By Marcus Thomson, researcher, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program
While living in Cairo in 2010, I witnessed first-hand the human toll of political and environmental disasters that washed over Africa at the end of the last century. Unprecedented numbers of migrants were pressing into North Africa, many pushed out of their homelands by conflict and state-failure, pulled towards safer, richer, less fragile places like Europe. Throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, climate change was driving up competition for scarce land and water, and raising pressure on farmers to maintain the quantity and quality of their crops.
It is a similar story throughout the developing world, where many farmers do without the use of expensive chemical fertilizer and pesticides, complex irrigation, or boutique seed varieties. They rely instead on traditional land management practices that developed over long periods with consistent, predictable conditions. It is difficult to predict how dryland farmers will respond to climate change; so it is challenging to plan for various social, economic, and political problems expected to develop under, or be exacerbated by, climate change. Will it spur innovation or, as has been argued for the Syrian civil war, set up conflict? A major stumbling block is that the dynamics of human social behavior are so difficult to model.
Instead of attempting to predict farmers’ responses to climate change by modelling human behavior, we can look to the responses to environmental changes of farmers from the past as analogues for many subsistence farmers of the future. Methods to fill in historical gaps, and reconstruct the prehistoric record, are valuable because they expand the set of observed cases of societal-scale responses to environmental change. For instance, some 2000 years ago, an expansive maize-growing cultural complex, the Ancestral Puebloans (APs), was well established in the arid American Southwest. By AD 1000, members of this AP complex produced unique and innovative material culture including the famed “Great Houses”, the largest built structures in the United States until the 19th century. However, between AD 1150 and 1350, there was a profound demographic transformation throughout the Southwest linked to climate change. We now know that many APs migrated elsewhere. As a PhD student at the University of California, Los Angeles, I wondered whether a shift to cooler, more variable conditions of the “Little Ice Age” (LIA, roughly AD 1300 to 1850) was linked to the production of their staple crop, maize.
I came to IIASA as a YSSP in 2016 to collaborate with crop modelers on this question, and our work has just been published in the journal Quaternary International. I brought with me high-resolution data from a state-of-the-art climate model to drive the crop simulations, and AP site information collected by archaeologists. Because AP maize was quite different from modern corn, I worked with IIASA soil scientist Juraj Balkovič to modify the crop simulator with parameters derived from heirloom varieties still grown by indigenous peoples in the Southwest. I and IIASA economic geographer Tamás Krisztin developed a statistical technique to analyze the dynamical relationship between AP site occupation and simulated yield outcomes.
We found that for the most climate-stressed high-elevation sites, abandonments were most associated with increased year-to-year yield variability; and for the least stressed low-elevation and well-watered sites, abandonment was more likely due to endogenous stressors, such as soil degradation and population pressure. Crucially, we found that across all regions, populations peaked during periods of the most stable year-to-year crop yields, even though these were also relatively warm and dry periods. In short, we found that AP maize farmers adapted well to gradually rising temperatures and drought, during the MCA, but failed to adapt to increased climate variability after ~AD 1150, during the LIA. Because increased variability is one of the near certainties for dryland farming zones under global warming, the AP experience offers a cautionary example of the limits of low-technology adaptation to climate change, a business-as-usual direction for many sub-Saharan dryland farmers.
This is a lesson from the past that policymakers might take note of.
 Kelley, C. P., Mohtadi, S., Cane, M. A., Seager, R., & Kushnir, Y. (2015). Climate change in the Fertile Crescent and implications of the recent Syrian drought. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201421533.
 Thomson, M. J., Balkovič, J., Krisztin, T., MacDonald, G. M. (2018). Simulated crop yield for Zea mays for Fremont Ancestral Puebloan sites in Utah between 850-1499 CE based on temperature dailies from a statistically downscaled climate model. Quaternary International. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2018.09.031
by Melina Filzinger, IIASA Science Communication Fellow
Yuping Bai is a participant of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) and a first year PhD candidate at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research. She is working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, as a chapter scientist for their Special Report on Climate Change and Land. I recently had the chance to talk to her about her engagement as a chapter scientist.
What is the aim of the IPCC special report on climate change and land?
Compared to the IPCC comprehensive assessment reports, this special report really focuses in depth on the linkages and inter-relationship between climate change, land use, and food security. It aims to propose sustainable land-based solutions towards climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts. We all know that climate change is an important issue and the connections between climate change and land use change are extremely complex. The report will include many different topics like land degradation, desertification, greenhouse gas fluxes and food security. Understanding the links between these diverse issues is particularly important for informing decision making by governments, as well as private sectors, to address challenges in land use change and governance.
