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The United States will commit to significantly improving developing countries’ access to data, tools and training to help them adapt to climate change, the US president told the Climate Summit in New York last week (23 September).

Barack Obama pledged to immediately release higher resolution topographical data for Africa, to scale up a training programme to boost meteorologists’ ability to monitor and predict climate change, and to create a public-private partnership to put climate-relevant information and tools in the hands of developing world policymakers.
Addressing the UN Climate Summit attended by more than 120 heads of state last week (23 September), the president also announced an executive order that obliges US government agencies, including the US Agency for International Development (USAID), to systematically consider climate change in all their development activities.

The whole package marks a “truly transformational shift” in how the United States approaches development, says Kit Batten, USAID’s global climate change coordinator.

“These commitments send a strong signal that the use of scientific information to guide our development decisions is critical to ensure we are increasing climate change resilience worldwide,” she tells SciDev.Net.

Three of Obama’s announcements directly focus on developing countries.

The first is the online release of land elevation data for 90 per cent of Africa that is three times more accurate than that currently available.

The data comes from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Geospatial-intelligence Agency (NGA), and the US Geological Survey (USGS) as part of Group on Earth Observations project. It was released on USGS’s Earth Explorer website. This should make it easier to monitor extreme environmental changes, such as floods and coastal storm surges, as well as provide a clearer impact of sea level rises.

Data for the rest of the continent, as well as for Latin America and the Caribbean, are due to be added by the end of the year.

Secondly, USAID will lead efforts to establish a public-private partnership that will seek to identify global gaps in climate data and capacity, as well as to link international development and climate change activities, and to make information, tools and services more accessible to policymakers in the developing world.

Little information is available as to how the partnership will function, but discussions with partners are “moving forward at an accelerated pace” since the announcement, says Batten.

The initiative will build on USAID’s existing network of partners across government agencies, the private sector and civil society, she adds.

Finally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will expand its International Training Desk initiative, a capacity building programme that welcomes meteorologists from the developing world to teach them about weather and climate predictions using modern technology.

Since the mid-1990s, the scheme has had an “enormous impact”, training scientists that have gone on to lead their national weather services, says Louis Uccellini, NOAA’s assistant administrator for weather services.

But waiting lists currently stretch up to 18 months, and each of NOAA’s four regional desks specialises in either weather or climate predictions, so expanding both the numbers taking part and the course’s scope would be welcomed, he adds.
Alex Dehgan, who left his post as USAID’s chief scientist last year to start Conservation X Labs — an initiative to scale up technological and financial solutions to conservation —welcomed Obama’s announcements.

“They will empower individuals in the developing world to contribute to the study of climate change and adaptation,” he tells SciDev.Net.

But Dehgan stresses that it will be an uphill struggle to make significant changes to climate change adaptation without the private sector playing a central role.

Therefore, making the public-private partnership work well must be a top priority, he says.