Change the Debate at UCL

UCL hosts ‘Change the Debate’ conference as part of London Climate Action Week

Sophie Mepham, coordinator of UCL’s Grand Challenges of Sustainable Cities and Transformative Technology, reports on the recent ‘Change the Debate’ conference held at UCL as part of London Climate Action week. 

The movement for climate action is building momentum like never before. 2019 has seen high profile demonstrations in London from Extinction Rebellion, the BBC screening of Sir David Attenborough’s documentary, “Climate Change -The Facts” and continuing a policy on climate change coverage that no longer gives climate deniers an automatic platform. It has also seen school children out on strike, and the London Assembly passing a motion which would make the capital carbon neutral by 2030 – ahead of national targets.

We might feel good about ourselves, but nothing gives you a sense of urgency like inviting 200 school children to your place of work to talk about the climate emergency, and their future.

As part of the Mayor of London’s commitment to address the Climate Emergency, Sadiq Khan held the first ever London Climate Action Week from 1—8 July 2019, designed to bring together talent from multiple sectors to share knowledge, best practice and solutions to tackle the climate crisis. If climate chaos is ‘humanity’s greatest threat’, then it is vital that young people have a voice in this conversation.

On 3 July, UCL joined with The Green Schools Project, Schools 21 and WE charity to host students aged 9 – 18 from around 15 schools in and around London for the first ever ‘Change the Debate’ conference on climate action. It was an ambitious undertaking. With such a short space of time, could we guarantee that students from both sixth form and primary schools would take equal responsibility for the future of the planet? Would different schools be able to sit and work together productively on such serious, potentially quite terrifying issues?

As the students excitedly filled in to the auditorium we played for them the viral Ted Talk given by 15 year-old activist Greta Thunberg, who appropriately reminded us of the reality of time: “if I live to be 100, I will be alive in the year 2103. When you think about the future today, you don’t think beyond the year 2050.”

Throughout the day’s sessions, we were all reminded that expert advice, even policy, means little if we don’t translate it to action and behaviour at all levels. During our morning lecture the students were repeatedly struck with this message from an impressive mix of speakers.  From head teacher Richard Dunne who has introduced beeswax packaging at his primary school, to academic and Extinction Rebellion activist Rupert Read who jumped on the table and made a fierce call for ‘action beyond words.’

Following their group workshops with Green Schools facilitators, the students pitched their pledges for climate action to a packed auditorium, including 200 of their peers, Caroline Russell from the Green Party, Lola Fayokun, a representative of UK Student Climate Network and members of the UCL Grand Challenges team. They spoke of external partnerships, engaging their communities and the need to scale up ideas to be replicated regionally in a way that charmed wonderfully with the call for action from academics, experts and activists on the stage.

Beyond this, the very real sense of urgency from all the students, regardless of age, led to some powerfully direct questions, inviting refreshingly direct replies. “How should we talk to climate deniers?” (“You don’t!”). And when in one of the final moments of the day a young boy in the front row raised his hand and asked “when is the next student strike”, we all felt he was serious about joining a movement – not just looking for a day off school!

It was a day for us all to be reminded of the importance of sharing knowledge and ideas by meeting face-to-face, whilst motivating young people to speak their minds and ask their questions. We will soon be sharing footage of the event, and if you are interested in volunteering your time at future events such as this please get in touch with the Grand Challenges team. A full list of speakers is outlined below.


Jo Hale, Senior Research Associate, UCL Centre for Behaviour Change

Richard Dunne, Headteacher, Ashley Primary School

Rupert Read, Reader in Philosophy at University of East Anglia

Malini Mehra, Chief Executive, Globe International Secretariat

Caroline Russell, Green Party London Assembly Member

Lola Fayokun, UK Student Climate Network representative