Skip to content

Power to the people

Events, Open Science

On Thursday 28 October 2021, Creative Commons CEO Catherine Stihler delivered a keynote at the University of St Andrews’ Power to the people: St Andrews’ journey to net-zero and the future of energy event ahead of the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, officially known as the 26th Conference of Parties, or COP26. In her keynote, Catherine discusses how open access to research and data, and the ability to widely share context-specific approaches, are key to unlocking sustainable solutions for every facet of climate change and preservation of biodiversity. Read the full speech below and access the presentation slides here and the video here.


Good evening and welcome to this wonderful COP26 event. I’m Catherine Stihler, CEO of Creative Commons, and the elected Chair of University Court, the governing body of the university. So I stand before you this evening with my two distinct but related hats on.

Let me start with Creative Commons. Also referred to as CC, is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to building and sustaining a thriving commons of shared knowledge and culture that serves the public interest. 

CC removes the legal and technical obstacles to sharing knowledge to help society overcome its most pressing challenges, from climate change to health emergencies to education for all.

CC has been at the forefront of the digital commons for 20 years, partnering with activists and advocates, institutions, and governments to build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world.  And on our 20th anniversary year, we have made a commitment to “Better Sharing” and advocating for open access to knowledge and culture. 

Part of our work supports efforts in the creation, adoption and implementation of open access policies. CC assisted the UKRI in developing a new open access policy, which launched in August 2021. This move will increase opportunities for the findings of publicly funded research to be accessed, shared and reused in the UK research community and globally. CC also helped write the UNESCO Recommendations for Open Educational Resources and Open Science. We are now working through three coalitions to help national governments implement the recommendation on Open Education and we plan to do the same with Open Science.

I’m excited to speak with you today with both my professional and St Andrews hats on, in order that we can achieve together our net zero ambitions by 2035.


In 1979, data collected over 130 years – since reliable records were kept – indicated that global temperatures were rising.

That same year, government leaders launched the First World Climate Conference in Geneva.

The science of climate change was just emerging, and nations in attendance were urged “to foresee and prevent potential man-made changes in climate that might be adverse to the well-being of humanity.”

Declarations at the conference identified that increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, and changes in land use was the leading cause that the planet was warming.

In 1990, when the Second World Climate Conference was held, scientists and technology experts at the conference issued a stronger statement about the risks.

Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech at the conference, comparing the threat of global warming to the Gulf War – which was then just escalating following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. She also talked about the importance of research.

Breakthroughs in science – and many other disciplines – come from access to knowledge and for 20 years, Creative Commons has been working with governments, institutions, foundations and activists across the globe in a coordinated effort to openly license scientific research articles, data and educational resources.

Thatcher Quote from 1990

Briefly returning to Margaret Thatcher, in 1990, she mentioned the power of a coordinated effort, “We must also make sure that research is carefully targeted. Too many people can do the same thing, and at the same time vital problems can be neglected. The task of global observation is immense. It will require a coordinated effort more ambitious than any attempt before, as the meeting of scientists and experts last week recognized.”

Developments at the Second World Climate Conference led to the establishment of the 

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as a framework for international cooperation to combat climate change.

The Conference of Parties, known as COP, is the decision-making body responsible for monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It brings together the 197 nations and territories – called Parties.

Getting real and UK action

So here we are, decades later, swimming in the effects of our actions, or lack-there-of. 

Is it reassuring that scientists saw this coming, or is it reprehensible that we waited so long to coordinate efforts? Both. 

Last week during a BBC interview, America’s climate envoy John Kerry said that the COP26 summit in Glasgow is the “last best hope for the world to get its act together. He said that if greenhouse gas emissions were not reduced by 2030, there was no chance of holding the rise in the earth’s temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The UK has already experienced 1.2C of warming compared to preindustrial levels and a mean sea level rise of 16cm. The 1.5 degree goal was set in The Paris Agreement in 2015. 

