From a forest track to the corridors of power: the wild lives of Nathalie Seddon

From a forest track to the corridors of power: the wild lives of Nathalie Seddon

Some people are so energetic, dynamic and enthusiastic, they make you feel as though you do nothing but watch box sets while eating ice cream. But Nathalie Seddon’s passion for protecting nature and addressing climate change, makes you want drop the remote and follow her into the rainforest or the corridors of power, wherever she is going next. And you would not be alone.

Oxford’s Professor of Biodiversity, from the university's Zoology department and Wadham college, is rightly something of a celebrity in the eco world. She is an official ‘friend’ of the COP26 climate conference. She has the ear of leading politicians and policymakers and she has been a determined force in the move to give ‘nature’ a place at the climate change top table.

Such concerns, plus expertise and leadership in climate and biodiversity has brought together key scientists and researchers, including Professor Seddon, from across Oxford's different departments and disciplines to deliver cutting-edge research, information and policy advice. The team includes Zoology, the Environmental Change Institute and the Smith School and initiatives such as Oxford Net Zero, the Oxford Martin School Programme for Biodiversity and Society and the Nature-based Solutions Initiative (Ever busy, Professor Seddon is a co-PI of the first two and directs the last).

But, in 2017, when Professor Seddon established the Nature Based Solutions Initiative at Oxford, few were talking about how nature fitted into discussions about global warming. ‘As a term, nature-based solutions wasn’t really in the lexicon,’ she says. ‘Now, it’s gone mainstream, viral even; now everyone seems to be talking about them – not just the conservation organisations, but those working in development, health, local businesses, banks, international corporations and governments.’

Indeed, enter the words ‘nature-based solutions for climate change’ into Google, and a million results seem to pop up. It is one of the main themes for the UK-hosted climate change meeting in Glasgow in November (COP26) and at the forefront of discussions around climate change. And Professor Seddon, the doyenne of NbS [as they are known] is one of only 30 ‘friends’ of COP26, of whom just a handful are scientists. 

But, until recently, Professor Seddon’s career involved far more hard science than scientific lobbying – although it also demonstrated the sort of single-minded determination which is proving so useful in pushing nature up the climate agenda. Her supportive parents encouraged her passion for nature but were not academics. Instead it was her headmaster who suggested that nature-mad Nathalie apply to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge. She won a place – and, to underline his conviction, did not leave until she had completed a doctorate and a junior research fellowship.

During the next 15 years, she travelled the world to study the lives of unusual birds and their songs. But this was not birdwatching as we know it [don’t mention the word twitcher].Then, as now, enthusiasm was her watchword. In her first year, the young student found a piece of paper on a noticeboard, asking for a birdwatcher for an expedition to Peru. It was a life-changing moment for a girl who had been mapping bird territories in her back garden since her family moved to the country when she was eight.

The Peruvian rainforest, by Chris Abney, Unsplash. The Peruvian rainforest, by Chris Abney, Unsplash.

The Peruvian rainforest, by Chris Abney, Unsplash.

Determined to go, she removed the paper from the board and a few months later found herself on a quest to find the Long-Whiskered Owlet while hiding from Shining Path guerrillas near the Peruvian border with Colombia. It was, perhaps, not the best way to start a life of scientific investigation. But her adventures did not stop there. That trip marked the beginning of a long passion for tropical wilderness and a fascination for understanding its unparalleled diversity.

To undertake her doctorate on the social behaviour and conservation of a threatened species of bird, the Subdesert Mesite (below), Nathalie had to drive solo across Madagascar in an ancient ex-military Land Rover she had transported by boat from Southampton. It might have been better had it never arrived since she spent more time trying to repair it than collecting data. And she says, ‘It turned out to be very challenging to study Mesites, as they live in the dense undergrowth of prehistoric spiny forests.’

The Subdesert Mesite. Credit: Shutterstock. The Subdesert Mesite. Credit: Shutterstock.

The Subdesert Mesite. Credit: Shutterstock.

Nonetheless, a PhD resulted and, after three years in Madagascar, she embarked on a decade studying the origins of biodiversity in the remote forests of the Andes and Amazon as a Royal Society University Research Fellow (which is when she came to Oxford).

She says, with considerable feeling, ‘I loved being in those places....I am hugely privileged to have had worked there and those experiences enrich my every day and inform so much of the work I do. '

'Back then I was motivated by wanting to understand tropical diversity; now I am motivated by wanting to save it for future generations.’

Initially, she built up a research group, looking at the biodiversity of forests, focused on tropical birds. But, after years with binoculars and sound recording equipment in hand, the academic underwent a conversion.

She had a family, which does often particularly affect a woman scientist’s ability to spend months in the jungle. She also took a year out of teaching and worked in a development organisation.

