At the crossroads of scientific enlightenment and regression

By Daniel McMurray, BA LLB MIL Global Event Lead – Impact Hub, Managing Director & Global Head of Communications – Enterprise IQ Pty Ltd

“It is paradoxical, yet true, to say, that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations. Precisely one of the most gratifying results of intellectual evolution is the continuous opening up of new and greater prospects”.

– Nikola Tesla

It is hard not to feel that we live at a pivotal moment in history, with the world racing toward an epochal crossroad.

In one direction lies the path of reason, science, community and progress. A world where growing systemic challenges like climate change, resource scarcity, overpopulation, inequality, and environmental degradation can be addressed through logic, evidence, and rational, creative, and collaborative action. Where the ingenuity, collective genius, and relentless optimism of humanity can resolve complex problems such as poverty, disease, and ecological collapse, creating abundance of energy, health, education and well-being for all.

In the other direction, lies a different path. One of regression, unreason, and parochialism. A fact-free, fearful and frightening world of separation, science denialism, and superstition, ruled over by demagogues offering glib, unworkable solutions, convenient scapegoats to blame, and soothing illusory retreat into fragmented tribal realms.

Which path we collectively choose to follow will determine the trajectory of the 21st century and beyond. Will we choose the enlightened path of working together collectively, collaboratively, and consciously for the greater good? Or will we choose the path of darkness, disintegrating into unconscious, unreasonable and irrational behavior that hastens systemic collapse?

At such a pivotal moment, the choice of “New Enlightenment” as the theme for the recent European Forum Alpbach was a timely, prescient and crucial framing.

Attending the forum with my European-based colleagues from Impact Hub – a globally connected network of social entrepreneurs, innovators, and change-makers as official partners for the event – inspired hope that the path of enlightenment, reason and collaborative action is fundamentally achievable.

Members of the Alpbach Laxenburg Group and Impact Hub hike in Alpbach, Austria in August 2016. © Matthias Silveri | IIASA

Members of the Alpbach Laxenburg Group and Impact Hub hike in Alpbach, Austria in August 2016. © Matthias Silveri | IIASA

One of the highlights of the event for our contingent was a facilitated hike into the Tyrolean alps with Pavel Kabat (Director General & CEO of IIASA) and other key thought leaders from the Alpbach Laxenburg Group – including Jeffrey Sachs (Director of The Earth Institute from Columbia University), Tarja Halonen (the former President of Finland), Björn Stigson (former President of the WBCSD), Justin Yifu L in (Director of the Centre for New Structural Economics at Peking University), Pascal Lamy (former Director-General of the WTO), and  many more cross-sectoral leaders from business, government, NGOs and civil society.

Gathered together in the scenic environs of the Boglalm Chalet, this diverse and eclectic group focused our discussion around how we can work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

Professor Sachs’ definition of an “entrepreneur” struck a chord. He described entrepreneurs as those with the vision to take elements from diverse sources, creatively combining and re- combining in new ways, key insights from different sectors, research fields, technologies, or existing systems to present a new solution or way of thinking.

In that group, representing a mix of the established elite and the challengers of tomorrow, the old and the new from business, government, science, social enterprise, and civil society, it was refreshing to feel the positive energy and inspired thinking that can come from embracing and making space for an open, cross -pollination of ideas.

It brought to mind a universal truth – that humanity is at its best when we work together collaboratively, breaking down barriers, dissolving silos of thought and entrenched interests and, like Professor Sachs’ concept of real entrepreneurship, combining ideas in new, innovative and creative ways. The path of enlightenment is not the domain of any one group. Political leaders can’t fix things alone – lacking the power, methodologies, community currency, and instruments required. They need business leaders, scientists, innovators, and change-agents from the social sector and civil society to bridge the gaps in dialogue, bring fresh insights and recombine them in radically new ways.

As Albert Einstein famously said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. The path of enlightenment can only be reached through collaborative action. It is a conscious choice and one that we must come together to choose in order to avert catastrophe.

“Really, the only thing that makes sense is to strive for greater collective enlightenment”.

