To Improve Climate and Food Futures, We Need More Awards and Rewards for Connection Makers
The path to progress facing rapid climate and societal change emerges through the networked approach taken by World Food Prize Laureate Cynthia Rosenzweig
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But first let's explore food futures in a heating climate.
I was thrilled when Cynthia Rosenzweig, a longtime NASA and Columbia researcher working at the interface of climate change and food, was named this year's World Food Prize Laureate. The prize, awarded annually since 1987, honors individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity or availability of food.
The Nobel Prize and other scientific honors at this level tend to reward discovery - a specific line of research leading to a breakthrough moment - CRISPR, the bacterial cause of ulcers, usable LED light.
The Food Prize for Rosenzweig, who is a senior research scientist and head of the Climate Impacts Group at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, is rewarding her work as a system builder. Through four decades, she conceived and nurtured a network steadily refining models of how the human-jolted climate system and food systems interrelate, and improving the utility of resulting insights where risks and opportunities are greatest.
World Food Prize Foundation (pdf)
Combining deep fluency in mathematics, climate and crop science and a lifelong passion for agriculture, she's been a lead author on a host of influential papers illuminating, through modeling, how climate change could shape food supplies.
But those achievements aren't the core of what garnered Rosenzweig this plaudit. Her super skill was, and remains, a zeal for seeking and propelling connectivity and cross-disciplinary fluency in pursuit of improved climate and crop projections. When you have time, watch how she lays this out methodically, beat by beat, in a wonderful 2016 "Maniac Lecture" for other NASA staff:
Humanity needs much more of this skill given the urgent need to accelerate progress where climatic stresses on food, water, ecosystems and communities are intensifying.
I'm hoping the example of this award can spur a wider move, particularly in academia and among public and private funders, to honor and support those who put connection making and system building ahead of quick-turnaround research results.
Too often, rigid norms and institutions impede, rather than nurture, the next generation of Cynthia Rosenzweigs.
Don't take my word for it. Read this Nature Sustainability commentary by eight early-career post-doctoral researchers - “Supporting interdisciplinary careers for sustainability” - laying out academic norms that drive young researchers toward quick publication and limit time for engaging communities at risk or other fields.
I hosted several of the authors last year in an illuminating Columbia Climate School Sustain What conversation that you can watch at the bottom of this post. But for a taste, listen to this critical insight from Megan Maurer, now a University of Copenhagen researcher focused on cities and sustainability:
From farming to forecasting food futures
The World Food Prize Foundation recently taped an interview I conducted at the Climate School with Rosenzweig. It is now posted here:
I'll be streaming the conversation as a Sustain What webcast soon, as well. Please watch and weigh in when you have time.
Here are some key insights and moments. (I also encourage you to read the biographical sketch the Foundation has published.)
Right off the bat she described why a systems approach is vital in weighing how to limit human influence on climate while sustainably feeding humanity:
"We cannot solve climate change unless we address greenhouse gas emissions coming from food. At the same time, we can't ensure food security for all unless we develop resilience to the changing climate that's already happening and is projected to exacerbate in the future."
We first met in 1988, when I wrote my first magazine cover story on what was then being called "the greenhouse effect" - a story spurred by Senate testimony by her boss at Goddard, James E. Hansen, in which he brought the issue to front pages and the evening news for the first time. I quoted Rosenzweig in describing her initial papers on the agricultural impacts of warming and the rise in heat-trapping carbon dioxide, which of course is also a key to photosynthesis.
Channeling skills and passions
In my decades on the climate and sustainability beat, the people I see who are most effective are those who, whether consciously or not, put skills to work on pathways driven by a singular passionate vision.
One example is Rita Colwell, a marine microbiologist focused on infectious disease, water, climate and development who has never known a disciplinary wall she didn't find a way to break. (She's also a passionated network builder.)
Another, absolutely, is Cynthia Rosenzweig.
You can best appreciate her spirit and roots by watching the conversation we had. Here's an excerpt on what led her to focus on farming, years before she moved from crop science at Rutgers to climate science at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies down the block from Columbia University:
"I fell in love with agriculture in Italy because my husband to be and I, when we were in our young twenties, moved to Tuscany to farm there. He had done an anthropology project with a family in the county region of Tuscany.... We rented one of those house brown houses with the red tile roofs. The first morning, a neighbor came with a spade, a special hoe, to teach us how to make our garden. That was the moment I fell in love with agriculture."
