Dr Bob Scholes
It was in 1986, to be exact, that CSIR Fellow and systems ecologist, Dr Bob Scholes, happened to ‘bump’ into a discussion on climate change in a scientific journal while doing a post-doctorate in the United States of America.
Two years later, in 1988, the head of NASA’s climate research division, James Hansen, made the now famous declaration – “global warming is here”. That same year, the World Meteorological Organization founded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and within three years, thousands of scientists from all over the world collaborated to publish the first assessment report on the state of the climate.
Assessment Reports produced by the IPCC are the largest and most comprehensive summaries of the state of the climate as we know it, and are undertaken by thousands of scientists, editors and reviewers from across the planet.
Back to 2012, Bob is lead author for one of the chapters for the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report and a major player on the global climate change scene.
Discovering climate change science
“Back in the 1980s, climate change was more-or-less unknown. Even though I have just completed a PhD, I was never exposed to this debate. As a matter of fact, no one was,” he explains from his office in Pretoria.
As a young scientist, he found the topic fascinating: “While the actual history of climate change dates back to 1850, it was ‘a little footnote in history’ in the 1960s and it really only started gaining strength in the 1970s. In 1986, a handful of scientists were saying that there really is a globally important issue here,” he remembers, “and it is one of those papers that I read.”
It was shortly after he joined the CSIR in 1992 that the young researcher was sent off to represent South Africa at the historical climate change negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland.
And since then, there has been no looking back.
From global biodiversity policy to food security
With a PhD on tree-grass interactions in savannas from the University of the Witwatersrand, Bob’s current research interests range far beyond that.
“My job description is essentially environmental problem-solving. My focus is on the inter-connectedness between organisms and their environment. To be more precise, I study the effects of human activities on the global ecosystem, and in particular on woodlands and savannas in Africa.”
Today, his research involvement ranges from global policy on biodiversity and carbon, to local scale questions of ecosystem function and conservation: “My work covers a variety of overlapping turfs in international guidance of global change research broadly. I like the idea of not being a specialist,” he says. “The field of ecology is about how things fit together, and typically I’ve chosen that which would allow me to explore this.”
According to Bob, it is a comparative advantage that the South African science education system actually does not favour specialisation. “In South Africa, the research community is so small that you just don’t have the luxury of specialisation. As a result, researchers typically pick up a huge breadth of experience, but not necessarily a lot of depth.
“I know a little bit about a lot of stuff,” he quips, “but I know enough to put it together.”
To his colleagues, he is valued for his clear-thinking and novel contribution to any debate. He is also known for his genuine fascination with the ecology and function of South African ecosystems, which he shares with his students and colleagues. He enthusiastically encourages younger scientists, creating opportunities for them to develop and improve their scientific networks.
Challenge of understanding the dynamics of complex systems
“The fundamental theory underpinning the dynamics of complex systems, which is what the world is, is only loosely in place,” he explains. “There are still lots of uncertainties and it may be that at a fundamental level that class of problems is unsolvable. In this situation, we have to attempt to understand what we ‘can know’ and what we ‘will never know’. The challenge is to steer a path in a situation where you only know some of the stuff for sure.”
He describes his job as working towards positioning the world at a place where we can step towards a new future. Regardless of many conservation efforts trying to do exactly that, the point is not to attempt to keep things as they are.
“This realisation was a big ‘a-ha’ moment in my career. We can’t keep it the same. We have to make a transition to a different future which can’t look anything like the present.”
But nobody can predict ahead of time when a window of opportunity, that will help make this happen, will open up. “The process of policy-making is a classic non-linear process,” he explains. “It occurs in leaps and bounds and often you can see the trigger for that change in something that the IPCC wrote.”
One example is a sentence in the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which calls for the avoidance of dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. This sentence caused a debate that went on for a decade and a half about what ‘dangerous’ meant. The debate only calmed down after some work in the Third Assessment Report eventually showed the presence of irreversible change thresholds in the climate system.
For Bob, the trick is to just maintain that steady flow of information and pressure. “When planets align,” he says, “then boom! Suddenly there are changes taking place, and nobody can figure out why they are happening.”
Hopefully, this process can take place again once the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report is complete.
CSIR Strategic Communication
Wiida Basson, email: WBasson@csir.co.za