'I can see where we are headed & it's bad': Professor Belinda Medlyn

‘I can see where we are headed & it’s bad’: Professor Belinda Medlyn

climate change
Since the beginning of her career, Professor Belinda Medlyn has published more than 100 research articles on the effects of global change on forests and is one of the world’s most-highly cited scientists. 

Last year, the Professor of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology at Western Sydney University was named the Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow, which provides her a platform to facilitate national discussions for supporting women in science manage alternative career structures.

She also aims to address the gender imbalance in science, strengthening quantitative skills and supporting female students to develop computing and data skills.

The recent devastating fires compelled her to speak up. She was one of 19 female scientists and Australian Research Council Laureates who signed an Open Letter last week to the Australian Government, calling on tougher carbon emission policies.

She took time out to speak to Women’s Agenda and help us understand the intersection between ecosystem productivity and climate change. She also discussed her concerns about the capacity for Australia’s forest to recover following the recent fires.

I began by asking Professor Medlyn why she felt it was important for her to add her name to the Open Letter. 

“The research that I do is all about forest and ecosystem as its affected by climate change,” she said. “The predictions we were making 20 years ago are starting to play out now. I can see where we are headed and we’re headed in a bad trajectory. I’m not sure the awareness is out there of the true reality of what’s happening to our forests.” 

In 2018, Professor Medlyn started The Dead Tree Project at the University of Western Sydney. The project is categorised as a Citizen Science Projects, inviting community members to contribute and participate in the project.

The project aims to collect observations from the public of dead or dying trees around Australia. “It sounds a bit grim,” the website statement claims, “But knowing where and when trees have died will help us to work out what the cause is, identify trees that are vulnerable, and take steps to protect them.” 

Professor Medlyn tells me the data they’ve so far collected demonstrates the nation’s ecology is heading towards a concerning pathway.

“There were so many different places where people were saying, this is my favourite piece of forest, they look sick and it’s very widespread.” 

“We’ve been watching  the impacts of drought on forests for years. Many people have been noticing drought and heat waves and the affects on trees. We couldn’t find records of the impact that past droughts have had on forest. People weren’t writing down what was happening to the forests.There was a real gap. There was no monitoring of our forests and their health. We wanted to engage the community so this project ensures we have the data and the observations on the issue.”

Professor Medlyn believes that the stories being circulated about trees are dying due only to the fires can be misleading. “Trees are dying because of drought,” she said. “We wanted to offer a bigger picture of what’s happening. Ecologists are aware of this. Drought has made the fires so intense. Everything was ready to burn. To recover from fires we need reserves of energy, which we don’t have now.” 

“Particularly after these summer fires, people have the idea that the forest will bounce back, that it will recover.  But the conditions we are facing is not just caused by the fires. It’s the drought and the heat that is causing all this ecology destruction. We have to stand up and take this seriously. What’s happening to the forest and the ecology is very concerning.” 

For Professor Medlyn, what is most problematic regarding the government’s response to the climate crisis is their reluctance to take this issue seriously. She believes the situation in Australia is so dangerous at the moment because of our venerability to climate. 

“Historically, we’ve always been at risk from weather events like droughts, fire, all the climate events,” she said. “We tell ourselves, Australia’s always had these events but we bounce back. We are resilient. Right now, however, we cannot afford for it to get worse.” 

“We know what drought does to our communities. People lose their homes, people lose their livelihoods, people lose their lives. We can’t afford for this to get worse. We’re already at risk, if the risk gets worse, the ecosystem might be beyond repair.” 

Medlyn is also frustrated by the the government’s low climate solution targets.

“The argument that Australia can’t do anything because we’re only 1.6% of emissions is wrong. Australia is a thought leader; we should be out there saying climate change is dangerous. We want the rest of the world to cut their emissions; we should be leading. People don’t like change, admitting there’s a problem, making big changes. It’s easier to be reassuring; everything will be fine. There’s a reluctance to take action. “

In the Open Letter, the Fellows claimed that “Much research has already been done to identify the policies and technologies that can move us to where we need to go.”

Medlyn’s research focuses on how plants, especially forests, respond to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide and climate change. She works at the interface between experiments and models with the aim of developing evidence-based models to explain how ecosystem productivity, water use and species composition will be affected by global change and improving ecosystem models. 

“Some solutions are land-based solutions like planting trees; the issue we’re facing is the capacity at is being undermined by climate change that’s coming up; if you’re planting; you need carbon storage. If it declines; it becomes hard for that solution to work.” 

“Emissions reduction and land use…the ability of land based solutions to act as climate mitigation is being undermined as time goes on. We need solutions that aren’t just about forests and agriculture. It must be about fossil fuels, and how our society works. We need alternative forms of energy production.” 

“Renewal energy- that’s a better direction than trying to plant more trees; and trying to get more carbon to the soil; we need to make other more serious changes to what we do.”

As last year’s Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow, Professor Medlyn has actively worked to address the gender balance in science and hopes her position will inspire female students to pursue science skills. I asked her why she felt it was important to have more women experts in STEM take seats at the table when it comes to decisions around climate solutions for our country.

“Women lead and shape and contribute the efforts of the community. It’s all about diversity. The strength of any statement or approach is having a diversity of ideas and potential solutions so if you have women’s voices in there; you are getting much broader or deeper set of ideas; excluding anyone, your excluding potential perceptive.” 

“In Australia we have a better culture. There are a lot of strong female voices who are speaking out about climate change like Sarah Kirkpatrick and Lesley Hughes. Lesley Hughes is a trailblazer who has been speaking up for decades. Just having her there; they can see that women are taken seriously.”

Finally, I asked Professor Medlyn how we can encourage more women in STEM to leap up and voice their expert knowledge on this issue of climate change.

“People need to check their unconscious bias; and if they’re making a list; checking that they haven’t overlooked women; stopping and looking at; have I missed voices that I’ve overlooked here? Diversity of interesting voices that are worth talking to – making sure women are included; the more, the more women are likely to speak up.”

It’s a domino effect. And we’re proud to keep the motion churning at Women’s Agenda. 

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