Climate Change Cheat Sheet: Social Science Edition

April 1, 2014 – Hilary Oliva Faxon

On Monday, the IPCC WGII launched its AR5 contribution. Wait… what? Climate change science and policy is so full of jargon it’s almost impossible – yet still important – to understand what we’re on about. This week, Working Group II (WGII) of the international authority of climate science came out with a new report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. It was proceeded by a fall report from Working Group I (WGI) on the science of climate change, and will be followed later this month by Working Group III’s report on mitigation. Here are 4 things international development professionals need to know about the latest installment:


1)     The arctic is melting, but they won’t tell you that:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is notoriously conservative. Teams of scientists review relevant research and author each chapter, which is then subject to scrutiny from global politicians before publication. In practice, this long process means reports exclude the most recent and provocative findings, and qualify their assertions with various levels of uncertainty. The first report met some criticism for excessive invocations of uncertainty, but the bottom line in both reports so far is that human-induced climate change is happening, it has major impacts, and adaptation will be necessary and increasingly critical for livelihoods, agriculture, economies, and ecosystems.


2)    Climate change exacerbates instability and inequality:

Climate change has major health and economic impacts, and the poor and marginalized of the world are hit hardest. Especially interesting are this report’s sections on human security, for example:

–        “Climate change can indirectly increase risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and inter-group violence by amplifying well-documented drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks”

–       “The impacts of climate change on the critical infrastructure and territorial integrity of many states are expected to influence national security policies”

Food and water security are other major issues highlighted in the report.


3)    Context matters:

The lesson from WGI was: different regions will experience very different climactic changes, and we don’t know a whole lot about who gets what. Data collection and climate modeling have a long way to go before they adequately describe how Himalayan glaciers will melt. The lesson from WGII is: different regions have various social and governance systems, and will adapt differently to climate stress. Access to finance and technology, cultural norms, population distribution, and a myriad of other variables dictate both the extent of impacts, and a community’s ability to adapt.


4)    Transformation is the new black buzzword:

This report introduces the idea of “transformation” to enable climate-resilient pathways. The brief treatment is a far cry from former environmental establishment leader Gus Speth’s calls for radical rebirth, but the difference may be one of degree, not kind. It’s a sign of changing, and dire, times, but also an opportunity for all of us closet Marxists/alternative economists/human and indigenous rights advocates/big dreamers. Or maybe just another, newer, bit of jargon.

From Tree Huggers to Tree Modelers: environmentalists heed big data’s call

Feb. 20, 2014 – Hilary Oliva Faxon

The planet loses forest at the rate of 50 soccer fields per minute. Deforestation can be devastating for biodiversity and forest-based livelihoods, but it’s not just a local problem: land use change contributes almost 20% of annual greenhouse gas emissions, driving global climate change. Unfortunately, large areas of forests are challenging to access, making them difficult to track and police. Global Forest Watch aims change that.

The platform, envisioned and managed by the World Resources Institute (WRI) with Google Earth Engine, the University of Maryland, and 40 other partners, documents near real time forest cover changes in over 200 countries on an interactive map. Zoom in to the region of your choice and scroll through time to see the when and where of forest gain and loss. The information has major implications for land tenure, REDD+ programs, protected area management, and indigenous and state natural resource claims.

Global Forest Watch harnesses amazing amounts of data – some from NASA, some that’s been languishing in USGS reels stored in South Dakota – and puts it online for free. It took 10,000 Google computers several days to upload a base map, said Google Earth Outreach and Earth Engine Engineering Manager Rebecca Moore, “This is when we [at Google] start drooling.”

Despite the data’s massive size, the resulting platform is both simple and accessible (play with it and see if you agree). Ease of use is perhaps the program’s greatest strength: “You can’t solve problems you can’t see. This gives the global effort a whole new set of tools going forward,” said USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, linking the platform to Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

The launch featured an unusual, and remarkable, list of endorsements: the former president of Mexico, an Assistant Secretary of State, the head of USAID, the CEO of Unilever, a major Indonesian politician, Jane Goodall, an UN indigenous rights leader. The diverse group speaks to the tool’s range. With a few clicks, companies can monitor their supply chains, indigenous peoples can gauge encroachments on their land, and governments and NGOs can track illegal logging. Users can make their own maps, set an alert for changes in a specific area (for example a national park), post their own data and stories to the site, and potentially much, much more… WRI has left it up to users to apply the tool, though they have a strong supply of both good ideas and funding for on-the-ground partners.

