IPCC climate science needs African authors to succeed

Photo: P Williams

IPCC climate science needs African authors to succeed

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Date: 11th May 2022
Author: CDKN Global
Type: Feature
Country: Africa

With COP27 on the horizon, the IPCC has produced the most comprehensive African chapter yet. But African researchers face structural challenges that could hamper our ability to track progress on its recommendations and respond to climate change. An interview with IPCC contributing author Portia Adade Williams.

Jennifer Kwao: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has delivered another stark assessment of climate change impacts. What is in the February 2022 report for Africa? And what should we be paying attention to?

Portia Adade Williams: Africa is one of the regions most negatively affected by climate change. Although we contribute the least greenhouse gas emissions, we are highly vulnerable to its effects. The IPCC is the foremost institution that reports about advances in climate change impacts as well as actions. So, it matters that its Sixth Assessment Reports highlight the widespread, and severe, losses and damages that climate change is already inflicting on people, economies, and nature in Africa. Impacts have been substantiated on weather patterns, water supply and quality, agriculture and food security, human health, and ecosystems. Additionally, the report makes striking projections about risks and investment areas for climate resilience in Africa.

The report emphasises adaptation. What we should be paying attention to are the findings on Africa's potential to adapt. For the first time, the report outlines feasible and effective options available for the African context, in addition to assessing progress on adaptation thus far, which key stakeholders can take advantage of. Ultimately, it shows us that we need to really act fast.

Now let's turn to the authorship of the IPCC, which doesn't make the headlines. 11 per cent of authors of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Reports are from Africa. Carbon Brief has also substantiated the gender and geographical imbalance in published research. In some cases, the map is virtually blank on African authorship. Our own assessment of the Africa chapter (Chapter 9) of the 2022 IPCC report revealed that contributing authors were mostly from South Africa. What are some of the challenges for African scientists?

On challenges African Scientists face, my number would be limited research funding, followed by limited technical capacity, and finally, inadequate institutional support. I'll touch a bit on each of them. 

So talk of research funding, the IPCC authors are volunteers; it doesn't provide financial support for authors beyond travel support. Our counterparts from developed economies are mostly compensated by their governments and universities for the time they spend on the assessment process. But for Africa, and in countries like Ghana, such support is non-existent. It becomes tricky if you are a mother who requires committed childcare to travel for example – not to mention the extra time required for IPCC activities.

Also, a study published in 2021 looked at funding flows for climate change research on Africa from 1990 to 2020. According to this study, a number of institutions (e.g DFIDUSAIDBMBF, national research foundations in South Africa) earmarked 3.8 per cent of USD 1.51 trillion global research funding for African topics. Out of this funding, institutions based in Europe and North America received 78 per cent while African institutions received just 14.5 per cent [the study is featured on page 4 in Chapter 9]. I would say funding plays a very key role in directing research priorities and our responses to climate change.

On institutional support, even working with the internet is a challenge. Resources for studying are very limited. I did my PhD in South Africa and there, journal articles were readily available to me. I'm done with my PhD and back in Ghana where access to a number of journals and database is a challenge; I sometimes have to send links to my colleagues in South Africa to download papers for me.

As a researcher, if you don't have access to quality databases and journals, it is quite difficult even publishing with these journals. Meanwhile, the IPCC places so much weight on research that appears in peer-reviewed journals. Most of Africa's research – we have excellent research evidence – remains outside these journals and subsequently outside IPCC reports. 

Out of global funding for climate change research on Africa, institutions based in Europe and North America received 78 per cent while African institutions received just 14.5 per cent.

On the gender aspect, our own assessment of the Africa Chapter found that 4 out of the 16 lead authors were women. Additionally, racialised women make up just 28 per cent of the 40 female Chapter 9 authors. What is standing in the way of black African women scientists?

To talk of gender bias in the IPCC process, I will refer you to a recent study published by Nature Climate Change which adequately captures the diversity, equity, and inclusivity aspect.

Chapter 9 of the latest IPCC report has only two Ghanaians, with me being the only Ghanaian woman. But I would look more broadly than the IPCC context, as this conditions the pool of authors they can select from. Let's look at how many women make it to the master’s or PhD level. In my PhD office at the University of Cape Town, for instance, there were about six or so men and I was the only woman pursuing a PhD. We have very few women up there already and even fewer black African women scientists.