What is a chapter scientist?
Chapter scientists are early-career researchers that support the development process of the individual report chapters. IPCC asked for volunteers who are required to dedicate at least one-third full time equivalent over a 2.5-year period while working from their home institutions. The chapter scientists were chosen based on expertise, motivation, time availability, and experience in working in a multi-cultural context. There are ten chapter scientists in total working on the report, one or two for each chapter.
How do you contribute to the report?
I am assigned to Chapter 1, which provides the framing and context for the report. Part of my job has been organizational tasks, for example managing our referencing system, scheduling online meetings, tracking down key literature, assisting in the design and development of figures and tables, and assisting in compiling, revising, and organizing chapter contributions. On the other hand, I have also been involved in developing the overall concept of our chapter and can voice my ideas and express my views. Chapter 1 raises the key issues related to land use and sustainable land management for climate adaptation and climate resilience, and provides the concepts and definitions needed to understand the rest of the report.
In fact, many of these topics are closely related to my PhD research and my YSSP project. The YSSP experience significantly broadened my knowledge on climate change and land related topics, and at the same time deepened my understanding of the cross-scale complexity of the issues. After three months, I feel that I’m much better equipped to contribute to the future work for the chapter.
Why did you decide to volunteer so much of your time?
As a chapter scientist I have the chance to participate in discussions on some of the most pressing and important issues in the world. I also have the unique possibility to work with some of the world leading scientists in their respective fields. Therefore, I think it’s an important opportunity to make contacts and to gain insight into the work of the IPCC.
What has your experience been so far?
I’m the youngest one of the chapter scientists, so I felt a bit overwhelmed at first, particularly as I was suddenly rubbing shoulders with some of the brightest, most established academics and researchers on the planet. In this first half year, I attended the second lead author meeting and have been involved in the first draft of the report. During busy periods leading up to key deadlines, such as the submission of the drafts, my hours peaked, and the pressure built. But don’t let this frighten you. It is possible to learn on the job! It helped that everyone made me feel so welcome and valued. I have definitely learned a lot. My research is very specialized, and my work with the IPCC has helped me gain a broader view on climate change and the problems that are connected to it.
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.
By Sandra Ortellado, 2018 Science Communication Fellow
Around 8,000 kilometers away from Vienna, Austria, hundreds of Arctic coastal communities are at imminent risk from the melting ice and coastal erosion. Indigenous Arctic populations struggle with food insecurity every day, living off small fractions of what their catch would have been only a few years ago. Their culture and their way of life, so dependent on sea ice conditions, are melting away, along with the very root of the Arctic ecosystem.
However, construal level theory, a social psychological theory that describes the extent to which distant things become abstract concepts, tells us that 8,000 kilometers is just far enough for Arctic peoples to lose tangible existence in the minds of urban citizens. Unlike Arctic communities, who experience the direct effects of climate change at each meal, commercialized lower latitude societies don’t have to face the environmental consequences of choosing to drive to the grocery store instead of bike.
Nevertheless, those consequences are very real, even if the impacts on the Arctic and climate system don’t always catch our attention. Sea level will continue to rise for the next several hundred years—it takes 500 years for the deep ocean to adjust to changes at the surface.
On Friday, 22 July, former Chief Scientist of the UK Met Office Dame Julia Slingo and former Chair of the IIASA Council Peter Lemke joined us at IIASA for a joint lecture on climate risk in weather systems and polar regions. The lecture had one underlying theme: in order to make informed decisions on climate change, we need to embrace uncertainty with a broader understanding of what’s possible. That means that the far-away Arctic needs to be seen as nearby and relevant, and that climate change forecasts once seen as ‘uncertain,’ should instead be interpreted as ‘probable.’
“People are often confusing uncertainty with risk. If it’s uncertain they think they don’t really have to think about it. But there is a risk they take if they avoid things,” says Lemke. “a 40% chance could also mean a doubling of the risk, and a doubling of the risk is something that’s easily understood.”
“It’s a matter of how you communicate it,” says Lemke.
Perhaps Hollywood’s obsession with apocalyptic disaster narratives serves some kind of purpose after all—the stories seem outlandish, but films translate them into concepts we can understand and scenes we’re familiar with. It’s hard to picture what it would be like to live in a world that is 2°C warmer, but thanks to Hollywood special effects, we can picture what it would be like if storms of epic proportions engulfed the Statue of Liberty in a gigantic tidal wave.