Put into perspective, if we don’t limit global warming below two-degrees, sea-levels will rise several meters, and tropical reefs will be extinct. If the planet warms three-degrees, there will be forests in the Arctic, and most coastal cities will be gone.

Four? Europe will be in permanent drought. Polynesia will be swallowed by the sea. 

Five Degrees? According to the world’s leading climate scientists – the end of human civilization.

With doom and gloom on the horizon, many countries are finally prioritizing a low-carbon future. 

70% of the world economy is covered by net zero targets, up from less than 30% when the UK took on the Presidency of the COP26. 

The UK was the first country to pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 78% by 2035, and completely phase out coal power by 2024. 

The Prime Minister has set out a Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution.  

Time is ticking. Our “last best hope” IS now.

Urgent solutions

Floods. Droughts. Heat. Extreme weather disrupts and threatens lives and infrastructures. Fluctuating temperatures create conditions for disease to spread. It accelerates food insecurity and can cause stress, anxiety and other mental health disorders. Even slow-developing events – like droughts – have even been linked to increases in suicide. 

We need urgent solutions. Just imagine if the research from climatologists, biologists, geoscientists, engineers, psychologists were open to all. This multidisciplinary approach to looking for solutions could lead to incredible discoveries, much like the accidental penicillin breakthrough. 

Today, as more than 30,000 species face the threat of extinction, so much scientific research still remains locked behind paywalls. Many climate affected communities, particularly in rural and/or lower-resourced areas, are unable to access climate or biodiversity research or data due to prohibitive copyright laws. 

While many researchers, governments, and global environmental organizations recognize the importance of the open sharing of knowledge to accelerate progress, they lack cohesive strategies and mechanisms to facilitate sharing and collaboration across disciplinary and geographic borders. 

But challenges can stimulate opportunities. 

Crises can motivate collective adrenaline and accelerate motivations and cooperative behaviors. During COVID-19, when under extreme duress, the scientific community turned to “open” to accelerate progress. This resulted in democratized sharing and accelerated discovery, as scientists from across the globe embraced the immediate, open sharing of preprints, research articles, data, and code. This adoption of openness contributed to the rapid sequencing and sharing of the virus’ genome, the quick development of therapeutics, and the fastest development of effective vaccines in human history. The lessons learned during the pandemic can and should be applied to accelerate progress on other urgent problems facing our society.

Open Research and Data

As you can see, there are many benefits of open access to research and data. Not only does this help ensure information is available to all regardless of their location or economic situation, but it helps accelerate processes and solutions. 

Effective change will rely on collaborative interventions across policy, research, practitioners, and communities to create actionable, tailored, and evidence-based implementation strategies. This includes plain language summaries and open licensing enabling translation into local languages. 

Under the current scientific journal publishing model, the cost of open access is falling on higher education institutions who pay exorbitant article processing charges (or APCs), whilst the publishers are reporting record profits. Individual researchers and their institutions are having to find thousands of pounds to do the right thing. 

Governments and other research funders, researchers and public universities have an opportunity to rethink how we should fund, do and share research. If the purpose of research is to share peer reviewed knowledge with the public to make the world a better place, we need to think about research as a public good. 

If we built a new system for producing and sharing scientific knowledge – what would we build and how would we fund it? How do we get to a world in which everyone has immediate open access to scientific research and data, authors can keep their copyright, and we spend significantly less public money producing and sharing quality, peer reviewed research? Could governments both require open access to publicly funded research and support public Universities to host and steward open access journals?

Open access to research and data, and the ability to widely share context-specific approaches, is the key to unlock sustainable solutions for every facet of climate change and preservation of biodiversity. This includes a greater investment in the inclusion and agency of affected communities in climate research, and robust policy frameworks which prioritize open access to publicly and foundation funded research.

To date, there has not been a coordinated global effort to address the challenge to open access to scientific research on climate change or biodiversity. But this will soon change. I am pleased to announce that the Open Society Foundations has funded CC and our partners SPARC and EIFL to lead a global campaign to promote open access to climate and biodiversity research. This is a promising strategy to accelerate progress towards solving the climate crisis and preserving global biodiversity.

