Insights into the future of agriculture from past human climate change responses

Ancestral Puebloans

© Marcus Thomson

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[1], 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.[2] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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

Education in, through, and for sustainable development

By Stephanie Bengtsson, researcher in the IIASA World Population Program

In the months after finishing my doctorate, I would often find myself having some variation of the following conversation upon meeting someone new, particularly in a social context:

New person: “So, what do you do?”
Me: “Actually, I’ve just finished my doctorate.”
New person [impressed]: “Wow! In what field?”
Me: “Education.”
New person [after a long pause]: “Oh.”

The tone of that “oh” has stayed with me in the years since: “You can get a doctorate in education?”, that little word seemed to say, following up with: “What does that involve? Stacking ABC blocks and looking through picture books? It can’t possibly be as challenging as a doctorate in a real subject, like economics or neuroscience.”

Many of my education colleagues around the world have had similar experiences, especially those who, like me, work primarily in the field of development. At the same time, the global news media is rife with articles about ‘failing’ school systems, a dwindling ‘supply’ of qualified teachers, ‘underperforming’ teachers, low Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, and more, as the international community searches for quick-fix solutions with easily quantifiable measures of progress to address these problems, often outside the realm of education research. Generally, within the dominant development discourse, the aim of these solutions is clear: to increase attainment and improve student test scores, particularly in the so-called STEM subjects (i.e., Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), in order to build human capital and subsequently grow and sustain the labor market and economy. In other words, improvements to education are typically justified only to the extent that they will increase education’s instrumental value (leading to improvements in other sectors), rather than its intrinsic value.

As such, those of us working in international educational development often find ourselves caught in a paradox, as our sector has been (and continues to be) simultaneously under-appreciated in terms of the contribution it can make to other aspects of development and wellbeing (and subsequently under-prioritized), and over-emphasized in its role as a tool of development when it does make it onto the agenda. We therefore frequently find ourselves having to first ‘make the business case’ for education by proving its instrumental value before beginning any research or development project, in a way that would be considered ludicrous in, for instance, the sectors of health and nutrition. Once we have successfully argued that case, the pressure is on to measure inputs and narrowly-defined short-term outcomes, leaving little time to examine complex educational processes and longer-term impacts of education.

In late September 2015, Heads of State and High Representatives from around the world committed to a new sustainable development agenda consisting of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 accompanying targets. The framing document for the SDGs, UN Resolution 70/1, Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, envisions an important role for education within this agenda, both as an end and a powerful means of development:

“All people, irrespective of sex, age, race, ethnicity, and persons with disabilities, migrants, indigenous peoples, children and youth, especially those in vulnerable situations, should have access to life-long learning opportunities that help them acquire the knowledge and skills needed to exploit opportunities and to participate fully in society. We will strive to provide children and youth with a nurturing environment for the full realization of their rights and capabilities, helping our countries to reap the demographic dividend including through safe schools and cohesive communities and families.” (UN 2015, article 25)

For those of us working in international educational development, the SDGs thus represent a significant step forward from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as well as an opportunity to encourage the wider development community to engage with and invest in a shared vision for equitable, inclusive, quality lifelong learning opportunities.

In our new book, The Role of Education in Enabling the Sustainable Development Agenda, my colleagues and I conduct an extensive critical review of literature from a range of disciplines, attempting to find answers to these fundamental questions about the value of education and the dynamic nature of the relationship between education and development. We engage with the argument put forward in the capabilities approach to development that the capability to be educated is, in and of itself, an important freedom, and a fundamental aspect of human wellbeing. Given that processes of teaching and learning are a natural and defining characteristic of human society, we argue that education is most successful at contributing to sustainable development across all dimensions at once if, rather than being crafted as an instrument to achieve a specific and narrow development objective – no matter how worthy – education is improved on its own terms, and as an end in itself.

We also draw from recent work by the economist Kate Raworth, which attempts to connect the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, by combining social justice work with planetary boundaries research in order to define a space within which humanity can survive and thrive:

“Between a social foundation that protects against critical human deprivations, and an environmental ceiling that avoids critical natural thresholds, lies a safe and just space for humanity [. . .] where both human wellbeing and planetary wellbeing are assured, and their interdependence is respected.” (Raworth 2012, p. 7)

This book builds on work we carried out for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Global Education Monitoring (GEM) Report, and shares in UNESCO’s urgent sense of purpose to demonstrate not only “the potential for education to propel progress towards all global goals”, but also that “education needs a major transformation to fulfil that potential and meet the current challenges facing humanity and the planet” (UNESCO n.d., n.p.). At no point do we claim to be providing the definitive account of the role of education in the sustainable development agenda; rather, we hope that our book will inspire critical reflection, engagement, and, above all, learning, among a wide audience of scholars, students, policymakers, and practitioners alike.

