University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


Scientists solve the climate crisis: Declare a state of emergency at the university

Climate crisis — The world is falling apart at the seams. We have the SDGs, and we have the Paris agreement. But we have the university too. Professor Katherine Richardson and associate professor Mette Haubjerg Nicolaisen share some radical thoughts with us about ourselves and the climate of the future.

Professor of Oceanography Katherine Richardson

All the political work has been done. Now universities should declare a state of emergency

The universities should declare a state of climate and ecological emergency, because we have an obligation to educate students on how to act in a society that needs to be transformed. Students need to know how their discipline can deal with the current crises.

The politicians got the Paris agreement into place, and they signed the Sustainable Development Goals.

The political work has been done. We know where society needs to go. Now it is up to the scientists to find the means to achieve these goals.

What are we supposed to do!?

We asked researchers for their wildest ideas on how to solve the climate crisis. This is part of a series.

We need to ensure that everyone learns about sustainability, regardless of what they study. At the Stockholm School of Economics, all students have to do a year course on the challenges of sustainability. We are nowhere close to that at the University of Copenhagen, I must say.

I am the head of the Sustainability Science Centre, which drives interdisciplinary collaboration within sustainability throughout the University of Copenhagen. The Faculty of Social Sciences has their own centre for sustainability, and the best thing would be if all the other faculties followed suit.

We do, fortunately, see sensible changes. I feel that there are constructive and positive forces at the university. It is just not taking place fast enough when we know that we need to keep temperature increases at between 1.5 and 2 degrees, as stated in the Paris agreement. If we pass this threshold, we run the risk of passing a number of tipping points in the Earth system: The Greenland ice cap and the Arctic sea ice may disappear. And we risk having the alpine glaciers melt and the coral reefs die out.

Technology cannot ensure biodiversity

We have come to the point where the University of Copenhagen can really fulfil its purpose. So far, we have focused on the universities supporting the climate struggle through technological development. But we will never be able to compete here with the Technical University of Denmark and Aalborg University. We do have, on the other hand, the humanities, the social sciences, and many more things to offer.

The great expectation that technology will solve all our problems is completely wrong in my opinion.

The challenge is, basically, that we humans get richer by using the Earth’s resources. But these resources are soon to be exhausted.

The great expectation that technology will solve all our problems is completely wrong in my opinion.

Katherine Richardson


We know that there will be no new resources. That is why we are completely limited in our potential to achieve growth, and technology cannot remove this limitation. Technology cannot produce biodiversity, energy, phosphorus, etc.

We need a fundamental change in culture and values. We need to recognise that the Earth is our real resource, and that we should treat it like that.

The University of Copenhagen has great potential, but right now we are all trained in individual sectors and disciplines. We recruit and reward researchers for being experts in the details, but we need to think more systemically and look at how the details fit into a larger system. We need to look at how interactions between human activities affect the climate and our use of resources.

It is certainly not about telling people what to do research in. But it is a fact that things need to be changed, and researchers should ask themselves how they can help to do this.

We need research to understand how we can get people to change their attitudes and behaviour.

The levers you need to pull in Denmark for a sustainable transition are not the same ones as those you have to pull in Nigeria, India or anywhere else. That is why we also need the humanities to help us understand what to do in different societies. We need to do research on this, and about new types of collaboration and management.

Associate Professor in Microbiology Mette Haubjerg Nicolaisen

We need to cultivate super-crops with bacteria

We know from the laboratory that bacteria can improve the nutritional intake of plants and repel pathogenic micro-organisms, so that the plants stay healthy. Bacteria can produce plant hormones and stimulate vegetation, and they can even increase yield.

Over the past 15 years, we have made huge gains in how we are able to analyse microorganisms. So many people today talk about their intestinal microbiome and how ‘healthy bowels make healthy people’. Plants function, in principle, in the same way. Plants also rely on microorganisms to live and thrive across different weather systems and climates.

Bacteria can colonize roots and protect them from drying out by stimulating drought responses in the plants. They can protect them from drowning or being killed off by fungal diseases when there are periods of large amounts of precipitation. If the weather changes very suddenly – which it does already – bacteria can make sure that the fields don’t die out.

The vision is that the farmer can go out in his field and pull out his DNA sequencing machine

Mette Haubjerg Nicolaisen

The vision is that the farmer can go out in his field, pull out his DNA sequencing machine, instead of measuring the plants’ microbiome, and then simply add the bacteria that the plants need.

If everything goes well, we expect that we can start to use it on soils in six years time. Then it is up to industry to get it out to the farmers. The best-case scenario is that we can predict how a given soil microbiome will react in relation to a given plant. That you can, say, add a mix of microorganisms that both do the plants some good, and keep out the bad stuff at the same time.

There is a great deal of literature on this, both at the US and the European level. But this is often based on experiments in controlled systems that have no direct applications.

This requires data at a global level, and efforts and models are therefore important which everybody can contribute to. We succeeded in doing this in the study of the human intestinal microbiome, where researchers managed to gather faeces from throughout the world.

Maybe it will cost a billion if you have to get the project to work globally. Then you would have to make models that can predict the environment precisely enough to have a proper effect.

Translation: Mike Young