Last year hundreds of people met at the climate change conference in glasgow to discuss solutions for the ongoing climate crisis-but what is the true impact of this conference? And how do scientists in life sciences deal with the threat to the basis of their research? A conversation with Marta Rodríguez-Martínez, sustainability officer at EMBL in Heidelberg.
Marta Rodríguez-Martínez is a sustainability officer and a scientific officer at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Heidelberg. Together with Brendan Rouse, environmental officer, her work is centered around the three pillars of EMBL’s sustainability strategy: to conduct environmentally responsible research, to conduct environmentally relevant research and to promote sustainable science. In her role, she was able to visit the 26. Conference of the Parties (COP26) at the 8. and 9. november last year in Glasgow. In an interview for the ruprecht she describes her impression of the conference and what part life sciences can play in the solutions to the ongoing climate crisis:
Could you please describe your position as Sustainability Officer at the EMBL?
I am actually a sustainability officer but also a scientific officer. I work in the lab of system genetics and precission health of Lars Steinmetz and in parallel for the environmental office. Brendan Rouse, who is a full-time enviromental officer, and I aim to make EMBL more sustainable. That covers three areas. One is conducting research in a sustainable way. The second is to do environmentalyl relevant research. And the third is to promote sustainable science. Since EMBL is the only intergovernental life sciene organisation in europe it always has this role of leading by example. Mine and Brendan’s job is to make sure we fulfil this strategy’s goals. This goes e.g. from energy consumption to waste production and recycling. And of course traveling, to and from work as well as traveling for work. All this covered in the first pillar. The second one is doing environmental relevant research. This one is also the reason why we went to the COP26. And obviously the third pillar goes a bit around everything else.
How comes you were able to attend the COP26?
EMBL asked for the observer status at the COP and was granted it. Not many people or acteurs have this chance. In total, we were eleven people in EMB delegation but only nine of us could attend per day, so we distributed ourselves around the individual days. Of course we concentrated on the science related days. I was selected as part of the team since I am part of the sustainability team and have additionally the inside view of a scientist.
Briefly, what is the content of the white paper “Harnessing molecular biology to accelerate the Green Recovery” that was published before the COP26?
Our main point at the COP was to figure out what the status of life sciences and specifically of molecular biology in the conversation about the solutions of climate change is. In preparation we wrote this white paper. Before, we had a workshop hosted by EMBL with experts of many different organisations on topics of molecular biology that are related to climate change and global warming, e.g. ecosystems and biodiversity. During the discussions we collected ideas of what molecular biology could do to prevent or predict the effects of climate change. In the white paper, these ideas are put together. We tried to summarise what molecular biology can do to help tackling this crisis.
Specifically we refer to four areas of the planetary boundaries, which basically set the limits of safe operating space for humanity. We analyzed on which boundaries molecular biology could have the most impact on and describe these four in the white paper with specific solutiuons, which are global warming, the loss of biodiversity, biogeochemical flows, and man-made pollutants.
And on the other hand, with the white paper we try to make sure people, policy makers and other stakeholders, understand that there is a lot to be done to put these possible solutions in actions, e.g. more investment, collaborations and better communication.
What was the atmosphere at the conference? Was it very formal or more casual? Is it different to a scientific conference?
As you say as a scientist we are used to being at a conference but usually, there is much more action. However, I have never been to a COP that was not in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe that made it much more difficult for interaction to happen because normally you have many more attendantants, for example at the negotiaions. Now you had one hundred seats and that was it. That was a bit diappointing but probably not possible otherwise during a pandemic.
Everyone was very open to talk, so there were some discussions in the corridors which was very nice. However, I was a bit suprised that at the negotiations, there was not a single intervention from the people sitting in the room. I only attended two days, so maybe on the big days more discussions were going on. Nevertheless, I was expecting it to be a bit more dynamic.
At the COP there was also this clash: there is a so called blue zone in which all these events take place, all the negotiations and the panels from official guests of the United Nations. And then you have the green zone, which is public. So there is really a big contrast between what is going on in the blue zone, with everything being very organised and the green zone with all the public events and people with al lot of passion. Apart from the negotiations, in the blue zone, you have different pavilions from countries or organisations. There you can meet people and chat about their individual way to fight climate crisis. This was more dynamic with debates and action. At the negotiations everything seemed more staged.
Who was the most interesting person you met? Whom do you remember most vividly?
There are two persons that come to my mind.