Opening access to climate science shouldn’t be limited to scientific communities. In order to empower educators and students, science educational resources also need to be accessible for all. This leads me to open education. 

Open Education

Scotland is one of the world’s leading countries in the Eco-Schools programme and COP26 provides us with a unique opportunity to recognize and celebrate our long-standing commitment to education and sustainability. 

Scotland’s Learning for Sustainability is an excellent example of how access to educational resources can empower students, teachers and individuals. I’m proud that over 98% of Scotland’s local authority schools are registered in the programme, with 31% receiving the highest award – the Green Flag.

Battlefield Primary School in Glasgow has been involved in the programme since 2005 and are constantly striving to find new ways to make the school more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Their search led them to using solar energy as a school greenhouse.

When educators can share resources, they can improve curriculum and learning outcomes. Developing the next generation of environmental leaders is not just a good idea, it’s essential.

Does it seem reasonable that education in the age of the internet should be more expensive and less flexible than it was in previous generations? As people and knowledge are increasingly networked and available online, what will it mean for learning, work, and society?

As economies become increasingly global and networked, the skills and knowledge required to successfully acquire and keep good jobs require a higher education. All national governments invest in and have strategic goals for how their public education systems can support individuals, families, and the broader society.

Climate education is so important, and while big solutions like renewable and cleaner sources of energy will come from government and corporate action, individuals also have the power to make change at a grander scale by using your voice as a consumer, a customer, a voter and an active citizen. 

Individual choices also provide a contribution for our future.

CC’s Sustainability Policy

At CC, we have made and are continuing to prioritize sustainable practices to minimize our impact on the environment. Our employees have been working remotely since 2015, avoiding commuter and office building impacts. Much of our program work is guided by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. We just completed our 2nd year having a virtual Global Summit, which eliminated the need for staff and community travel and food waste. When purchasing team equipment and locating our servers, we look for the most sustainable options. At CC, we don’t rest on our laurels, and we are currently developing more purposeful sustainability policies thinking about energy use of our employees with remote working, travel off setting, and like at St Andrews, training in personal approaches to sustainability.

St Andrews Sustainability (energy, mindset, travel off setting)

I know our Quaestor, Derek Watson, will talk more about the Eden Campus and the key part it will play to reach net zero by 2035. But as we look at Sustainability, the work of the sustainability board, and now sustainability being a key strategic pillar for the university, We know that to reach net zero by 2035 will require action for each and everyone of us.

Of all the actions, whether biodiversity, energy conservation, food choices, all of these require a mindset shift—traveling by car to an event like this tonight will need to be carefully assessed. Was there a public transport option? If not, could I have spoken remotely travel or who pays for the offsetting of my carbon footprint?

At the event itself, if there is food, are we looking at this sustainably? and the list goes on. We are entering a period of change where each and every one of us will play a part, and those who go above and beyond recognized for their endeavors. 

Envisage 2035 – 14 years from now, where will we be?

So as I come to the end of my talk, fourteen years ago, in 2007, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued the Fourth Assessment Report to assess scientific, technical and socio-economic information concerning climate change. 

People from over 130 countries contributed to the report, which took 6 years to produce. This groundbreaking document is the largest and most detailed summary of the climate change situation ever undertaken. 

Contributors included more than 2500 scientific expert reviewers, more than 800 contributing authors, and more than 450 lead authors. It cited over 6,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies.

 Here are some of the findings.

Let’s flip this idea and look forward 14 years to 2035, when we will cross a point of no return to stop Earth’s temperatures from rising by 2 degrees Celsius and setting off a disastrous array of global disasters?  

 I hope we can all work together so that our findings look like this.

 Now that is a world that I would like to live in. 

This is our last best hope. 

Just imagine what we can achieve if we ALL work together.

 Thank you for being here tonight and over to Derek. 

Posted 31 October 2021