Climate Equity for All

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Science  16 Sep 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5742, pp. 1789
DOI: 10.1126/science.1115898

Recent natural catastrophes have catapulted climate into the headlines again. As we witness the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina, we are also reminded of numerous floods, droughts, and storms seen across the world in recent years. Are these linked to climate change? Questions about climate change, its global effects, and whether and how we can tackle this issue can no longer be avoided. Fortunately, this summer at the G8 Summit in Scotland, the leaders of the world's major industrialized nations agreed on the need to reduce carbon emissions; and although there is argument about the mechanism and timing, the case for moving to a low-carbon economy is essentially won. But we are faced with a rapidly changing global economy. As developing countries industrialize—China and India in Asia and Brazil and Mexico in Latin America—greenhouse gas-related climate stresses are expected to increase. At the same time, the environments, economies, and societies of the least-developed countries, such as those in Africa, are the most vulnerable to climate change because their ability to adapt is poor. Reaching international agreement on actions to minimize the dangerous impacts of climate change requires not only negotiations among developed nations but dialogue with the developing world. How do we involve these developing countries in the ongoing climate change discussions, and what information is needed to inform both developing-country policies and international decisions?


Local scientists could help formulate developing-country perspectives on climate change by conducting regional climate model experiments. These are essentially high-resolution weather forecast models that are used to calculate the environmental impacts of predicted changed weather patterns. Only when there are estimates of the economic and social impacts of changes in flood and drought frequency can possible increases in global mean temperature be translated into estimates of changes in food security and livelihoods. Scientists in the developing countries concerned are best placed to undertake these detailed local analyses. This work would also provide incentives to governments to maintain the long-term climate data sets that are needed for verification of climate simulations at the present levels of greenhouse gas concentrations.

Technologies to run modeling experiments are now being made available to scientists in developing countries. But this initial technical capacity is of little use without the human scientific capacity to design and interpret the experiments. Creating this expertise is a long process that, for each individual, requires continual personal development in a vibrant research environment. There is strong argument for concentrating scientists at centers of excellence in the developing world. When Carlos Nobre directed the Brazilian Center for Weather Forecasting and Climate Research in the 1990s, he initiated collaborations with experts in the United Kingdom and United States, building a critical mass of local expertise. As a result, Brazil now includes climate change in its long-term planning for economic and land use development.

Earlier this year, speakers at a Royal Society meeting in London indicated that climate change is likely to increase the frequency of crop failure in Africa. Other research presented this month at the British Association's Festival of Science in Dublin warned that an extra 50 million people will be at risk of hunger by 2050, and the majority of these will be in Africa. This alarming forecast begs for an Africa-based research program to investigate the possible impacts of regional climate change.

This need to strengthen climate change research in the developing world can be filled by establishing regional centers of excellence in developing countries and arranging training, staff exchanges, and shared research projects with developed nations. The Global Environment Facility, which provides grants to developing countries for projects that benefit the environment, has a mandate to address the issue of climate change. It is well placed to fund this initiative by either financing new institutions or strengthening and expanding existing organizations. The African Centre of Meteorological Application for Development, a pan-African center located in Niger, is one clear candidate for this role.

Developing countries need to become more engaged and empowered in the international negotiations on managing global climate change. This should be done quickly if we are to outrun the pace of that change.

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