The ethics of long-term climate research

The ethics of long-term climate research
11 December, 2015

A short-term world

Lindsey Jones (ODI) and Nicola Ranger (DFID)

Lindsey Jones (ODI) and Nicola Ranger (DFID) review the findings of a study on climate change planning and grapple with the ethics around providing climate information to Africa decision makers.

How is climate change being factored into long-term investments and planning decisions in Africa? This was one of the key questions asked of a 12-month study, led by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), for the Future Climate for Africa (FCFA) programme.

So what did we find? Well, it turns out that, by and large, the issue of climate change isn’t being factored into long-term plans. This might be worrying and frustrating to some, but if we take a step back for a moment, on what ethical grounds are we standing when we tell African decision makers how to make up their minds?

FCFA is a new 4-year research programme, funded by the Department of International Development (DFID) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Its objective is to improve scientific understanding and prediction of climate change in Africa, and by working with African decision makers, bring this information into use in informing more resilient development policies, planning and investments.

The CDKN-led study aimed to identify who is making long-lived ‘climate-sensitive’ decisions and what information they need to make these choices more resilient to climate change.   Unfortunately in all four in-country studies conducted, we found that aside from a handful of isolated examples (mainly hydropower design), there were few, and in some cases no examples, of long-term climate being factored into investments today.

In general, longer time horizons are just not seen as a priority in the face of many more immediate development challenges. High levels of poverty and vulnerability to current climate underline this. Even for longer-lived decisions, like infrastructure and urban development, issues such as high discount rates, short political time-horizons, and large uncertainties mean that long-term climate is often way off the radar.

So, are we acting unethically by pushing an agenda that is not welcome?

Better information about climate change has been repeatedly demanded by African leaders. What is clear from the study is that many decision makers have a low understanding of climate change, and an even lower capacity to integrate longer-term issues into their short term priorities (this of course is true everywhere, not just in Africa!).

Also clear is that in some areas, like urban design or infrastructure, not accounting for future climate now may ‘lock-in’ greater risks down the line. This is particularly important for Africa, with its rapid rates of economic development and urbanisation.

Another ethical question is to whom should we send the longer-term climate information? For now, most efforts are focused on sharing information with national and regional policy-makers because this is where many of the decision around long-lived infrastructure and development planning take place. But what about local communities? Clearly everyone has the right to access such information. However, disseminating uncertain long-term climate information at scale without knowing whether all users are fully aware of the limitations may create more harm than good.

Delegates discuss FCFA at the synthesis conference

How can we recognise these ethical challenges and ensure that research is not promoting misplaced and unwelcomed agendas? Four points of action immediately stand out from the various case studies:

1) Engage only where there is demand. Pushing for decision makers to account for climate change where there is clearly no demand is not only ethically questionable but also ineffective. But research can play a role in raising awareness and starting the dialogue.

2) Tailor research to the needs of decision-makers. This sounds obvious, but rarely has climate research been truly demand-led. Informing adaptation requires a lot more than downscaling climate models. Truly impactful research requires multidisciplinary teams and working closely with users to co-identify problems and solutions.

3) Understand the political economy and recognise the interactions between climate change and wider development pressures. Failure to appreciate the social, political and economic drivers of decision making is one of the main reasons why research fails to have an impact.

4) Develop the right local partnerships and invest in meaningful dialogues.  Working with and supporting local service providers, including national and regional meteorological services, is critical. Trust, legitimacy and inclusivity should be as important as scientific method.

The FCFA case studies highlight that even an area like climate science brings up ethical questions that cannot be by-passed or ignored. If we want research to have an impact, these issues must be tackled head-on right from the start.

The full article and reports are available from:

A version of this blog can also be found on the CDKN website.

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