Climate response needs more investment in scientific research

We are already experiencing the effects of climate change and need immediate response to tackle the global crisis, for which we need more funds in climate research. File photo: AFP

The fact that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions—caused by burning fossil fuels like coal, petroleum and natural gas, since the beginning of the industrial revolution—has led to the global climate crisis we face today was discovered by scientists over three decades ago, with the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC has been publishing periodic assessment reports on the scientific evidence and knowledge about both the problems and the solutions to human-induced climate change.

Over the last three decades, the IPCC has increased the number of scientists involved in the preparation of each successive report to include more disciplines, particularly social sciences, and also geographical representation, especially from developing countries.

I have been the lead author of three IPCC assessment reports in more than two decades, and I will share some ideas on how to build on and enhance the effectiveness of scientific research at both global and national levels—and even at a local level, particularly in vulnerable developing countries like Bangladesh.

First, I want to recognise that the IPCC is by far the most comprehensive and inclusive scientific collaboration that has been attempted in the world. It has been able to get the evidence of climate change assessed in a scientifically credible manner, and then have that assessment accepted by governments so that there are no disagreements about said evidence. This is its greatest achievement as yet, for which it was recognised with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

However, it is important to recall that the IPCC does not do the research itself; rather, it only assesses the existing scientific research and then provides an assessment of the state of play during each assessment period. It also does not make policy prescriptions, but provides policy-relevant information, on the basis of which policymakers at national as well as global levels can make appropriate, science-based policy decisions.

One of the main clients for each IPCC assessment report is the annual Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Thus, the upcoming COP26 will be informed by the recently published sixth assessment report—from Working Group 1— which has, for the first time, shown that the extreme weather events we have been experiencing in recent years can be scientifically attributed to the rise of global mean temperature over one degree Celsius, due to GHG emissions since the industrial revolution began over a hundred years ago. This is an extremely important new finding of the latest IPCC assessment report, which ushers in the era of loss and damage from human-induced climate change as a reality now, and no longer something that will happen in the future.

The remaining sixth assessment reports, from Working Group 2 on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation, and from Working Group 3 on responses, will be published in 2022 ahead of COP27, which is set to be hosted in Africa next year.

So, while the IPCC remains to be of major significance in supporting decision-makers to deal with climate change, there is certainly room for improvement in its assessment work, which I would like to share.

The first point to make is that, despite excellent efforts to expand the disciplines from which authors are selected as well as from developing countries, they are still significantly underrepresented in the number of lead authors in different working groups.

Another deficiency is the reliance on only assessing peer-reviewed scientific articles which, while certainly ensuring quality of articles cited, leaves out an extensive body of evidence from local communities or even indigenous communities that has not been written up in scientific articles. This is particularly important for sharing knowledge about how to effectively adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, where vulnerable communities are generating experiential knowledge that is not yet collected by the IPCC.

Another aspect is the way the IPCC, being an intergovernmental body, is also subject to the politics of some of the more powerful countries, and that the voices of less powerful countries are not necessarily heard. However, if the vulnerable developing countries are able to stick together and make a strong case for their trouble, they can indeed get their way sometimes. One such example was the special report on the cap of 1.5 degrees Celsius in global temperature rise, which was pushed by the vulnerable developing countries in the face of opposition from some powerful countries. This particular report played a major role in ensuring that the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal for mitigation was agreed upon in the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015.

In the coming year, the seventh assessment cycle is going to be discussed, agreed upon and started, so it is important for the vulnerable developing countries to ask the IPCC to prepare another special report on loss and damage from human-induced climate change.

I also want to address the need to invest in supporting good-quality scientific research in every developing country—no matter how poor it may be. Even the poorest countries have numerous universities where the faculty members and students have the potential to carry out research at the local and national levels on how best to tackle climate change for their own countries, and provide such evidence to local and national decision-makers. The poorer developing countries cannot simply rely on international experts to fly in and fly out to provide them with the most relevant evidence to aid their decision-making processes. They need to invest in the capacity of their own researchers to provide them with location-specific evidence.

This is something that Bangladesh has already done through various investments in research on climate change, conducted in several universities and research institutions, all of which has been brought together under a platform named Gobeshona. A similar investment programme in national-level research is being developed for the countries in the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who is the CVF chair.

As Prime Minister Hasina has rightly proposed, it is now time for the vulnerable developing countries to move forward to become prosperous in the face of climate change, and investment in research is an essential element in achieving that transformational objective. Bangladesh will be the first CVF country to launch a climate prosperity plan—Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan (MCPP)—with the aim to transform the country in the coming decade, through mitigation as well as adaptation, for which investment in quality research will be a necessary condition.

Originally this article was published on October 23, 2021 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).