Rhiannon Osborne gives Cambridgeshire a much-needed Climate crisis masterclass

As someone who normally moans about stuff to do with politics (exhibit A) I felt more than a little relief when our county’s youngest climate commissioner who is still at medical school went and delivered the public policy masterclass that I’ve seen very few people match.

Soon-to-be Dr Rhiannon Osborne gave a hard-hitting talk on the actions Cambridgeshire & Peterborough need to undertake in order to have any chance of meeting our responsibilities in the face of the Climate Emergency. She gave her lightning talk at the online launch of the final report by the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Independent Climate Commission, of which she is one of our commissioners.

Above – Expertise in many fields – Rhiannon Osborne.

Ms Osborne isn’t the only medical student in Cambridge who has applied her expertise and talents beyond her immediate field of study. Some of you will recall Dr Julia Simons, then a final year medical student at Cambridge Medical School who became something of a media star in the run up to the 2019 General Election for confronting the Prime Minister on a visit to Addenbrooke’s.

We found out again that Johnson does not like scrutiny – accused of running away from the media to go on holiday at the time a damning report on the Government’s conduct in response to the Covid outbreak was released by a Joint Select Committee of Parliament. You can read the report by the Commons Health, and Science & Technology Committees here.

Not many of you will be aware that the scale of the Covid Crisis meant final year medical students had their exams cancelled and were sent straight into the frontline to respond to the civil contingency. Here’s Dr Simons again.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting and listening to Dr Simons on a few occasions before she moved to her first permanent post in the face of the pandemic – at a time when there was not nearly enough PPE to go around, and at a time when there was no vaccine for this contagious virus. I fear ministers have forgotten the situation they put us in through their failures to prepare properly for such an outbreak as they are required to do by law under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. And I hope the Public Inquiry skewers them for it.

Three crises for the price of one.

Writing about Cllr Lewis Herbert’s time as Leader of Cambridge City Council I observed he had faced three major disasters in his time – the sort that if any councillor had faced just one of these they could count themselves as unlucky. Dr Simons and Ms Osborne and their generations are also facing these crises that are not of their own making. Again I don’t get the sense that ministers get this.

What impressed me with Ms Osborne’s presentation was how she demonstrated a clear grasp of how interlinked a whole series of different and disparate issues were, and how she was able to communicate this to a wide audience. In one sense it has a greater impact when you can’t see the speaker in front of you and you are dependent on audio. Therefore things like tone of voice, pace of delivery, and even small things like the amount of times you say “erm” in a talk are all the more important.

Delivering social justice in the climate emergency response

One of the things I constantly remind myself on anything public policy is the knowledge and experiences I take for granted are not necessarily widely known. Even the basics of emailing your constituency MP to get a response in writing from a minister over something you are concerned about is something few are aware of and even fewer take up. (Here’s an example of how the convention functions).

So when Ms Osborne started with this slide on inequalities in Cambridgeshire, it was hard to ignore: The income inequalities across the county vs the higher environmental footprint those on higher incomes have. Hence calls for things like a Frequent Flyer Tax by groups such as Greenpeace.

Above – the mention of Doughnut Economics will please Cllr Anna Smith, the new leader-elect of Cambridge City Council, – noting that the Labour group’s manifesto for the City Council (That she had a big part in composing) states it will adopt the concept of Doughnut Economics as a means to address inequality and sustainability. Some of you may recall Kate Raworth’s presentation in Cambridge a few years ago for Imagine 2027 on Doughnut Economics – you can see the videos here. (Which reminds me – 2022 might be a useful time to do a progress update.)

In that single slide Ms Osborne (noting the Doughnut diagram was produced by a different Ms Osborne – so there are two of them working on this!) covered both poor housing (i.e. via fuel poverty) and poor transport accessibility. This is where my interest as a local historian comes in – asking the question of how we got to here. Because we’ve had the sorts of consultations and discussions with residents in the past. I wrote about the Blueprint for Cambridge published in the mid-1970s. And then on Light Rail and the County Council’s plans from 1991.

