Climate change solutions require community participation in research, say CIFAR scientists

Mark Lowey
December 6, 2023

There’s no role for “individual” egocentric science and research in tackling a daunting problem like climate change, say researchers supported by CIFAR.

Finding solutions to climate change and global environmental sustainability requires “transdisciplinary” research involving participation by multiple stakeholders including communities, Canadian and international researchers said during a webinar presented by CIFAR.

The November 27 webinar, “Nurturing a Resilient Earth,” took place the same week the United Nations COP 28 climate change summit began in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

“What we’re seeing now is an increased trend toward more participatory research,” said Dr. Richard Taylor, PhD (photo at right), professor of hydrology at University College London and a CIFAR Fellow who’s studying the impacts of climate change on global water supplies.

Participatory research is transdisciplinary research that directly involves multiple stakeholders including citizen scientists and communities, both in the conception and implementation of research, he said. “These approaches have the capacity to inform change led by people, not necessarily by politicians.”

Taylor, who attended the UN COP 27 summit in Egypt in 2022, said he found that the voices speaking outside of the summit were more progressive and advanced than the delegates’ discussion going on inside the forum.

Global society needs to recognize and take action on “climate injustice,” including the impact of greenhouse gas emissions that occur far from where the emissions originate, he said. “People in low-income countries across the tropics and even in the high Arctic are really disproportionately impacted by climate change.”

Along with multi-stakeholder participation in research, mitigating and adapting to climate change requires more effective ways of moving research findings into effective policies and actions, said Dr. David Rolnick, PhD (photo at left), assistant professor of computer science at McGill University and Canada CIFAR Chair at Mila-Quebec AI Institute.

Rolnick is also co-founder and chair of Climate Change AI, a global non-profit focused on climate change and machine learning. He said while interdisciplinary research involving  AI is having an impact, it needs to be coupled with supportive policy that drives meaningful action.

“We really need all hands on deck here,” he said. “The role of probably all our work is in making policy and actions easier [to implement], increasing the knowledge people have, and decreasing barriers to action.”

Dr. Jacqueline Goordial, PhD (photo at right), an environmental microbiologist who’s examining microbial life in permafrost, oceanic crust and marine sediments, noted that in Canada there are more scientists now working directly with communities and Indigenous partners.

But scientists also need to speak more broadly and directly in communicating their research findings, including through social media, said Goordial, assistant professor of environmental sciences at the University of Guelph and a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar.

As an early-career researcher, Goordial said she quickly realized that publishing her research findings in peer-reviewed science journals – while this shared her work with academic colleagues – wasn’t the most effective way of communicating her research and its impact to the broader public.

“In terms of the barriers [to communication], it’s the knowing who those stakeholders are, identifying them and making sure that you’re actually communicating with them,” she said.

Dr. Sarah Gurr, PhD (photo at left), senior research fellow at Somerville College Oxford and a CIFAR Fellow who studies the fungal kingdom, said when it comes to communicating research findings, most of the world is unaware of the danger that fungal diseases presents to food crops and food security. “What we can see is that fungi are moving in concert with climate change and they’re profoundly affecting [food] crops,” she said.

Gurr said her motivation now, after having written many scientific papers on the topic, “is to push from science into translation into policy.”

She pointed to the television series “The Last of Us,” which was filmed in Alberta, for at least raising public awareness of fungi. In the series’ post-apocalyptic world, a rapidly spreading mutated fungus infects people, controlling their minds and turning them zombie-like.

Climate change’s impact on fungal diseases, carbon in permafrost, water supplies  

Fungi can be beneficial and without them the world wouldn’t have penicillin and other antibiotics, citric acid, immunosuppressants, statin drugs, bioremediation or knowledge of the cell cycle, Gurr said.

At the same time, she added, “Fungi are absolutely beguiling and also rather horrifying, because they are really the most important agents of crop disease.” Different fungal diseases affect the world’s five major food crops: rice, wheat, maize, potatoes and soybeans.

Countries are planting monoculture crops, including a 14,000-hectare wheat field in Alberta planted with genetically uniform wheat sprayed with a gene-specific fungicide, Gurr said. However, fungi have the ability in their fungal genome to “fast forward evolution,” becoming resilient against such monoculture crops while also adapting to dramatic weather, including changes in temperature and moisture, she said.

Researchers now have the tools, including AI, to monitor and predict the global movement of crops, crop pests and individual pathogens including fungi, she said. Doing so enables countries to take preventative and mitigative measures, such as planting different food crops that aren’t as susceptible to certain fungal diseases.

Goordial’s research focuses on the potential “carbon bomb” currently locked in permafrost, which encompasses about 27 per cent of the planet’s subsurface, including 50 per cent in Canada.

This permafrost is storing the carbon equivalent of all the terrestrial plant matter on Earth, she said. However, due to climate change and a warming world, scientists worry that melting permafrost – which is already occurring in Canada’s North – could release huge amounts of methane gas. Methane gas is nearly 83 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas (GHG) over a 20-year span and on its own is responsible for raising the global average temperature by over half a degree Celsius.

Goordial is studying microorganisms in permafrost, including how and when they release GHGs and – for some microbes such as “methanotrophs” which consume methane – how they might help keep the methane out of the atmosphere. The most recent research indicates “microorganisms may be mitigating more greenhouse gases than we previously thought,” she said.

Taylor’s research focuses on understanding the global water balance and how the shift toward fewer but heavier rainfalls due to climate change will affect this balance.

“Water resources are declining in many of the world’s most productive food-growing regions,” including California’s Central Valley, northwest India and the north China plain, Taylor said.

In some regions, global warming could impair rain-fed agriculture and increase global water demand for irrigation and the need to store more water, he said. But other drought-prone regions that depend on groundwater may see increased renewability of this resource.

A goal of transdisciplinary research is to benefit rather than continue to disadvantage low-income communities through the research, Taylor noted. “If we’re going to inform policy effectively, we have to move beyond our individual science and understand the equity of proposed solutions.”

More AI projects involving multiple stakeholders needed

In 2017, the federal government appointed CIFAR to develop and lead the Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.

As a CIFAR AI chair, Rolnick is using AI and machine learning to distill large unstructured datasets into useful and actionable information, including improving predictions, optimizing complex systems, and accelerating scientific modelling and discovery.

Applications for AI include: guiding land-use decisions; monitoring forest carbon stocks; optimally managing electrical grids; predicting crop yields; accelerating the production of climate and weather models; and discovering new materials for low-carbon applications, such as electrocatalysts.

“These applications are not somewhere in the future. The vast majority of them are currently being integrated into applications or being used around the world to increasingly powerful effect,” Rolnick said.

However, there needs to be incubation of AI projects that bring together different stakeholders, and determine what indicators of success for research are important to them rather than traditional research methods and metrics of success, he said. “There is a lack of trying to achieve the same thing sometimes among different stakeholders.”

Gurr, in responding to a question from a webinar attendee about the “rift” between academia and industry, said the existence of such silos often depends on the research topic, but that she has found research overall is becoming more open and collaborative.

However, almost all of the fungicide discoveries currently are done by large agrochemical companies that withhold their data from the public domain “and everything is for profit,” Gurr said. There is a need for a global initiative to better protect crops with all data free at source for everybody, she added.

“There’s no silver bullet that can stop climate change. However, research innovation in this area could still have profoundly positive impact on our planet,” said CIFAR president and CEO Stephen J. Toope (photo at right), who moderated the webinar.

A major focus of new strategy for CIFAR is trying to address the question of how to facilitate research impact more directly, Toope said.



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