Linking science and advocacy on climate change

Dr Conor Murphy and Dr Lorna Gold

Posted: 1 September, 2016

To mark our #LoveIrishResearch theme for September, ‘Research for a Better World’, we are very happy to share a two part blog, presenting two perspectives on an innovative project carried out by Dr Conor Murphy of ICARUS and Dr Lorna Gold of Trócaire.

According to the science, climate change is one of the most serious challenges facing humanity today. The growing consensus around the scale, scope and urgency of the threat is very well documented in scientific journals, reports and books. Despite this, there remains a very serious disconnect between the scientific research, public understanding and the policy choices being made to tackle climate change both in Ireland and internationally. Moreover, there is ignorance or perhaps agnosticism towards the very real injustices being committed against many poor people as a result of the injustice of climate inaction. Overcoming this disconnect is perhaps one of the most important and complex challenges facing academia, and public policy making in general today.

It was with this challenge in mind that Trócaire and the Irish Climate Analysis and Research Units (ICARUS) – both based on campus in Maynooth University – undertook an innovative collaboration. In the summer of 2014 we were looking to embark on a new organisational advocacy campaign to raise awareness of current and future impacts of climate change on the world’s poorest people and  find a way to capitalise as much as possible on the existing knowledge and research. We also wanted to use the research to build a strong case for inclusion of “climate justice” as a principle in Ireland’s new climate law.

We approached Dr Conor Murphy in ICARUS to see whether they would be interested in helping us. He offered to undertake a review of the relevant scientific research, both the IPCC 5th Assessment Report and other research relating to the human sciences, and present the key findings on how climate change is affecting and will affect people in developing countries. We chose five countries where Trócaire works – Ethiopia, Malawi, Honduras, the Philippines and Kenya.

A key consideration from the start of the process was how to ensure scientific accuracy and objectivity, whilst ensuring that the findings of the report could be used to influence policy and public opinion. Trócaire, after all, has a mandate for advocating specific policy prescriptions based around our values of social justice – something the scientists did not want to implicitly or explicitly endorse. From Trócaire’s perspective, however, having the explicit assurance that what we were saying was scientifically backed was paramount to the success of the campaign. So the question was how to manage the association in the most appropriate way.

Through mutual discussion, the agreement reached was an innovative proposal which we had not considered previously. The ICARUS researchers produced a scientific paper for us which is publicly available on the Trócaire website. Trócaire then worked to popularise this science, working with an experienced editor. We developed our own policy analysis and recommendations, and supplemented the scientific data with illustrative testimonies from communities we work with in each of the countries. We also produced concise infographics to illustrate the science. Importantly, at regular stages throughout the report production process we checked in with the scientists to ensure our popularised report was in line with the science. Both reports were then published online simultaneously.

The result was an extremely readable and impactful piece of research. The “Feeling the Heat Report” is by far the most widely used Trócaire report in recent years and has been widely quoted and distributed across Ireland and beyond. It was launched on the first anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2014 and also in the Stormont Assembly in March 2015. It has continued to have a wide appeal both amongst academics, policy makers and NGOs. The report has been adapted and translated into several languages by other international NGOs. The individual country case studies have also been produced and used separately. A second edition of the report, with updated science, is currently under preparation and due for release in early 2017.

The research became the basis for a growing partnership between Trócaire and Maynooth University, particularly focused around climate justice. In June 2015, on the back of the Feeling the Heat Report, Trócaire and Maynooth University, held a major public conference on Climate Justice. In line with the research findings, the event focus was around “Climate Justice: From Evidence to Action”, highlighting the need to link research with policy change and action. The event was attended by 600 participants from across Irish society, including many policy makers and academics. Amongst the issues discussed, there was a clear call at the conference was for climate justice to be included in climate legislation – something the government had refused to do thus far. The day after the conference one of the attendees, Maureen O’Sullivan TD, had the opportunity to address the Taoiseach at leaders questions. She asked him directly about the conference in Maynooth and the need to include climate justice in the bill. The Taoiseach was perhaps caught off guard and agreed to the proposal. It may not have been the only influencing factor – but his decision to ‘roll over’ demonstrated one important impact of research and advocacy collaboration in action.

In the second part of this blog, we hear from Dr Conor Murphy, lecturer in the Department of Geography and member of the Irish Climate Analysis and Research UnitS.

There is often an uncomfortable relationship between science and advocacy. Traditional views of science see the scientist as objective and removed, commenting just on the facts and findings of research. In my own close circles I know highly respected academics with very different perspectives on this issue, some embrace advocacy, others shy away completely while most sit somewhere in between.

I have the utmost respect for the work of Trócaire in many of the poorest parts of the world. Through my own work on food security in Malawi I have seen firsthand the difference that agencies like Trócaire, who operate with the needs to the poorest central to their agenda, can make. Despite this respect I was still a little uneasy when Lorna approached me about helping out with developing their new campaign on climate change and climate justice. Often the science is twisted and taken out of context when used in advocacy, particularly in the area of climate change. At the same time agencies like Trócaire have a huge visibility among the general public and reach within the policy arena. Scientific research is often beyond the reach of these audiences, hidden behind paywalls, gathered in large and inaccessible reports and rarely presented in digestible form for those who just want to know the key points.

During initial discussions with Lorna to explore how such a collaboration might happen these concerns and opportunities were openly put on the table and we devised an innovative approach whereby the statements distilled in the final report would be those that emerged from the scientific literature directly. To facilitate this, I along with a colleague from Mzuzu Univeristy in Malawi derived a country report for each of Trócaire’s focus countries. These span a range of climate types and experience a diversity of climate extremes from tropical hurricanes (Honduras and the Philippines) to droughts (Ethiopia) and floods (Malawi). Each experience different pressures and are responding to climate change in their own ways.

For each country we developed a separate country report focusing on the following themes: Observed climate variability and change; Projected future changes in climate; Food production and climate change; Access to water; Gender; Migration; Health; and Economic Impacts. Our review drew upon various Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Reports plus additional literature and in sum draws on over 150 scientific papers. For each country a table distilling the key findings and uncertainties were provided and used to develop the final ‘Feeling the Heat’ report.

Commitment to the integrity of the science was maintained in production of the final report where the editor frequently checked in to ensure they were representing the science correctly. The final product has been well received and widely circulated. At the end of the day I am satisfied that this relationship worked very well, where we met our goal of making the science more accessible to a wider audience.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.

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