For the first time, the researcher found herself among non-scientists, talking to people of different disciplines and working in a different way. It became clear there was very little natural science in climate change policy and planning, ‘I discovered that hardly any of the rich knowledge we have about ecosystems and biodiversity was influencing big decisions that affect our futures.’

She realised she needed to be at the interface of science and policy, translating science for decision-makers and communicating policy needs to the science community. So she founded the Nature-based Solutions Initiative - and has been doing this for the last four years.

Baobabs in Madagascar - by Haja Arson, Unsplash. Baobabs in Madagascar - by Haja Arson, Unsplash.

Baobabs in Madagascar - by Haja Arson, Unsplash.

But what are NbS? 

‘They are actions that involve working with nature for societal good,’ she says.

They involve community-led restoration and protection of mangroves, kelp forests, wetlands, grasslands and forests, bringing trees into working lands and nature into cities and much more.

It is now accepted that such actions can bring multiple benefits from storing carbon and protecting us from extreme events, to supporting biodiversity and providing jobs and livelihoods.

Critics sometimes argue that the potential contribution of nature to arresting climate change is tiny, compared with stopping fossil fuel use. But she insists, ‘Our work shows that nature has a role to play...and although new technology [to address climate change] might not be fully scalable until the end of the century, nature is here now, ready to be revitalised and can make a significant contribution to cooling this century.’

This is not mere dewy-eyed affection, although Professor Seddon clearly takes loss of biodiversity very personally. ‘Nature motivates, calms and grounds me,’ she says. But, she maintains, ‘We need nature because it is our life support system, because we are a part of it, not separate from it. There is huge value in the natural world, economically and ecologically, and huge risks of ignoring it...we have built our economies as if nature has no value; climate change and pandemics are showing us this not sustainable and that it is now time to repay our vast debt to nature.’

It is not just politicians, though, who have heard the call for nature – businesses too have made bold pledges. Everyone has heard about tree planting as an NbS. But this has not always been a positive move and some have planted trees to ‘offset’ their continued use of fossil fuels.

Professor Seddon is concerned so-called ‘greenwashing is a really big issue’. She adds, ‘We need wood, and commercial planting can sometimes take the pressure off biodiverse native forests...also, in some parts of the world, where the land is badly degraded, tree plantations can help bring back soil health and are a step towards natural regeneration.’
But she warns, ‘Plantations are really bad news when they replace native habitats and violate human rights, and when they delay or distract from the urgent need to decarbonise.'

Professor Seddon is emphatic, 'Tree planting is not alternative to keeping fossil fuels in the ground...if we don’t, the resultant warming will undermine nature’s capacity to support us.'

She insists we cannot afford to ignore the harm we do to nature, ‘Covid shone a light on the risks of continued disrespect of the natural world. It also showed us that we cannot continue to travel and consume as much without paying severe consequences.’

But Professor Seddon has high hopes of the climate summit this year, where nature is a key theme.  

‘For the UK,’ she says. ‘This is a real opportunity to show leadership. But to do that that, we need to get our own house in order and to shine light on good practice on nature-based solutions in our own country to inspire action globally.

‘We also need to end all the harmful subsidies that encourage land degradation and over-fishing and instead properly incentivise the careful stewardship of nature.’

Professor Seddon acknowledges the enormous role the great polluters need to play in reducing carbon emissions, but she sees considerable room for personal action, although it will mean substantial change for individuals, starting with moving, if possible, to a plant-based diet.

And, says the former globe-trotter, she could not quite bring herself to get on a plane again, unless there were a very good and urgent reason. And she says, ‘Scientists need to work with businesses and government to help them set realistic and robust evidence-based targets for climate and nature, and advise on how to reach those targets without compromising other goals for food security or economic recovery.’

Treading the corridors of power is a new path for Professor Seddon. But climate concerns have brought together scientists, looking for solutions, doing the hard-science to inform policy. She says, ‘There is a lot of really exciting fundamental research to be done to shore up the evidence around the value of working with nature in a warming world.’ She adds, ‘At Oxford, to address these knowledge gaps and meet policy needs, we’ve gone up a gear, we are working together more.’

And Professor Seddon is very much engaged in university life - delivering lectures, as Admissions Coordinator for Biology, interviewing candidates and working with young researchers and students.  She says, 'Young people come asking what they should study to be part of it – to help. It’s our job to show them there is much they can learn and do, that they have real agency in their futures.'

She adds, ‘I am excited to be getting back into the science and to be working with colleagues from across the University and country to address fundamental questions about how we scale-up NbS...

'The next 10 to 20 years are going to be critical...Now is when the world needs us all to collaborate to enable transformational change.’

She concludes with hope for the future, ‘There is such a lot of good work going on around the world. Thousands of communities across the globe are implementing nature-based solutions to deal with climate change impacts, protect nature and support livelihoods. It is really inspiring. We all have a say in our futures...and as we work with nature we will heal ourselves.’