Focus on Poverty: Building climate expertise

Teaching farming Climate
Copyright: Gates Foundation

Speed read

  • Local conversations on climate change are no substitute for scientific expertise
  • Western support is needed to boost climate science in the poorest nations
  • Improved data and know-how will help them fight their corner internationally

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A Nature study published this month shows, as SciDev.Net reported, that the tropics are likely to be the first region to face dramatic temperature rises. This is clearly terrible news. Many of the tropical African nations that will be hit by these increases are also among the world’s least developed countries (LDCs).

This news should focus our thinking. The problems the LDCs face in a climate-constrained world are complex and urgent.

In particular I am worried about one way of dealing with these problems: ‘participatory approaches’, which seek local people’s views about what development should look like. The problem is that, unless applied intelligently, such techniques could be a distraction from efforts to equip LDCs to deal with poverty and climate-related issues.

Take, for example, the participatory initiative A Million Voices, which sources views on sustainable development via the UN-created World We Want website. We do need a groundswell of support for new development goals beyond 2015, but the populism of such schemes is no substitute for scientific expertise.

“LDC representatives need the best evidence available on climate and development — and developed world allies — to help them fight their corner as the international community formulates post-2015 development goals”

Roger Williamson, University of Sussex, United Kingdom

No amount of conversation will decide which crops will produce food under which conditions. The stubborn reality is that, beyond a certain temperature and level of soil degradation, traditional crops simply will not grow. For advice on that, farmers don’t need A Million Voices — they only need a few. They need local experience and input from the crop specialist and the climate scientist.

But the LDCs are where climate science is the least robust. This is because, inevitably, meteorological data are weak in these countries. They have yet to devote considerable resources to collecting climate data, training (and retaining) staff and building expert national institutions, partly because they face many competing demands on limited budgets.

So it is encouraging to hear that the Global Environment Fund has approved a US$43.6 million grant to strengthen climate information in ten African LDCs. [1] Such assistance will help to deliver a bottom-up understanding of climate change as called for in a recent SciDev.Net article stressing the need for local climate models.

It is also good that there is practical assistance from the International Institute for Environment and Development, and others, in developing the expertise of LDC negotiators and offering them support at international climate talks. [2]

Participation and scientific expertise are both important, and there are participatory ways of collecting vital crop and climate data. Such methods, at their best, are much more than ‘everyone having their say’ or ‘lots of strongly held opinions’.

It is essential that LDC negotiators have sound data and the expertise to deploy it well. LDC representatives need the best evidence available on climate and development — and developed world allies — to help them fight their corner as the international community formulates post-2015 development goals.

Roger Williamson is an independent consultant and visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. Previous positions include organising nearly 80 international policy conferences for the UK Foreign Office and being head of policy and campaigns at Christian Aid. 


[1] Lindblom, L. UNDP Partners With LDC Fund to Strengthen Climate Information in Africa (UN, 7 October 2013)
[2] International Institute for Environment and Development Supporting climate change negotiators from Least Developed Countries (IIED, accessed 23 October 2013)