Young UCT researchers working with top climate scientists

22 March 2019 | Story Katinka Lund Waagsaether with Brendon Bosworth. Photo Lerato Mokhethi. Read time 8 min.
Two young UCT scientists, Dr Izidine Pinto (left) and Dr Rondrotiana Barimalala, are committed to immersing themselves in the latest climate science as they tackle the task of co-authoring the next major climate report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Two young UCT scientists, Dr Izidine Pinto (left) and Dr Rondrotiana Barimalala, are committed to immersing themselves in the latest climate science as they tackle the task of co-authoring the next major climate report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Two young UCT scientists are among the eight UCT-based authors of the next major assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since attending the inaugural author meeting in China in June 2018, Dr Rondrotiana Barimalala and Dr Izidine Pinto have been delving deep into the literature, assessing the state of the science on climate change.

Over the next four years, the two young UCT scientists will be committed to immersing themselves in the latest climate science as they tackle the task of co-authoring the next major climate report for the IPCC, due for release in 2021.

For Barimalala, a UCT postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Oceanography, seeing her name among the list of lead authors ahead of their first meeting was overwhelming. “My first thought was, ‘Wow, those are really the experts in the field,’” she says.

Being an author on an IPCC report is an exceptional opportunity for a young scientist like Barimalala to be exposed to the latest climate science and thinking around one of the most pressing issues of our time.

“It is trial by fire, but it is a growth opportunity that is unparalleled,” explains long-standing IPCC author Professor Bruce Hewitson based at UCT’s Climate System Analysis Group. “I know nothing else that can grow a scientist like diving into the IPCC.”

The IPCC is a United Nations body that provides regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation. The assessment report that Barimalala and Pinto are working on is the sixth of its kind and its release is timed ahead of the first global stocktake, scheduled for 2022.

 

“I know nothing else that can grow a scientist like diving into the IPCC.”

 

For the stocktake, the nearly 200 countries signatory to the Paris Agreement – the global accord that aims to limit global warming to between 1.5 and 2 °C in this century – will assess what they have achieved and what they must still do to honour their pledges to cut emissions. The assessment report will highlight the latest science and hopefully further push governments to act. 

Pinto, also a UCT postdoctoral fellow and a first-time IPCC lead author, is based with the Climate System Analysis Group. Both he and Barimalala are part of the IPCC Working Group on the physical science basis of climate systems and climate change. This means they are working on aspects related to understanding how the climate system works and how it is changing in response to human activity.

Pinto sees this opportunity as a chance to contribute to science with the perspective of an African scientist, broadening the world-views and lenses through which climate science is unpacked, assessed and communicated on the global stage.

 

“You are challenged: you have to engage or fall away. But you are dealing intellectually with the cutting edge of the conceptualisation of the science.”

 

Intellectual authority on the line

For IPCC report authors, the workload is intense. Each lead author is assigned a chapter of the report to work on along with 10 to 20 other lead authors – scientists from across the globe. Within each chapter, the authors work under two coordinating lead authors. The UCT-based authors on the sixth assessment report – which in addition to Pinto and Barimalala are Associate Professor Gina Ziervogel, Dr Chris Lennard, Hewitson, Dr Brett Cohen, Professor Mark New and Professor Harald Winkler – are spread out across chapters. The scientists are allocated sections related to their area of expertise and must assess the relevant literature.

This is not the same as doing a literature review, emphasises Pinto. Beyond delving into the literature and reading deeply and widely, part of the task is to assess whether the research is rigorous and defensible. It feels like you are acting as a “gatekeeper of the science,” he says.

A voluntary but rewarding commitment

Being an IPCC author is voluntary: none of your time commitments are paid for. While all travelling costs for the four, week-long author meetings are covered, authors have to carve out time to do the remainder of the work within their existing academic and personal commitments. 

The task is time-consuming. The number of papers they read during the authorship cycle amounts to several dozen, at least. Then there is the time spent writing. Doing this on top of one’s usual work commitments and within tight timeframes can be stressful. 

For UCT, giving these young authors the space to excel at their IPCC responsibilities pays off. As IPCC authors, they will read more widely than usual and stay current.

Hewitson emphasises that there is also a huge stimulation factor that feeds back to the authors’ institutions. Those engaged in the IPCC are often inspired by the process and end up taking on new challenges. This means publication records benefit too, if not in number, then in the depth of what is published.

There’s no doubt that Barimalala and Pinto are in for an enriching, challenging and rewarding experience. Being an IPCC lead author “is like a graduate class at a platinum level,” says Hewitson.

“You are challenged: you have to engage or fall away. But you are dealing intellectually with the cutting edge of the conceptualisation of the science.”


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