The complexity of the climate crisis calls for quantitative thinking and transdisciplinary cooperation

This week the UK hosts the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP 26 bringing together world leaders to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

We asked Olivier Hamant, Editor-in-chief of Quantitative Plant Biology to give us his thoughts on how the community can work together to face the climate crisis.

“Earlier this year the Sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report did not, in my opinion, teach us much new: human-caused changes to the climate are getting worse, and the impacts of this are accelerating.

However, the tone of the report shifted considerably. The IPCC no longer use the neutral language “future generations”, instead opting to employ more personal, even emotional, wording. Notably in the following quote: “The worst is yet to come, affecting our children’s and grandchildren’s lives much more than our own”.

A number of studies and reports indicate that the impacts of anthropogenic climate change are worse than predicted, and worse than most people realise. There is an increasing urgency to act now. We are in a climate crisis.

The climate crisis is a complex issue, which requires quantitative approaches such as computational modelling, statistical insight, feedback dissection and multi-scale emergent property analysis to provide insight. As scientists, it is our responsibility to address and understand complexity and to develop robust solutions.

There is an emerging trend across scientific disciplines, including in plant and microbial science that embraces integrative approaches that consider whole systems rather than elements. This is a trend that Quantitative Plant Biology embraces: attempting to understand the bigger picture and avoiding the allure of the quick-fix approach.

Within complex systems, long-term solutions cannot be developed by focusing on improving efficiency alone. Instead, “robustness” becomes a much more important criteria with which we can assess and shape solutions to the climate crisis.

London is predicted to experience the same climate as Barcelona by 2050. In that scenario, Mediterranean species may soon populate the banks of the Thames.

So to fight the effects of drought and continue to produce crops you could use water efficient drop-by-drop irrigation techniques. However, this requires significant investment in top-down technology, and involves non-renewable resources like energy and materials to set up and run. Plus, it requires significant maintenance. Because of this, the technology may not be a solution that is desirable to farmers around the world.

Another technology that could be adopted to overcome a lack of water is to shift species and use crops that are more adapted to this new climate. However, this would require considerable forethought. The presence of new species may mean that new plant pests, parasites and diseases could threaten existing crops and natural habitats.

A more systemic approach would be to use mixtures of varieties, in which inter-species cooperation generates a natural shield against drought and pathogens. This could be achieved through increased awareness, autonomy and education of farmers, without the need for any external technology.

As the complexity of a systems approach increases, the interactions within the system also increase and solutions become more intricate. The associated scientific questions become more difficult to investigate, however they also become much more interesting.

This revolution needs a scientific community who are versed in quantitative thinking and systems approaches, combined with ideas of robustness, sustainability and inclusion.

The final piece of the systems approach is to engage with stakeholders, from farmers, to breeders, who can embed their knowledge, insights and needs into the development of research, and the emerging technologies that aim to overcome their challenges.

Part of this puzzle is the need to embed citizen science from the start. Quantitative Plant Biology supports this and has become the first plant journal to introduce a dedicated article format for citizen science.

Citizen science is still an emerging area in plant science and as editor-in-chief, I look forward to working with the research community to showcase the field of quantitative systems and the use of citizen and stakeholder participation in plant and microbial science through our collaborative journal.

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