Philip Thornton, CCAFS-ILRI scientist named among climate science's top 100

Photo: S. Mann (CCAFS)
Cattle coming in from the fields in the evening in Lhate Village, Chokwe, Mozambique

This post was originally published on the ILRI website.

Philip Thornton is a principal scientist and CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) flagship leader at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). He was recently named the 39th ‘hottest’ climate change scientist by Reuters. Numerous other CGIAR or ex-CGIAR scientists are on the list, including Mario Herrero, a former team leader at ILRI, who clocked in at number 10. It was a lucky day for Thornton; on the same day he found out about the list, Thornton was awarded an honorary professorship in the School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh.

Thornton has been with ILRI off-and-on since 1996, and has developed a speciality in analysing how climate change may affect smallholder farmers and livestock keepers in the developing world. ILRI editor David Aronson spoke to him by phone on 27 April 2021. This interview has been compressed and lightly edited for flow and clarity.

David Aronson (left) and Philip Thornton (right)

David: So now, tell me about this hottest list. You're 39th, if I'm not mistaken, on the top 100? How did you find out about it?

Philip: I was alerted to this by Mario Herrero who used to work at ILRI, and he's actually number 10 on the list. And he and I have worked, and still do, a lot together. But until I started hearing about it through the grapevine, I didn't know about this. 

David: Do you find yourself admitted to exclusive nightclubs now?

Philip: No. [Chuckles.] We’re still under lockdown here in Scotland [where Thornton is now based]. I mean, obviously, it was very nice to see that as well as surprising. I had a quick look at the methodology, and it seems like they’re looking at citations and the reach of the research that's been done. And a lot of the people you’d expect to be on the list are, a lot of famous people, names to conjure with. So it’s nice to be on the list and even nicer to know that someone's reading the stuff we produce.  There were also a number of colleagues who we’ve worked with over the years, such as Petr Havlik from IIASA [International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis], in Vienna, and Detlef Van Vuuren and David Lobell at Stanford. 

David: First a biographical question:  How did you come to this field? 

Philip: Okay, well, my training was in degrees in agricultural systems from Reading University in the UK. And then I did a PhD in farm management in, what was the University of New Zealand in Canterbury, Lincoln College. And after that, I actually did a three-year post-doc in the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia. Then I was out of the ILRI system for a little while but still working on my niche, which is the interface between biophysical systems and socio-economic systems. And then I rejoined the CGIAR proper in 1996, based at ILRI. And I was there for six years and was leading a small team focused on systems analysis and impact assessment-- 

David: So just very quickly: Explain to me, as if I'm your intelligent 14-year old niece, what systems analysis is? 

Philip: In brief, it's an attempt to look at a problem or a thing that’s made up of interconnected parts. And the idea is that if you can understand how the important pieces fit together and work together, that means you understand enough, possibly, to actually make interventions or adjustments that can have a positive impact. So a smallholder farming system is a great example. And smallholder systems are very complex because most smallholders have their whole mixture of crops, and they grow them in quite complicated ways. They've often got a few livestock running around. Many have off-farm income as well.

So part of the job is understanding enough about what's happening, biophysically, in terms of generating food and crops and livestock products that can be sold for income, for the household’s benefit. And the other part is understanding the sort of the socio-economic context within which the household is operating. What kind of resources they have, what kind of markets do they have access to, are there cultural traditions that are having an impact on the kinds of things that the household is doing, and so on. Then asking the critical question of what happens if you have a shock or some sort of a long-term issue like climate change, then how can that household best adapt to the changes in the future? 

David: Excellent, that’s very lucid. I want to circle back to that question of smallholder complexity, of what in a different context, I learned to call ‘peasant intellectuals.’ But for now, let’s get back to your biography. 

Philip: I left ILRI in 2002, and came back to the UK. For a few years, I worked as a consultant, for ILRI and others, then in 2009 CCAFS started. I helped to write the original design document for CCAFS. And I've been with CCAFS ever since, although they are drawing to a close at the end of this year.

