Climate change: why is learning and acting so hard?

Lawrence Haddad outlines issues on knowledge and learning in the context of development and climate change. He gave the opening remarks for the two-day climate change knowledge exchange 'Acting on what we know and how we learn for climate and development policy' at the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, UK last 5-6 March 2013. The blog was originally published in Development Horizons.

Last March 5 IDS welcomed 80 participants to a learning event on how we learn and act on that learning in climate policy

The event was organised in partnership with the GEF Evaluation Office, CDKN, and the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) programme of the CGIAR.

So what makes learning so difficult in the climate change and development space?

  1. The often long wave nature of the gap between impact and action. As Sam Knight writes in Prospect this month, this tempted us to try hope, then denial, then delay. He says now it is time to face reality (although what will actually force us to do this is not clear to me). Clearly it is a challenge to communicate urgency to those who fail to see it. Intergenerational justice is not exactly a vote winner, yet.
  2. The multidisciplinary and multisectoral nature of climate change fragments alliances or prevents alliances forming in the first place. Effective knowledge generation for action requires alliances across science and social science, those who hold expert and local knowledge and across public and private actors. Not to mention multilateralism. The high coordination demands require lots of effort.
  3. There is a lot is at stake beyond climate change. Powerful business interests are challenged. This makes the whole debate even more politicised.
  4. There is not that much evidence in the social science space--the methodological challenges are huge in relatively slow moving processes and the construction of counterfactuals is always model based and models are always contested. This is a problem for evidence-based culture 'what works, where and for whom'? As one of my IDS colleagues said to me recently, this means we need to rely on 'what is, what has been and what is likely to be' but of course this is also highly contested

What about the challenges of acting on knowledge?

  1. Is the learning and evidence actionable? Policymakers need help from the researchers and vice versa. What does it mean to a policymaker to make resilience more pro-poor? What questions are key from the policy person's perspective?
  2. Is implementation capacity too fragmented to act on knowledge? My climate change colleagues at IDS have noted the fragmentation across communities in disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation and social protection. Different but highly related fields that do not readily act in unison.
  3. Is action being picked up by M&E systems? What is caused by climate change and what is not? M&E is challenging enough--in climate change it needs to be even better.
  4. Can the evidence be framed in ways that reflect capacity and political opportunity? How can we be political about the use of evidence and knowledge without being political about its generation? A generic question, but critical in climate change and development, it seems to me.

So, it is really appropriate to reflect on how we are and aren't learning and the barriers and enablers to effective action.

The learning event very much reflects the USP of the climate and development work of IDS: convening broad networks to support these alliances, a focus on the political economy of climate change action and a focus on the politics of evidence--whose knowledge counts?

Lawrence Haddad is the Director of the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex. He is an economist and his main research interests are at the intersection of poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition. He was formerly Director of the International Food Policy Research Institute's Food Consumption and Nutrition Division and Lecturer in Development Economics at the University of Warwick. His field research has been in the Philippines, India and South Africa. He has a PhD from Stanford University. An economist, he was selected for the latest Who's Who in Economics (Elgar).

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