‘A titan of the climate movement’: tributes pour in for Saleemul Huq

Huq, ‘a visionary and climate champion’, who was named one of the top 10 scientists in the world by Nature last year, has died at 71

Prof Saleemul Huq, pictured at Cop26 in Glasgow, Scotland. Photograph: Alberto Pezzali/AP

Tributes have poured in from around for world for the renowned Bangladeshi scientist Prof Saleemul Huq, who died on 29 October.

Huq, 71, was an acclaimed academic, a relentless climate activist and the director of the International Centre for Climate Change & Development (ICCCAD), a research and capacity-building organisation in Bangladesh.

Shahab Uddin, the Bangladeshi minister of environment, forest and climate change, said that Huq’s death was an irreparable loss to the country and the rest of the world. On Sunday afternoon in Dhaka, hundreds gathered at the Gulshan Society Mosque to pay their last respects, and a minute’s silence was observed in his memory at Sunday’s pre-Cop G77 meeting in Abu Dhabi.

The Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate told the Guardian she had the privilege of working with Huq several times over the years. “As well as fighting for those most vulnerable, Huq was incredibly generous with his time,” she said. “I remember at Cop26, I had the opportunity to do a big media interview on loss and damage but wanted an expert to speak alongside me. He immediately responded to my request, dropping what he was doing and walking across the Glasgow conference centre to join me.”

Mohamed Adow, director of the energy and climate thinktank Power Shift Africa, described Huq on X, formerly Twitter, as a “titan of the climate movement who stood out in a field dominated by scientists from Europe and North America. It was always good to see a Bangladeshi speaking with such authority and insight on the global stage.”

Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican climate leader and the former executive secretary of the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC), said Huq had been a “tenacious, visionary colleague”.

Huq was an early force for community-based adaptation – a well-established concept in rural Bangladesh – which focuses on helping communities find their own solutions to the climate crisis, such as improving flood defences and adjusting cropping patterns to weather change. He strongly believed that affected communities needed “to be in the driving seat” and by the 1990s, he was active in international climate negotiations, helping climate-vulnerable countries put their individual needs on the agenda at high-profile UN talks.

Among his many achievements, Huq was one of the longest and most persistent advocates of loss and damage funds, whereby rich nations – which have done by far the most to cause it – pay to help developing countries cope with the consequences of global heating. Though the idea gained traction leading up to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, it was only in 2022 that an agreement was signed. “Loss and damage isn’t aid,” said Huq. “When money is given as aid, all the power rests with the donor. It is an unequal relationship.”

‘Incredibly generous with his time’ … Huq at Cop26. Photograph: Courtesy of IISD

Huq, who was awarded an OBE in 2022, was a professor at the Independent University, Bangladesh; a senior associate of the International Institute on Environment and Development; and part of the Cop28 advisory committee. He was a prolific writer and researcher, and was among the lead authors for the IPCC’s third, fourth and fifth assessments of the global climate. In 2022, the journal Nature named Huq as one of the top 10 scientists in the world.

Huq was a strong advocate of young people being given a voice in global negotiations. “Our generation created the mess and their generation is suffering. Hence, they must have a say,” he said.

The Bangladeshi climate advocate Sohanur Rahman described him as a “true visionary and climate champion whose unmatched legacy will remain as a shining example for years and generations to come. His tireless efforts in the fight against climate injustice will continue to inspire us all.”

Huq was known for his frankness, and spoke in a way that cut through climate jargon and politics to ask the great moral questions over the inequality of the climate crisis. Ahead of Cop28 this year, he wrote an open letter to the president of the UN climate summit, advocating for a new loss and damage fund while outlining concrete steps on how to achieve it.

“Just to cite one example from my country Bangladesh: every single day, over 2,000 climate displaced people arrive by foot, cycle, boat and bus in Dhaka and disappear into the city slums,” he wrote. “No one is looking after them but they are people being forced to move by human-induced climate change and are hence the responsibility of the UNFCCC.”

It is a fight that Huq’s friends and peers will take up on the global stage in his absence at Cop28 next month and beyond. “I’m so grateful that he lived to see the loss and damage fund finally being agreed at Cop27 in Egypt,” said Nakate. “I hope now we can fight for his legacy and ensure it is filled with real money.”

In a tribute, Harjeet Singh, the head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, said: “The battle for climate justice remains ongoing. I pledge to redouble my efforts, to uphold the torch, and to champion the cause with even more passion and hard work. I’ll do this in honour of your legacy, feeling your guidance and blessings from the heavens above.”

Originally this article was published on November 01, 2023 at The Guardian.