How is science facing climate and environmental change?

Any seemingly good apocalyptic movie would start with a scientist being ignored by a government, which triggers the worst scenario for humankind.

The irony? We are living in such a scenario. Climate change and environmental change has been flagged by scientists as a worldwide issue for decades now, from as early as the 1950s, and largely ignored until now.

It isn’t always the case. Perhaps the most famous example of how a scientist’s voice helped bring an environmental problem to the eyes of the public is the 1962 book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and conservationist. In this book, the scientist condemns the systematic use of pesticides, showing how they entered the food chain and how they were a cause of environmental degradation. The data Carson referred to was already well-known to the scientific community, but she brought it to the general public, and she played an important role in changing national policies in the US related to pesticides and led to banning DDT.

Carson ignited the environmental movement. Thanks to this work, today we see large groups of activists taking on to the streets to manifest dissent towards the governments’ inaction on climate and environmental change. These activists, hugely represented by youth, rely on scientific facts and push for governments to act on all human activities that are known to cause environmental damage – but where do scientists stand?

Today there is a scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change, which means that climate change as we observe it today is due to human activity. 97% of actively publishing climate scientists support this statement, and a 2019 article by James Powell shows that this number has reached 100%.

Scientific consensus means something different than what we think. In general terms, consensus means a general agreement on a statement. In science, however, consensus is the result of applying the scientific method over time: multiple studies are performed to formulate a hypothesis to explain an observation, and this hypothesis is tested several times. This process leads to more reliable and objective hypothesis, which means having a more solid basis to start building solutions.

Given the scientific consensus that this problem exists, what is scientific research doing today to tackle environmental change?

A multifaceted issue

The first thing to consider is that climate and environmental change is a multifaceted problem. Even if you just focus on climate change, there are still multiple factors that play a role in the degradation of our ecosystem. The same happens if considering the loss of biodiversity or any other major concern: it is important to understand that the challenge we face has many natures.

Science is facing this problem in a holistic way, by ensuring that each individual field of study addresses its specific issues through scientific research. These diverse angles must then be integrated together, giving an interdisciplinary approach to the bigger picture.

It is overwhelming to address a global issue in its entirety, so in order to be more effective we should break down what the main challenges and areas of research are that concern environmental change.

Burke et al. (2017) state that “today’s environmental problems are increasingly complex and new scientific approaches and tools are needed to achieve sustainable solutions to protect the environment and public health”. This paper lays out the main challenges of environmental research, and though it puts attention mainly on the United States, it represents a good framework.

Main challenging areas of environmental research

Climate change – finding ways to continue reducing greenhouse gas emissions reductions to stop the consequences of rising temperatures, which impact air quality, water resources, agriculture, and wildlife habitats on a global scale.

Energy – whilst being of fundamental importance from the single household to the big industries, our choice of energy sources can influence pollution and emissions, and research is focusing on implementing alternative sources of energy.

Land use – land use policies are crucial in order to avoid wildfires, soil degradation and lack of fundamental nutrients in agricultural land, and loss of green areas in increasing urbanistic settings.

Water – water availability and quality are another important concern, especially in light of increasing population size and increasing temperatures in some areas of the planet, where water shortages will be more frequent.

These areas of research are linked together and very often affect each other. For example, water quantity is connected to the choice of energy source as it is needed for the production of energy, and water quality is connected to potential chemical contamination from industries.

Questions in scientific research must be re-formulated in order to incorporate new challenges, for example: how would the wide-scale use of new energy options and emerging technologies affect water availability and quality, land use patterns, and air quality?

A new approach

We are at an inflection point. The methods we use today don’t fully cover the extent of the problems we face. What could really benefit us would be an interdisciplinary and holistic view of all the different scientific challenges around environmental change, and a continuous communication between scientists and stakeholders.

Burke et al. (2017) suggest a framework to summarize this process:

1. formulate the problem holistically,

2. gather and synthesize diverse information,

3. develop and assess options,

4. implement sustainable solutions.

Overall, there is a widespread interest in the scientific community to find new effective ways to tackle global environmental change. There are a lot of promising and exciting projects happening across the globe, with the main goal of preserving our environment and our health!

Nayomi Illansinhage Don is an enthusiastic biologist, who is passionate about finding solutions to environmental change. With a bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences, a master’s degree in Advanced Forensic Analysis, she now works in a lab at Imperial College London, that focuses on designing and testing genetically modified mosquitoes in order to eradicate malaria. She is passionate about nature, animals, hiking, and – of course – science, especially conservation and global health.

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