Elon Musk

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

The land of the midnight sun: Science to policy in the Arctic Council

By Anneke Brand, IIASA science communication intern 2016.

For Malgorzata (Gosia) Smieszek it’s all about making sound decisions, and she is not afraid of using unconventional routes in doing so. She applies this rule to various aspects of her fast-paced life. Whether it is taking the right steps in trail running races, skiing or relocating to the Arctic Circle to do a PhD.

Gosia Smieszek © J. Westerlund, Arctic Centre

Gosia Smieszek © J. Westerlund, Arctic Centre

Gosia’s passion for the Arctic began to evolve during a conversation with a professor at a time when she was contemplating the idea of returning to academia. “I remember, when he said the word Arctic, I thought: yes, that’s what I want to do. True, before I was interested in energy and environmental issues, but the Arctic was certainly not on my radar. So I went to the first bookstore I found, asked for anything about the North and the lady, after giving me a very confused look, said she might have some photo books. So I left with one and things developed from there.”

In 2013 Gosia joined the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland. Living there is not always easy, but hey, if you get to see the Northern Lights, reindeers and Santa Claus on a regular basis, it might be worth enduring long times of darkness in winter and endless sunshine in summer. With temperatures averaging −30°C, Rovaniemi is the perfect playground for Gosia.

Running is one of Gosia’s favorite sports. She has competed in a few marathons, but her biggest race to date is the Butcher’s Run, an ultra trail of 83km over the Bieszczady mountains in Poland. Here she is running in the Tatra mountains. © Gosia Smieszek

Gosia grew up in Gliwice, a town in southern Poland, before moving to Kraków where she completed her undergraduate degree in international relations and political science. This was just before Poland’s accession to the EU, so it was the perfect time to pursue studies in this field.

She continued her studies in various locations including Belgium, France, Poland, and Austria. Before continuing her education and later working at the College of Europe, she also gained working experience as a translator at a large printing house in her home town in Poland.

For her PhD Gosia focuses on the interactions between scientists and policymakers, with the aim of enhancing evidence-based decision making in the Arctic Council. Scientific research on the Arctic has been conducted for decades, but “when it comes to translating science into practice it is still a huge challenge―on all possible levels,” she says.

“Scientists and policymakers have their own, very different, universes—with their own stories, goals, timelines, working methods and standards. It is better than in the past, but still extremely difficult to make these two universes meet.”

Gosia with fellow YSSPers, Dina, Stephanie and Chibulu during a visit to Hallstadt. © C. Luo

Gosia with fellow YSSPers, Dina, Stephanie and Chibulu during a visit to Hallstadt. © Chibulu Luo

As part of the Arctic Futures Initiative at IIASA, Gosia investigates and maps the structural organization of the Arctic Council and aims to determine the effectiveness of interactions between scientists and policymakers, as well as ways to improve the flow of knowledge and information between them.

Because of the nature of her work, Gosia spends almost half her time away from home, but you will never find her traveling without running shoes, swimming gear, and something to read. Diving, one of her greatest passions, has taken her to amazing places like Cuba and the Maldives, where meeting a whale shark face-to-face topped her list of underwater experiences.

Gosia swimming with a whale shark. ©Eiko Gramlich

Gosia swimming with a whale shark. © Eiko Gramlich

Gosia is truly hoping to make a difference with her research on science-policy interface. She says: “To me, trying to bridge science and policy is a truly fascinating endeavor. Exploring these two worlds, seeking to understand them and learning their ‘languages’ to enable better communication between them is what drives me in my research. So hopefully we can learn from past mistakes and make things better—this time.”

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

 

Interview: Plants and their fungi to slow down climate change

César Terrer, participant in the IIASA 2016 Young Scientists Summer Program, and PhD student at Imperial College London, recently made a groundbreaking contribution to the way scientists think about climate change and the CO2 fertilization effect. In this interview he discusses his research, his first publication in Science, and his summer project at IIASA.

Conducted and edited by Anneke Brand, IIASA science communication intern 2016.

