"Responsible science must guide action, not dogmatism," says researcher

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By LC for APCNews

CALGARY, Canada, 16 May 2012

The LAC region faces many water-related issues – from drought to floods, to hurricanes and landslides. A new book commissioned by APC and the IRDC examines how ICTs can help alleviate climate and weather related stress in these areas. APC talks to LAC regional author, Gilles Cliche, about his findings.

APC: The LAC region faces many water-related issues and risks due (in part) to climate change, such as drought, floods, hurricanes, landslides, etc. How do these water-related challenges make communities in the region more vulnerable, and who are the most vulnerable communities?

Gilles Cliche: As always, the poor and marginalised are the most affected by any changes that may happen, simply because their assets are generally more limited by definition. Climate change has short- and long-term impacts. There is the slower impact of global warming that changes the patterns of rain distribution – both in intensity and quantity – the rate of glaciers melting in the Andes and elsewhere, or the progressive shifting in latitude and altitude of ecosystems associated with certain types of agriculture production, among other things. We know that the impact of climate change will be felt the most in places where extreme conditions have been occurring for a while. That is, where you have drought, there will be more drought; where there are floods, there will be more floods; and where you have hurricanes, there will be more hurricanes. And these are all predicted to increase in intensity and frequency. In the short term, climate change will exacerbate extreme weather events that are already occurring, and the poor in these regions will be hit the hardest.

Let’s use hurricanes as an example. Central America is in a major hurricane path, and these are predicted to increase. Hurricane Mitch in 1998 for example caused such massive and widespread loss that the then president of Honduras claimed that fifty years of progress in the country had been reversed. The hurricane destroyed about 70% of crops and an estimated 70–80% of transportation infrastructure, including most bridges and secondary roads. Across the country, 33,000 houses were destroyed, and an additional 50,000 were damaged; some 5,000 people killed and 12,000 injured – for an estimated total loss of US$3 billion. Not only did Mitch destroy crops for 1998, it also created a shortage of seeds needed by farmers for the next year’s harvest. Those who are more financially comfortable can purchase food from abroad but small subsistence farmers are left with no food and no income.

Getting people to overcome poverty needs to be a priority objective in the climate change agenda, especially since there is a growing interest by the international community to get involved in climate change issues. Combating poverty and inequality will help poor and marginalised communities effectively address climate change threats, an I issue that I further explore in the new APC/IDRC publication, and which is also among the key recommendations of the Royal Society in their report “People and the Planet Report” on climate change.

APCNews: ICTs have been used to mitigate the effects of climate change by scientists and researchers, but how can the adoption of ICTs help communities become more resilient to climate change?

GC: A positive connection between climate change mitigation and ICT is actually quite difficult to make. We should not forget that many components in ICT are far from being “green technologies” and that their waste disposal is a major environmental concern so there are two sides to the coin. I am not sure if using them for environmental purposes necessarily compensates for their detrimental effect on the environment and climate change.

They can be used in a variety of ways – from computer-based applications and modelling for research, to being used for communicating by a large and diverse number of users. ICTs are widely available everywhere nowadays. They are no longer only available to an exclusive few like they were some fifteen to twenty years ago.

Regarding climate change, I associate the use of ICTs as integrated in the work of most, if not all, of the stakeholders. This is why in the paper, I recommend dealing with the ICT research agenda as a crosscutting issue in their scientific application to climate change, and this includes meteorology as much as it does communications. ICTs must be used in ways that are appropriate to their contexts rather than being given a blanket application. For example, there may be health issues that arise following a flood – it is this issue that will determine how ICTs are used within this context; therefore, ICTs must be cross-cutting and “bottom-up”, rather than be applied in a “one-size fits all” way. Another example: ICTs are necessary to Early Warning Systems (EWS, related to extreme weather events, or disaster preparedness), and different ICTs will be used in different ways within the EWS system. These uses can range from data processing in the hands of specialists, to communicating with end users at the community level (which might involve generating alerts, not just receiving them).

APCNews : There are still huge gaps in literature and knowledge – what are some of the more immediate gaps that need to be filled?

GC: There is still a lot of debate over the sources of climate change and this will continue for some time. But the debates and continued research efforts to reveal the causes of climate change are important – the results have huge implications for our economy, how we use finite resources, and how our consumption patterns are shaped, etc. There are also economic considerations in play, and we see them clearly in the positions over conservation and the use of natural resources that divide developed countries from developing countries. Responsible science also plays a fundamental role Issues arise when climate change becomes the “flavour of the month” for research funding, and when dogmatism takes over evidence for recommending the course of actions for mitigating or adapting to climate change. Researchers must adhere to a strong code of ethic, and this isn’t always the case.

Having said this, we know that the planet is getting warmer, regardless of the cause. The most immediate issue is how to adapt. This requires us to prioritise adaptation research in the regions that will be most affected. Drought, flood and/or heat resistant crops are key, and these are very likely to come from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – which are highly controversial for various reasons ranging from scepticism from the general public and acceptance, criticism regarding biodiversity loss, and rights issues in a globalise and capitalist system, which gives multinational corporations access to seeds that small (and poor) farmers cannot afford.

Having infrastructure to cope with extreme weather events is also a major challenge particularly in developing regions and countries where public funding is very limited. These include building adequate roads and bridges, as well as the delivery of key public services such as water distribution and communications – and responsible research is vital to ensuring that appropriate adaptation infrastructure is adjusted to local needs.

Finally, priority must be given to establishing communities of practice that can exchange and learn from local experiences, methods, approaches and tools that can be adopted or adapted elsewhere. Here the use of Web 2.0, social networks and other modern internet methods can help bring people together at a reduced cost, though getting grassroots organisations to participate in these networks will still be a challenge. In our work we have found that even when connectivity issues are resolved, this category of in-demand participants don’t always feel comfortable sharing their opinions with those that are not their immediate co-workers. This can also be compounded with the lack of written communication and documentation practices. Hopefully, the next generations will change these practices.

Gilles Cliche works for RIMISP, an NGO based in Latin America that is involved in research in rural development. RIMISP focuses on applied policy research concerned with rural poverty and equity.

Image by Bigstock .

(END/2012)

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