“We have get down to people’s personal experience. That’s why I’m so against the use of things like global mean temperature, because people can’t relate to that,” says Slingo. “I am very keen on using narrative, but based on science, so people have access to the evidence for why we have this story that we tell about how climate change could affect them personally.”
Of course, we can’t give Hollywood too much credit: these stories are dangerously lacking input from actual climate science. Nevertheless, armed with the forecasting tools and technologies that have advanced so much over the past decade or so, we can counter uncertainty and get a better understanding of the risks we face. For example, using improved computer models and satellites that determine the age and thickness of ice, we can determine the rates of receding ice, and how much that will affect sea level rise in coastal communities.
Likewise, social media makes it easy to transmit information rapidly to a large audience that might not have been reachable otherwise. Reaching people where they are is of paramount importance—while scientists can put painstaking effort into presenting the most accurate, unbiased account of probable risks, this is just one facet of any given decision. In the end, it is the public and the policymakers that represent them that must make the decision about what actions to take, based on a complete narrative that includes the socioeconomic and cultural factors involved.
“It’s all about dialogue at the end of the day. One of the things I learned as MET office chief scientist was that based on the evidence I was giving to government, you would think that the policy would be quite clear,” says Slingo. “But there are other aspects to take into consideration, such as unemployment or other policy implementation capacities and societal implications.”
That’s why Lemke and Slingo both make huge efforts to communicate with the public, especially with the impressionable, optimistic, social media savvy and politically mobilizing younger generations. From their interactions and outreach with the public, Lemke and Slingo know that once you put climate change in proximity and translate science into narratives that are relevant to the lives of individual citizens, the public does care about climate change. They want to know more, and they want to do something about it.
When it comes to environmental advocacy, education is power, especially when it translates the high-end risk probabilities of climate science into relatable narratives. For Lemke and Slingo, that creates a huge opportunity for scientists of all backgrounds.
“I don’t think climate change has to be depressing. It’s a fantastic opportunity for a whole generation of scientists and engineers to tackle a great problem,” says Slingo. “I actually have the confidence that we’ll solve it.”
by Melina Filzinger, IIASA Science Communication Fellow
Kian Mintz-Woo is a moral philosopher working in the field of climate ethics. He obtained his PhD from the University of Graz and is spending the summer at IIASA as a participant of the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP). I recently had the opportunity to talk to him about his work.
How do you feel about joining YSSP as a philosopher?
I know that it is extremely unusual for a philosopher to join YSSP, and I’m really happy to be here. It is very stimulating to be surrounded by people with a different point of view. I appreciate that people are asking me about what philosophers do, or they’ve come across a philosophical text and want to know my opinion. It is extremely valuable to me to talk about my discipline to interested people.
You started out studying logic – how did you become interested in climate change?
I used to do research on abstract and systematic areas of mainstream philosophy. I enjoyed it, but was also interested in social issues. I think climate change is particularly important, because unlike most issues we have a very short time window to deal with it. Of course there are a lot of things we have to change in our society, but climate change is definitely an issue that can’t be put off anymore.
When I started my BPhil in Oxford, I initially worked on similarly abstract topics, but then I met John Broome, an expert in climate ethics. Doing a project with him was both a once-in-a -lifetime-opportunity and a possibility to marry my theoretical training with some of my real-world interests. What I am doing now is about as applied as philosophy can get—I’m on the edge of what some people would even call philosophy—and it is great fun!
What is your project about?
When talking about climate change, we often discuss two things: ways to limit the temperature increase on earth (mitigation), and ways to adapt to the changing conditions that accompany climate change (adaptation). However, we also increasingly have to consider effects of climate change that go beyond what we are able or willing to adapt to. We call this area of research and policy “Loss and Damage”.
We have to think about who is responsible for the Loss and Damage-related burdens that we are and will be facing. In my project, I argue that, conceptually, there is a strong link between historical responsibility for emissions of greenhouse gases and Loss and Damage. This is very relevant for policy as well: We don’t want the farmer who can no longer support himself because changing rain patterns have reduced his crop yield, or the small island nation that might be flooded in the future, to bear the risks related to climate change alone. However, the instruments that can help spread this risk globally require financial burdens.