César Terrer ©Vilma Sandström

César Terrer ©Vilma Sandström

How did your scientific career evolve into climate change and ecosystem ecology?
I studied environmental science in Spain and then I went to Australia, where I started working on free-air CO2 enrichment, or FACE experiments. These are very fancy experiments where you fumigate a forest with CO2 to see if the trees grow faster. In 2014 I moved to London for my PhD project. There, instead of focusing on one single FACE experiment, I collected data from all of them. This allowed me to make general conclusions on a global scale rather than a single forest.

You recently published a paper in Science magazine. Could you summarize the main findings?
We found that we can predict how much CO2 plants transfer into growth through the CO2 fertilization effect, based on two variables—nitrogen availability and the type of mycorrhizal, or fungal, association that the plants have. The impact of the type of mycorrhizae has never been tested on a global scale—and we found that it is huge. I think it’s fascinating that such tiny organisms play such a big role at a global scale on something as important as the terrestrial capacity of CO2 uptake.

How did you come up with the idea? One random day in the shower?
Long story short, researchers used to think that plants will grow faster, and take up a lot of the CO2 we emit. They assumed this in most of their models as well. But plants need other elements to grow besides CO2. In particular, they need nitrogen. So scientists started to question whether the modeled predictions overestimated the CO2 fertilization effect, because the models did not consider nitrogen limitation. To find out, I analyzed all the FACE experiments and indeed I saw that in general plants were not able to grow faster under elevated CO2 and nitrogen limitation. However, in some cases plants were able to take advantage of elevated CO2 even under nitrogen limitation. I grouped together the experiments where plants could grow under nitrogen limitation and after a lot of reading I saw what they had in common: the type of fungi! It turned out that one type of mycorrhizae is really good at transferring large quantities of nitrogen to the plant and the other type is not.

How did that feel?
Awesome! When I saw the graph, I knew: this is going to be important. Of course, after this, my coauthors helped me to polish the story. Without them, the conclusions would not be as robust and clear.

So how does this process work? Where do the fungi get the nitrogen from?
Particular soils might have a lot of nitrogen, but the amount available for plants to absorb might be low. Also, plants have to compete with non-fungal microorganisms for nitrogen. So if there is not much there, the microorganisms take it all. It’s called immobilization. Instead of mineralizing nitrogen, they immobilize it so that plants cannot take it up, at least not in the short term. Some types of fungi are much more efficient in accessing nitrogen, and associated with roots they allow plants to overcome limitations.

Nitrogen mobilization abilities of different types of fungi. Growth of plants associated with fungi not beneficial for nitrogen uptake (illustrated as grass roots on the left) could be limited by low nitrogen availability in soil. Other plants have the advantage of increased nitrogen uptake due to their beneficial association with certain types of fungi (illustrated as yellow mushrooms connected to the roots of the tree on the right). ©Victor O. Leshyk.

Nitrogen mobilization abilities of different types of fungi. Growth of plants associated with fungi not beneficial for nitrogen uptake (illustrated as grass roots on the left) could be limited by low nitrogen availability in soil. Other plants have the advantage of increased nitrogen uptake due to their beneficial association with certain types of fungi (illustrated as yellow mushrooms connected to the roots of the tree on the right). ©Victor O. Leshyk.

What is the impact of your findings?
Plants currently take up 25-30% of the CO2 we emit, but the question is whether they will be able to continue to do so in the long term. Our findings bring good and bad news. On the one hand, the CO2 fertilization effect will not be limited entirely by nitrogen, because some of the plants will be able to overcome nitrogen limitation through their root fungi. But on the other hand, some plant species will not be able to overcome nitrogen limitation.

There was a big debate about this. One group of scientists believed that plants will continue to take up CO2 and the other group said that plants will be limited by nitrogen availability. These were two very contrasting hypotheses. We discovered that neither of the hypotheses was completely right, but both were partly true, depending on the type of fungi. Our results could bring closure to this debate. We can now make more accurate predictions about global warming.

