Obituary: Saleemul Huq, a passionate voice for climate justice

The recent sudden death of Saleemul Huq on 28 October 2023 has shocked and saddened thousands of people who were touched by his zeal, kindness, generosity of spirit and gentle humour. All have been inspired by his vision and deep commitment to making the world a better place. His work and advocacy on the urgent need to address the injustices of climate change informed and influenced practitioners, researchers, policy makers and campaigners around the world.

His was a life that made an enormous difference on how climate justice is understood and must be acted on. Some of us at IDS were fortunate to have worked closely with Saleem over many years in different ways. He visited the Institute numerous occasions and gave lectures and student seminars. Saleem was an engaging and inspiring speaker, always leaving the audience with a sense that positive change is possible, despite slow progress and setbacks. In many ways, these interactions trace the evolution of Saleem’s thinking and strategies for campaigning on action on global warming.

In 1984 Saleem helped found and lead the BCAS (Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies), which established climate change as a major field of interest. The focus on the local level for climate adaptation was something he strongly supported to ensure that adaptation was firmly rooted in real world realities. From 2005 this strategy was promoted through the annual Community Based Adaptation (CBA) Conference in partnership with the London based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). This began in Dhaka and then widened its participation by alternating with other countries in Asia and Africa. IDS staff were present at many of these events.

Saleem moved to London in 2000, soon after taking up the role of Director of the Climate Change Team at IIED. But after a few years Saleem decided (around 2008) to move back to Bangladesh to bring his research and advocacy work closer to the frontline of climate change impacts. Back in Dhaka he focused his efforts on creating the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), hosted at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) in 2009. The new organisation aimed to support climate expertise around the world, and to provide a respected and authoritative base for climate change research, focused especially on adaptation.

Terry Cannon had the privilege of helping to set up the Centre and was involved in its early programmes of research and capacity building. ICCCAD became the platform for setting up research projects in Bangladesh that were to provide some of the key early thinking on locally adaptation. The flagship ARCAB project (Action Research for Climate Adaptation in Bangladesh) achieved collaboration between 13 international NGOs to investigate ways to support Community Based Adaptation.

ICCCAD is now a truly global centre, bringing people from around the world and hosting projects and activities for the global South. It attracts many scholars and students through its visiting scholars programme and has been crucial in capacity building and establishing networks of Southern researchers and activists. ICCCAD hosts the international Gobeshona conference (after the Bangla word for research) on climate change impacts (now held online to avoid the emissions from participants flights), as well as an annual Urban Climate Adaptation Conference.

Since the founding of ICCCAD, IDS partnered with Saleem and his team on several collaborative research projects, including the expansion of South Asian scientists’ contributions to climate change publications, and the design of more innovative research programmes on adaptation. These brought IDS into partnerships with many organisations in South Asia and elsewhere, with projects involving Lars Otto NaessLyla MehtaShilpi SrivastavaTerry Cannon and John Thompson.  For example, in the Tapestry project, Saleem encouraged us to address climate injustice and adaptation in the Sundarbans region across India and Bangladesh, enabling learning and exchanges beyond a national focus. Despite being in huge demand (especially after being declared one of the top 10 scientists in the world by Nature in 2022), he always contributed generously with time and insights to various IDS collaborations and mentored young scholars.

Saleem was a leading figure in international climate negotiations over several decades, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the annual Conference of Parties (COP) meetings, which he attended every year since 1995. At successive COPs, he advocated for the interests of developing nations and became a leading champion for the inclusion of ‘Loss and Damage’ as a critical component in the negotiations.

He argued, rightly, that conventional adaptation and mitigation efforts alone were insufficient to address the full range of climate impacts, especially in the most vulnerable countries, and that separate financial support and mechanisms were needed to address the irreparable losses and damages caused by climate change. His farsighted research, moral authority and sustained participation in global climate meetings helped shape the discourse on Loss and Damage within the international climate community and contributed to advancing the agenda in the negotiations after years of delay.

A prominent role was envisaged for him in COP 28 which won’t be the same without his towering presence and enthusiasm. As he argued in his last published article, it’s important that rich countries commit to the loss and damage agenda at COP 28 so that this crucial agenda and his lifelong efforts are realised.

Saleem was a dear friend, colleague and mentor to many of us and a true giant in the climate change scientific community. He inspired generations of scholars and practitioners.  His unique combination of boundless energy, deep humanity and great intellect may never be matched, but it is incumbent on all of us to follow his lead.

This Obituary was originally published by The Institute of Development Studies on 02 November,2023.