References
Harber, C. (2014). Education and international development: Theory, practice and issues. Oxford: Symposium Books.
Raworth, K. (2012). A safe and just space for humanity: Can we live within the doughnut? Oxfam Discussion Paper. Oxford: Oxfam.
Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom. New York: Knopf.
UNESCO. (n.d). Education needs to change fundamentally to meet global development goals. Retrieved from: www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/leading-the-international-agenda/education-for-all/single-view/news/education_needs_to_change_fundamentally_to_meet_global_devel/

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.

Rice and reason: Planning for system complexity in the Indus Basin

By Alan Nicol, Strategic Program Leader at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI)

I was at the local corner store in Uganda last week and noticed the profusion of rice being sold, the origin of which was from either India or Pakistan. It is highly likely that this rice being consumed in Eastern Africa, was produced in the Indus Basin, using Indus waters, and was then processed and shipped to Africa. That is not exceptional in its own right and is, arguably, a sign of a healthy global trading system.

Nevertheless, the rice in question is likely from a system under increasing stress, one that is often simply viewed as a hydrological (i.e., basin) unit. What my trip to the corner store shows is that perhaps more than ever before a system such as the Indus is no longer confined–it extends well beyond its physical (hydrological) borders.

Not only does this rice represent embedded ‘virtual’ water (the water used to grow and refine the produce), but it also represents policy decisions, embedded labor value, and the gamut of economic agreements between distribution companies and import entities, as well as the political relationship between East Africa and South Asia. On top of that are the global prices for commodities and international market forces.

In that sense, the Indus River Basin is the epitome of a complex system in which simple, linear causality may not be a useful way for decision makers to determine what to do and how to invest in managing the system into the future. Integral to this biophysical system, are social, economic, and political systems in which elements of climate, population growth and movement, and political uncertainty make decisions hard to get right.

Like other systems, it is constantly changing and endlessly complex, representing a great deal of interconnectivity. This poses questions about stability, sustainability, and hard choices and trade-offs that need to be made, not least in terms of the social and economic cost-benefit of huge rice production and export.

An aerial view of the Indus River valley in the Karakorum mountain range of the Basin. © khlongwangchao | Shutterstock

So how do we go about planning in a system that is in such constant flux?

Coping with system complexity in the Indus is the overarching theme of the third Indus Basin Knowledge Forum (IBKF) being co-hosted this week by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), and the World Bank. Titled Managing Systems Under Stress: Science for Solutions in the Indus Basin, the Forum brings together researchers and other knowledge producers to interface with knowledge users like policymakers to work together to develop the future direction for the basin, while improving the science-decision-making relationship. Participants from four riparian countries–Afghanistan, China, India, and Pakistan–as well as from international organizations that conduct interdisciplinary research on factors that impact the basin, will work through a ‘marketplace’ for ideas, funding sources, and potential applications. The aim is to narrow down a set of practical and useful activities with defined outcomes that can be tracked and traced in coming years under the auspices of future fora.

The meeting builds on the work already done and, crucially, on relations already established in this complex geopolitical space, including under the Indus Forum and the Upper Indus Basin Network. By sharing knowledge, asking tough questions, and identifying opportunities for working together, the IBKF hopes to pin down concrete commitments from both funders and policymakers, but also from researchers, to ensure high quality outputs that are of real, practical relevance to this system under stress–from within and externally.

Scenario planning

Feeding into the IBKF3, and directly preceding the forum, the Integrated Solutions for Water, Energy, and Land Project (ISWEL) will bring together policymakers and other stakeholders from the basin to explore a policy tool that looks at how best to model basin futures. This approach will help the group conceive possible futures and model the pathways leading to the best possible outcomes for the most people. This ‘policy exercise approach’ will involve six steps to identify and evaluate possible future pathways:

  1. Specifying a ‘business as usual’ pathway
  2. Setting desirable goals (for sustainability pathways)
  3. Identifying challenges and trade-offs
  4. Understanding power relations, underlying interests, and their role in nexus policy development
  5. Developing and selecting nexus solutions
  6. Identifying synergies, and
  7. Building pathways with key milestones for future investments and implementation of solutions.

The summary of this scenario development workshop and a vision for the Indus Basin will be shared as part of the IBKF3 at the end of the event, and will help the participants collectively consider what actions can be taken to ensure a prosperous, sustainable, and equitable future for those living in the basin.

The rice that helps feed parts of East Africa plays a key global role–the challenge will be ensuring that this important trading relationship is not jeopardized by a system that moves from pressure points to eventual collapse. Open science-policy and decision-making collaboration are key to making sure that this does not happen.

This blog was originally published on https://wle.cgiar.org/thrive/2018/05/29/rice-and-reason-planning-system-complexity-indus-basin.

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.