What will you do at IIASA and how will you link it to your PhD?
I want to upscale and quantify how much carbon plants will take up in the future. If we are to predict the capacity of plants to absorb CO2, we need to quantify mycorrhizal distribution and nitrogen availability on a global scale. We are updating mycorrhizal distribution maps according to distribution of plant species. We know for instance that pines are associated with ectomycorrhizal fungi and always will be. To quantify nitrogen availability we use maps of different soil parameters that are available on a rough global scale.

© Adam Edwards | Dreamstime.com

© Adam Edwards | Dreamstime.com

About César Terrer
Prior to his PhD, Terrer studied at the University of Murcia in Spain and the University of Western Sydney in Australia.

Currently he is a member of the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, UK. For this study he collaborated with researchers from the University of Antwerp, Northern Arizona University, Indiana University and Macquarie University.

In the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program, Terrer works together with Oskar Franklin from the Ecosystem Services and Management Program and Christina Kaiser from the Evolution and Ecology Program.

Further reading

 

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Water security for sustainable development

By Edward Byers, Postdoctoral Research Scholar, IIASA Water, Energy, and Transitions to New Technologies programs

Scenario analysis, a process for comparing alternative futures, has been a fundamental tool in sustainability and systems research, but less prominent in the water field. Recently, researchers at IIASA have been applying scenario analysis to their modelling capabilities to tackle global water issues.

Last week, a high level group of water experts met at IIASA for the Water Futures and Solutions (WFaS) Stakeholder Focus Group. WFaS is a flagship initiative from IIASA challenged with understanding future water resource issues, and identifying solutions to problems like water scarcity and water access. However, when a recent fast track assessment found that even its most sustainable scenario, would still result in water scarcity  in some river basins due to growing demands, researchers realized that fresh thinking was required. So in last week’s meeting, IIASA water researchers were on the search for more sustainable and transformational solutions. The efficacy of these new sustainability scenarios will be tested in IIASA’s new ensemble of global hydrological models and presented in time for the next  World Water Forum 2018.

Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River. In the Zambezi basin, water is abundant but there are challenges in getting that water to the people who need it, particularly as the population grows in the future. (cc) Pius Mahimbi | Flickr

Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River. In the Zambezi basin, water is abundant but there are challenges in getting that water to the people who need it, particularly as the population grows in the future. (cc) Pius Mahimbi | Flickr

The two-day workshop at IIASA hosted 20 international water experts from around the world and across research, government, and development organisations. Modellers from the IIASA water program, myself included, took part in the focus groups with the experts, discussing how to represent in our models complex interactions that occur in transboundary river basins as well as for key interactions with other sectors such as energy and agriculture.

Our discussions on the Zambezi, the Indus, and the Yellow river basins will contribute to broader understanding of the development challenges in three different parts of the world –not just along the rivers, but throughout the entirety of the river basins and the populations and ecosystems that they support. For example, the Indus basin is extremely water scarce and is expected to be further depleted due to melting of the upstream glaciers. In the Zambezi basin, in contrast, water is abundant, but there are significant political and economic challenges to sustainably providing access to a population of 38 million people that is expected to double within one generation.

Similarly, our sectoral discussions on energy, food, economics, and ecosystems will improve our model representations of sectors that may be substantially different by 2050, such as the energy sector. This is particularly important for demonstrating how the benefits of water security unlock other benefits for development challenges, such as health, food security, gender equality, and education.

Identifying, quantifying and communicating these well-recognized, inter-dependent benefits can be key to unlocking the investment in solutions. Our work with the experts focused primarily on Sustainable Development Goal 6, the Clean Water and Sanitation Access goal, with a view to identifying co-benefits for other goals. Having received much useful information and positive feedback from our stakeholders, the challenge now is to integrate this into our models and scenario narratives, so that we can demonstrate on a global scale the benefits of water security not as a development target to be attained, but as one of the fundamental drivers of sustainable development. With growing populations and intensifying impacts of climate change, challenges for water security will continue long beyond the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. Meeting these targets is just the first step of the pathway to long-term water security.