A few things are especially interesting to me about the launch and the tool. Full disclosure: I’m currently on contract with a different program at WRI, but these observations and opinions are my own.

One: data is changing development. In academia, Yale’s Karen Seto use remote sensing imagery to model urbanization in India and China. Meanwhile LIDS’ Andrea Titus comments below about data debates around the post-2015 framework. Now big data is being harnessed to address global deforestation, a persistent and truly “wicked” environmental problem with complex ecological, social, and geopolitical implications. To see gray-clad federal employees cozy up with Bay Area software developers means big data has truly arrived.

Two: the private sector is critical. Even outside of Paul Polman’s short video speech, sustainable supply chains and the Consumer Goods Forum came up repeatedly. The private sector is embedded in the issue of global deforestation and has huge potential to limit the problem by committing to best practices. Global Forest Watch means companies can’t hide so easily, though whether that changes industry practice remains to be seen.

Three: green is global. Launching a tool that can be used by anybody, anywhere, for anything is a pretty remarkable idea. The openness of the platform and the “tell your own story” message make this a rather novel experiment, at least for the environmental movement. If Global Forest Watch can hit it half as big as Kickstarter, Instagram, and… dare we dream… Facebook, it will have made a big impact by raising the profile of forest issues worldwide.

So here’s the big question for hippies like me: can you hug a virtual tree?


Nature, Wealth, & Power: USAID makes a bid for global domination

Feb. 4, 2014 – Hilary O. Faxon

Nature, Wealth, & Power 2.0” might just be the sexiest title ever used by the U.S. Federal Government. It also happens to contain sound development guidance. The new USAID publication lays out a conceptual framework for integrating governance, economic, and environmental considerations into development programs, promoting a systems approach that transcends disciplinary boundaries.

Each section – “Nature,” “Wealth,” “Power,” and “Systems” – explores core principles and actions to guide diverse development projects. The publication draws from field experiences of a decade of projects, incorporating case studies and expanding from the 2002 NWP1. The result is a relatively straightforward report that not only promotes and illustrates the concept, but also provides guidelines to make it operational. Agronomists, conservationists, economists, anthropologists, attorneys, and development practitioners alike can find their spot on the best venn diagram since 5th grade.

When looking at development processes, “cause and effect often fall in different sectors,” said Asif Shaikh, Senior Advisor for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and an author behind NWP1. The original team began work with the observation that many of the world’s disenfranchised people are linked with environmental degradation; eventually they came to see nature, wealth, and power as inextricably and inevitably linked. At NWP2.0’s launch event last week in Washington, D.C., Shaikh remembered explaining the concept to a local government leader in West Africa, who immediately responded, “Of course: the people need the power to manage the resources to create the wealth.”

The power of these linkages is demonstrated in the so-called “global land grab,” an uptick in corporate and federal usurpation of local land rights. In Myanmar, the recent influx of Foreign Direct Investment for mega-agriculture plantations and energy projects in a context of weak governance and ethnic strife has led to mass displacement. In Honduras, drug trafficking and desperate poverty in the absence of rule of law, education, and economic opportunity feed forest degradation. These complex cases only begin to unravel with understanding of global markets, domestic laws and institutions, and the characteristics of local land use and natural resources.

The NWP ideas are not new, but they are important to comprehensively and officially state (practice does not always follow principles, and major development donors have been guilty of neglecting or blatantly disregarding social and environmental safeguards). In sticking close to tried-and-true development success stories – pastoralists conserve Kenya; community forests empower Nepalis – the publication misses an opportunity to apply the NWP framework to critical issues including health, infrastructure, and cities – the last is especially critical as the global population tips towards majority urban. Still, a more proactive and sophisticated understanding of social and environmental systems from an aid organization is a step in the right direction, and an especially big step given USAID’s proposed 2014 budget of $20.4 billion. NWP has grown from niche idea to compelling theory; if it can become the foundation of standard development practice, the planet and its poor will be better for it.

Credit for image: here.