Can Ms Osborne’s and Dr Simons’ generation force politicians to deal with the ‘too difficult’ questions where my generation has failed?

One of the things I lost years ago was the optimism that comes with youth. In terms of the climate emergency, I’m a pessimist. I think we’re too late. I think the current generation of politicians in high political office across the world are of such low calibre that coming together to deal with the catastrophe that we have long been warned about, is simply beyond them. At the same time, I’m not going to get in the way of those who still believe there is a chance and are working towards it.

I remember in the late 1990s wondering which of my generation would be the ones to make it to political high office and take on the big challenges of things like climate change. The 2020s responded with Boris Johnson’s low calibre Cabinet that seemed drawn from a political talent pool so shallow it was more of a talent puddle. (Don’t get me started on Sir Keir Starmer’s litany of unforced errors either).

And yet when I look at the work that the current generation of students and young adults are producing, it’s hard not to be inspired. The Cambridge Hub (something that Greater Cambridge businesses and community groups really should support) run a number of programmes for students wanting to get involved in community action. I sponsored two groups over the past year where I asked them to come up with proposals for 1) a local history community project, and 2) a local music community project.

Above – screenshots of their final reports.

As with Ms Osborne and Dr Simons, the two groups of six were in a completely different league to what the mainstream media expect of students and young people. Things that either I thought were not possible, or would have given up far sooner, they persisted with and proved what was possible.

It reminded me of this post by Selvin Brown MBE, who I used to work with in my civil service days over a decade ago. He wrote about the late General Colin Powell.

Rule 11: Have a vision – be demanding.

This resonates with me because for the past decade or so my take is that Cambridge the city (town, gown, and surrounding villages) has been lacking in that united vision – and so has also been lacking people demanding the actions needed for that vision to be realised.

I think that’s one of the reasons why I found Ms Osborne’s talk so compelling. Her delivery gave the listener the sense that what she was talking about was relevant, important, and urgent – and that furthermore she had a clear understanding of what was required and by whom to respond to it. There are others who, when giving presentations on issues they’ve been working on have given me a similar impression – such as Roxanne de Beaux of the Cambridge Cycling Campaign, Cllr Sam Davies MBE (Ind – Queen Edith’s) on Cambridge City Council, Cllr Hilary Cox (Labour – Arbury) on Cambridgeshire County Council, the former South Cambs MP Heidi Allen, now at the RSPCA, and urban designer Emma Fletcher. I could name more. I’m gutted that we no longer have the latter two active in local democracy and county public policy because dammit we need the talents of people of their calibre if we are to have any hope of meeting the daunting challenges in front of us.

Coming up behind Dr Simons and Ms Osborne is a new generation that takes climate far more seriously than previous generations. You may have met some of them in the Cambridge Schools Eco Council – who took on Michael Gove when Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner took them down to Westminster back in 2019. They also organised a number of marches and protests pre-pandemic.

Above – “We brought a few friends with us”

Shared problem-solving

Ms Osborne demonstrated what she could do given both the statistical evidence bases and the audiences of residents who took part in the group meetings. She highlighted the lack of understanding between rural and urban dwellers on transport access – even though I disagree with the final report’s conclusion on the role of light rail – which I think should have far more prominence. Supporters of Cambridge Connect Light Rail – myself included, need to get better at making the case for it to more people if we are to persuade the decision-makers of its merits in significantly reducing motor traffic not just into the city but also as a means of redistributing the supposed wealth we’re told that flows into it.

I hope we’ve not heard the last from Ms Osborne – I think there’s still a lot more for us to learn from her. For if the decision-makers can take notice of her recommendations, then future generations may well talk of her similar to how I remind people of a former resident of Cambridge who took on a similar challenge of her age, and wrote a ground-breaking study in the process: Save the Children founder Eglantyne Jebb. No pressure then Rhiannon!

I think we should thank her for the huge amount of work she has put into this – work she’s done at the same time as studying medicine at Cambridge in the middle of a global pandemic.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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