Participants in the 2nd Water Futures and Solutions Scenario Focus Group Meeting. ©Phillip Widhalm | IIASA

Participants in the 2nd Water Futures and Solutions Scenario Focus Group Meeting. ©Phillip Widhalm | IIASA

The Water Futures and Solutions Initiative (WFaS) was launched by IIASA, UNESCO/UN-Water, the World Water Council (WWC), the International Water Association (IWA), and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) of the Republic of Korea, and has been supported by the government of Norway, the Asian Development Bank, and the Austrian Development agency. More than 35 organizations contribute to the scientific project team, and an additional 25 organizations are represented in stakeholder groups.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Is it worth it to bike to work?

By Katherine Leitzell, IIASA science writer and press officer (and cyclist)

In May over 50 IIASA staff members took part in the Austrian Bike to Work month (Osterreich Radelt zur Arbeit), logging 11,681 kilometers riding to and from the institute in Laxenburg. The institute took fifth place in Austria in terms of kilometers ridden, and first place in Lower Austria.

According to the Austrian initiative’s calculations, this effort translated into saving over 1900 kg of CO2 emissions, or on average 36 kg per person—which is approximately 4% of an average Austrian’s monthly CO2 emissions. However, this calculation assumed that each of the IIASA cyclists would have been otherwise driving alone in a car. Since many people ride the bus or take public transport if they’re not biking, the actual emission savings from our cycling efforts in May were in fact much less. In fact, since buses and trains run anyway, cycling to work may make no impact whatsoever on emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Does that mean it’s not worth it to make the effort?

© Katherine Leitzell | IIASA

The author’s route to the office. © Katherine Leitzell | IIASA

IIASA researcher Jens Borken has analyzed the impacts that our daily travel has on the individual climate footprint. Personal mobility—all kinds of travel—make up about one third of the average European’s annual greenhouse gas emissions: the rest come from consumption choices and household heating and energy use. Of the carbon footprint from mobility, he says, commuting generally only makes up 10-15% of that. The largest part of the mobility budget is related to shorter and longer distance leisure travel, and in particular from air travel.

“From a quantitative perspective, the climate benefit of riding your bike is small, but it can be one step on a path to a low-carbon lifestyle.” says Borken. “As researchers who work on climate change, riding a bike to work (and possibly further) brings one piece of our lives in line with the message that avoiding fossil fuel consumption is imperative. I think that that is valuable. But it need not stop there. Travel choices are important, especially for longer distances, but so are consumption choices and energy usage and efficiency.”

Charlie Wilson, a researcher at the Tyndall Centre and IIASA, recently won a grant from the European Research Council to explore the role that social influence plays in spreading climate innovations. He says, “As social animals we are strongly influenced by what others do; as psychological beings we strive for consistency. Changing a behavior – like cycling to work – may have a small impact in isolation. But this impact is magnified through positive spillover effects. Others may imitate or be inspired by our commitment to cycling. And this change in behavior may also strengthen the pro-environmental aspects of our own self-identity, reducing dissonance between our work and domestic lives, and supporting further changes in behavior.”

Of course there are benefits of cycling beyond the environmental or climate impact, which is one reason that once they start, many people keep it up. Cycling regularly can save money compared to commuting by car or public transport, and like any regular form of exercise, it can bring health benefits and stress relief. It also brings autonomy and flexibility compared to public transport.

Borken points to research showing that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the exposure to air pollutants  that a cyclist might experience on busy city streets—and that automobile drivers are exposed to even higher levels of air pollution within their cars. Cyclists who ride to IIASA, located about 15km outside Vienna, probably have even lower exposure to air pollution riding along tree-lined bike paths.

“Riding to work in the morning wakes me up and prepares me for the day ahead. Even if windy and challenging, the return in the evening calms the mind while riding with colleagues at a pace that allows us to chat at the end of a busy workday. It’s truly one of the best ways to get exercise and stay healthy – good for the heart, good for the environment and, most importantly, good for the soul,” says Michaela Rossini, manager of the IIASA library and a co-organizer of Bike to Work Month at the institute.

For some staff members, one side benefit of cycling to IIASAis the beautiful sunrise along the Danube River ©Michaela Rossini | IIASA

For some staff members, one side benefit of cycling to IIASA is the beautiful sunrise along the Danube River ©Michaela Rossini | IIASA

 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.