Critically evaluating climate change research: An important new skill for policy makers across the Andean region.

Climate change is having an enormous impact in the Andean region, one of the most conspicuous results being glacial melt. Ministers of the affected countries need to draw up policies in order to deal with the environmental, social, and economic consequences, which means that they first need to fully understand exactly what the consequences will be. There are many groups who have investigated the impacts of climate change and produced numerous studies on the subject, but evaluating these studies is not always straightforward. A recent training course—requested by the Comunidad Andina de Naciones (Community of Andean Nations – CAN), financed by the World Bank, and delivered by a team of experts from Bolivia—is helping policy makers make sense of the evidence.

Drs. Lykke Andersen, Luís Carlos Jemio, Oscar Molino, and Gonzalo Lora from the Institute for Advanced Development Studies (INESAD) and the Universidad Privada Boliviana (UPB) travelled all around the South American region in January of this year. The aim was to teach a ten-step guide of Climate Change Impact Evaluation to government officials in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. The process drawn up by the experts starts from a chosen topic and scale of analysis. This ranges from single, local effects of climate change, such as reductions of Fiji’s tuna stocks (Aaheim, 2000), to generalized, global-level impacts (Stern, 2007). The ten steps take officials through understanding these studies to formulating recommendations for public policies. Dr. Lykke Andersen, who directs INESAD’s Center for Environmental Economic Modeling and Analysis, spoke to Development Roast about the course.

How did the initiative get started?

It began when the coordinator of the Bolivian project ‘Adaptation to the Impact of Rapid Glacier Retreat in the Tropical Andes‘ (PRAA), financed by CAN, decided that before they would contract any more climate change impact studies, they needed some training in the design and evaluation of such studies. So instead of spending US$75,000 on contracting yet another study, they decided to instead spend the money on training 75 government officials in methodologies to carry out such studies.

What was the aim of the course, and why was it needed?

All the government officials who attended the course had some knowledge about climate change, and some could even be considered experts. But very few had knowledge about the statistical methods and models needed to estimate and simulate the impacts of climate change. In general, they had trouble evaluating whether the studies that passed their desks were sensible or not. The purpose of the course was to increase their capacity to design and evaluate climate change impact studies, in order to ensure that future studies will be of consistently high quality.

What makes it difficult is that it is almost impossible to estimate the impacts of climate change, due to the huge uncertainties associated with the long time frames (typically 50-200 years). We know only approximately how the climate might change, and especially the precipitation component is highly uncertain. Also, it is difficult to predict what the economy is going to look like 100 years from now, and thus it is difficult to assess what the impacts of climate change might be. There is some pressure on scientists to find large impacts of climate change in order to encourage mitigation action, but I think that if some studies are bad, it is mainly due to researchers using inadequate tools and methodologies, simply because the standard tools are not designed to deal with such long time frames and such large uncertainty. Also, people have trouble interpreting the results correctly, because often they are not presented in a reasonable context. For example, one might represent the same impacts as “500 billion dollars” or as “0.1 percent of GDP.” Obviously the first sounds more scary, but the latter puts the loss into context and shows that it may not be the “biggest threat that our civilization has ever faced.”

Which government officials in particular was the course aimed at?

Most participants came from Environmental Ministries, but in each country a third of the slots were reserved for participants coming from parts of the country other than the capital. This means that we had quite a lot of people from local governments, such as the Environmental Units of state or municipal governments. There were also several participants from the national meteorological services.

How common are government training workshops such as these, and how valuable do you think they are?

There are an almost infinite number of workshops for government officials to attend, but a scarcity of more thorough training. This three-day course was still too short to create capacity for carrying out actual climate change impact studies, but I think it is useful for giving officials sufficient criteria for evaluating the studies made by others, and for writing Terms of Reference for climate change impact studies that they require others to carry out.

Are there any future plans to take the training to other Andean countries or to organize any follow-up courses?

The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada has just awarded us a grant to repeat the course in Paraguay and in Ecuador. This time it will be for civil society organizations, though, rather than government officials. This has also been requested for Bolivia, but we have not secured funding for this yet, as the courses are quite expensive (on average $25,000 per course). Also the IDRC funding is for us to write a book that includes both an improved version of the ten-step Guide that we used in the training course, and examples of the application of this Guide by course participants.

Tracey Li is a Senior Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.

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For your reference:

Aaheim, A. & Sygna, L. (2000), Economic impacts of climate change on tuna fisheries in Fiji Islands and Kiribati, Cicero Report 4, Cicero, Oslo.

 

Stern, N. (2007), The Economics of Climate Change – The Stern Review, Cambridge University Press.

 

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