but why?

His most memorable trips have been to active volcanic lakes (Erta Ale – a lava lake in Ethiopia is a favourite). And “anywhere with ice”.

“But it’s funny, you can travel all around the world and find the most amazing places on your doorstep.”

Being permanently based at Plymouth University, it’s clear that Iain has grown fond of Plymouth and the surrounding areas. “I like Plymouth as a city but the real point is that you’re surrounded by beautiful places in every direction.

‘Sometimes, when I get back from travelling, on the train home, the stretch of trainline between Dawlish and Teignmouth is just absolutely beautiful to come home to.

‘We don’t need to be so fixated on going overseas, we have so much beauty on our doorstep. It’s almost cliché to mention Wistman’s Wood but if you show someone a photo of it, you always get the same reaction – where is that!?  I love being able to say it’s just up the road.”

FeaturesLocal Life