It starts from the limiting beliefs placed on women that higher education isn't their place. I am glad that the narrative is changing and things are improving. Previously, racism also played a role but I see things changing here as well. Now in South Africa, there are more opportunities like scholarships targeting Black South Africans. So if we get more women being empowered to take up such opportunities, I'm sure some few years to come, the gap wouldn't be so wide. 

So I think you have a positive outlook on the progress that is being made, but also maybe a careful perspective on the IPCC. I would like to hear a bit more about your experience working there.

With dedicated funding from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), I worked through the University of Cape Town as a research assistant to an IPCC coordinating lead author. In that role, I worked with other scholars across Africa to conduct the first-ever multi-dimensional feasibility and effectiveness assessment of 24 adaptation options. I got the opportunity to join the IPCC as a contributing author through this work and that research is now featured in Chapter 9. 

I think in addition to the dedicated funding and support, self-motivation, being focused and ambitious got me into the IPCC, which has been a transformative experience for me.

What do the gaps we've identified in our conversation so far mean for Africa's stake in the climate debate? 

Mitigation has so far dominated the conversation. Looking at the existing evidence, however, adaptation appears crucial for Africa. So such nuances in the climate debate can be lost without African climate science. The funding gap means Africa's research capacity and tracking of adaptation remains limited. Additionally, without adequate participation of African researchers in climate science, research outcomes and outputs can risk exclusion of locally relevant knowledge which can be detrimental to debates on adaptation.

Knowing that the IPCC was convened to inform negotiations, how are the findings in the Africa chapter going to shape the "African COP"? What do we need to work on in climate science to make sure our negotiators are prepared? 

COP27 is a few months away. And I don't know whether you heard the Working Group II Co-Chair Debra Roberts saying that we have produced the best evidence so far with the IPCC Africa chapter. Just yesterday, IDRC hosted a webinar where the high representative of the president of Mali on climate, who is also the spokesperson of the African Group of Negotiators, really commended the Chapter 9 report [this interview was conducted on March 16]. He congratulated African authors for the massive difference and improvement in the report. With such compelling evidence and recommendations, we can make headway ahead of COP27.

But we need all hands on deck, especially women and young people, to make sure the findings of the report are taken seriously and implemented in an inclusive manner. Policymakers go through the report line by line to arrive at a consensus on the science. So we need those voices to make sure policymakers stay committed to what they have agreed to work on. In the intervening months between the release of the report and COP27, we need to be pressuring policymakers and all relevant stakeholders to really play their role. 

And beyond COP? What would you see as a priority from your perspective as a researcher? And maybe it's tied to that question, how can African-led climate science help us adapt? 

Beyond COP we still need that political commitment. We need to set clear goals that will define the responsibilities of every stakeholder.

We also need regular monitoring and evaluation of climate adaptation. As a researcher, you can ask yourself: what role can I play in bridging the research gaps identified by the IPCC? As media, you need to be asking what kind of noise and campaigning are you making. What kind of information are you sharing with the general public that would help to bridge some of these gaps we have identified?

At the same time, we need to strengthen our institutional capacities. As experts, regardless of the field, we need to enhance our knowledge and skills to track adaptation progress.

Dedicated research funding is also key. The Africa chapter is stronger because IDRC of Canada and FCDO of the UK came together to fund chapter scientists and research assistants from Africa. With this support, we were able to do a number of Africa-relevant studies. 

African-led research does not only help us track adaptation progress, but they also ensure that decisions are evidence-based and applicable in our context. Our policymakers are working with very scarce resources so research insights can help them prioritise. 


Dr Portia Adade Williams is a contributing author of Chapter 9 of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report and a member of the Organization of Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD). She is a research scientist at the Science and Technology Policy Research Institute (CSIR-STEPRI) in Ghana. Her research focus spans the feasibility and effectiveness of climate adaptation options for Africa, livelihood vulnerability, and agricultural food production by smallholder farmers.

Jennifer Kwao is co-founder of 1.2 Diaries. She is an editor by day and a consultant working at the EU-AU level on climate justice, racial justice, diaspora youth mobilisation, and EU policy analysis. 

This article was originally published by 1.2 Diaries on LinkedIn and is reproduced here with permission. Photo: shows Portia Adade Williams, published with permission.

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