Most of the discussions about who should be the bearers of these burdens have been in terms of nations, but an interesting paper from 2014 suggests that we should rethink that approach. The main findings of this paper are that only 90 companies producing oil, natural gas, coal, and cement were the source of 63% of historical CO2 emissions. As the number of these so-called carbon majors is so surprisingly small, considering them instead of nations in the discussions about funding might be a valid alternative.
Is it relevant if the effects of these emissions were known at the time?
That is an important question and I think that it should matter. The data we have goes back to 1854, so I feel that at least some of the time the emissions should be considered under the heading of excusable ignorance. We could start holding the carbon majors responsible after a certain year, maybe around 1980 or 1990, and part of my research is finding out how the selection of the carbon majors depends on the chosen point.
How does your work relate to the research going on in the IIASA RISK Program?
It is great being in the RISK group. My input as a philosopher is making conceptual suggestions and bringing in fairly blue-sky policy solutions. What I am getting from my supervisors are real-world implications of these suggestions, such as risk instruments that might be relevant for the implementation of my ideas. So together, we are aiming to make these abstract ideas policy-relevant.
Why should we apply philosophical concepts to problems like climate change?
Science can help us figure out which pathways are available, but scientists are often not very well trained in evaluating those beyond their economic-technical approach. Moral philosophers can bring in new perspectives for evaluating these options.
What I am doing at IIASA however, is taking a step back from the research that is going on in order to ask fundamental questions. I want to provide ambitious proposals, and find out what they would push us towards if we were trying to implement them. This often requires bringing concepts and results together from different areas of research to obtain a broader view on the problem.
What do you want to achieve by the end of the summer?
I hope to achieve a policy proposal that is ambitious but defensible. I want to develop a clear argument as to why the carbon majors are more responsible for Loss and Damage than for mitigation and adaptation. I think this approach is both new and quite important, especially for many developing countries and small island states.
Apart from your research project, what are you looking forward to most this summer?
I am getting married this month, so this is an especially exciting and busy summer for me!
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
By Anatoly Shvidenko, senior researcher in the IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management Program
The forest region known as the circumpolar boreal belt comprises almost a third of the global forest area and about a fourth of the world’s wetlands. There are substantive structural, ecological and management similarities and connections between boreal and global mountain forests of high elevation. Specific features of both boreal and high-elevation forests – or as we started calling them cool forests – include evolutionary adjustments to cold climates; dominance of coniferous species; permafrost over huge territories; vulnerability to climate anomalies and ecological disturbances; large remote and practically unmanaged territories; and lack of infrastructure over vast areas. Under climate change, these landscapes are on the one hand exposed to extreme pressures and risks and on the other, they are decisive for our efforts to reach the climate goals. These cool forests could substantially help to cool down the climate. This is why I became a Cool Forest Ambassador.
A particular threat to global climate mitigation efforts is the thawing permafrost, which contains about 1,000 billion tons of carbon as methane and hydrates in the frozen grounds of the Northern Eurasian high latitudes alone. Furthermore, a number of models predict forest deaths over large areas, loss of biodiversity, and negative impacts on social hotspots in the highly populated southern (mid-latitude) ecotone of the boreal zone.
Since the most critical climate change on the planet is expected in continental regions of the boreal and mountainous regions, these forest and wetland landscapes require specific societal, scientific, and managerial attention. The current paradigm of co-evolution of people and forests calls for a transition to adaptive and risk-resilient sustainable forest management (ASFM), which is a complicated task, both mentally and professionally.
Diversity of forests, ownership, socioeconomic conditions, forest management practices, and policies for cool forests are extensive, as are the above-mentioned associated risks. Large differences prevail in stakeholder preferences, understanding, and the valuation of ecosystem services, as well as in understanding relevant strategies of implementing ASFM. We need to advocate the investigation of socioecological drivers that define current and future states, the resilience and vulnerability of forests, as well as the stability of forests and agro-forest landscapes. Moreover, we need to consider the close connection of cool forests with the specifics of surrounding landscapes within the paradigm of the multi-functional use of forests.
