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Adapting to climate change — unlike mitigating it — will succeed in developing countries only by sharing local understanding and knowledge with other low-income nations.

These were the words of a leading climate scientist speaking at a Commonwealth Foundation briefing on climate change and health in London, United Kingdom, this week (11 June).

Saleemul Huq, head of climate change at the International Institute for Environment and Development, said North–South knowledge transfer was a valid path for mitigation. For example, research institutions in developed countries can create a renewable energy technology and transfer it for use in a developing country.

"But learning how to cope with climate change in London isn't transferable to a developing country," he said.

"[For adaptation] we need South–South knowledge exchange. It's more transferable for Bangladesh to learn how to cope with an aspect of climate change and then let Myanmar know about it."

"There is no single silver bullet here: there are many silver bullets. Adaptation can't be 'invented' in the same way as mitigation techniques. With adaptation you learn by doing."

Huq said there is an "information gap" between global and local levels. "We have strong information at a global level but much weaker information at a local level, where the actors in adaptation are."

To rectify this, he said the research community needs to be brought together with practitioners such as policymakers and non-governmental organisations. Local work and pilot studies need to be carried out to engage policymakers at a country level and provide them with evidence, he added.

"We don't have time to follow the usual process of publishing research and waiting for it to trickle down to the people on the ground."

Girish Menon, director of international operations at international non-governmental organisation Wateraid said that although some countries are carrying out pilot studies of adaptation strategies, such as rainwater harvesting in Uganda, these need huge scale-up, and few development projects are considering climate change and 'climate proofing' their activities.

Huq said the local media have a crucial role to play in disseminating information about successful adaptation strategies.

"If we can give the media good stories about successful adaptation strategies then they might be willing to take them up — a change from gloom-and-doom stories. Those of us who know about these projects need to tell the media about them," said Huq.

David Harper, director-general for health improvement and protection at the UK Department of Health, said it's a case of getting the most appropriate people, with authority, to speak and help communities feel empowered to act.

"Getting the right talking heads in the right community, that will influence the community, is important. We need to move in a way that doesn't make people feel impotent," he added.