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Communities should provide critical input into next global climate report – Dr Debra Roberts

Citizens should be more involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s discussions, according to Dr Debra Roberts. Image credit: Visuele Notulen/ Michèle Giebing

Research that includes input from communities and people working in areas affected by climate change should provide critical input into the sixth assessment due to be undertaken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate expert Dr Debra Roberts explained on the sidelines of the Adaptation Futures 2016 conference in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, on 11 May.

You are co-chair of what is known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II, which looks at adaptation to climate change, but what does adaptation actually mean?

The Issue

In December last year, world governments agreed to limit global warming to below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels at the COP21 climate conference in Paris. This agreement followed the release of the UN IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, the world’s most in-depth climate study, which concluded that climate change was almost certainly caused by humans.

Now researchers are preparing the ground for the Sixth Assessment Report. The synopsis is due to be published in 2022, just ahead of a global stocktake of nations' pledged climate actions scheduled for 2023.

COP21 also called on the IPCC to look at what would be required to keep global warming to within 1.5 degrees. The IPCC is preparing a report looking at this issue, which is scheduled for publication in 2018, just ahead of international talks to help implement the decisions taken in Paris termed the Facilitative Dialogue.

‘When we refer to adaptation, for the most part people are talking about human responses to climate change. If you look at it about 10 years ago the assumption was still that we could mitigate our way out of the climate change problem. We now realise that that is no longer the case, and that we are already committed to a certain level of climate change because of the amount of greenhouse gas that has already been emitted to the atmosphere.

‘With mitigation you have got a recipe book that is globally applicable. Reduce and remove the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and you deal with the problem. Whereas for adaptation there is no global recipe book and that is the real challenge for the science of adaptation as it is so context specific.’

What kind of research do we need for the IPCC's next assessment report looking at the state of scientific, technical and socioeconomic knowledge on climate change?

‘Hoesung Lee (chair of the IPCC) has promoted the idea of a solutions-focused assessment and I think that is where the research needs to begin shifting. But if adaptation responses don’t fit into a recipe book format and are locally specific, then the high-level aggregated research which usually feeds into the IPCC assessments is not going to be well-placed to capture the key adaptation messages.

What we probably need to do to begin addressing this challenge is to begin upscaling the work done on case studies in order to assemble the empirical evidence and better understand local issues. The urban authors of the last assessment cycle have just produced a book, Cities on a Finite Planet: towards transformative responses to climate change, which documents nine detailed city case studies in order to contribute to this process.

‘Future Earth (the new global environmental change research initiative) is promoting the importance of co-design and co-production in research. This approach offers the opportunity for practitioners on the ground to be part of the research process by contributing to defining the problem and helping capture local experiences.’

How can you get citizens involved?

‘One of the things we are talking about within the IPCC in relation to communications is how to encourage a broader range of inputs into the scoping processes involved in the sixth assessment. There is an increasing recognition of the need to hear a multitude of voices and to take those views into consideration while assessing the literature.

‘The more voices you hear, obviously the greater chance you have of providing an assessment that is responsive to the most important societal concerns, you get better triangulation (on the problems that need to be addressed) with real world concerns.’

Can you give a concrete example of the kinds of things you can learn by expanding the range of inputs?

‘If I look at my own city of Durban in South Africa, we have two forms of governance, we have the typical city hall form of governance that you might find in a New York or a Rotterdam, but we also have traditional leaders who control a significant portion of our city. There is no way that I, because of the cultural diversity in our city, can have a full knowledge of the cultural impact of decisions around land use in the more traditional settings. It is very important to hear those traditional voices because I would make assumptions that are not grounded in cultural experiences and values.’

What are the common issues that people in cities around the world face in terms of adaptation?

‘I think the baseline is the provision of basic infrastructure, as that enhances adaptive capacity. You have got to meet basic needs and improve wellbeing as part of the adaptation process. Obviously, the greatest infrastructural deficit exists in the cities of the global south. At the same time, the cities of the global north are facing ageing infrastructure, so they are facing a set of decisions about how to replace their existing infrastructure in a way that is responsive to the climate change challenge. If you look at it over the next decade or so, we are going to double our capital infrastructure spend from USD 10 trillion to USD 20 trillion. So that is an enormous opportunity to bend that curve (of the direction of climate change) from a mitigation and adaption point of view.’

What for you is the most pressing issue now in terms of adaptation?

‘For me it's cities, and that’s not only because I work in a city, it’s because they are the one global-scale opportunity to effect transformative change in our development path. We’ve got no choice but to address the needs of cities as we are living through the most rapid period of urbanisation in our species’ history. Cities are our largest social-ecological system, they concentrate people, power, economies and financial flows.

‘There is an increasing recognition of the need to hear a multitude of voices.’

Dr Debra Roberts, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

‘Unless we tie the climate change response to the (uplift) of the growing number of poor and vulnerable in our cities, we’ve got a real problem. We have got that opportunity now because, as I say, the majority of the cities in the global south are being built as we speak, but it is a one-off opportunity. We have to act now. The problem is that, up until now, the debate around climate change hasn’t fully embraced the urban (context).’

How do you go about tying together climate response and reducing poverty?

‘There is a lot of good work (done on this) but there may be the need for some big transformative and structural changes and I think that is why we have seen the growing momentum emerging around issues such as the green economy. We have to ask ourselves, is there a different economic path which can deliver wellbeing to all? Because that is ultimately what we are after. I think if we begin to look at our cities in a new way there is that potential to effect that sort of transformative change.’

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