Ensuring climate information guides long-term development

Submitted by Julia Barrott | published 25th Aug 2017 | last updated 12th Aug 2019
Pakalinding young farmers, The Gambia, by Gerry Popplestone. Via Flickr.

Pakalinding young farmers, The Gambia, by Gerry Popplestone via Flickr: "It rains for only six weeks in The Gambia... The soil here is very poor: they need to burn the weeds and buffalo dung just before the rainy season so that the nutrients are washed back into ther soil. If they burn too soon, these precious nutrients are lost. So they need to know when the rainy season is likely to begin..."

Introduction

Adapting to climate change is a challenge that spans timescales. Although communities are feeling the effects of climate change now, the most severe impacts will be felt in the decades to come. This presents significant obstacles to long-term development objectives. Nowhere is this more apparent than in sub-Saharan Africa, a region currently confronting a large adaptation deficit and undergoing rapid social, economic and demographic transitions. Factoring medium- to long-term climate information (associated with interannual, decadal and multi-decadal timescales) into investments and planning decisions can therefore play an important role in guiding climate-resilient development and helping to safeguard economic development across the region.

This article* argues for a step change in show medium- to long-term climate information is produced, communicated and utilized to achieve meaningful impact on decision-making in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. In particular, we highlight the need for concerted support to address the communication mismatch between producers and users of climate information, tailor climate information to the needs of relevant decision-makers, encourage greater recognition of the political economies of sub-Saharan African decision-making, and adopt a more nuanced appreciation of the ethics of promoting a long-term climate agenda in a world dominated by short-term political time frames and immediate development priorities.

*Download the full article from the right hand column. A summary of the key findings and lessons learned is provided below.

Key findings

The main findings of this research are summarised as follows:

1. A shortfall in knowledge and data.

  • Our scientific knowledge of past and current African climate is poor relative to other regions, and large gaps exist in the observational record. Opportunities therefore exist to enhance the quality and quantity of observation networks and infrastructure, as well as recover large swathes of historical data yet to be digitized.
  • There is also a pressing need to build the technical capacities and ensure adequate resourcing of African scientific institutions and climate scientists to:
    • support the extension of observation networks;
    • take ownership of quality assurance and data assessment,
    • and lead efforts to promote better dissemination, understanding and use of medium- to long-term climate information among all relevant stakeholders.
  • However, scientific and technical factors account for only a fraction of the barriers to information uptake. In assessing the use of medium- to long-term climate information in national and local decision-making in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Ghana and Rwanda, the FCFA case studies highlight how social, economic and political factors also act as significant impediments.

2. Production and dissemination.

  • One clear priority is to address an apparent communication mismatch: information delivered to African decision-makers is often overly technical, prone to misunderstanding of associated uncertainties and ill-suited to their needs. Care needs to be taken to ensure that climate information speaks directly to the practical questions to which decision-makers seek answers.
  • Communication of climate information also requires active involvement of a number of stakeholders at different levels, from scientific institutions to government departments and local communities.
  • There is considerable scope to enhance the roles played by boundary organizations in sub-Saharan Africa, promoting more effective dialogue between producers and users of scientific information. In assessing the capacities of boundary agents across the case study countries, FCFA finds few organizations that have the skills and mandate to convene, collaborate, translate and mediate between different stakeholders. Unfortunately, this situation is mirrored across much of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Communicating the merits and limitations of climate information to decision-makers, as well as supporting the use of more pragmatic and evidence- based approaches to decision-making under uncertainty, will be key.

3. Power and politics.

  • Alongside knowledge and communication gaps, many barriers to uptake relate to issues of political economy and governance.
  • Overlapping organizational mandates, hierarchical structures of governance and weak incentives to include medium- to long-term climate information in decision- making are each significant obstacles.
  • More effective understanding and communication of the economic benefits of acting on medium- to long-term climate information are key to enhancing its uptake among more influential stakeholders.
  • Greater interministerial cooperation and coordination is also required, coupled with institutional capacity building. Few sub-Saharan countries have instigated such transitions.

4. Climate ethics in a short term world.

  • Promoting the use of climate information in long-term decision-making raises important ethical questions, too. For example, given the current low demand for inclusion of long-term climate information in core development processes across sub-Saharan Africa, should funders, governments and knowledge brokers be supporting work in this area?
  • If long-term climate information highlights the need for deeper transformational changes (as the scale of many adaptation challenges implies), then additional ethical concerns are likely to be raised with regard to what role external actors should play, if any, in influencing the outcomes of large-scale development and adaptation strategies in domestic policy — particularly in contexts where principles of accountability, transparency and legitimacy differ.
  • Importantly, resolving ethical considerations requires far more than greater openness: it demands a fundamental shift in how climate information is generated, communicated and taken up. Doing so means promoting meaningful processes of dialogue between producers and users of long-term climate information, including those people most vulnerable to climate change. Such dialogue cannot be a one-way flow of information and should recognize the different interests and agendas promoted — whether local communities, local and national governments or donors.

Lessons Learnt

  1. Although their respective roles and capacities may differ, the involvement of all stakeholders engaged along the science–policy interface is required in order to address the needs identified from practitioners and organizations focused on engagement with local communities, such as the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, to academic institutions, boundary organizations and organizations focused on national and international policy influence, such as the Africa Climate Policy Centre.
  2. Authoritative national projections of climate change across sub-Saharan African countries are one option that may help to manage the risk of inappropriate data use. These would build on local understandings of the current climate and be altered as new research emerges. Consistent projections are vital to underpin guidance on interpretation of climate information (and uncertainty) across a range of stakeholders — government, civil society and the private sector.
  3. It is paramount that any intervention aimed at promoting the uptake of medium- to long-term climate information adheres to principles of honesty, precision, transparency and relevance. This is particularly important in instances where use of long-term climate information may call into question the effectiveness of short-term investments and planning decisions, or where it points to a high risk of maladaptation if current actions do not account for future change.
  4. Two-way dialogue is likely to promote greater local ownership of climate information and help to ensure that it is better suited to users’ needs. This can help to address ethical concerns about externally imposed agendas and is cited as a key reason behind the low priority given to its integration in local and national decision-making across sub-Saharan Africa.
  5. Above all, we argue that resolving production, communication and ethical challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa is both technical and political, requiring nuanced appreciation of how climate information fits into a complex decision space. Researchers, funders and development practitioners can gain considerably from a greater understanding of local decision contexts and value systems, as well as developing more meaningful local and national partnerships. Enabling these changes also requires a move towards longer-term funding and planning cycles, greater flexibility in the delivery of adaptation and development activities to account for uncertainty and non-linear change, and more user-driven research agendas.

Further resources