Ditchley, Sustainability and Environmental Challenges

By Esme Smith

Esme is currently undertaking an MSc in Emerging Economies and International Development at King's College London, with an undergraduate degree in History from the University of Cambridge.

In the summer of 2020, Esme researched and reviewed Ditchley conferences on multilateralism and the role of the United Nations, and conferences on the environment as part of an intern project to begin to explore Ditchley’s historical archives.


The Ditchley Foundation has engaged with environmental discussions since the 1970s making links between the ocean, food sustainability, energy, water, the arctic and biodiversity. Concern about ‘climate modification’ was raised early in the 1970s.  This document outlines the environmental conferences hosted by Ditchley over the last fifty years.

The Environment

Just like 2019 before it, 2020 has seen devastating environmental extremes. While the world has been struggling with the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people have also faced severe storms, monsoons, and biblical locust swarms. Meanwhile, the average global temperature has increased by one degree highlighting the link between average conditions and meteorological extremes. People have been demanding change for a long-time, most recently with the Global Climate Strikes in 2019 which saw the gathering of 6 million young people around the world.

The Ditchley Foundation has engaged with the subject of the environment from its beginnings as an academic subject and social movement since the 1960s. Over the last half century, Ditchley has held conferences to scrutinise damage to the natural world and opportunities for sustainable innovation. The presence of figures such as Russell E Train (founder of the World Wildlife Foundation) and Baroness Lynda Chalker  (current President of the Royal Geographic Society) has helped to broaden the debate.

The following document outlines how attendees of Ditchley conferences have discussed environmental challenges in line with key global shifts. It traces Ditchley’s initial engagements with the environment primarily as attempts to tackle the post-war pollution problem.

By the 1990s, a scientific consensus around climate warming had emerged. Today, preserving biodiversity on land, water and ice is a key stability mechanism for the natural world.

The Early Years: Clean Living

Ditchley’s first review of the environment in 1970 took place when the modern environmental movement was just beginning. A series of critical environmental issues helped to turn aspects of a grassroots movement to a series of respected scientific disciplines. The post-war economic boom and rapid urbanisation had exacerbated severe pollution across the developed world, epitomised by the Great Smog of London in 1952. It is now estimated 10,000 people died from respiratory failure due to the “pea-soup” smog, provoking government research, regulation and greater public awareness of the relationship between public health and air quality.

By the 1970s, environmentalism had become a mass social and scientific movement following a decade of social activism. Rachel Carson’s world renowned book, Silent Spring, helped expose the hazards of pesticides, while a series of oil spills helped forge the first Earth Day in 1970. It is estimated some 20 million people attended the first Earth Day protests across America. Such initiatives helped legislate a wave of environmental protection acts throughout the 1970s, including the UK’s Environmental Protection Act and Control of Pollution Act both passed in 1974.

Against this backdrop, Ditchley’s first environmental conference in 1970, Environmental Control, aimed to “consider further the causes of environmental damage, their consequences if unchecked, the measures both national and international desirable for their control, and the economic cost and political feasibility of such measures.”  The following year, Ditchley invited Russell E Train to deliver its tenth annual lecture, titled the Environment - A Global Perspective. He expressed concern for the environment as essentially concern for the quality of human life. Within four years, two further conferences and two annual lectures explored pollution, ecology and ‘climate modification’.

Russell E Train

Train was the second administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), from September 1973 to January 1977 and the founding chairman emeritus of World Wildlife Fund (WWF). At the time of his attendance at Ditchley he was Chairman of the newly formed Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). His lecture evidenced political and public concern for the air pollution, pollution of the seas and even the future of the two polar regions.

These early conferences noted the success of increased public concern with “local issues” such as “pollution, the preservation of the countryside, town planning” listed by Lord Ashby of Brandon speaking at Ditchley in 1975, but little progress where “legislation would really threaten the ethos of the consumer society”. In other words, more daunting international issues such as populations, food security and energy resources. They considered the philosophical framings of the environment; who is responsible for bearing the financial cost and how to manage national sovereignty in international environmental law? Ditchley’s first environmental conference in 1970 stated that measuring GDP growth does not adequately tell us about human progress and environmental well-being:

 “There is aneed to incorporate within assessments of the capacity, growth and performance of the nation some measurement of environmental equality. In effect, we should redirect economic growth to embrace the overall quality of life and not confine it to consumer goods. (Ditchley 13-16 Nov 1970)

Understanding Climate Change:

By the 1990s, as a result of improving computer models and observational research, a consensus position formed: greenhouse gases were implicated in most climate changes and human-caused emissions were bringing discernible global warming. In 1989, for the first time Ditchley dedicated an entire conference to climate change and its effect on the environment. 

