Map showing the locations of geographical societies that attended the conference

In June 2021, we were delighted to host a conference of over 60 delegates from 28 different countries representing many of the world’s leading geographical societies to discuss their respective and collective responses to the climate emergency in the run up to COP26 in Glasgow later this year. In partnership with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) and the International Geographical Union (IGU), the gathering discussed collaborative efforts to tackle climate change and the sustainable development goals and reflected on the varying cultural and political contexts of climate change across the world.

Scotland has shown global leadership in climate action, so it is appropriate that The Royal Scottish Geographical Society was at the heart of this gathering of Geographers. We have a really ambitious programme ahead of COP26 based around three core principles of promoting wide-spread action to deliver domestic targets, tackling inequality by giving voice to those less heard, and promoting Scotland’s global leadership to inspire others internationally. The International Geographical Society Gathering was a major initiative in this programme. RSGS CEO Mike Robinson, who devised the idea for the gathering, reflected on the event: “Scotland plays host to the world’s governments this November and we wanted to help play our part by convening our global network of sister organisations, to understand each other’s perspectives better, to seek greater collaboration and to use our collective leadership to build the understanding of solutions and commitment to action on this critical issue.”

The International Geographical Society Gathering saw delegates from Italy, Israel, Russia, China, Ireland, Colombia, and Uganda introduce their work on climate change and collaboratively reflect on them within three key themes of: education, research, and public engagement and policy. The subsequent discussions concerned what geography is doing right and what it could do differently. One topic that was particularly emergent throughout the day’s discussions was the interdisciplinary nature of geography, the advantage of which is a more complete understanding of the world, and of the effects of climate change, both human and physical, local and global.

The event also featured provocations from several international speakers considering different perspectives on climate change. RSGS CEO Mike Robinson opened the provocations by speaking of the responsibility and potential of geographical societies to collaboratively tackle the climate emergency: “The Geographical community has an incredible heritage, with a diverse range of approaches and opinions. Yet, regardless of our differences in approach, our shared language of science and geography grants us a strong collective ability for promoting positive global change. Our collective influence can make an impact to inform debate, to inspire the public and to place geography at the heart of solving this global emergency.”

Student Ellie Kirkland from Perthshire followed, and gave a perspective from the next generation of geographers.  Referring to COP26 she said: “Young people across the world have spoken out in the millions: we have given you a mandate. There are less than 5 months until the most important international climate conference to-date. Starting now young people, and really the whole planet, need you to use your expertise and influence to push for the political good will, ambitious targets and concrete actions that will limit global warming as close to 1.5oC as possible.”

Cambridge Professor Bhaskar Vira highlighted the importance of the educational process for encouraging a two-way conversation with students, supporting their role as activists and engaged citizens: I think it’s important that the conversation that takes place in our institutions of education is a two-way conversation. It’s not us teaching the students, it’s about us listening to the students as well.” Professor Vira also spoke of the importance of an integrative approach to geography and highlighted that Cambridge no longer label their exam papers as ‘human’ or ‘physical’ Geography.

Geography teacher Jon-Paul Davies considered the responsibility of teachers to promote climate activism from students and the importance of young voices, pondering: “Is it acceptable to introduce young people to the myriad problems and challenges of the world be they natural disasters, death tolls, or predicted impacts of the climate crisis—and then just leave them there?” Jon-Paul added: "As COP26 rapidly approaches, all of us in the world of geographical education, academics, classroom teachers, and students have an integral role to play. Collectively, the voice of geography must stand up and be counted.”

Professor Anindita Datta from Delhi considered the differential effect of the climate change emergency on women:the climate emergency has translated into constant precarity and in order to provide meaningful interventions, collaborative projects need to be framed around the lens of women’s everyday lives”. Professor Datta’s provocation ultimately shone a spotlight on the real and disproportionate impacts that climate change has on different groups.

Finally, Aran O’Carroll from The Royal Canadian Geographical Society spoke of the urgent need for action and collaboration on the twin climate and biodiversity crises, and the need to demonstrate geography’s relevance to these challenges: “We as geographers know our relevance to these issues. We know that our integrated thinking, our interdisciplinary approach is of great relevance to these things.” The Royal Canadian Geographical Society are now leading on developing a joint statement to encourage the International Geographical community to commit to action, and to reinforce the importance of indigenous leadership and engagement.

The provocations ultimately inspired discussions about the responsibility of geographical societies to seize opportunities for collaborations. As a uniquely inter-disciplinary subject, geography provides insight into a broad scope of issues attributed to climate change, and its solutions.

Professor Joe Smith, Director of the RGS with IBG reflected on the event saying “This historic gathering is an opportunity for the world’s geographical organisations to gather together to challenge ourselves - and geography - to recognise the broad responsibilities and opportunities that climate change represents for geography. The topic generates compelling questions that the subject is uniquely well placed to respond to, and also opportunities to demonstrate the unique attributes of geography. We are interdisciplinarians, problem solvers, and applied thinkers. But it also presents us with profound responsibilities to apply our knowledge and skills with urgency and purpose to the task of managing the far-reaching risks presented by mitigation and adaptation to climate change.”

Professor Michael Meadows, President of the IGU closed the event. He said “Even as the global population reels in the face of the most serious health crisis in over a century, the climate crisis is affecting all of our lives.  Geographers have a very special skillset in terms of teaching and research that can – and indeed must – be harnessed through the kind of cooperation that the international community of Geographical Societies is able to foster in order to help mitigate the myriad problems associated with human impact on the environment.”

We now look forward to seeing what our societies can achieve together in the future.