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It’s time to listen to African climate scientists

Esther Ndumi Ngumbi
By Esther Ndumi Ngumbi

Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology; African-American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A senior Food Security Fellow with the Aspen Institute New Voices. @EstherNgumbi on Twitter.

Ifeanyi M. Nsofor
By Ifeanyi M. Nsofor

Dr Ifeanyi M. Nsofor is the Senior Vice President for Africa at Human Health Education and Research Foundation. He is a Senior New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute, a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity at George Washington University and an Innovation Fellow at PandemicTech You can follow him on Twitter @ekemma.

Posted on Wednesday, 15 September 2021 12:38

A Kenyan farmer from the Kyuso region inspects her devastated field after a swarm of locusts passes through.
A Kenyan farmer from the Kyuso region inspects her devastated field after a swarm of locusts passes through. REUTERS/Baz Ratner

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released a new report that detailed the worsening trends in climate and the future we collectively face.

As African scientists from Kenya and Nigeria, one of the first things we did was to check the author list of the IPCC report to see how Africans were represented and what we found disappointed us.

Disappointingly, the number of scientists from Africa was low. This gap is despite the fact that all through 2020 and 2021, the need for inclusivity and diversifying the voices we listen to, as we deal with grand challenges of our day including climate change and Covid-19, has been said to be a priority. So, we expected a somewhat fairer representation in the list of contributing authors to this IPCC report.

Furthermore, we know firsthand how climate change is affecting our continent and why more Africans should be part of this kind of major global report. 

Africa and climate change

In 2019 and through 2020, Kenya witnessed severe invasions of locusts. These led to the destruction of plants, food insecurity, and worsened poverty. On the Kenyan coast, where Esther grew up, the effects of climate change are visible. From the rains that have become infrequent, making it impossible to grow enough food crops to feed family and community members to sweltering temperatures and more.

In Nanka, Ifeanyi’s village in Nigeria, landslides are common. Over the years, many families have lost their homes and been displaced. The increased rainfall and flooding are worsening landslides. Lagos, Africa’s most populous city, just had its worst flooding in recent years. Experts are predicting that the city of 24 million people may become unliveable by the end of the century with the rising sea levels.

While climate change is a global problem, it is often an acute one in Africa, and thus African voices should always be well represented when looking for solutions.

Why was the IPCC report lacking in African voices?

To find out why there were so few African authors, we contacted IPCC and their response was revealing.

We learned that the first step for becoming an IPCC author was to already be an expert reviewer. It showed that the agency strives for balance among different regions of the world, including between developed and developing countries. For instance, the Working Group I report that just came out has 41% from developing countries. The Working Group II report in February (impacts and adaptation) is 57%.

Importantly, we learned some of the challenges that could explain why there were few African authors. According to one of the three IPCC Vice-Chairs, Youba Sokona from Mali, who is an important advocate for African involvement in the work of the IPCC, one of the major problems is limited publication by African scholars on African climate-related issues. 

We also learned that IPCC focal points are not connected to universities and/or research organisations and non-response by the African Academy of Sciences and universities during the past three years. In addition, serving as a contributing author is not compensated financially, which can deter the participation of scientists from countries that continue to work with limited resources.

The reasons given were not surprising. Publishing, the first major problem contributing to few African authors, can be costly. It has already been argued that high publishing costs continue to keep African scholars out of top science journals.  What then can be done to ensure we African scientists continue to participate as IPCC contributing authors or review editors?

First, IPCC, African governments, universities and Africa-based research institutions should set aside funds that scientists can apply for when they have publishable research. Further, IPCC should diversify the portfolio of institutions and organisations it engages with to solicit and identify future IPCC report contributors.

Second, the global north must stop treating African scientists as victims. This colonial attitude leaves our voices out and continues to perpetuate the idea that we are victims of climate change. Rather, engage and recruit us so that we can intellectually contribute to future IPCC reports.

Third, a continent that contributes least to climate change but bears the greatest burden must be at the forefront of decision-making.

We certainly believe that if IPCC improves its recruitment process and addresses the issues raised, a call that has been made before,  to ensure that many African climate scientists participate as contributing authors for IPCC reports, now and in the future, then perhaps, the report would have more synthesis about what these projections mean to Africa. It would also perhaps help improve the paucity of climate data from the African continent, an issue that has continued to be raised when global climate reports are released.

Bottom line

Climate change like Covid-19 is a pandemic, a global issue. No continent is spared. Mitigating climate change requires that all hands are on deck and expert views are curated no matter where they exist.

IPCC, the UN, African country governments, the AU, Africa based universities and research institutions and African Academies of Sciences, should do their best to ensure that we engage African climate scientists. It is fair and ethically the right thing to do.

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