As young boys, Midgley and his brothers would often be sent to stay with family during school holidays and had the good fortune to spend time on the farm Melkkamer, near the De Hoop nature reserve in the Southern Cape. The farm manager, Mike Swart, had spent his entire life in the region and was a fount of knowledge about the local flora and fauna. Together with his siblings, Midgley would spend days roaming the natural environment. It was there that the future head of the School for Climate Studies at Stellenbosch University (SU) developed a love for nature and an innate appreciation of ecology.
After school, he received a bursary to enrol for BSc studies at SU, but it was only in his third year and during his honours studies that he was struck with a sense of profundity and purpose in his scholarship, Midgley says. His passion for plant physiology was sparked by Prof JA de Bruyn, then dean of SU's Faculty of Science and an inspirational lecturer. De Bruyn's chosen textbook departed from the mere structural physiology of plants and also delved into the details of how plants breathe and drink, Midgley remembers. “The lights just went on," he says.
Having graduated, Midgley needed to pay back his bursary, so he applied for a position at the Botanical Research Institute (BRI) in Cape Town, where a plant physiology group was being headed up by fellow SU alumnus and ecologist Mike Rutherford. Rutherford was a visionary thinker who further sparked Midgley's interests in the potential of plants to help scientists understand environmental patterns and trends. “I learned a lot about the emerging field of plant ecophysiology, which was starting to grow at that point," Midgley says, “and that allowed me to start thinking about the bigger picture and asking the bigger questions."
Driving the climate change agenda
Because of his perpetual curiosity and reading about ecology, he discovered that there was a debate brewing on the topic of climate change. And so, he began to follow the first United States Senate hearings on the matter.
In 2004, the BRI evolved into the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) headed by Prof Brian Huntley. Midgley says Huntley was an extraordinary science leader whose work with the Foundation for Research Development (FRD) catapulted South African ecological studies into a global standout. “The FRD produced incredible reports on biomes that did a lot of the foundational work on understanding South African ecology, which was and still is world-leading," he enthuses. “South African ecology still punches way above its weight on the global stage thanks to visionaries such as Brian Huntley."
Huntley challenged the senior SANBI scientists to come up with interesting and important research topics and projects. Dissatisfied with the proposals he had received, he directed SANBI research to follow the three main conventions negotiated at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio, namely biodiversity, desertification and climate change. Then still a junior in the group, Midgley proposed to do a study on the effects of CO2 on plant growth and was awarded a modest grant. He went on to develop a fumigation system that successfully demonstrated the effects of different levels of CO2 on plant growth in endemic Proteaceae, illustrating inherent versus nutrient constraints on CO2 responsiveness in plants.
Further work by Rutherford's team explored climate impacts on plant and biome distributions. In the early 2000s, Midgley supported Huntley in presenting key ideas around climate change to national Cabinet meetings on two separate occasions. “South Africa's negotiating positions until then were very mindful of fossil fuel interests, but presentations on vulnerability to the Department of Environmental Affairs helped broaden thinking in this regard.
"We wrote the report South African Country Study on Climate Change, which became South Africa's first communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). It was among the first pieces of work to drive an agenda around climate change, so SANBI led the way," Midgley says. And indeed, when the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) did an assessment of institutes who were productive in the area of climate change in the early 2010s – when Midgley led a SANBI research team on climate change for some five years – they found that SANBI's small team ranked higher than most universities in the country in the field of climate change.
Leading the global climate conversation
By the early 2010s, Midgley was increasingly involved in policymaking, and his scope of work expanded rapidly beyond ecology and agriculture to broader sustainability issues such as urbanisation and disaster risk management. Together with his team, he was publishing some of the most important reports on these topics at the time, while also fielding work for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the UNFCCC.
The travel demands associated with this work took a toll on his health, so when he heard of an opening at SU's Department of Botany and Zoology, he applied for the chance to spend the final decade of his career in a less stressful academic environment. A period of relative calm lasted several years at Stellenbosch. But after a few years of lecturing on Global Change Biology, then Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies Prof Eugene Cloete requested him to launch the University's School for Climate Studies.
The School, which was officially launched in mid-2021, highlights environmental responsibility and interdisciplinarity. “What we're trying to do is work across a number of different institutions to build collaborative research programmes and different approaches to understanding our relationship with and impacts on climate – the causes, the impacts and the solutions," says Midgley. “Because the solutions run the gamut, from agriculture, chemistry and biology, to energy, economics, politics and global geopolitics. It's a field of study that is really starting to pick apart the very basics – and the very basis – of our modern society."
Echoing the early successes of SANBI in driving the global climate change agenda, the School is rapidly becoming a major player on the climate change stage. Its work on the risks of afforestation (planting trees in naturally unforested ecosystems) in Africa has been influential in questioning and reassessing funding for potentially damaging afforestation projects. And its assessment of climate change risks to biodiversity in the most recent IPCC report is vital in supporting policymakers' arguments for stringent temperature targets.
“We are developing a five-week online course on African climate change challenges, which we hope to launch next year," says Midgley. “And we are producing new work in the areas of climate change hydrology, biodiversity and agriscience. We also have a programme on planetary health and climate risks that is being developed to attract research funding." Other initiatives include developing a programme on carbon dioxide removal from the Southern Ocean and Southern African terrestrial surface, and optimising the use of big data for climate research, with a strong initial focus on agritech. The latter is done in conjunction with SU's School for Data Science and Computational Thinking.
In addition, the School for Climate Studies engaged with the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate (GAUC) to train 150 Global Youth Ambassadors from SU's partner universities – including 15 from Stellenbosch itself. The youth went on to contribute to a Climate Youth Week prior to the 27th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP27). The School also recently hosted an African Regional Forum on Climate Change at Stellenbosch, with 45 African universities represented, earning it a presence in at least one side event at COP27.
From a young student fascinated with how a plant breathes, to an integral part of the global movement to save our planet, SU's Prof Guy Midgley helps put the University at the leading edge of climate studies at a time when the human race needs it most.