Remote based work has taken on a whole new level and flavour for me since June 2021. After much deliberation, I decided to complicate my life somewhat and visit my family in Portugal. In preparation for this journey, I bought myself a new laptop for remote based work and set out to continue with my PhD as if I were back in South Africa.
If I go back to the early stages of my PhD at the beginning of 2020, I had learnt that I would have the opportunity to work with members of National Geographic’s Okavango Wilderness Project and The Wild Bird Trust in the Angolan Highlands. Unfortunately, the global pandemic placed our fieldwork in Angola on hold. Planning international field trips for extended periods of time has become challenging in the current climate. This created an issue for me; I had limited data to work with and I was no closer to getting to my study site. I discovered Google Earth Engine (GEE) and was able to teach myself how to code during 2020.
GEE is a platform that allows me to collect open-access geospatial data from my study site, only needing my laptop and a stable internet connection. With this added advantage of remote data collection, and with guidance from my supervisors, we had agreed that my PhD would be completed by publication using GEE. I have since used GEE to map extensive peatland deposits, provide drought assessments since 1981, and will assess vegetation response to fire since 2000 in my study site.
Working remotely in Portugal has been a great experience thus far. I am surrounded by family members, which has meant that I have not felt alone in the entire time I have been here. Communication with my supervisors has continued as normal on online platforms and my work continues to progress.
Some difficulties have come in, I do miss my parents and brother. As always, family members that have not seen you in some time want to spoil you. Much to my delight, I have visited some beautiful places all over Portugal, but this does distract from my PhD work. This requires me to become more disciplined and set out stricter schedules.
Coming to Portugal has given me a sense of freedom. As much as it pains me to say, in South Africa I usually did not have the opportunity to come and go with absolute ease. I often find myself walking the streets late into the night, simply because I can. But I do miss SA, I miss watching live rugby, eating red meat, Robinsons spices and the bush.
During February 2021, the SAYAS blogging team were encouraged to create our “Day in the Life” video, sharing a day in our PhD lives in South Africa during lockdown Level 3. It was a great way to showcase what a typical workday is like for us all at home. For this month, we were encouraged to make version 2 of our “Day in the Life” video. This version showcases a typical day for me here in Portugal. The video showcases quaint street views, a short guide on how to deal with the results section of a publication and a live tasting of some delicious pastry.
Thousands of leading climate scientists from all over the world contribute to these assessment reports. These scientists volunteer their time to contribute to the IPCC reports by assessing the thousands of scientific papers published each year. As a result, they provide a comprehensive summary of what is known about the drivers of climate change, its impacts, and future risks, and how adaptation and mitigation can reduce those risks.
These assessment reports provide a culmination of years of peer reviewed research, making them particularly valuable to myself: a young scientist and an individual who is interested in the topic of climate change. The report of Working Group I of the IPCC Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, was virtually approved by 195 member governments of the IPCC, and was published on the 9th of August 2021, consisting of 13 chapters and 3949 pages. This report was compiled by the Working Group I, which addresses the most up-to-date physical understanding of the climate system and climate change. The report is the first part of the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report which will be completed in 2022, bringing together the latest advances in climate science, and combining multiple lines of evidence from palaeoclimate (past climates), observations, process understanding, and global and regional climate simulations projecting future climates.
Within this comprehensive report are several headline statements from the Summary for Policy Makers. After reading the summary, I had some strong reactions as a climate PhD student and decided to record and share them. The headline statements are found here. I provide my reaction to some of the statements I found particularly important.
Reaction: The use of the word unequivocal is important to me. A Google search of the word unequivocal, “leaving no doubt; unambiguous” demonstrates that there is “no doubt” that human influence has done the warming. Apart from Google, the word unequivocal has a special meaning in the IPCC language: it points directly to how the IPCC quantifies and engages with uncertainty, agreement, confidence, and evidence. One of the most progressive aspects of the IPCC is the use of language and how they quantify and engage with uncertainty. According to the glossary of terms within the report, uncertainty “is a state of incomplete knowledge that can result from a lack of information or from disagreement about what is known or even knowable”. Therefore, the use of unequivocal demonstrates clearly that there is no doubt of our responsibility to warming of global systems. My reaction to the statement is not one of surprise, more of satisfaction that the climate change denialists have no ground on which to stand. Secondary to this, the changes that humans have caused have occurred in all global spheres essential to life on earth, having a complete global influence.
Reaction: The word unprecedented has been used far too often in the recent past. This statement creates a lot of anxiety and uncertainty, leading me to ask many questions of the future. How will humanity cope with unprecedented changes in the climate system when we are currently facing an unprecedented global pandemic? Is the world prepared to face and be able to adapt to the scale of changes across the climate system? Which communities will be most or least affected, and in what areas?
Reaction: This statement makes me fearful towards those who may be affected by these extreme weather events. My fear extends not only for myself and my family, but to millions of people and communities as I imagine that these extreme events will be far reaching. It also points out that extreme events are not that extreme after all, but events that will likely occur more regularly in future. With respect to agriculture, I am worried that the food industry is too reliant weather systems that may become unreliable and unpredictable in future.
With respect to the natural world, the overall (direct) negative human influence on the natural world has been well documented. Issues of climate change caused by humans in the first place will again affect the natural world, just indirectly – through ecological droughts, heat extremes, floods and marine heatwaves as mentioned in the statement. As a solution, both direct and indirect human impacts on the natural world should be addressed.
Reaction: The cycle/system is self-perpetuating, i.e., increases in changes to the climate system will hinder the natural barriers against those changes, leading to further changes. The changes have the power to continue indefinitely. This statement is particularly important for my PhD. I am studying an extensive peatland deposit within the Angolan Highlands. Peatlands are an essential global carbon and methane sink. Within what is currently a self-perpetuating system, the ability of sinks to continue to function naturally becomes greatly diminished. In the case of peatlands, disturbance in the peatland functioning causes the ecosystem to become a greenhouse gas source, releasing both carbon and methane that has been locked away for millennia back into the atmosphere. Release of carbon and methane adds to the greenhouse effect, self-perpetuating the system.
Reaction: This statement highlights again the progression and use of language by the IPCC, including their practices when dealing with levels of uncertainty. In the case of “low-likelihood outcomes”, such phenomena are highly unlikely to occur. This statement also leaves me with a word of caution, it may be the case that some literature should be challenged and that extreme examples such as ice sheet collapses, or abrupt ocean circulation changes are very unlikely to occur, but not impossible. This extends to possible headline statements of imminent catastrophes, and the responsibility of scientists and media to include within their reports and research a level of certainty/ likelihood that this is that event will occur.
Reaction: This statement provides me with hope, the question remains if we can reach such targets quickly enough. The work of the IPCC and climate scientists (and the IPCC) is invaluable, and their work and is becoming more and more a part of the human psyche and behaviour. The changes that have already occurred with such rapid pace during the global pandemic show how quickly humans can adapt and develop new behaviour. The use of the words strong and rapid will hopefully drive decision makers to act in a decisive way. The further we are educated to the benefits of solving this problem, the greater our collective impact will be.
Closing reaction: Reading the summary for policy makers has created a sense of pragmatism within me, I am hopeful that solutions and progress can be made practically without the need for too many more theoretical considerations. The IPCC and the peer-reviewed scientific literature with which they base these statements, are trustworthy. Continued report writing and research needs to be met with effective and practical solutions to this global crisis. If indeed we do not adjust our behaviour, or at least the policies with which we are governed do not change/ develop, the good work of the IPCC and climate change science may be in vain.