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COP26: Meet the scientists behind the crucial climate summit

While politicians negotiated climate pledges at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, UK, scientists of all stripes provided advice and presented the latest climate data. Nature spoke to a range of them about their research, their participation in the meeting and what solutions they think the world needs. To see more of our COP26 coverage, go to Nature’s special landing page.

Tim Flannery: ‘We have to find a vaccine for Earth’

For researchers studying Earth’s creatures, climate change is a central issue: some species could disappear if temperatures and ecosystems continue to shift. Tim Flannery, a palaeontologist and zoologist at the University of Melbourne, Australia, became a climate researcher for this reason. He is also one of Australia’s best-known science writers, having written popular books including The Future Eaters (1998), an ecological history of Australia and New Zealand, and The Weather Makers (2005), about the history and consequences of human-caused climate change.

Portrait of Tim Flannery

Although Tim Flannery has attended previous climate summits in an official capacity, he was an observer at COP26.Credit: Nature

Tell us about your research and how it relates to climate change.

A big part of what I’m studying is the impact of climate change on the evolution of mammals. I am especially interested in mammal species and biodiversity in tropical forests.

Did your science bring you to COP26? How did you participate in the meeting?

What really brought me to the COPs originally — this is the sixth COP I have attended — was a realization in the 1990s of the impacts of climate change on the rainforests in New Guinea. I was seeing an advance in the tree line on the island where I was working [trees were growing at higher elevations than usual], and I realized it was likely to be a climate impact.

It was at that point I started researching climate change seriously. I wrote The Weather Makers, and since then have been drawn into all sorts of climate issues. I’ve been climate commissioner for Australia, and I chaired the Copenhagen climate council, which assisted the Danish government in negotiations at the 15th Conference of the Parties, in 2009. However, at COP26, I’m simply an observer, without an official government role.

Aside from cutting emissions from fossil fuels, what’s the single biggest action we as a society can take to address climate change?

We need a three-pronged process very much like the approach taken towards COVID-19. The first thing we want to do is to stop the spread of the problem, and, in climate terms, that means cutting emissions hard and fast. We then need to have a big enough ‘emergency room’ to deal with all the consequences of the problem so far. For climate change, that includes looking at impacts on everything from health systems and transport systems to natural systems. And then we have to find the equivalent of a vaccine for Earth. If we strengthen our forests and strengthen the ocean’s capacity to sequester carbon, the Earth system will start taking care of us safely.

What excited you most at the meeting?

The thing that excited me most is the change of mood. It’s hard to put it any other way. At this meeting, there has been such a determination by the presidency and many of the entities involved to get a good outcome that there has been very little space for the recalcitrant nations — those that don’t want to move — to argue against it.

I’m going to leave this meeting with hope. Copenhagen was a failed effort to get everyone organized. This meeting was all about getting all of the horses in the stalls, and agreeing on the distance of the race. Some want it to be a long race, to 2070; Europe wants it to be a short race, to 2040. But at least all of the horses are in the stall and ready to go — that’s optimistic and good.

Deissy Martínez Baron: Climate change threatens millions of small farms

Climate change and the increasingly extreme weather it triggers threaten the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers in low-income countries. Their farms — which often support a single family — produce one-third of global food. Deissy Martínez Baron, an economist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia, explores ways in which these farmers can cope with a warming world.

Portrait of Deissy Martínez Baron

At COP26, Deissy Martínez Baron presented her research on helping small farms in Latin America to adapt to climate change.Credit: Nature

Tell us about your research and how it relates to climate change.

I research how to reduce the climate vulnerability of smallholder farmers while also curbing the farms’ greenhouse-gas emissions. My colleagues and I work with local communities in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua to develop new practices that help farmers to adapt to a changing climate and conserve their livelihoods in a warming world. For example, we encourage them to build ‘climate-smart’ home gardens with water-harvesting and irrigation systems, where they will have enough water, even in dry periods, to grow vegetables for a diverse and healthy diet. To reduce their greenhouse-gas emissions, we encourage them to use organic fertilizers based on specific soil needs.

Did your science bring you to COP26? How are you participating in the meeting?

Yes, my institute is part of CGIAR, a global network of agricultural research centres. I have presented my research as a representative of CGIAR.

I’ve explained how we can help farmers, and how our work has shaped agricultural policies in our region. For example, the ‘Climate-Smart Agriculture Strategy for Central America and the Dominican Republic’ owes a lot to research carried out at CGIAR centres. The objective is to adapt agriculture to climate change and increase yields, through soil and forest conservation and efficient water use. [The strategy, implemented in 2018, was crafted by the Central American Agricultural Council.]

Aside from cutting emissions from fossil fuels, what’s the single biggest action we as a society can take to curb climate change?

What we eat, what we consume and how the food that we eat and the things that we consume are produced are a key part of solutions. Raising people’s awareness of the footprint of their consumer habits, and of the environmental impact of their diets, is crucial for reducing carbon emissions.

What event at the meeting has excited you the most?

I am especially pleased that donors have pledged to raise an extra half a billion US dollars next year for CGIAR programmes. That’s really exciting. It will help us keep doing research for development and build climate resilience in vulnerable communities. Over the next few years, we hope to be able to support some 30 million farmers across the global south to prepare for climate change and weather extremes.

Rob Finn: Microbes can help curb climate change

Microorganisms act as tiny chemical reactors: they can emit greenhouse gases such as methane, but also feed on these gases and convert them into useful molecules. Researchers such as Rob Finn want to use microbes to regulate climate change. He is a microbiologist and team leader at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton, UK — part of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

Portrait of Rob Finn

Rob Finn is attending COP26 as an observer, attending talks and meetings about research and progress.Credit: Carrie Tang

Tell us about your research and how it relates to climate change.

My team is interested in the microbes that live in and around us. We do basic research to understand microbial biodiversity in the environment and even in the human gut, and to understand what those microbes do and how they interact with themselves and their surroundings. We harness them to replace chemical-synthesis processes, or even for things like carbon sequestration.

Climate change is a relatively recent thing, and large organisms such as animals and trees, which have experienced it for only a few generations, can’t adapt so easily. But microbial communities evolve very quickly and are very good at adapting. How we harness those, and how they actually deal with climate change, is extremely interesting.

We’re also working on food sustainability; about 17% of global carbon emissions come from food production. For instance, we’re looking for an alternative such as seaweed that’s naturally growing on the sea bed, to use as a replacement for processed foodstuffs.

How are you participating in the summit?

I’ve been in some of the plenary meetings, listening to what high-profile politicians are bringing to the table. But I am also looking in on and joining some of the satellite meetings [organized by both governmental and non-governmental organizations]. I’ve had the joys of walking round all the country pavilions and interacting with representatives from a number of countries to understand their different perspectives on climate change, and what they’re doing about it.

Aside from cutting emissions from fossil fuels, what’s the single biggest action we as a society can take to address climate change?

It starts off with increasing awareness. If we all make a small change, I think we can take a step towards reducing our carbon footprint. We have to take the severity of what’s happening into our thought processes and act on it. If we all do that, it won’t be too late. If we just carry on procrastinating and following the same old patterns — just talking about climate change rather than acting on it — then maybe it could be too late.

What about the meeting has excited you the most?

What I’ve been really inspired by is that there are so many people with different views coming together, and so many areas of science represented. One of the key challenges is how we actually bring all the sciences together.

The meeting’s focus on natural solutions to climate change is particularly exciting. A lot of people are beginning to talk about how we harness nature to address the problem of fossil-fuel reduction.

Sarobidy Rakotonarivo: There are winners and losers to halting deforestation

Many researchers see halting deforestation as a way to rein in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. But the resources from forests are crucial for the economies of some communities. Sarobidy Rakotonarivo is an environmental economist at the University of Antananarivo in Madagascar who studies how climate policies affect people in African countries.

Portrait of Sarobidy Rakutunarivo at COP26

Sarobidy Rakotonarivo hopes to draw attention at COP26 to how climate policies can affect local communities.Credit: Nature

Tell us about your research and how it relates to climate change.

I am researching the social and economic impacts of global conservation policies.

When it comes to solutions to climate change, such as forest conservation, I think we need to recognize that environmental policies can make winners and losers. For instance, forests can help local people survive, through [using trees for] activities such as charcoal making. When people are really dependent on a forest, they need to be empowered to make economic use of it, or else need to be compensated [for instance, by wealthy nations paying them not to use the resources]. If not, they will be among the losers of global climate policies.

Did your research bring you to COP26? How are you participating in the summit?

Yes, especially my work on the impacts of global policies on poor communities. We all know that conserving forests is important if we are going to tackle climate change and reduce emissions, because trees are locking up carbon. But there is a trade-off between forest conservation and development to which we need to draw more attention.

I’m taking part in various side events at COP26, some of them organized by the European Union, others by the United Nations and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. I’m mostly sharing my insights from the decade of research I’ve done on the social impacts of conservation. One of our main purposes is to draw attention to the local communities that are most affected by environmental policies, and ensure that their perspectives are taken into account in global negotiations.

Aside from cutting emissions from fossil fuels, what’s the single biggest action we as a society can take to address climate change?

Nature-based solutions such as forest conservation are absolutely crucial, but we must carefully consider the social costs and any possible trade-offs with development.

What event at the meeting so far has excited you the most?

