[Published here August 20, 2021]
This month’s hard-hitting report from the U.N. climate science panel sounded the alarm on the surging impacts of global warming – but its authors and independent researchers said it did not provide enough insight on threats in poorer parts of the world.
Despite progress in recent years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) still relies primarily on lead authors and research from Europe, North America and Oceania, making its findings less relevant to developing nations.
“It is by far the biggest and the best collaborative global scientific enterprise that mankind has done – but it still has certain blind spots,” said Saleemul Huq, head of the Bangladesh-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development.
One of those blind spots is reflected in the composition of the latest report’s 234 authors, who come from 66 countries but are mostly based in rich nations including the United States, Britain, Germany and Australia.
Only 35% of the authors working on the sixth assessment report – the current series that will culminate in a synthesis due to be finalised in September next year – hail from developing countries, according to a study published in the MDPI journal Climate, up from 31% for the fifth assessment report.
Huq said that during his time working on the third and fourth IPCC assessment reports, published in 2001 and 2007, the number of scientists’ nationalities increased – but countries in the Global South were represented by just one or two authors.
“We are neglected. We are the most vulnerable countries to climate change and we should be prioritised, which we aren’t,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
RESEARCH ‘HEAVILY SKEWED’
A second blind spot is in the research considered: the IPCC does not conduct its own studies, but assesses thousands of climate-related papers on which the IPCC authors base their findings, projections and conclusions.
The most recent report was a review of more than 14,000 research papers produced over the eight years since the last one in 2013 – but the authors themselves noted the data available to them “is unevenly distributed across the world”.
Studies from developing countries “are often not peer-reviewed, not available in English, and mainly limited to the country level, thus making it difficult to compare the details of the climate information across them”, the IPCC report said.
Research tends to focus on regions that “attract the attention of the Global North so that climate aspects relevant to other regions may not receive sufficient attention”, it added.
One key reason for this is funding, said Huq, with emerging economies allocating far less to climate science.
And even when wealthy governments do back studies in or about developing countries, the lead investigators are often from the Global North, he added.
“That is one of the failings of the scientific enterprise – it is based on research that is heavily skewed,” he said.
A study published in March in the journal Conservation Letters examined the backgrounds of the top-publishing authors in 13 leading ecology, evolution and conservation journals between 1945 and 2019.
It found that the United States, Britain, Australia, Germany and Canada made up more than 75% of those authors, while Global South countries were “strikingly under-represented”.
“This translates to international reports such as the IPCC,” said study co-author Bea Maas, a biologist at the University of Vienna. “With no relevant research, relevant recommendations are left out.”
The IPCC has made some progress on shifting the status quo.
The panel used the award money from its 2007 Nobel Peace Prize to finance scholarships for doctoral students from developing countries to work on climate change, including opportunities to advance emissions reductions and adaptation.
For its most recent report, it began considering “grey literature” – work that has not been published in academic journals – in languages other than English.
The IPCC also developed an Africa-specific communications strategy for the first time – something it hopes to roll out for other regions in the future.
“This allowed us to speak to Africans about Africa, and we could clearly say this is what the global assessment says about the place you live,” said Debra Roberts, who co-chairs the IPCC working group on adaptation for the sixth assessment report.
Durban-based Roberts said the IPCC also offered diversity training to its authors this year and was mindful of the challenges of convening digitally for those in developing nations, such as patchy internet connections and language barriers.
In the future, she said it would be crucial to draw in more practitioners working on climate change in the Global South.
Maas recommended changes to how research is organised across the board.
“We can directly influence how we set up our teams, how we distribute opportunities, how much we urge politicians and decision-makers to increase their investments in climate change mitigation,” she said.
She urged efforts aimed at boosting research infrastructure and capacity to adopt a regional or global approach instead of focusing on individual countries.
“Climate is not stopping at any border,” she added.