Improved scientific understanding and greater specialisation was reflected at Ditchley; conferences tend to spotlight specific aspects of the relationship between climate change and the environment: for example, in 1991 Ditchley analysed energy consumption and its impact on climate, or in 2001 when the conference Sustainable Development tracked the role of extractive agriculture in climate change. In 2015, Ditchley looked at Climate change and energy risk once again, this time addressing potential solutions. By this time, it seemed that the world was not going to run out of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future as previously thought. This meant that the arguments against the use of fossil fuels and in favour of cleaner energy forms had to be framed less in terms of a “threat to security”, and with more emphasis on environmental, economic and life-style arguments. Some argued that the only way forward was for the rich world to radically change its consumption model. Policy recommendations included a carbon tax managed via a “central bank of carbon”. However, much of any apparent improvement in the sustainability and environmental footprint of rich countries had been achieved simply by shifting polluting production elsewhere, particularly to China. In the end, the question is not whether growth and consumption were good or bad in themselves, but what kind of each we should be aiming for.

Global warming is causing increasingly frequent, intense and devastating droughts, hurricanes and heatwaves and exacerbating the global sustainability crisis. However, our capacity to shield and respond to these threats is ultimately determined by socioeconomic status, highlighting the link between environmental change and inequality. These ideas are outlined in Ditchley’s management of water resources conference chaired by Baroness Lynda Chalker in 1999 but have been referenced since the introduction of the Millennium Development Goals (later superseded by the Sustainable Development Goals).

Baroness Lynda Chalker of Wallasey

Lynda Chalker is currently the President of the Royal Geographic Society. She has worked on the eradication of poverty and improving medical training in Africa, having founded both Africa Matters and the Chalker Foundation for Africa. She has a long-held association with Ditchley, sitting as Governor of The Ditchley Foundation from 1998 until 2007, as well as chairing two conferences on the management of water resources in 1999 and 2005.

The ‘Food security in the 21st century’ conference held in 2019 discussed how stark increases in global warming will inhibit agricultural production in areas with the greatest predicted population rises, generally in the southern hemisphere. Reducing poverty is essential to reducing carbon emissions and impact on wildlife and this requires good infrastructure and good governance. International dialogue must better integrate previously neglected actors from the developing world.

Protecting the wilderness

In 1978, 55% of the world’s surface was considered true wilderness. By 2020, this figure had dropped to 35%. The preservation of biodiversity across land, sea and water is a crucial way in which we can mitigate the damage of climate change and ensure the longevity of all kinds of life on earth. In 2016, Ditchley asked, ‘Can the earth still sustain us?’ in a conference chaired by Dr Tony Juniper, at the time, President of the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts. One conclusion was that biodiversity risks cannot be successfully addressed in isolation. Participants recognised the importance of social innovation in the private sector, but placed the onus on governments to come up with strong and effective regulatory measures with an eye to long term effects:

“Biodiversity concerns and actions needed to be mainstreamed into all kinds of infrastructure and other projects from the start, as well as into education and training at all levels.”

“Can the Earth still sustain us?” 2016

A partnership with the Canadian Ditchley Foundation in 2017 spotlighted the Arctic as a fragile ecosystem and site of irreversible damage. Temperatures in the Arctic are increasing at a rate faster than any point over the last 45 million years, exceeding the ability of habitats, animals and human beings to adapt. The trend for less extensive and less thick summer sea ice is clear. Such levels of ice reduction means more heat absorption by the open waters, further contributing to warming of the Arctic Ocean.

Coral reefs are an example of an ecosystem already suffering harm as a result of warming and acidification, and are an early warning of marine ecosystem failure. In 2018, Ditchley asked if the ocean was an opportunity for a new level of international cooperation or a tragedy of the commons? Conference participants saw opportunities for the cooperation of the G7 over overfishing, ocean education and conservation of areas beyond national jurisdiction. Put simply, the ocean should be better understood as a ‘global commons’ than ever before. A later conference in 2019 on uses of ocean data generated by the use of new technologies highlighted the importance of evidence and ocean observation. This discussion, held in partnership with the Ocean Data Foundation considered how ocean science and the data it produces can be more effectively shared, including amongst private sector organisations. Increasing data availability and co-production of data with citizens (to include local and indigenous knowledge) for example, could help drive better communication on the state of the ocean.

The task is to find answers to the technical and cultural challenges that will allow better access to data for those - decision-makers, researchers, businesses, entrepreneurs and citizens - who might innovate data driven solutions to prevent further damage, to restore ocean heath and increase public understanding.

Transforming Ocean Data, 2019

The Future

This summary has offered a brief introduction to Ditchley’s engagement with environmental issues including the state of the ocean, the Arctic, water scarcity, sustainable food models and urban growth.

COVID-19 has changed the way we live and in some ways our relationship with the planet. There are fewer car, plane and shipping journeys and some parts of industry have shut down. Cities are temporarily polluted, and CO2 emissions did fall. However, on the 1st June CO2 levels reached the highest level in human history. Plus, 2020 is set to end up the warmest year on record. Our recovery from the pandemic should be intrinsically linked to a more sustainable future.


