Decoupling climate action and compromise is an immense challenge, even as the COP26 summit in Glasgow indicated a steadfast, albeit non-uniform, commitment to meaningful change. For Yvonne Buckley, a professor of zoology at Trinity who will take up the new role of Vice President for Biodiversity and Climate Action in January 2022, it is not only a necessary challenge, but an urgent one.
She is dedicated to developing “climate-first Trinity” structures with the primary goal of mainstreaming. Buckley – who was this week named the Irish Research Council’s researcher of the year – explains that “if my job is successful, the office of this new vice president position is successful, it will not be needed anymore, because climate and biodiversity action will be mainstreamed into all the operations, all the governance structures of College and it will colour our teaching and our research as well”.
Buckley readily acknowledges that Trinity’s position is at the cusp of transformative change. “What I’m seeing with different organisations that we deal with, and different people that are that I chat to in my daily life, is that people want to change – there’s a recognition now that our systems have to change, but we don’t quite have the pathways to transformation sorted out yet.” The prospect of developing those pathways across various areas – including teaching, research and capital project development – has driven Buckley to work on an interdisciplinary basis in her capacity as professor of zoology.
Along with Siobhán Clarke, a professor of computer science, Buckley developed the “Toolkit for a Smart & Sustainable World” elective. At the forefront of their minds was integrating the strengths of Clarke’s computer science and Buckley’s natural science backgrounds. Clarke explains that “from the very start, it was clear that she was very focused on a strong collaborative type of approach”.
If my job is successful, it will not be needed anymore, because climate and biodiversity action will be mainstreamed into all the operations in College
A research theme-based initiative to encourage multidisciplinary, cross-College collaborations had been devised in Trinity in 2011, when Clarke and Buckley first met. They noticed a significant overlap between their research themes – smart and sustainable cities and sustainable environment respectively – and decided to merge. Even at that stage, Clarke explains, their work was anchored by suitability and the Sustainable Development Goals. “Yvonne has a very strong perspective and understanding of all 17 of the SDGs”, Clarke says. “It’s a big job she has [but] I think she has the strength to bring people with her from a multidisciplinary perspective. She has been working in a multidisciplinary way from the research themes through to the electives since I’ve known her.”
In developing the elective, Buckley explains that “we were an interdisciplinary team in designing the module, and then designing it around having interdisciplinary teams of students come up with solutions to the climate crisis”. Clarke says that “we were anxious that different disciplines will be in the same teams so that they would bring their different perspectives to the projects related to coming up with ideas to address one or more of the SDGs”.
This collaboration, Buckley explains, reflects “this idea of being able to work across disciplinary boundaries with a wide range of diverse people to come up with the solutions that we need. That elective captured some of those ambitions and ideas”. This same approach is reflected throughout her research career and in her role as co-chair of the All-Island Climate and Biodiversity Research Network. Integrating a wide range of disciplines to develop large-scale research to improve public policy and galvanise societal capacity to address climate change are central objectives of the network.
Climate planning innovation, Buckley insists, requires contribution with breadth and a rigorous evidence base. Her research into how humans interface with the natural world and the management of that long-term interaction has stimulated and guided her early planning in the new role. Jane Stout, a professor of botany at Trinity, explains that Buckley “gets to the nub of issues quickly, communicates clearly, and gets stuff done, and inspires those around her to do the same”. She is determined not to recognise the conflict and compromises that define environmental decision making as inevitable.
People want to change – there’s a recognition now that our systems have to change, but we don’t quite have the pathways to transformation sorted out yet
Buckley hopes to avail of a research approach called structured decision-making in invigorating members of the Trinity community to contribute to meaningful planning. Defining clear objectives, she explains, is the first step. “Then you define different ways of achieving those objectives, and then you have to weigh up costs and benefits of each option. It’s an iterative process where the analyst keeps going back to the decision makers … and then you have a range of different potential decisions on the table.”
“Ultimately, it’s up to the people who make the decisions, the stakeholders, to decide amongst those options. But what is really important is that there is a transparent process for the making of those decisions.”
What is central to this process, Buckley explains, is that the shared rationale for achieving those objectives is transparent throughout the decision making. She hopes to incorporate the ongoing research and policymaking at Trinity, particularly sustainable transport and biodiversity policy research from Dr Brian Caulfield and Stout respectively, into a more comprehensive system that will carry an impact beyond the Trinity campus.
“I see that with the greater focus on biodiversity and climate action, that those efforts will be amplified outside Trinity, and I’m already seeing the benefits of that with more focus on what is Trinity doing, what are its people contributing, and I hope that in my position, I’ll be able to amplify their efforts so that so that they can reach more people … we need to leverage that visibility and to send out messages about how we you know how we want to influence the world.”
Trinity is a rather complex system, with many different actors and many different moving parts and many different processes. Working with that complexity will be really quite important
Taking an analytical approach, and involving her work as a quantitative ecologist, Buckley views Trinity as “a rather complex system, with many different actors and many different moving parts and many different processes. It’s similar in structure to a complex ecosystem … working with that complexity will be really quite important”. However, in involving various actors and stakeholders to provide input in the decision-making processes for climate policy transformation, Buckley stresses that urgent issues must be given priority. Achieving universal agreement among stakeholders is not a prerequisite for initiating change, but Buckley considers that, where possible, holistic co-operation will galvanise and sustain climate efforts at Trinity.
Buckley explains that “the time that it takes to negotiate complex decisions can be time well spent, in some cases, because a short-term decision might be a good idea, initially, but it may not be sustainable in the long term. So I think getting buy-in is an important part of making those decisions stick. And so by getting stakeholders to understand the situation, by having a structured and transparent decision-making process, that’s one way of involving people. They might not like they might not like the eventual decision, but they can see the rationale for why it was made”.
As Trinity grapples with ways to mitigate the effects of climate change – whether by pledging to divest from companies involved in fossil-fuel extraction or prioritising research into renewable energy – the core rationale for such efforts remains clear. The reduction of climate change to a scientific debate and the denial of evidence by the rafts of climate sceptics in online echo chambers have not hampered Trinity’s commitment. Moreover, Buckley believes that demystifying the assumptions about what needs to happen to achieve such change is an important step, one that necessarily involves stakeholders with conflicting demands.
“There’s no debate on where we’re going”, she says. “Now we need this decade of action, we need to actually figure out the ways of getting there. In some ways, it’s a great relief not to have to argue about the need for action anymore. Everybody is fairly committed to doing something about this. So now we’re in the phase of actually deciding what to do, how to do it, and how fast to do it. So that is, for me, quite liberating, and a new challenge that we can face.”
A short-term decision might be a good idea, initially, but it may not be sustainable in the long term
Developing a structured and target-specific climate and biodiversity action plan will involve decadal planning as well as urgent, detailed work. Dr Celia Holland, a professor of parasitology at Trinity, first met Buckley during the recruitment process for the chair of zoology in 2014. Holland is adamant that Buckley is prepared for the challenge. Buckley has contributed to the vibrancy of the zoology discipline at Trinity with a holistic perspective on generating commitment to addressing at the global scale how human activities affect plant and animal life. Holland says that she “is an immensely impressive individual with immense drive, very much a person who influences everybody in a way to aspire to do better”.
Bridging the gap between pledges that exist mostly on paper and concrete policies will be central to developing Buckley’s message of coordination. She will need to direct the groundswell of public movement in the wake of COP26 towards collaborative policies. Sharing this effort across the various disciplines, structures and the student population at Trinity will guide how she will galvanise – and sustain – this action.