Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences

UiB researcher attending UN summit

For many years, Dr Alicia Donnellan Barraclough has been working for sustainability, both in her personal time and through her career in ecology. In august, she received an e-mail from the UN.

Dr. Alicia Donnellan Barraclough sitter på kontoret sitt
Dr. Alicia Donnellan Barraclough will be attending the UN Youth Climate Summit on the 21st of September.
Randi Heggernes Eilertsen, UiB

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On the 21th of September, leading young voices from all over the world are gathering in New York to attent the UN Youth Climate Summit. One of these voices belong to Dr. Alicia Donnellan. Barraclough is a postdoctoral researcher on the University of Bergen’s UNESCO-Chair-team (led by Dr. Inger Måren). Barraclough is an ecologist, or natural scientist, and studies natural and social systems together, rather than as separate concepts. Even before she came to Bergen, she studied UNESCO Biosphere reserves both in New Zealand and Spain.

- The programme sees people as part of nature. It doesn’t try to separate the two or say that people are bad or shouldn’t be doing the things we’re doing, says Barraclough.

- It focuses on how we can learn to live in a more harmonious way with nature. It’s a way to create a platform for people who do have ideas about how to do better, and it’s about offering opportunities and capacity to develop those ideas. And those ideas are already there in many different sectors.

While she has hope for a sustainable world, she also believes we need to be serious about our situation, and the work needed to get there. She stresses the importance of doing research that matters in “real life”:

- We’re in the middle of a biodiversity crisis and a climate change crisis. It’s easy for your research to become only relevant to the academic world, so for us what is important is that we work closely with people who are out there, living the reality of, for example, climate change or a lack of food security.

From Norway to China to the USA

It has barely been three months since Dr. Barraclough started her new job at the University of Bergen, but she is already off to a flying start. She is currently in China at the MAB youth forum, where representatives from their respective Biosphere Reserves will be meeting to exchange experiences, as well as discussing the road ahead.

- The Forum is an incredible gathering of young people from across the world and all walks of life. It is highly participatory, allowing discussion highlighting the concerns of youth on the major challenges of our times, Barraclough tells.

Dr. Alicia Donnellan Barraclough i Kina, fremfor stor informasjonsoppslag om Nordhordaland biosfæreområde

Barraclough in China, representing the Nordhordaland Biosphere Reserve at the MAB Youth Forum


From there, she is travelling directly to New York, where she will be participating in the first ever UN Youth Climate Summit on the 21st of September. Over 7000 young people applied for the opportunity to participate at the summit, but Barraclough was not one of them. She received an unexpected e-mail with from the UN saying they had noticed her impressive commitment to addressing the climate crisis. Attached was an invitation to the summit.

- I was so happy. This is a very important aspect of my work. I have been involved in a lot of work around climate change outside of my job as well, and have done the “boring” part of organizing grassroots movement. It’s super exciting to see the work that, not just I, but all of us are doing, is being noticed, says Barraclough.

- I also found it cool that the invitation made it clear that a lot of those invited were activists. I thought this was nice, as “activists” in some cases tends to be something of a dirty word. It’s nice to see the people who have been working hard on the front lines get some recognition, she adds.

The value of youth

One way Barraclough has been active in the movement for sustainability, has been through encouraging teenagers to take an interest in the climate. When she lived in New Zealand, she would hold talks for high schools. The experience was a cause for hope:

- Talking to adolescents is really powerful, because the world is at this crazy brink, and it can feel like no one is doing anything, which for them doesn’t make any sense. I think you can be cynical, and you can be suspicious, but I think it’s also important to celebrate successes. To me, this movement is a big success.

This is year is the first time the UN has had a youth component to their climate summit. She attributes this development to the actions of the youths themselves.

- A big part of the push for this has been all the youth climate strikes that have been happening over the last year, and the push from younger generation for there to be action on climate change.The UN summit is meant to be very focused on action. It’s not meant to be about pondering over larger systemic questions, it’s about figuring out what to do right now.

Hope for the future

- I think there are incredible challenges ahead, and I don’t think everything is going to be okay, says Barraclough on her view of the future. 

- But I think we can work hard together to make it be as okay as possible. There are people working on all levels, from those producing food to those working with the economy, who are working on this issue and whom I have a lot of trust in.

In 2018 the ICPP released a special report which estimated the impact of 2 degrees of warming to be even more serious than previously feared. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/ While it may be easy to feel pessimistic about our ability to change the course in time, Barraclough believes we shouldn’t be:

- We need to change our story. We have this story about how humans are bad, and we destroy everything, and we’ll never be able to organise ourselves enough to prevent catastrophe… I think we need a better story than that. When I think about the future, I think about the incredible capacity of humans to care. If we didn’t, nothing of what I’m talking about would be happening. We are going to have to do a lot of work, and some of it is going to be painful, but there is genuine hope.