How Can Science Work to Solve the Biggest Challenges to our Climate?

Q&A with Hugh Possingham

Hugh Possingham, Chief Scientist at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and fellow of the US National Academy of Sciences, has more than 600 peer reviewed papers and coordinates around 300 scientists across the world to ensure they deliver the science The Nature Conservancy needs to create better outcomes for the planet.

We talked to him to find out more.

How does TNC approach climate science?

We don’t have traditional climate scientists at TNC who look at the atmospheric physics and chemistry, but we use science to deliver adaptation and mitigation outcomes. We have climate adaptation scientists who, through their research, determine how to accommodate the fact that the climate is going to change our land-use decisions. In the agriculture world, we are interested in knowing what land will be under pressure from different kinds of development, and what actions we can take to improve the adaptive capacity of nature.

We have scientists who study natural climate solutions – all the things we can do on the land, whether it is habitat restoration, or changing agriculture practices – so that we can store more carbon. These natural climate solutions might be a third of the solution to our climate problems, which is huge, but they aren’t going to be a get-out-of-jail-free card.

How does strategic planning help with conservation?

We help countries and regions build their protected areas in a rational and sensible fashion. That helps with all sorts of outcomes, such as endangered species recovery and working out the best places for agriculture. We also do a lot of planning to help site renewable energy sources – wind, solar and hydro. If these solutions aren’t properly placed, you could lose biodiversity and high-quality agricultural land. In these planning approaches, we don’t want renewable power on high quality agricultural soil because that land is so important for food security. We don’t want to displace that cropping to more marginal places, which would in turn destroy more habitat.

What are your thoughts on agricultural innovation?

We should be trying to get as much food as possible from the agricultural land that is already developed, and we should do what is most sustainable for soil properties, including carbon. If we can work out ways to use smart technologies to reduce the inputs into agriculture, that can be economically and environmentally beneficial. Improving the efficiency of agriculture per hectare reduces the pressure to clear more land for agriculture.

We hope to work more in the future with the agriculture industry in integrated pest management and solutions like multi-species cropping approaches which are becoming easier with new technology. Being able to deploy insecticides and herbicides at lower levels to get the same amount of crop protection is a win-win for the environment and the economy.

It would be good to see agriculture systems have more biodiversity in them. For example, strategic restoration along riparian corridors, and cover crops in the winter both reduce the flow of sediments and nutrients into aquatic ecosystems. Most farmers know this, so some of our task is finding ways to incentivize the adoption of those innovations.