David: So was there a Eureka moment for you, a moment where you were reading something in a journal or paper, and suddenly realized you needed to devote yourself to climate change issues?

Philip: In fact, the climate change work sort of happened by accident, really. Quite early on, while I was still at ILRI, I had a colleague who was also interested in that, and we did some modeling runs around what might some of the impacts might be on crop production. And that was in 2000 or 2001, relatively early on. It was a lucky start, and since then my focus is much more around adaptation than mitigation. I start from the premise that whatever happens to greenhouse gas emissions over the coming years, we’re still going to see increasing temperatures, increasing frequency of extreme events, and so on and so forth, and so then the question is, what should we be doing?

David: So you start, in effect, by acknowledging the reality that some amount of climate change is already locked into the system?

Philip: Right. And so whatever happens, farmers still have to be able to adapt and so our job is to figure out how, and to help farmers determine what are the things, actions, interventions, they need to make for the coming changes.  And what are the enablers that can help them adopt some of these interventions? What new policies, or new financing mechanisms, social safety nets, crop and livestock insurance programs would be helpful? 

David: Very interesting. One of the things I'm frustrated by, as I read some of the burgeoning body of journalism on climate change, is that there's obviously a huge amount of attention being paid to climate change now. But very little of it is devoted to small-scale farmers in the developing world. Nearly all of it is on the death of species, rising seas, ecological catastrophes, and so on. Is that your impression as well? 

Philip: Yes, very much so. It’s one of the reasons that I've been almost driven to work in this kind of area. I think it's fundamentally unjust that a lot of the people who are already at the bottom of the heap, so to speak, and who have had relatively little to do with the basic causes of the problem are expected to pick up the mess, as it were, and make do and to cope. And it seems to me that we need to do as much as we can to help people adapt. 

David: And yet these people tend to get ignored in the public discourse about this. 

Philip: So for me, I think we have a moral duty to work with the poorest of the poor or the highly vulnerable people, to make sure that they're not just left behind. 

David: The overall news about progress on global emissions has not been especially positive, despite decades of work. Have you come to feel increasingly alarmed about the situation? 

Philip: That's a good question. It depends on the sort of mood I wake up with in the morning. But I would say, over the last 18 months—and perhaps the COVID situation had something to do with this—that we’re possibly coming close to a tipping point in the global discourse about the need to get ourselves sorted out and the urgency that's needed. At any rate, on some days I think I can see hopeful signs. On others, I think no, we're still falling way behind. 

But if you look at the amount of money globally that was mobilized within a few months of the COVID crisis hitting, it was in the trillions. And if they can do that for COVID, if governments can mobilize huge amounts of resources to deal with a problem, then why can't the same be done for climate adaptation and mitigation? 

David: Let’s say things don’t go especially well. What would a bad case—not the worst of cases, but a bad case—look like in 2050 or so, specifically for small-scale producers in the developing world? I mean, what happens to them if we don't take appropriate measures? 

Philip: I think what the climate science tells us unless massive steps are taken very soon, we'll still be looking at something like another one and a half to two degrees of global warming, which can have actually huge impacts on rainfall patterns or rainfall amounts in different places. And even by 2050, it's going to make a substantial difference to crops and crop yields. There’s already some evidence that climate change has basically set back some of the gains that have been made through agricultural development over the last 20 or 30 years. And that's going to be even more marked, over the next 20 or 30 years unless action is taken. 

And for smallholder farmers, it's not just a decrease in the amount of grain that they are able to eat or sell. It’s also the fact that the crop residue amounts they use to feed livestock will also be affected. And there's recent evidence that suggests that increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere can also change the nutrient density of plants, of different crops, which means that for like the same weight of grain you’ll have less nutrition and fewer micronutrients. 

And then for livestock, one of the big looming issues is heat stress. There's been some recent work on heat stress for humans, and not only for smallholder farmers who are actually outside working in the heat in the fields, but also for some of the livestock, which may be at considerable risk of extreme heat stress even by 2050. I’m doing some work on that, at the moment. And even in smallholder dairy farms in parts of East Africa, where they keep two or three dairy cows in a shed or in a barn to cool the animals down, that may not be enough to alleviate heat stress though. Because that heat stress can have a huge impact on the quantity of milk produced.