Impressions and messages from the Vienna Energy Forum and the R20 Austrian World Summit 2018

By Beatriz Mayor, Research Scholar at IIASA

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.

Beatriz Mayor at the Austrian World Summit

Beatriz Mayor at the Austrian World Summit © Beatriz Mayor

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).

VEF2018 banner

Vienna Energy Forum banner created by artists on the day © UNIDO / Flickr

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.

International Women’s Day at IIASA

Monika Bauer, IIASA Alumni Officer

International Women’s Day is celebrated worldwide every year on 8 March. The event aims to promote the work and rights of women. This year, IIASA celebrated International Women’s Day with a panel discussion which asked the question, “Can a women-empowered world resolve some of the global sustainability challenges?” IIASA Population Researcher Raya Muttarak, moderated the panel that included Tyseer Aboulnasr, Melody Mentz, Shonali Pachauri, and Mary Scholes.

“The IIASA Women in Science Club chose this topic because it would allow the panelists to reflect on the potential welfare benefits of a more gender-balanced world. We wanted to know if balance could benefit both women and men, and we wanted to provide a space to discuss the potential intersectionality of the challenges to female empowerment such as poverty, racism, sexism, access to education, health autonomy, and resource inequality,” said organizer Amanda Palazzo, IIASA Ecosystems Services and Management researcher.

IIASA Director General and CEO Professor Dr. Pavel Kabat opened the discussion by offering a brief history of International Women’s Day in the context of the early history of IIASA.

Melody Mentz gives her thoughts

Melody Mentz gives her thoughts

Mentz, an independent higher education research and evaluation consultant based in South Africa, spoke about the implications that a gender-balanced world could hold for science and sustainability using the African agricultural system as an example. To this end, she presented a few statistics that show how the African food system intersects with the sustainable development goal of gender equality.

According to the most recent Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations study, women do up to 50 % of agricultural labor in Africa (this varies by country). Bearing this fact in mind, women however, own only 10 % of the land in Africa; they receive less than 10% of the investments in agriculture on the continent; and less than 5% of women have access to advisory services. In addition, they hold just 14% of management positions in the sector, and only one in four agricultural researchers on the continent is female.

“There is a huge disparity between the contributions of women, the impact of the current food system on women, and the role that the environment allows them to play,” explained Mentz.

As far as the implications of this are concerned, the first, and perhaps the most obvious, is that we need more women in science. Secondly, according to Mentz, we also need more science for women.

“At an institutional level we [should] start thinking differently about what kind of questions we answer. Those questions don’t have to be focused on women, but rather, should consider the implications for both men and women,” she said.

Thirdly, she argued for more science with women, as many research questions and research designs are not just driven by scientists, but actually originate with the people that researchers are trying to help. Finally, we also need more science about women, meaning that data and indicators of impact need to include gender, especially in the context of Africa.

IIASA Energy Researcher Pachauri reflected on the inequalities that we see in our everyday lives. Her work specializes in household energy access in the developing world.  Pachauri shared an example from an organization called ENERGIA, of which she is a member of the advisory board, where women were included as microentrepreneurs in the delivery of energy in villages. The organization found that female entrepreneurs were more successful and profitable than the men, which they put down to a greater use of social networks and relationships. The example demonstrated how societies can benefit from including women in solutions for everyday problems.

Aboulnasr, a retired electrical engineering professor, focused on the importance of balance – whether it is a balance of genders, social classes, or geography. Aboulnasr eloquently suggested that rather than striving for perfect balance, one should accept a more dynamic and changing balance. She also stated that one should focus on the impact, rather than on the tools. For example, excellent science is a tool for reaching a goal that makes an impact, rather than excellence in science being the goal. Her advice to the audience was to be open to accepting failure in one’s life.

“If you don’t fail in 30% of what you attempt to do, then you have never reached your limits,” she said, and encouraged the audience to stop obsessing about the failures of the past, seek balance, and to not feel guilty.

Scholes, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, approached the question of the day differently. She urged the audience to look at the question from a sustainability perspective, and to ask what role gender has to play in stewardship for the planet. In addition, she asked the audience to consider whether our unstainable use of resources is because of gender inequality, or because of a more underlying misalignment of values, and what type of empowerment might be needed to achieve a more sustainable world.

“As far as we know, this is the first panel discussion hosted at IIASA which has specifically tried to examine the role of women in achieving a sustainable future. We learned that there are pockets of IIASA research already exploring this this issue and that there is room and interest to engage in this discussion in the future,” says Palazzo.

It is clear that there is no simple answer to the issues surrounding the topic of our International Women’s Day panel discussion. The event however, highlighted unique reflections and experiences from each panelist, and the IIASA Women in Science Club will continue to explore and push the discussion forward.  We look forward to updating you soon.

Panel attendees

Some of of the panel discussion attendees wearing red, purple and black themed clothes for International Women’s Day