While the world's eyes are trained on the charismatic megafauna impacted by climate change, a less visible but equally significant player has been largely overlooked: microbes. These microscopic organisms, albeit unseen, wield a substantial impact on ecosystems and climate change. Yet, their significance has been underrepresented in climate change models and decision-making forums like the Conference of the Parties (COP28) currently underway in Dubai.
The Absence of Microbes in Climate Discourse
Microbes, unlike their more visible counterparts such as polar bears and marine corals, have been left out of climate models. This exclusion is partly due to the traditional dominance of physicists, chemists, and atmospheric scientists in climate discussions and reports. According to experts from Nature magazine, microbiologists have been absent in drafting influential reports such as those by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), likely due to a lack of volunteerism in the past.
Push for Greater Microbial Representation
However, the current climate conversation could be on the cusp of change. A growing number of microbiologists and scientists, including Shady Amin and Lisa Stein, are now advocating for greater attention to microorganisms at this year's COP28. They argue that microbes, being at the base of the food chain, play a crucial role in climate change with significant implications for biodiversity, fishing, and agriculture. Microorganisms can produce and capture greenhouse gases such as methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide, positioning them as potential allies or adversaries in the fight against climate emissions.
Human Influence on Microbiomes
Marine scientist Raquel Peixoto, representing the International Society for Reef Studies (ICRS) at COP28, underscored the pathogenic alteration of the microbiomes of various ecosystems and organisms due to human influence. She called for more funding for research in this area, citing studies on probiotics that could aid coral reefs in combatting bleaching from rising temperatures. Furthermore, microbes are instrumental in methane emissions from natural sources like cow digestion and rice paddies.
The Role of Microorganisms in Combating Climate Change
The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and other organizations have recently highlighted the role of microorganisms in combating climate change through reports. The ASM has proposed scientific solutions, such as developing methane-consuming microbes for manure or modifying cow gut microbiomes to produce less gas. In a bid to ensure microbial representation, associations of microbiologists plan to send coordinated delegations to the next climate summit, COP29, while laying the groundwork for interaction at this year's meeting.