The one I remember most vividly is a person I have already met before. Her name is Marina Belén Romanello and she is one of research director at the Lancet Countdown. When I had met her first she was a postdoc at the Francis Crick Institute in London, where i was doing my postdoc as well. The Lancet Countdown is a report about different indicators of the relationship between climate change and health. And she is now one of the coordinators of it.
The other person was a very young climate activist, Bradlie Luisa Ana Martz-Sigala. She is part of the climate reality project of Al Gore, which I am also part of. She is one of the most dynamic persons I have ever seen. She is on her twenties and works on climate change on many different ways and in fact she was the person to give me some of the best ideas on how EMBL increase their impact at the COP. I think she is a very impressive character.
This really gives me a lot of hope because she is so young but she is really working for it with all she has, which is a lot. And I think that is the so much needed energy, we really need that now. Seeing her pushing so hard, is really encouraging.
What was your impression about the general view on your work? Did you feel that people were really interested in what you are doing and why you were there?
Most of the people we talked to were actually surprised to realize that there is no such thing as a big force of life sciences and molecular sciences in particular against climate change in the UNFCCC agenda. For me it was an obvious thing but thats maybe because I am a molecular biologists. For example, molecular biology can be used to make ecosytstems more resilient.
In my case all interactions were positive. I guess everybody that is there, unless they have a very strict agenda, is there for the same reason: to gain knowledge and talk to people, to learn what to do and how to collaborate.
How much contact did you have to people from the green zone, so to activists and citizens?
Not much. The areas are physically separated. I did go to a couple of events in the green zone during my free time. There is always a lot of protesst outside and I talked to some people there as well. For example I met a musician, that explained to me that he is there and playing music because that is his expertise. He is doing what he can and fighting climate crisis is what he is playing for. I think it was very nice to see that everybody can contribute to create awareness and to bring this nice feeling of fighting climate change together no matter the background. The feeling I got was that all the passion was found in the green zone and that there is not enough access of the public to the negotiations because then there would really be a debate and not a staged presentation.
What was your feeling after the conference? Were you excited and happy or diappointed or even disillusionised? Was it really only “blabla” or did you feel like something is really moving?
After all that has happened, after all we know I dont think many people would go to this COP really believing that it would be a total game changer and that all of a sudden there was a massive aggreement that could be actually enforced. So in that part, of course I am disappointed but I did not expect anything different-which is maybe even worse.
On the other hand I always try to be positive and to think that before, there was nothing. So this is at least a step.
The problem I see is that as long that there is no way of enforcing this agreements, they are just a promise. And I am not really one that trusts promises of politicians when it comes to climate change. So yes, I am disappointed. What really made me feel better is to see the public, to see how much people are more and more engaging. Not only the young movement but you also have many other sectors that are really pushing for a change to happen, including scientists. I would say
I was disappointed from the politics but i am very happy to see how much effort and passion is coming form many different acteurs.
How, in general, do you see the role of scientists regarding climate crisis? Is it just a observer perspective or is there a responsibility beyond creating your own sustainable workflows and reducing the individual impact?
I think we have responsibility on three levels.
One is as a citizen, as a human. We live on this planet, this is our home so we should do as much as we can to fight climate change.
Second, as a scientist no matter which field or expertise, you should make sure to conduct your research in the most enviromental friendly way possible. As a biologists, it just does not make sense to conduct research in a way that damages our enviroment. It is one of those contradictions I just dont get. So of course you should start with your own research.
Then I would say that the third level is to try to do research that is enviromentally relevant. That’s also what is said in the white paper.
For all this you need funding and collaboration, the framework to do this, this is obviously not doable alone. But again, we need to push for these changes to happen and its the same as a scientists: for example you should use less plastic. But if the suplliers do not give you other options its difficult to change. However we should not underestimate the power we have as users because if you stop buying it, they will stop producing. And its the same for research, there will be a call for funding and a change for how we conduct research.
Additionally, I think also there is a forth level. When there are things proven by science, like climate change or that the earth is not flat, as a scientist you should really try to explain them. We all have different expertises and ours is science. We are used to read science and we are used to understand science, so it makes sense that we actually make an effort to communicatre this to all people around. Spread the word and lead by example. As a scientist, we do not swear any oath when receiving our degree but if we would it should be that we should lead by example.
From a scientific point of view: is there still hope?
Yes As I’ve heard somewhere before „We are the first generation that has the tools to stop climate change. But we are also the last generation that has the time to do it.“ I do still believe that this is true and I do still believe that the power of the new generation is definitely able to drive this change. We just have to keep working on it. And never lose hope. Its not easy but that’s what we got.