About 20 countries have cool forests, but three of them comprise almost 90% of the total area: Russia 56%, Canada 27%, and the USA 6%. The starting point, preparedness, and capacity of these countries to introduce ASFM are substantially different, but the majority of them are lagging behind in terms of real progress in the proper direction. Cross-border analysis of national specifics and commonalities are needed to understand the potential and challenges of ASFM, as well as to identify problems that cannot be completely resolved by means of ASFM alone (e.g., slowdown of permafrost thaw). There is no silver bullet strategy that would allow us to reach all the goals of ASFM. The high uncertainty of climatic predictions and lack of knowledge on the behavior of boreal and high-elevation forests under new environmental conditions, require new operative information, as well as a new philosophy and management tools. In particular, new types of models are needed to present sufficient information for decision making within regional forest management systems. The IIASA Ecosystem Services and Management Program has intensively studied cool forests for the last three decades (large international projects included SIBERIA-II, Siberia-II, the Third Millennium Ecosystem Assessment etc.).
All pressing problems, hot topics, and required actions related to cool forests will be discussed at the 18th Conference of the International Boreal Forest Research Association “Cool forests at risk? The critical role of boreal and mountain ecosystems for people, bioeconomy, and climate”, taking place at IIASA from 17 to 20 September 2018. More information about this event is available on the conference website (IBFRA18.org). We invite scientists and stakeholders from policy, business, and civil society and all who are interested in the topic, to express their opinion about the most important and urgent actions that should be realized. Join me in signing-up as a Cool Forest Ambassador to bring this globally important problem to the attention of societies and governing circles globally.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.
On 14 and 15 May, Vienna hosted two important events within the frame of the world energy and climate change agendas: the Vienna Energy Forum and the R20 Austrian World Summit. Since I had the pleasure and privilege to attend both, I would like to share some insights and relevant messages I took home with me.
To begin with, ‘renewable energy’ was the buzzword of the moment. Renewable energy is not only the future, it is the present. Recently, 20-year solar PV contracts were signed for US$0.02/kWh. However, renewable energy is not only about mitigating the effects of climate change, but also about turning the planet into a world we (humans from all regions, regardless of the local conditions) want to live in. It is not only about producing energy, about reaching a number of KWh equivalent to the expected demand–renewables are about providing a service to communities, meeting their needs, and improving their ways of life. It does not consist only of taking a solar LED lamp to a remote rural house in India or Africa. It is about first understanding the problem and then seeking the right solution. Such a light will be of no use if a mother has to spend the whole day walking 10 km to find water at the closest spring or well, and come back by sunset to work on her loom, only to find that the lamp has run out of battery. Why? Because her son had to take it to school to light his way back home.
This is where the concept of ‘nexus’ entered the room, and I have to say that more than once it was brought up by IIASA Deputy Director General Nebojsa Nakicenovic. A nexus approach means adopting an integrated approach and understanding both the problems and the solutions, the cross and rebound effects, and the synergies; and it is on the latter that we should focus our efforts to maximize the effect with minimal effort. Looking at the nexus involves addressing the interdependencies between the water, energy, and food sectors, but also expanding the reach to other critical dimensions such as health, poverty, education, and gender. Overall, this means pursuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Another key word that was repeatedly mentioned was finance. The question was how to raise and mobilize funds for the implementation of the required solutions and initiatives. The answer: blended funding and private funding mobilization. This means combining different funding sources, including crowd funding and citizen-social funding initiatives, and engaging the private sector by reducing the risk for investors. A wonderful example was presented by the city of Vienna, where a solar power plant was completely funded (and thus owned) by Viennese citizens through the purchase of shares.
This connects with the last message: the importance of a bottom-up approach and the critical role of those at the local level. Speakers and panelists gave several examples of successful initiatives in Mali, India, Vienna, and California. Most of the debates focused on how to search for solutions and facilitate access to funding and implementation in the Global South. However, two things became clear. Firstly, massive political and investment efforts are required in emerging countries to set up the infrastructural and social environment (including capacity building) to achieve the SDGs. Secondly, the effort and cost of dismantling a well-rooted technological and infrastructural system once put in place, such as fossil fuel-based power networks in the case of developed countries, are also huge. Hence, the importance of emerging economies going directly for sustainable solutions, which will pay off in the future in all possible aspects. HRH Princess Abze Djigma from Burkina Faso emphasized that this is already happening in Africa. Progress is being made at a critical rate, triggered by local initiatives that will displace the age of huge, donor-funded, top-down projects, to give way to bottom-up, collaborative co-funding and co-development.
Overall, if I had to pick just one message among the information overload I faced over these two days, it would be the statement by a young fellow in the audience from African Champions: “Africa is not underdeveloped, it is waiting and watching not to repeat the mistakes made by the rest of the world.” We should keep this message in mind.