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FEATURE: In conversation… with Saleemul Huq – Extended Version, Part 1

Part 1: Climate change, a global challenge


Simon Maxwell: Saleem thank you so much for coming in it’s a great pleasure to see you. You’ve been running the climate change programme at the International Institute for Environment and Development for many years and you’ve established a big international reputation both for yourself and for the institute through that work, but I think you’re moving aren’t you?

Saleemul Huq: Well yes it’s coming up to 10 years at IIED in London and I figured it’s time for a change of pace. So I’m planning to relocate back to Bangladesh, where I come from originally ,and with IIED’s involvement we’re putting up a joint venture new International Centre for Climate Change and Development, which will be based at a University in Bangladesh but it will be international centre, basically to focus on capacity building and training for students, we’ll run a Masters degree programme, and also short courses for different groups of people from developing countries on climate change and development.

Simon: And with the research programme as well?

Saleem: We hope to add a research programme as well with it, but the main focus initially will be on training and capacity building

Simon: Bangladesh has stood on the edge of the precipice, if you like, because it has the history and it is as you rightly said one of the most vulnerable countries in the world and that gives impetus to the political project and to the consensus building nationally, when you look at the other countries you might work in with your new institute and when you’re training these students who will then presumably go back to be the movers and shakers on climate change policy making in their own countries, do you think that is going to be a typical situation that developing countries face?

Saleem: I think sooner or later it will be but as countries move at different paces. Over the last few years I’ve been spending a lot of time in the least developed countries mainly in sub Saharan Africa but also in Asia as well and I would say that in the last year I think we have reached a tipping point and particularly before and after Copenhagen, for one reason is that so many heads of state went to Copenhagen they may not have done much there while they were there, but they all came back totally taken with the issue of climate change and realising that it was a big issues they had to do something about it and, and getting their own bureaucracies and governments asking the right questions and moving forward. At the same time there’s been quite a lot of work at the more grass route community base level, of people realising that climate change is an issue and the more vulnerable communities a lot of international development NGOS getting onboard who hadn’t in the past seen climate change as a development issue. What I’m finding is that there’s a growing demand now for capacity building because the first thing they do is they say alright now we’re convinced now tell us what to do, and, and we really don’t have good answers for all of them except to say you know build up your own national capabilities to be able to answer the questions at the national level, and that’s one of the reasons we’re setting up this centre primarily for doing this training of people from developing countries. The reason for locating it in Bangladesh is that Bangladesh is genuinely a couple of steps ahead of most of the other countries, so you can bring people from other parts of the developing world and they can meet their counterparts and see what they’re doing. They may not have all the answers but at least they’re addressing the questions.

Simon: One of the things that the scientists are always telling us is that unless we start very, very quickly to reduce carbon emissions globally, the cuts required later would be almost unmanageable and we’d therefore become inevitably in the position where a four degree warming can’t be avoided. Do you bind to that argument?

Saleem: Well I’m not an expert on the mitigation side, I work on impacts and adaptations, but my own understanding is that yes we’ve lost a lot of time, and it’s very difficult to regain that time, but on the other hand if we make the major shift that is needed into thinking about going into a transition to a low carbon pathway for the entire globe then once we’ve make that mental shift we can move very, very fast, and you know fossil fuels will become like sail boats of the previous centuries. I’ve just come back from Australia, and I can tell you in Australia they’re seized with this issue, in fact the Australians I would say are the one developed country who are taking adaptation very, very seriously because they are being affected by droughts in parts of the country, fires in other parts of the country and floods in others and they realise that they are very vulnerable to the impact.

Simon: The point about these big technological changes of course is that they also provide big opportunities for countries and for economies and what I fear is that the rich countries will innovate very fast, and then move the production frontier to a different place, where countries that in the past could have found their niche on the global competitiveness ladder, will suddenly find themselves kicked off the ladder and into the dust at the bottom, so you have to innovate in order to seize these opportunities don’t you?

Saleem: Absolutely, but I think in my view I think these innovations will happen but I don’t necessarily think that the developed countries have a monopoly or an advantage there. I think the developing countries if they think about it can leap frog, they can be the leaders of the future and in my view I think the Chinese are already thinking about that. The Chinese may be, you know, bulking at trying to reduce their emission because they want to use their coal, but they are preparing for the non fossil fuel future, they are investing heavily in renewables and technologies of the future and one day along the way they’re going to say alright we’re ready to switch everything off and move to the non fossil fuel era, are you ready to do it as well.

Simon: Now this is a very interesting challenge for those of us who work on north south relations and on networking across the south, how can Bangladesh, how can countries in Africa benefit from that Chinese experience and what kind of intermediation is needed to make technological developments in developing countries available on a south, south basis?

Saleem: Well I think that’s a big challenge because we don’t have good structures for south-south cooperation, particularly across the three continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America, most of us who come from those parts of the world network in the west or in the north. We come to Europe, London, Brussels or Washington to meet counterparts from the other southern continents; we don’t have good structures for, for doing that. Having said that I think that we’re getting better and we can do that much more effectively in future, and in a sense the new centre in Bangladesh is trying to do that, not so much on the new mitigation technologies but more on the adaptation to deal with the impacts of climate change, using the example of Bangladesh to share that with other developing countries both in Asia as well as in African and Latin America, because that is going to be much more relevant for them, than coming to London and find out how the Thames barrier is going to protect London from the floods

Simon: It is interesting about the new communication technologies. I was speaking at an event last week, and there was somebody doing a live blog as we were speaking, there were questions coming into the panel from all over the world and one of the topics we were talking about was famine early warning. In the old days there would be a very large bureaucracy concerned with famine early warning, now you get a text from famine zone telling you what’s going on, and I can imagine that in this businesses of international networking the internet is going to make a huge difference?

Saleem: Absolutely it makes a huge difference and it’s doing so already, we some of the work that we do is on community based adaptation in some of the developing countries and use of video and internet now has become so wide spread and it’s becoming even, even more and more so as we speak. Use of mobile telephones in Africa and in the south in general it’s enormous and, and these are new means of communication and means of empowering people to do things and make decisions on their own.

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