Why a ‘values-based approach’ is needed to tackle the climate crisis

18 Jun 2024

Image: Dr Sami Asad

Dr Sami Asad wants to get everybody on the same page to solve social and climate issues.

The red kite is a reddish-brown bird of prey with long wings and a deeply forked tail. Once widespread throughout the UK, direct persecution, pesticides and habitat loss resulted in fewer than 10 breeding pairs remaining in a small area of Wales by the 1940s. Local conservationists worked to protect the population and it survived in small numbers, with many birds descended from a single female. In 1989 and throughout the 1990s, the species was successfully reintroduced to various parts of England and Scotland. It is now thriving in many areas and has a ‘Green’ conservation status. Similar initiatives in the early 2000s saw the species reintroduced to the east coast of Ireland.

For Dr Sami Asad, a professor of sustainability and environmental science, the red kite gives him hope for our ability to solve the interlinked climate and biodiversity crises.

Not only does the revival of the red kite show nature’s “tremendous capacity to recover”, as Asad says, but the process of its reintroduction shows what’s possible “when we invest in sustainable policy, when the public is involved, when businesses are involved”.

“If we collaborate, we can do it. We have done it before.”

Collaboration emerges as a key theme when speaking to Asad, who is the director of an MSc in sustainability, entrepreneurship and technology at Tomorrow University of Applied Sciences. Founded in 2020 and accredited in Germany, Tomorrow University is a thoroughly modern university that delivers fully online courses which focus on practical and challenge-based approaches to sustainable technology and innovation.

Asad has a background in ecology and conservation. His PhD looked at amphibian responses to forest habit loss in Borneo. He went on to research sustainable resource use, for example, palm oil and forestry. During this time, he began to feel there was “a bit of a disconnect” between academia and the real world.

A red kite coming in near the water to catch a fish with wings outstretched.

A red kite fishing. Image: © steve/Stock.adobe.com

“We were conducting a lot of research, we were publishing a lot of papers, but there wasn’t enough solution-orientated work. We weren’t engaging with those on the ground who were involved with the issues – local researchers, NGOs, business practitioners,” he says.

“And I think that’s sort of apparent, particularly in the environmentalism and conservation world, in that there’s not enough practical application, enough engagement, not just in environmental spheres, but with businesses, with social NGOs, with governance.”

As a result, Asad became more focused on teaching, particularly teaching people who don’t necessarily have an environmental science background, but work in the public sector, in NGOs, in start-ups. “These are the people you really need to be collaborating with if you want to build these innovative solutions to environmental and social challenges.”

He describes Tomorrow University as the perfect fit for this aim. Students in the early cohorts come from diverse fields; they are developers, founders, NGO managers, Asad says.

“And that’s really what I’m focused on now: building these cross-disciplinary learning environments … to solve society’s grand challenges, which is not just focused on the environmental or the economic but is designed to basically create value across systems.”

An AI on climate tech

Asad speaks with admiration about the speed of innovation in industry – something he believes academic institutions can learn from. Particularly when it comes to the urgency of solving the climate crisis, he says that we really need to be proactive about finding solutions, and that involves all stakeholders coming together to learn from each other and work towards common goals.

“We are dangerously close to our climatic tipping points … We’re already seeing climate change impacts. We’ve seen a massive increase in extreme temperatures, wildfires, storms, and in 2020, this resulted in about $268bn in damages. So, we are already seeing those impacts.

“Between 2030 and 2050, the World Health Organization estimates that we’re going to have 250,000 additional deaths due to climate change.”

It will come as no surprise to anyone engaged in the tech sphere at the moment to learn that many of the climate solutions Asad is most excited about involve artificial intelligence (AI).

Asad talks about how AI has been used for some time for wildlife monitoring. He explains how conservationists set up a network of camera traps to watch a species in a threatened environment. Speaking from experience, he says having to manually analyse footage from these cameras is “a nightmare, it takes forever.” But now AI systems can analyse the footage instantly, giving researchers and conservationists quick access to valuable information, which allows them to manage and protect species more effectively.

Another area Asad thinks is really exciting is the use of AI for climate modelling and weather forecasting, describing Google-owned Deepmind’s GraphCast model as promising. At a time when extreme weather events are increasing in severity and frequency, he believes that developing more accurate predictive models is “essential” to figure out where to take urgent climate mitigation actions and where to build climate resilient infrastructure.

Sami Assad kneeling down in a forest with a camera in his hands and a torch strapped to his head.

Sami Asad conducting fieldwork. Image: Sami Asad

AI is also helping develop citizen science research. Asad describes citizen scientists as “an invaluable resource … basically an army of people with smartphones who are interested in nature and engaged and know what they need to collect”. Events such as the Big Garden BirdWatch and the New Year Plant Hunt encourage the public to survey nature in their local area over a given time period. Traditionally, Asad explains, the public might be trained to identify species themselves and their findings would need to be verified by an expert, but with AI models, species can be identified quickly and accurately. And, as Asad says, “the more data we have, the more accurate that species identification becomes”.

The value of innovation

Asad’s role, as he sees it, is to guide students to develop these kinds of innovative climate solutions. He calls it a “values-based approach” to learning. He asks his students: “Why are you learning in the first place? What is it you want to do? How can you apply your skills, your values to creating impact on a global scale?”

Of course, with any discussion of business and climate, there is the spectre of greenwashing to contend with.

“That’s the tricky part,” Asad says. Innovation and solution-based thinking is important and necessary, he says, but there is also the need for “a lens of critical evaluation”. He sees it as everybody’s responsibility to push for “more effective policies based on transparency and accountability” so that companies can’t get away with spinning weak or false sustainability statements.

Crucially, he says, the research shows that when companies really invest in improving their social and environmental practices, they also see an increase in profits.

“We’re increasingly seeing when companies truly invest in creating value, they’re not only improving on social and environmental issues, but they also generate profit. It’s early days in this transition, but we’re already starting to see the benefits of this.”

It is clear that Asad thinks about values and creating value a lot in his teaching practice. With large cohorts of students from diverse backgrounds and with diverse goals, it can be tricky to communicate in a way that speaks to everyone.

“If we’re going to communicate across these disciplines, we need to know how to communicate effectively,” he says. For Asad, you start by understanding your audience. “What are their values? What are their beliefs? What are their needs? What are their interests? What power do they hold over this issue?

“If I break apart the issue that I need to communicate, what are the elements that will resonate with their values?”

He develops a communication strategy based on the answers to these questions.

He gives the example of how to discuss the importance of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If speaking to environmental scientists, he will emphasise the massive diebacks of the Amazon rainforest, the destruction of coral reefs, the thawing of permafrost. “We will exceed climatic tipping points, which will result in biodiversity decline … From an environmental scientist’s perspective, I want to preserve those environments.”

However, when speaking to government officials, he will focus on wellbeing and economic productivity. He will explain for example that by crossing the 1.5 degrees temperature threshold, we will see more extreme weather events which will disrupt global supply chains, and we will have food scarcity due to drought and desertification.

No one wants to cross that temperature threshold, even though their reasons may vary, and so engaging people’s values is the best way to develop a solution together, Asad says.

Combining optimism and pragmatism, it’s not hard to see Asad’s teaching philosophy having a positive impact on his students. And for his part, he seems fairly positive that the climate crisis will be solved. “We will have to. We’re already seeing the impacts of climate change, so we are being forced to adapt to that.

“We’re seeing businesses become more profitable the more they invest proactively in sustainability and not just appearing to, but actually creating that value. It’s early days, yes, but we’re seeing that transition.

“The question is, will it happen fast enough?”

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic