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10 years of Nature Climate Change

In celebration of the tenth anniversary of Nature Climate Change, past and present editors reminisce about some of the papers that stood out.

CLIMATE RESEARCH

Breaking the mould

Ten years ago, in 2011, I had the unique honour of launching the research journal Nature Climate Change as its first Chief Editor. By that stage, I’d been the editor of its online predecessor since 2007; my excitement at seeing the publication evolve into a fully-fledged print and — no less — peer-reviewed research journal was immense. So too was the challenge: like all Nature Research journals, Nature Climate Change aspired to be the leader in its field, to publish the very best in climate sciences. Our flagship journal, Nature, was inundated with submissions in climate science and only able to publish a fraction of the research. With Nature Climate Change, we aspired to give greater visibility to research that furthered understanding of the physical climate system, but we went further still. Recognizing that climate change is a societal problem that requires real-world solutions, Nature Climate Change became the first journal in the Nature family to open its doors to submissions from social scientists, whether their work was specific to a field such as psychology or economics, or part of an interdisciplinary collaboration.

Reflecting now on the papers that I’m most proud of having published, it’s undoubtedly those that broke the mould. One that stands out to me appeared in the launch issue and was led by Drew Shindell, then at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Months ahead of our launch, I visited NASA GISS and persuaded Drew that our journal would be a good fit for his emerging interdisciplinary research. An atmospheric chemist, Drew had become interested in how tightening global vehicle emissions standards could help address climate change while also delivering a host of other benefits, among them fewer air-pollution-related deaths and less damage to food crops. The result was a compelling analysis that brought together experts in the health, agricultural and economic sciences, and clearly demonstrated the value of such well-considered policies1. Recognizing that interdisciplinary research is often overlooked, in funding and elsewhere, Nature Climate Change swiftly became a forum that championed and celebrated collaboration. Thanks to my successors and their hard work, this tradition continues.

Olive Heffernan was Chief Editor at Nature Climate Change from 2010–2011 and editor of its predecessor, Nature Reports Climate Change, from 2007.

WOMEN’S AGENCY

Big qualitative data

Entrenched social structures, reinforced at household, community and state levels, shape men and women’s individual experiences and reactions to climate change. There is thus growing awareness that adaptation strategies must not only be effective but also equitable.

Case studies make important contributions to the literature on climate change adaptation by offering insights into what adaptation actually looks like, on the ground, in specific places facing unique combinations of climatic variability and societal vulnerability. Yet, this specificity makes them difficult for a journal like Nature Climate Change to publish. A single case study may tell us how climate change is experienced and responded to within a particular demographic, socioeconomic and agro-ecological context, but does not offer the kind of generalizable insights needed to inform global or national policy and practice.

For this reason, I was excited when the paper from Nitya Rao and colleagues crossed my desk. In this study2, the authors used qualitative comparative analysis to synthesize evidence across case studies to identify general patterns which suggest possible entry points for policy intervention, while at the same time preserving the rich, context-specific insights afforded by the qualitative data.

Specifically, Rao and colleagues examined how women’s agency contributes to adaptation responses across 25 case studies from three distinct agroecological regions in Africa and Asia. They found that, across the majority of cases, male migration for work and women’s poor working conditions combine with either institutional failure or poverty to constrain women’s ability to make strategic decisions under conditions of environmental stress. Moreover, environmental stress remains a key suppressor of women’s agency, even when household structures and societal norms are supportive. This ultimately leads to household adaptation strategies that increase the responsibilities and burdens women face.

The Rao et al. paper marked an important expansion of social science content represented in the journal in both topic (women’s adaptive capacity) and methodology (qualitative comparative analysis of case studies). After 10 years, Nature Climate Change still has room to grow in its coverage of the social sciences, and I look forward to seeing what the next 10 years have in store to that end.

Jenn Richler was an editor at Nature Climate Change from 2016–2020.

FLOOD IMPACTS

Plausible futures

Much research about climate change deals with how the future will ‘likely’ unfold, and the consequences to society. We know communities are exposed to climate change impacts, but we do not know exactly how bad things are going to get over time, where and how soon. Despite the uncertainty, policymakers must act, and quantifications of future societal impacts can definitely help. In December 2012, we received a study by Stephane Hallegatte and colleagues3 doing exactly that: using an impressive amount of data and the best available models, the authors estimated present and future flood losses at the urban level around the world.

The research covered 136 major coastal cities, accounted for existing flood defences, assumed different patterns of urban population growth, sea-level rise and subsidence, and combined all that with flood-adaptation options. The map of possible future paths counted up to 108 different scenarios. The findings were compelling — assuming only urban population growth and no environmental change, average global flood losses would increase from about US$6 billion per year in 2005 to US$52 billion by 2050. Factoring in climate change and subsidence would increase such losses to US\$1 trillion or more per year. The authors also ranked the cities most at risk of facing the largest increase in losses. The results were going to make headlines. As the publication date approached, Hallegatte e-mailed me to share his anxiety as to how journalists might report the findings.

Scenarios, and the modelling behind them, help to visualize the future, and they create frames to analyse possible coming outcomes. In so doing, they can assist decision-making. Yet, they should be taken for what they are: a description of plausible futures. Hallegatte worried the results would be portrayed as exact predictions — a worry I then shared. Fortunately, he was able to engage quite carefully with journalists to ensure fair reporting of the findings.

Ultimately, what mattered then wasn’t how precise the estimates were, but the worrying direction coastal cities were heading to. Hopefully that message continues to resonate today as policymakers look for solutions to the climate crisis.

Monica Contestabile was an editor at Nature Climate Change from 2011–2014.

Flooding in Ho Chi Minh City. Credit: Jethuynh/Moment/Getty

CARBON EMISSIONS

Peak and decline

Two images have come to define discourse on climate change: the ‘hockey stick’ graph, showing the sudden rise in Northern hemispheric temperatures in the twentieth century, and the Keeling Curve (Fig. 1), showing the incremental but inexorable accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. However, the challenge of climate change lies in the part of the emissions graph yet to materialize, in the effort to bend the emission curve towards zero and potentially beyond to negative emissions.

The scale of the challenge is daunting. Yet, decarbonization is occurring. A number of industrialized, mostly European, countries along with the USA experienced emissions increases between 2000–2005 but sustained decline in emissions over the next decade, even as their economies continued to grow. However, it wasn’t clear what had happened in these countries that allowed emissions to peak and decline.

In late 2017, I received a submission by Corinne Le Quéré and co-authors that sought to answer this exact question. However, when it first came across my desk, attached was a note indicating that an earlier version had failed to progress beyond peer review two years prior. This was a potential editorial concern. However, at the end of 2017, the COP23 Presidency and the UNFCCC Secretariat had just announced their expectations for the Talanoa Dialogue, inviting Parties and non-party stakeholders to the Paris Agreement to share what had worked and what hadn’t worked in the fight against climate change. The question of how to peak and decline emissions had become even more salient than it was at first submission.

Ultimately the manuscript was published in early 2019, and shows that the decrease in emissions was primarily driven by an increase in the share of renewable energy associated with the adoption of renewable energy policies, and a decrease in energy use4. While more work is needed to understand the optimal path towards global decarbonization, this paper began to answer the call for best practices to support the Paris Agreement goals.

Adam Yeeles was an editor at Nature Climate Change from 2017–2019.

LOBBYING INFLUENCE

Power play

It seems like a different era where academic research was needed to show that major polluters were responsible for spreading climate contrarianism among both the public and political elites, particularly in light of recent discussions about corporate influence on American politics.

But that’s exactly what Justin Farrell did in a Letter submitted in 2015 (ref. 5). While plenty of research had been published about the extent of climate contrarianism in the USA (at the time, only 44% of Americans thought anthropogenic climate change was happening), and on demographic and ideological reasons for why anti-science messaging took hold, little had been published to show how political institutions and social networks, rather than individuals, were responsible for its spread.

Farrell used network science paired with machine-learning text analysis to show, quantitatively, that ExxonMobil and the Koch Family Foundations, both major funders of organizations lobbying against climate action, had a significant influence on how climate contrarian tropes took hold in political discourse (in particular, through the media). His ground-breaking method allowed for the analysis of over 40,000 documents containing over 39 million words, and showed the vast potential for social science to contribute to the scientific literature on climate change.

The research showed that ‘network power’ (being connected to influential private interests such as Exxon or the Kochs) was more important than the amount of money an organization had to spend spreading climate misinformation. His striking network maps clearly demonstrated how ties to these funders put certain organizations at the centre of power. In other words, it’s who you know that matters. I didn’t know it at the time, but his approach would have a huge influence on my career post-Nature Climate Change, investigating those perpetuating climate science denial around the world.

In many ways, his work foreshadowed the issues and discussions surrounding climate denial in political discourse and American politics that would come to the forefront just eight months after it was published in 2015.

Mat Hope was an editor at Nature Climate Change from 2015–2016.

RANGE SHIFTS

Redistribution of life on Earth

Anthropogenic global warming is altering the distribution of life on Earth, with the potential to destabilize ecosystems. Understanding how species’ ranges shift in response to warming is crucial for predicting climate change impacts and prioritizing conservation efforts.

Taxon-specific studies are often illuminating; however, it is helpful sometimes to look at the bigger picture to identify large-scale patterns and possible mechanisms. I was pleased, therefore, back in 2011, to receive a submission from Jennifer Sunday and colleagues6 using meta-analysis to examine the determinants of latitudinal distributions of ectotherm (commonly referred to as cold-blooded) species, and how these might to be impacted by climate change in both the marine and terrestrial realms.

The study leveraged comprehensive datasets of species’ thermal tolerance limits, their latitudinal distributions and climate-related range boundary shifts, which were analysed statistically.

Their central finding is that marine and terrestrial systems are likely to respond to climate change differently. Specifically, the analyses indicate that physiological thermal tolerances and geographical ranges are closely matched to environmental temperature in the sea, but not on land. The results indicate that contractions at equatorward range boundaries of terrestrial ectotherms are likely to be less consistent and predictable than expansions at their poleward range boundaries under global warming. In contrast, marine ectotherms are found to be ‘thermal-range conformers’, meaning that their range shifts should be more predictable based on thermal tolerance limits alone.

The findings relate to a notion proposed by Charles Darwin7 and later refined by ecologist Robert MacArthur8 that the relative importance of biotic factors (for example, competition) and abiotic factors (for example, temperature) varies with latitude, thereby determining, at least in part, species’ latitudinal ranges. Sunday and colleagues provide support for the Darwin–MacArthur hypothesis for terrestrial ectotherms, but not for marine ectotherms. This difference could profoundly influence how climate change will drive changes in latitudinal distributions of marine as compared to terrestrial species through range shifts, with ramifications for population and community viability.

The study nicely illustrates the power of meta-analyses to deliver insights regarding the likely ecological impacts of global warming, thereby helping guide climate change adaptation and ecosystem management efforts.

Rory Howlett was Chief Editor of Nature Climate Change from 2011–2016.

A school of sardines. Credit: A. Martin UW Photography/Moment/Getty

PERSISTENCE POTENTIAL

Which individuals will survive?

Observing and recording the devastating impacts of climate change on natural lifeforms has long been a keystone of the climate change ecology field. As a result of years of quality research, we now understand that climate change can reduce species numbers and fitness, cause local extinctions and generally alter where, when, how and with whom organisms live.

From the point of view of biodiversity conservation, things look pretty bad. And modelling predictions suggest that they are likely to remain bad or worsen in the near future, even if we do manage to rapidly rein in our global emissions.

For this reason — although there is still much more to understand about how the various aspects of climate change can impact different organisms and ecosystems — some of the most vital questions arising now relate to if, and how, natural species can persist.

Biological persistence in a changing world relies on an ability to fit or adapt to new conditions, and/or an ability to move to ‘greener pastures’. I was pleased to see work from Andrew Gougherty and colleagues address both climate-change-induced maladaptation and the potential for migration to minimize this maladaptation, in work that focused on a wide-ranging North American tree species, balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera)9.

Importantly, the authors did not assess the adaptive capacity of the species as a whole, but instead investigated vulnerability in the context of 81 balsam polar populations spanning North America, thus incorporating intraspecific (within species) variation that may play an important role in persistence potential. In the study, maladaptation was defined based on gene–environment associations, in this case centred on flowering-time genes, which are crucial in regulating plant seasonal growth, dormancy and reproduction. Understanding the genetic variations that underlie fitness under given environmental conditions may help understand and rapidly identify individuals with the best chances of survival under climate change.

The Gougherty study uses modern methods to go beyond species-level modelling and, to understand population risks in the context of maladaptation and migration, under climate change. This, in turn, can be utilized to prioritize conservation efforts. Ultimately, we hope that climate change science cannot just observe and understand the human-caused alterations to our planet, but lead us to prevent, manage and save.

Tegan Armarego-Marriott has been an editor at Nature Climate Change since 2019.

AGRICULTURE IMPACTS

Interconnected systems

Food security and agricultural production are intertwined, making understanding impacts on agriculture a scientific and political priority. However, impacts are diverse, ranging from changes in crop phenology due to rising temperatures to harvest losses on account of drought or severe storms. The wide range of impacts is, in part, due to the scope of agricultural production, including crop production, processing and transport, and also the specificity of what both food and weather systems look like in various regions of the world. Knowing how climate change influences wheat growth in northern Europe has limited implications for a country where rice is the staple crop, and vice versa.

This often means that studies linking climate change to agricultural issues necessarily investigate impacts on a particular region or crop. This work is important, for example, to inform local policy and adaptation efforts, but the specificity means that this type of work generally lacks the breadth of interest needed to appeal to the wider readership of Nature Climate Change.

Nonetheless, understanding the consequences of changes in the physical climate system for human systems like agriculture is critical. My interest was therefore piqued by a paper submitted by Yue Qin, Nathan Mueller and colleagues in 2019. In their study, the authors investigated the impact of changes in snowmelt and precipitation on water supply to agricultural basins worldwide10. They identified particularly vulnerable areas — for example, on the Tibetan Plateau, in Central Asia and in the western USA — where irrigated agriculture is dependent on meltwater sourced from snow. Under climate change, warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns mean that more precipitation will fall as rain, and the timing of snowmelt will shift earlier in the year. These changes result in less water availability for crop irrigation and indicate that new sources of water will be needed to maintain food production in these regions.

The work by Qin et al. showed clearly how interrelated physical and human systems are on a global scale while also pointing to key areas where policy will be needed to mitigate effects. Such information is particularly important as momentum builds to expedite adaptation efforts worldwide.

Alyssa Findlay has been an editor at Nature Climate Change since 2019.

Snowmelt is an important source of water for agriculture. Credit: Miguel Castro / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty

One day at a time

Detection and attribution (D&A) has become central to sorting out the anthropogenic impact on the Earth system, and experience has shown that the best way to do this is with climate information on decadal or longer timescales.

Something that remains difficult, however, is parsing out climate change signals within the high variability of weather patterns. Yes, weather can become more extreme, and a flood or heatwave might be worse or more likely. But at the continental or global scale, weather patterns aren’t extreme everywhere on a given day — anomalies are usually far less notable, and they often cancel out. This conundrum always perplexed me; I knew detecting climate change at shorter timescales would require some statistical know-how and a bit of creativity, but I wasn’t sure this was possible. That is, until a paper by Sebastian Sippel and co-authors crossed my desk in July 2019 (ref. 11).

The authors claimed they could detect climate change from global weather patterns, including temperature and near-surface humidity over land, and I was intrigued. Building on established D&A techniques, Sippel and colleagues began with two key metrics of climate change: annual global mean temperature and Earth’s decadally averaged energy imbalance, both derived from climate models. Using statistical learning, they constructed a relationship between these metrics and climate model temperature and humidity fields, yielding high-frequency patterns or ‘fingerprints’ of anthropogenically forced change. These were then compared to observed global weather fields at annual, monthly and daily timescales.

The results surprised me. Based on the temperature metric, the authors could detect anthropogenic climate change in every daily snapshot of global weather since 2012 (Fig. 2). This was true earlier for monthly averages (since 2001), and even earlier for yearly averages (since 1999).

I enjoyed handling this paper not only because of the novel approach, but because it reflects a broader trend in the field. As science and society move toward operational D&A, where the role of climate change can be understood in real time, innovations like this are important. Sippel and co-authors have offered a D&A upgrade that permits near-instantaneous climate change detection. I’m excited for more surprises like this.

Baird Langenbrunner has been an editor at Nature Climate Change since 2019.

JOURNAL VOICES

A home for early-career researchers

In many interactions with the research community, the idea that the Nature group of journals only publishes the ‘same names’ was raised. Of course, I — along with my predecessors and successors — would always dispel those myths. Editors assess each paper based on the merit of its science, and recurrent authorship could be attributed to the fact that those authors understand Nature Climate Change’s editorial criteria: novelty and interest or application to many areas of climate change research. However, the journal publishes content from both junior and established researchers alike, and I am happy to highlight one of the countless examples of the former as a paper that stood out to me during my time at the journal.

The joy and excitement felt when accepting research by early-career researchers (ECRs) were some of my fondest memories at Nature Climate Change. Yes, you’d commonly associate those emotions (along with relief) to the author and not the editor, but editors do want to see work published, and for work from an ECR, it meant even more. For the author, it might have cemented their career as a climate scientist and inspired future research; for me, that, in turn, provided hope that future generations will better understand the climate system in order to resolve the climate crisis.

One such memorable paper was that from Sigrid Lind, who at the time was a PhD student at the University of Bergen. Her work12 examined the mechanisms behind extreme ocean warming in the Barents Sea, a so-called ‘warming hotspot’. Lind and colleagues revealed a coupled chain of events linking Barents Sea warming to reduced sea-ice import in the early 2000s, which subsequently lowered freshwater content, decreased stratification, amplified mixing and, in turn, increased ocean heat content that reduced sea ice. Importantly, these physical observations were a continued sign of Atlantification in the European Arctic, with ecological impacts on species distribution.

With ten years of publishing fantastic ECR-led research under its belt, as exemplified by Lind et al. and many others, I have no doubt that Nature Climate Change will continue to advocate for and support ECRs in many respects long into its future, and I look forward to seeing the research that drives their fields forward.

Graham Simpkins was an editor at Nature Climate Change from 2016–2018.

TRENDS

Accelerating slowdown studies

While researchers knew global average surface temperatures had been increasing at a slower rate since 1998, it was in 2013 that this crossed over into the media discourse. The lower rate of warming, often referred to as the hiatus, slowdown or pause, became the hot climate topic of the year. There was a pressing need to shore up and restore faith in climate projection science, creating an urgency to understand and explain the causes of the warming slowdown.

The surge in research and submissions related to the slowdown in warming began. One of the early standouts in this space, titled ‘Recent intensification of wind-driven circulation in the Pacific and the ongoing warming hiatus’13, crossed my desk in early September 2013. Matthew England and co-authors built on the very recently published Nature study ‘Recent global-warming hiatus tied to equatorial Pacific surface cooling’ by Yu Kosaka and Shang-Ping Xie14, which had identified the role of surface cooling of the eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean. The new submission investigated what had caused the equatorial cooling and identified a pronounced strengthening of the Pacific trade winds over the last two decades — a feature not captured in the models.

It was an interesting time to be handling the physical climate space and assessing the numerous and diverse submissions — this was the research community responding to real-world observations and tackling questions that had not been prominent previously. The England et al. paper offered a nice insight into the distribution of the observed heat uptake as well as projecting when the natural variability would shift to again see accelerated warming, and we managed to get the paper published in a timely manner to contribute to the discussion.

It’s not often that we see such a community response to a question, but another example of this in my editorial career was when the IPCC accepted the invitation to prepare a special report on 1.5 ºC warming15. Again, a question which had not been considered spurred researchers into action, and created a wealth of information in a short period of time.

Bronwyn Wake joined Nature Climate Change as an editor in 2012, and has been Chief Editor since 2016.

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Correspondence to Alyssa Findlay.

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Findlay, A., Wake, B. 10 years of Nature Climate Change. Nat. Clim. Chang. 11, 286–291 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01019-4