Who Has a Say in Assessing the Impacts of Climate Change?

FROM: Barbara Dietrich – 28. May 2019

“We have nothing to do. Rice is not growing anymore. Too much salt in the soil.” I heard this time and again in the coastal villages in Bangladesh. The last two weeks I spent there were quite an experience. After talking to those directly affected by the impact of climate change, I had the opportunity to attend a joint conference of International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and Helvetas on Increasing Engagement of early career scientists with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th Assessment Process. I was surprised to hear how under-represented some highly affected countries, such as Bangladesh, are in the UN Climate Change engagement.  

Now just to recall: 134 million people in Bangladesh will be hit hard by climate change, according to a recent World Bank report. Their living standard is going to decline as a result of rising temperatures (an average increase of 1.5 degree Celsius by 2050), rising sea levels, and erratic rainfall. Because of the increasing soil salinity, women living in coastal areas have more miscarriages than those inland. Soil salinity also has a major impact on agriculture. During my visit to the Khulna coastal region, I met people who were already suffering. Many of them had given up on agriculture completely, with men often migrating to work at brick factories or heading to Dhaka, a fast-growing urban area with about 18 million people, to work in construction. Working conditions for migrant workers are tough - little pay, endless working hours, heavy air pollution. For the many left behind, mainly women (such as those in the photo above), life is challenging too. With little money, no way to engage in growing rice or vegetables or earning anything – waiting for money to come in – walking every day for hours just to fetch drinking water - worrying about the children who are often sick.

Now, in order to have the right policies for those affected the most, we need scientific evidence. And that’s exactly what the IPCC assessment process is all about. The authors of the report mandated by the UN have the task to ensure “an objective and complete assessment and to reflect a diverse range of views and expertise”. Rupa Mukerji, Helvetas, and a Lead Author IPCC, emphasizes the importance of assessment: “The IPCC has been one of the most successful voluntary community of practice making policy relevant contributions.” Saleemul Huq from ICCCAD adds: “Whatever politics there may be, the good thing is that the UN assessment cannot just be dismissed. It’s scientific evidence, not politics. Politicians are obliged to take it seriously.”

Although at the conference that I attended, we had very strong and engaged Bangladeshi scientists, most of the research entering the assessment is coming from Europe and North America. Comparatively little research published internationally originates from countries like Bangladesh. According to Dr. Saleemul Huq, an analysis of the articles cited by the IPCC in the 5th assessment report showed that 100 out of over 6000 citations were from Bangladeshi authors, and two-thirds of these authors were based outside the country, working at institutions abroad. Even today, after many measures by the IPCC and the scientific community to be more inclusive, 33% of IPCC authors come from Europe, only 16% from Asia and 10% from Africa.

This cannot be. Other continents are equally affected, and their populations are even at times more vulnerable than the wealthy Europeans or Americans. This has to change urgently! It cannot be that those most affected only have an indirect voice.

Why is that so and what can be done? This is what the panel speakers were discussing: Dr. Mizvan Khan of ICCCAD, and others spoke of challenges in identifying potential contributors. Very few master’s or PhD students can get their research published in a peer reviewed journal. “It’s also a question of resources”, Dr. Saiful Islam, Professor, BUET, IWFM, Lead Author, Sixth Assessment Report, rightly mentioned. “You need time and commitment”, others claimed, “Young students in Bangladesh often need encouragement”. Haseeb Irfanullah, Senior Programme Manager, IUCN, Mentor of USAID young researcher program, says that mentoring can lead to success. Dr. Ainun Nishat, Professor Emeritus, Director, C3ER, BRAC, Former IPCC lead Author, Adviser of many Government committees, one of the negotiators of Bangladesh delegate at UNFCCC, stressed that decision-makers do need reviewed fact and figures in order to design appropriate and good climate policies.

The good news is that there is a growing number of opportunities for young researchers. Here are a few examples:

However, more should be done by national governments, universities, people with capacities to mentor the young and by the young researchers themselves. I remember well, I would never have been able to publish my thesis if my Professor in Switzerland had not supported me all the way through, with strict editing and answering the challenging questions of the reviewer.

It is hard (and often unpaid) work for students and academics busy with teaching, but it is extremely rich in learning, deeply inspiring and impactful. Kaspar Grossenbacher, Helvetas Bangladesh Country Director said: “If I were 25, I would surely be inspired and would dedicate a couple of years of my life to this!.” The climate change crisis is a global crisis, we need people from all over the globe to equally contribute to the assessment of the situation. Scientific institutions, which have resources and donors, must support young researchers from around the world. More scholarships for master’s and PhD students on climate change should be created, mentoring and courses for publishing should be offered. We all need to know and understand how climate change impacts the world as a whole.