Timeline: world events and Ditchley conferences (in bold)

World human population reaches 3 billion

World Wildlife Fund founded

Resources of the ocean Bed (September)

Environmental Protection Agency established.

Environmental Control Conference (November)

The Urban Environment

The Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture X, Environment - a global perspective, Delivered by the Hon Russell E Train

The Development of the Arctic Ocean

TheConference on the Human Environment, held inStockholm, Sweden 5 to 16 June, the first of a series of world environmental conferences.
United Nations Environment Programme founded as a result of the Stockholm conference.

The Ditchley Foundation Lecture XIII, One Earth: The Problems and Opportunities on a Very Interdependent Planet 
Delivered by: Father Theodore M. Hesburgh. Member of the Holy See's Delegation to the United Nations, Vatican City representative to the International Atomic, Energy Agency in Vienna (1956-1970).

The Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture XIV, Politics and the Environment, Delivered by: Lord Ashby of Brandon, Kt, FRS.  Master of Clare College, Cambridge, and formerly Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1970-73.

The Ditchley Foundation Annual Lecture XVII, On the Usefulness of Biological Science, Delivered by Dr Lewis Thomas.

World wood resources and the problem of deforestation Conference (November)

World human population reaches 5 billion

Antarctica Conference (December)

Environmental Damage and climatic change (March)

Global climate change and its implications (January)

Jan. 1 — Sweden is first nation to enact and impose a carbon tax. By 2010 the tax per ton was 128 euros.

Energy and the environment (October)

UN Antarctica treaty prohibits mining, limits pollution and protects animal species.

TheEarth Summit, held inRio de Janeiro from June 3 to June 14, was unprecedented for aUnited Nations conference, in terms of both its size and the scope of its concerns.

Sustaining Biodiversity: importance, implications and costs. (April)

Sustainable Development: problems, progress and prospects, Sir Crispin Tickell GCMG KCVO, February.

The management of world water resources, Chair: The Rt Hon Baroness Chalker of Wallasey PC, April

Earth’s population exceeds six billion. Half are living in cities. Almost half (2.8 billion) live on less than $2 a day. UN agencies note that while globalization of trade has helped in some countries, the poor are becoming poorer both in absolute and relative terms.

Sustainable Agriculture: what is farming for?, Chair: The Earl of Selborne KBE FRS (November)

Meeting energy needs for the 21st Century, Chair: Professor Ian Fells, (December)

2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami affects countries surrounding the Indian Ocean, killing nearly a quarter of a million people.

Hurricanes  Katrina,  Rita, and  Wilma cause widespread destruction and environmental harm to coastal communities in the US Gulf Coast region.

The Politics and Problems of Water, Chair: Baroness Chalker of Wallasey PC

Nuclear Energy Time To Move Ahead, Chair: the Honourable Barbara Thomas

The Future of the Aerospace Industry , Chair: Richard Evans CBE

Energy and the Environment: The Essential Next Steps , Chair: Professor Sir David King

China, Energy and the Environment, Chair: Admiral (Retd) Dennis Blair and Mr Nick Butler, (November)

United Nations Climate Change Conference, Copenhagen. Widely considered a failure in binding international agreement around environmental policy. (7 Dec 2009 – 18 Dec 2009)

The Arctic region in the twenty-first century
 , Co-Chairs: Mrs Mariot Leslie and The Honourable Pierre Claude Nolin

Can the multilateral system manage climate change? , Chair: Professor Sir David King FRS FRSC

Deepwater Horizon BP Oil Spill: the largest oil spill in history caused by an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig off the Gulf of Mexico. (20 April). The petroleum that had leaked from the well before it was sealed formed a slick extending over more than 57,500 square miles (149,000 square km) and destroyed the surrounding ecosystem.

United Nations designates day that world human population reached 7 billion.

The future of hydrocarbons as a global energy source
 , Chair: The Honourable John Manley PC, OC

Water: conserving our most precious resource ,
  Chair: Patricia Mulroy

Rio+20 and the green economy: how to make prosperity sustainable, Chair: Professor Lord Nick Stern of Brentford FBA.

The shale gas and energy revolution , Chair: Professor Nick Butler

Climate and energy risk ,  Chair: Tom Burke

Paris Agreement within United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is signed.

Can the earth still sustain us? Biodiversity, resources and pollution, Chair: Dr Tony Juniper

The Arctic at the crossroads: cooperation or competition?, Chair: The Honourable Jean Charest PC and Mr Duane Smith (In partnership with Canadian Ditchley).

The Ocean: an opportunity for a new level of international cooperation or a tragedy of the commons?, Chair: The Honourable Lawrence Cannon (In cooperation with Canadian Ditchley)

Transforming Ocean Data,  Chair: Dr Linwood Pendleton