OPINION: The principles of focusing on long-term climate in a short-term world
Lindsey Jones of Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and Nicola Ranger of the Department of International Development (DFID) reflect on discussions that took place at the synthesis workshop of the Future Climate For Africa held in Cape Town in October, where participants grappled with the ethics around climate information in Africa.
How is climate change being factored into long-term investments and planning decisions in Africa? This is one of the key questions asked of a 12-month CDKN-led research exercise for the Future Climate For Africa (FCFA) programme. Four in-country case studies sought to uncover real-world examples of climate information directly informing long-term (5-40 years or more) decision-making processes, and unpick some of the opportunities and barriers to uptake.
So what did we find? Well, it turns out that, by and large, it isn’t being factored in. Indeed, aside from a handful of isolated examples (mainly hydropower design), the case studies yielded few examples, and in some cases no, examples of long-term climate information influencing investments and policy design. This was the case even for many of the medium and long-term national development strategies examined.
Why isn’t it being factored in? The case studies are unanimous: longer-term time horizons are not seen as a priority in the face of many more immediate development challenges that need addressing in the shorter-term. Low levels of socioeconomic development and high vulnerability to current climate underline this point strongly. Even for longer-lived decisions (like infrastructure and urban development) high discount rates, short political time-horizons, and large uncertainties reduce the incentive for accounting for long-term climate. These points are explored in a recent CDKN background paper.
Together, this implies a low demand for longer-term climate information. Yet despite this, improving the uptake of climate information into long-term planning is high on international and donor agendas. Are we acting unethically by pushing an agenda that is not welcome?
What is also clear is that many decision makers have a low understanding of future climate change and capacity to integrate longer-term issues into their short term priorities (this is shown to be true everywhere, not just in Africa).
Better information about climate change has been repeatedly demanded by African countries in their inputs to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Indeed, the 2012 Addis Ababa Declaration in Support of the Implementation of the Global Framework for Climate Service (GFCS) in Africa, reiterated that a “better understanding of climate variability and climate change is required to support the decision making process in Africa, so that investments for climate risk management, mitigation and adaptation actions are based on reliable climate information”
The rationale for investing in better understanding future climate is that there are cases where not accounting for a changing climate today may lead to greater and irreversible costs or risks down the line. This isn’t relevant everywhere – often it is better to focus on actions that bring immediate benefits and worry about the future later (for example, small-holder agriculture). But in some contexts, a failure to factor climate in now (like urban design or infrastructure) can contribute to ‘lock-in’, limiting future options and potentially committing societies to greater risk in the future. This is particularly important for Africa, with rapidly rates of economic development and urbanisation.
Another ethical challenge concerns the target audience for longer-term climate information. For now, most efforts are focused on national and regional policy-makers because this is where many of the decision around long-lived infrastructure and development planning take place. So what about local communities and individuals? Should more be done to involve local actors, right down to the farmer? Clearly everyone has the right to access such information, but farmers’ needs are inevitably often focused on the shorter-term, with many other competing pressures to deal with. In addition, disseminating uncertain long-term climate information at scale without knowing whether all users are fully aware of the limitations may create more harm than good.
So how can we recognise these ethical challenges and ensure that future research and capacity support for the uptake of long-term climate is not promoting misplaced and unwelcomed agendas? Four points of action immediately stand out from the case studies’ findings:
1) Engage only where there is demand. Pushing for long-term investments and policies to take climate change into account in contexts where there is clearly no demand is not only ethically questionable but also ineffective. However, programmes like FCFA can play a role in raising awareness – but only where stakeholders are open to learning and are willing to engage in awareness-raising activities. This requires careful and considered engagement with local actors. To support this, we need to identify clear examples of where climate information has supported robust decision-making, the economic and social benefits in priority areas, and identify champions of change.
2) Tailor research to the needs of decision-makers. This sounds obvious, but rarely has climate research been truly demand-led. Programmes like FCFA need to redefine the way climate research is designed and conducted. Our case studies show that to inform real long-term development, decision-makers need climate information across a range of timescales. At the same time, they also need other environmental, economic and social information. It’s not all about downscaled climate model projections! In fact, our consultations tell us that in many cases the most useful information can often be about better understanding the past climate, socioeconomic vulnerability or the changing risk of extremes over the next few years. Researchers and boundary organisations need to work closely with decision-makers to understand these needs – but crucially – also be flexible enough to respond to what they learn.
3) Recognise the interactions between climate change and wider development pressures. With so many pressing development challenges facing African decision-makers, it is little wonder that long-term climate is not a priority. Yet, the impacts of climate change are likely to be influenced by and mediated through development (such as land use change or rising food prices). Better understanding and incorporating the interactions between climate and development is important to ensure the relevance of activities, and for communicating with users. Providing examples of where and how climate is relevant in priority development areas will be an important first step.
4) Understand the political economy and develop the right local partnerships. Researchers need to get better at understanding the local context that their research aims to support. A failure to appreciate the social, political and economic drivers of decision making is one of the main reasons why research fails to have an impact. Researchers and practitioners need to understand who is making decisions, what their priorities are and what challenges they face and be flexible enough to respond to needs. Developing the right local partnerships is also important. Working with and supporting local service providers, including national and regional meteorological services, is critical. These organisations understand the local context and have the legitimacy and expertise to deliver effective information and services.
5) Invest in meaningful relationships and dialogue processes. Understanding and recognising different perspectives is key to building trust. For programmes like FCFA, this means promoting meaningful dialogue between the various stakeholders involved in relevant decision-making processes – whether donors, governments, private sector, civil society or communities. Crucially, this dialogue process cannot be a one-way flow of information and should not push unwelcome agendas. All stakeholders should have their opinions heard and respected; in trying to encourage a two-way engagement process, case studies trialled a range of ‘serious games’ and ‘co-exploration’ tools that reflected these principles. Scepticism of outside views can also call for greater levels of transparency and accountability. Donors and international agencies should also do more to coordinate their activities, particularly in areas where they are placing multiple (and sometimes conflicting) pressures on the same national and local actors to address different development priorities.
The FCFA case studies highlight that even an area like climate science brings up ethical questions that cannot be by-passed or ignored. In areas like weather prediction, we have much experience in delivering climate services in a principled and effective manner. Delivering climate change information and services brings new challenges. Researchers and practitioners need to be mindful of these and above all, ensure they understand and respond to different stakeholder perspectives and needs.