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Climate Series 2023: The story of a stubborn optimist

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Posted 20th April 2023

Chris Cutforth has enjoyed three decades working in the sport and leisure sector, from his time in local authorities in Hertfordshire, to 15 years at Sport England and now in his role as Senior Lecturer and Course Leader Sheffield Hallam University in their Academy of Sport and Physical Activity.

As part of our Climate Series of blogs and podcasts, Chris blogs about his own experience to becoming a stubborn optimist when it comes to the climate emergency.

It’s a number of things. The first time I was really sensitised to the issue of climate was when my father gave me a book by Al Gore called ‘Inconvenient Truth’, something of a seminal book, really. If I’m being honest, I thought it was interesting and relevant but it didn’t touch me at an emotional level. But looking back, it was significant.

The other person who influenced me and many others, I’m sure, is David Attenborough and his spellbinding documentaries.

A bit closer to home, an influence is undoubtedly my children. They’re both in their 20’s now and started to influence me around diet and the ethics associated with the food system. They’re both vegans and that has challenged my thinking. And finally, David Gent and Steve Wood are two people from within the sport and physical activity, and business worlds respectively, and we share an interest in this agenda. They have both inspired and motivated me.

Sheffield Hallam University is a big institution and there are three levels to it and this work. There’s the corporate level; the four Colleges, of which the sport department sits in the College of Health, Wellbeing and Life Sciences. Within that, we are one of five departments in that College.

As an institution we have a sustainability plan. It’s fairly ambitious, although most of it focussed on our estate (our buildings, mainly) which is understandable with the energy usage required.  It’s a good starting point.

In the College where I work, a small group of committed people got together and started discussing how we might move it forward within the context of the University’s sustainability plan. A couple of initiatives have started, including the recruitment of a number of climate champions from different departments. Interestingly the vast majority are women and from developing countries which may well be significant in understanding one of the challenges of climate change.

We’ve used a range of tools to facilitate debate and action, most of it around individual behaviour change, but some around the policy responses that are needed. One of my favourites is Climate Interactive’s En-Roads climate simulator. Based on the latest climate science, it allows people to generate their own policy ideas. It’s a really clever and simple tool to use, and fun too! Much of the learning is counter intuitive partly because it reflects the complexities of systems dynamics, an understanding of which is essential in determining the best policy solutions in tackling climate change.

At a department level, our Head of Department gets it and is really supportive. So I’m the advocate who asks difficult questions and I’m reasonably confident that because of that, we’ll have made significant process over the next 12 months.

We’re part way through reviewing our curriculum across six undergraduate courses and a similar number of postgraduate courses, ready for delivery from September 2024. I’m pushing for climate and sustainability issues to be embedded across all of our courses reflecting the needs of each subject discipline. That includes Sport Development, Sport Management, Sport Coaching, PE and School Sport, Sport and Exercise Science, and Physical Activity and Health.

I’m a stubborn optimist when it comes to the climate, by which I mean I accept the science for what it is, recognise we have a problem that needs urgent action, and am determined to play my part as best I can. Being involved in this work has given me a renewed sense of purpose, and surely we all need purpose in our lives don’t we?

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