Crosstalk for climate and crop science progress
Rosenzweig's key insight came in a coffee break at a conference in Florida in 2008, she says. That's where she began working toward building a sustained project comparing crop models around the world, with the goal of improving the quality and utility of outputs - with a particular focus on human-driven climate change.
In 2010, she and others founded the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP) - a worldwide network focus on improving the performance of agricultural and food systems in the face of global warming.
The key word there is improvement - a term acknowledging the profound challenge of, and value in, spurring collaboration, comparison and crosstalk among an array of modeling teams and outputs. The name also acknowledges there's no end point, as advances in science try to keep pace with the interlaced dimensions of the problem (consider how the pandemic jolted food systems, then add in the Russian invasion of Ukraine).
As she told me, "There's no finish line."
The resulting shift in the field was significant. Rosenzweig told the World Food Prize Foundation staff, “Before, each modeling group would be working separately. Now we’re all working together jointly so that we can nail uncertainties, understand the processes, improve the models and thus make better projections so we can develop adaptation strategies for all different regions of the world.”
The connection to farmers
Countries in regions facing the the biggest risks - both from climate extremes and societal factors like poverty or reliance on rain-fed farming - can now use an emerging AgMIP toolkit to assess options. Check out the AgMIP Impacts Explorer to see how this works:
In our interview, another of Rosenzweig's keystone attributes emerged as she described the dynamic when the AgMIP team has held sessions in some of the 20 participating countries:
"We would hold our project workshops in different countries - a lot in sub-Saharan Africa. And we would always plan a field trip and the modelers would be saying, no, no, no, we have to keep staying and we need to work in our computers. And I would say, no, we must go out to the field because in the end of the day it's out in the field it's actually all happening."
When we sat for the taping, I hadn't seen Rosenzweig face to face since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most face-to-face work, so in part our chat was a reunion.
When I moved to Columbia in 2019, we began collaborating on some projects, including exploring ways to use online and social media to advance impacts of the crop and climate modeling. Just this week, the AgMIP team was hosting an online conference on "integrating science, modeling and economics to help farmers, ranchers and foresters mitigate and adapt to the challenges of climate change." I'm planning on hosting a Sustain What session on the results.
I hope to keep helping to spread her insights and philosophy for a long time to come.
How Universities Can Support Interdisciplinary Careers for Climate and Sustainability Progress - our 2021 Sustain What conversation with the early-career scientists who wrote a provocative commentary pressing for universities to break barriers to work necessary to foster sustainable development.
Desperately seeking climate science translators: the humanitarian community urgently needs a new profession - by Markus Enenkel and Andrew Kruczkiewicz (published in April on PreventionWeb)
Here's the summary:
"A new professional profile is needed: climate science translators who specialize in the brokering, translation and tailoring of climate science data to humanitarian and development decision makers – especially in the context of anticipatory action."
Note they have an open-access paper going much deeper, published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS): "The humanitarian sector needs clear job profiles for climate science translators – more than ever during a pandemic."
I see a lot of resonance between Rosenzweig's career focus on bridging agriculture and climate science, practice and communities and this effort to normalize the role of those facilitating crosstalk in the humanitarian and disaster-risk sector.
None of this is new, as this paper from 2013 illustrates:
Fostering advances in interdisciplinary climate science - a 2013 commentary by four masters of scientific barrier breaking, Jeffrey Shaman, Susan Solomon, Rita R. Colwell, and Christopher B. Field (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Feb. 20, 2013)
Needless to say, this bridging capacity is something needed way beyond sustainability science. Whatever your career or field of study, I'm sure you've seen this in action - or the costs when it doesn't happen. Please get in touch in the comment thread or directly to offer examples!
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Tom Chapin, a musical friend from the Hudson Valley, co-wrote a song in 2000 with Scott Ainslie called "Common Ground" centered on outreach and engagement with strangers. It feels relevant here in the context of breaking barriers to engagement. He played it, strumming his magically resonant autoharp, on one of our Sunday Sanity webcasts during the early pandemic days. The opening line: "Come in the door is open. You are welcome here. Come in the door is open, leave out all doubt and fear… Feel the walls around us tremble. We will surely bring them down..."