I am pleased that COP26 leaders have made a big pledge to reduce global deforestation by 2030. But I’m cautious about the promised financial support [US$12 billion] for forest protection in developing countries.

If the money is being spent mostly on bureaucracy, then one shouldn’t expect much. Besides, no one seems to know the true costs of ending deforestation. Global environmental policies include a risk of fundamental injustice. If we really want to be effective, we need to recognize that ill-considered policies might make local communities poor.

Stephanie Sodero: Humanitarian aid must prepare for climate emergency

Climate change threatens to create an enormous humanitarian crisis. Will emergency response systems cope? Stephanie Sodero, a climate-crisis-response specialist with the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute at the University of Manchester, UK, studies how aid systems need to adapt to the disasters increasingly triggered by global warming.

Stephanie Sodero photographed at COP26 in Glasgow

Stephanie Sodero is attending COP26 as an observer in the Blue Zone, where climate negotiations take place.Credit: Nature

Tell us about your research and how it relates to climate change.

My research looks at how medical supply chains, such as those for donated blood, saline solution and medical oxygen, are affected by climate change — including severe weather events. I also have a collaborative research project with the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute and the charities UK-Med and Save the Children UK, which looks at how humanitarian aid needs to adapt to the climate emergency.

Did your science bring you to COP26? How are you participating in the summit?

I’ll be looking for opportunities to share findings from the collaborative research project. In our research, we make seven recommendations about specific actions that can be taken to support the most vulnerable communities and gear up humanitarian-aid systems so that they are primed to respond. We illustrated these in a graphic novella. We want people to have a sense of what they could suggest to an elected official, or mention in a dinner-table conversation.

One recommendation is ‘resourcing that’s fit for purpose’, which ensures that there are enough trained national disaster and medical responders. The deployment of international staff will always be needed in crises, but national responders save the most lives.

Aside from cutting emissions from fossil fuels, what’s the single biggest action we as a society can take to address climate change?

One of the single biggest actions to curb climate-change impacts is increasing the resilience of communities so that they are less vulnerable to severe weather.

Currently, more than 40 million people are at risk of famine. If we reach 2 °C of warming [above pre-industrial temperatures], that number will be more than 180 million. Images from Madagascar show a river bed that has no water in it because there’s not been proper rain for years. [Last week, at the summit], I heard a woman from Madagascar speaking so matter-of-factly about not being sure she would live, because there was no food.

What event at the meeting so far has excited you the most?

The part that made me really excited was the 8-minute speech by the prime minister of Barbados, [Mia Mottley]. It was very refreshing to hear this clarion call from a country that’s on the front lines. She said 1.5 °C means survival for Barbados, and 2 °C means a death sentence. I want to hear more from her, and other under-represented countries. We hear so much from a small number of voices.

Corinne Le Quéré: How much carbon can the ocean absorb?

Corinne Le Quéré is a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, UK, studying the carbon cycle and how the ocean is responding to global warming. She is a member of the Global Carbon Project, a consortium of scientists that tracks worldwide carbon emissions and regularly publishes Earth’s ‘budget’.

Scientist Corinne Le Quéré poses for a picture along the coastline at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk.

Corinne Le Quéré is attending COP26 as a policy adviser to the United Kingdom and France.Credit: Chris Radburn/Reuters

Tell us about your research and how it relates to climate change.

I work on the carbon cycle, and keep track of emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and where they go in the environment. Some of the emissions are reabsorbed by the ocean and by the terrestrial biosphere, and some stay in the atmosphere and cause climate change. My specific research is on the ocean carbon sink: how effective it is at absorbing the carbon that is emitted by human activities, and how it’s changing over time and responding to a warming climate, including changes in ocean currents, ocean acidification and changes in ecosystems. So the whole package.

Did your science bring you to COP26? How are you participating in the summit?

Yes, we’re presenting the latest update of the global carbon budget at the COP. I also work as a policy adviser to the governments of the United Kingdom and France, and I’m in a group called Friends of COP26 that is in touch with the UK government and provides advice on an ad hoc basis.

Aside from cutting carbon emissions, what’s the single biggest action that we as a society can take to address climate change?

I think we need to be more comprehensive in the way we actually tackle climate change. We’re so focused on cutting emissions that we can lose track of the impacts of climate change and climate policies on people, and these impacts are really, really important. And as we implement ambitious actions to tackle climate change, there are going to be changes: new jobs will be created, but also jobs will be lost. How we protect and help the poorest people is going to be really crucial.

What event at the meeting so far has excited you the most?

For me, it was really the declaration from India, setting a net-zero target for 2070. This is really extraordinary. India is a very poor developing country. If a country like India can develop strongly on renewable energy, it means that many other developing countries can do it too — with the right financing — and that limiting climate change near 1.5 °C stays within reach.


These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


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