Q+A: Global strategy on environment demands engaged scientists, says Christopher Martius

Christopher Martius, principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). GLF/Pilar Valbueno
Koen Kusters
26 March 2018

BONN, Germany (Landscape News) — Scientists are needed to tackle today’s environmental challenges, not only by handing out warnings, but also by actively contributing to solutions. This means they need to engage more actively with governments and non-state actors, says Christopher Martius, principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

In November 2017, the journal BioScience published an article titled World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice, a quarter century after the first notice. It was written by an international team of authors, spearheaded by professor William Ripple, a professor in the forest ecosystems and society department at Oregon State University in the United States, and analyzed trends over the past 25 years for some of the world’s main environmental issues, including deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change. They found that very little progress has been made to address these issues, and conclude that humanity needs to act quickly and boldly, if it wants to prevent widespread misery.

The message struck a chord. The article has since become one of the most talked about scientific publications globally. It has been translated into 19 languages, inspired more than 8,000 tweets reaching up to 14 million people, and prompted discussions in the parliaments of two countries, according to its authors. The article has now been endorsed or co-signed by some 20,000 scientists.

Christopher Martius, principal scientist at CIFOR, was one of the signatories of the original article. He shared his views on the reactions the article has generated and the role of scientists with Landscapes News in the following interview.

Q: Why do you think the article created so much attention—why now?

A: These are times of fake news, and skepticism. I think many people were thirsty for a clear message from scientists, based on straightforward empirical data. But, in addition to all the positive attention, I found out that the article also generated downright hateful reactions on certain websites. There are people out there who simply reject science. That is sobering.

Q: What can you do, when some people don’t believe scientists?

A: I recently read that people tend to believe whatever is presented with conviction. Whenever something is presented with a degree of uncertainty—like climate change predictions—people have a tendency to dismiss it. The uncertainty seems to indicate that scientists don’t know what they are talking about—nothing could be further from the truth.

Q: Do scientists need to become more convincing?

A: That may be part of it. But there will probably always be a group of skeptic people, and sound skepticism is good. The world needs critical thinking. Criticism moves science forward. But you cannot convince a so-called skeptic who just operates from a basis of hate or vested interests. My experience is that as scientists, we can make the biggest difference by working directly with groups who have use for the science, such as NGOs (non-govermental organizations) and governments. At CIFOR we have started to reflect a lot on our impact pathways: How to ensure that our science is being used.

Q: What are those impact pathways?

A: We engage early on with the recipients of science, so we know what type of knowledge they need, and in which form they want to have it. Before, we would just hit them on the head with a lengthy scientific paper. But who will read that? We have come a long way out of our bubble.

For example, in Indonesia we worked with the government to help develop their climate policy. The government had set a goal to reduce carbon emissions, and assumed that they could achieve this by investing in forest restoration. CIFOR scientists did the analyses and found that achieving the targets would require not only restoration, but also the protection of existing forest lands, and peatlands in particular. Based on this, the government changed its climate-change policies, with much more emphasis on maintaining existing areas of forest and peat. Acting as a trusted partner, CIFOR was able to influence the policy. The Indonesian Minister of Environment and Forestry very recently visited the CIFOR headquarters, expressing her interest in continued collaboration with our scientists.

Q: But not all environmental ministers attach value to science. Look at the United States.

A: Yes, that is hard. Then you will have to invest in coalitions of change. Working with NGOs and other groups in society that do rely on science.

Q: In reaction to the original article in BioScience, Israeli political scientist Yehezkel Dror argued that scientists need to get more politically active themselves. Would you agree?

A: Getting politically active does not necessarily mean that you must get involved in partisan politics. Of course, some scientists may want to change their career all together, and become full-fledged politicians, like Angela Merkel—she used to by a physicist. But the main role of scientists is to provide evidence with which policy-makers can make decisions. And while doing so, scientists must dare to take a position. They need to speak up. It is good if some scientists cross the boundary between research and decision-making, but it should always be based on evidence.

Q: Do you personally feel you can make a difference, in your role as a scientist?

A: I believe the world has been going into a dangerous direction, so then you start thinking about your own role as a scientist. I realized it is not enough to publish scientific papers. I wanted to be more active. At CIFOR we have made a lot of progress over the last years thinking about this, and we are increasingly understanding how we make sure that our research is used. With this focus on impact, I feel that I can contribute more directly to the changes that are needed.

Q: According to Ripple and his co-authors one of the most urgent changes that is required is to increase the price of carbon. What can scientists do?

A: The current price of carbon is very low, and does not represent its ecological value. A higher carbon price means that we can no longer neglect the issue. The role of scientists is to say how much carbon can be put into the atmosphere before things get really gloomy. And scientists have done that. Scientists are also able to calculate the emissions gap, meaning the difference between countries’ promises to reduce emissions, and what is needed to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius. These calculations are there as well. Now it is up to the politics. However, there are many powerful groups that are against a higher carbon price. Just think of the car industry in Germany, how inflexible they are with regard to alternative sources of energy. So, it is good that Ripple and his co-authors stress the issue.

Q: Did the Paris Climate Agreement create the necessary political will?

A; Some people seem to think that the Paris Agreement took care of things, and that now we are safe. But that is a misconception. The agreement aligned most countries behind the general goals, for the price of a low common denominator. To turn this into action, much more is needed. Front-running governments and industries will need to get together to make the next steps. This includes active measures to increase carbon prices. It also requires much larger investments in renewable energy, such as third generation biofuels made of waste and algae. Scientists are needed to take part in these change processes, by contributing to technological innovations, developing economic models, and monitoring the effects of policies and other interventions. But, of course, scientists are also needed to raise the alarm bell when necessary, to set political and industrial change processes in motion. This is why I endorsed the scientists’ warning in BioScience.