Some solutions could be relatively simple: Like start using fans in the barns to keep the air circulating just so that the animals aren't stressed too much. But a lot of them are complex. With changing rainfall patterns, there could be less rainfall for the crops or changes in the amount of surface water that cattle need for drinking and so on. So even by 2050, which isn’t very far away, we could be seeing substantial changes in the way that the smallholders are actually doing their farming. Already, if you talk to any farmer in East Africa, they'll tell you, 'Oh, I can't farm in the same way that my father used to.'

David: Okay. Let me play devil's advocate here, just for a second, and ask you this. Because you spoke earlier about the complexity of smallholder systems, the capacity of local farmers to adapt, adjust to changing situations. And so, to play devil's advocate, isn't it possible that humans are so adaptable, that we are so clever that we will find a way to get around this, to survive and perhaps even flourish amid climate change? That it won't be the disaster for us that it will be for species that are unable to understand what is happening to them and to adapt accordingly? 

Philip: It’s a reasonable question, but my response to that would be that even if you are a real technological optimist—and there are a lot of things in the pipeline that you could imagine having an impact on climate change—but even so, no, we are talking about highly vulnerable people, people who don't have many options in terms of economic activity. They have very few assets. They have very little to fall back on. And these people who are often pretty near the edge are often the first to fall when things go wrong.

David: Right.

Philip: So I think my argument would be that we don’t have a very good record on addressing these massive inequalities now—what makes us think we’ll be any better at it when things get worse? I mean, we know how to get rid of poverty, if we wanted to. We know how to get rid of hunger. We could do this. It’s not rocket science. But we're already in a system that just seems to reproduce these massive inequalities. If we can't get our house in order, at the moment, with the sort of economic activity that we have going on, then how are we going to deal with these massive inequalities in the future, when things become even more challenging? 

David: What do you, as a scientist, feel that we still don't know enough about when it comes to climate change, adaptation and agriculture? What are the two or three questions that you would most like answers to now? 

Philip: Well, maybe a couple of things come to mind. I still think there's a lack of robust information about what the costs and benefits are of particular adaptation interventions and options for smallholder farmers. So at the moment, it's very difficult for governments in low- and middle-income countries to prioritize, from among a huge list of possible interventions that could help their food systems become more resilient to climate change. And just knowing that governments everywhere have to make priorities between agriculture and food systems. I think we could, as scientists, do a much better job of helping to provide robust evidence that's rooted in science but also rooted in different countries’ contexts.

Philip: So to sort of help them to make some of these prioritizations. So that when accessing World Bank money or funding from the Green Climate Fund, for example, it can help governments to prioritize what's likely to provide the most bang for the buck, given that resources are always going to be limited. And there's a whole list of things that need to be fixed.

David: Right. 

Philip: Another thing I'd highlight, is having really good mechanisms that are cheap and effective, for tracking progress as regards adaptation. If you look at the mitigation community, they have MRVs, mechanisms for measuring and reporting greenhouse gas emissions. But on the adaptation side, there's much less, really, that everyone can agree about. And I think there's still quite a lot of work that needs to be done to come up with relatively simple indicators that people can use at different scales, different levels. The other thing I would mention is livestock, livestock research under climate change.  The general situation is that there's been far more work done on crops and cropping systems, for example. While livestock research in lower- and middle-income countries is the poor relation— 

David: Yes. I call us the red-haired stepchild of agricultural research. 

Philip: And to me, that's always been a little bit puzzling, because there's very few smallholder farming systems where livestock aren't a key component. This is very much a result of a bias from higher-income countries, where livestock is associated with a host of bads, ranging from methane emissions to biodiversity loss. But livestock are part of the production system and vital for the smallholder farmers’ livelihood system. And we really need to understand as much as possible about them so that we can, ultimately, ensure that these people will be able to flourish in the future. 

David: Philip, thank you very much and congratulations once again.