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To impact climate policy, researchers should think short-term, expert says

Long-term climate trends may be meaningless for policy-makers and land managers making short term decisions.
A rodovia BR-364, recém-pavimentada, está em risco de maior desmatamento. Kate Evans/CIFOR.
A rodovia BR-364, recém-pavimentada, está em risco de maior desmatamento. Kate Evans/CIFOR.

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BOGOR, Indonesia (1 November 2013) — Scientists could have a greater influence over climate change policy if more research showed how communities are already adapting to changes, rather than focusing solely on long-term projections, a scientist from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has said.

As policy-makers study the recently released fifth assessment by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and consider measures to adapt to more extreme weather projected to occur by the end of the century, they are neglecting communities that are already confronting drought, floods, fires and shifting seasonal patterns, said Lou Verchot, CIFOR’s director of forests and environment research.

“IPCC scenarios often deal with climate change over the time horizon of 70 to 100 years. They look at very long-term trends,” he said. “But the trends that are important for policy-makers and land managers are at the five-, 10- or 20-year time horizon. So these long-term trends are sort of meaningless at that level,” Verchot said.

“When you talk to a policy-maker about a 70-year time horizon, hypothetically they say, Well, I have to get elected tomorrow, so I’ll focus on a problem that will be solvable in five years and let my successors worry about what will happen in 70 years.”

At the Global Landscapes Forum in Warsaw, on the sidelines of international climate policy negotiations in November, Verchot will co-lead a discussion forum on evidence-based climate information for decision-making, bringing together scientists from different areas of expertise.

The session is aimed at encouraging more research on how communities are adapting to the shorter-term trends of climate change, and to discuss how scientific findings can be presented to policymakers in a manner consistent with timeframes they find relevant.

A CIFOR study published in 2011, for example, described how livestock-rearing communities in the Sahel — a semi-arid strip of land that stretches across northern Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea — have coped with medium-term weather patterns that contradict long-term projections.

Another example: After drought in Mali in the 1970s and ’80s dried up a lake that a community depended on for watering their livestock, migration with livestock herds increased as a response. In this culture, men move with the herds, while women stay in the village, and this increased migration put a heavy burden on women, who had to find alternative ways to earn their livelihoods. Resource scarcity led to increased social conflict and other changes in the community society, and a rebellion in the northern part of the country added to the problem.

Since the 1990s, rainfall has been recovering in the region, but with high year-to-year variability. “In a case like this, you don’t want to advise agencies supporting these communities to work on helping them adapt to the long-term trend of drying. You need to advise them to do things that that will make them more adaptive to the high year-to-year variability,” Verchot said.

During a period of higher than average rainfall, development strategies focused on increased adaptation to drought would lead to maladaptation — adaptation with negative effects — and is something decision-makers can avoid, if they are given the right information about medium-term weather trends, Verchot said.

“If we can express our understanding of climate change with a more appropriate time scale so it’s interacting with today’s problems, I think we, as a scientific community, can articulate why climate change is important and why it is so much more important and insidious than people understand at the moment,” Verchot said.

For further information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Louis Verchot at l.verchot@cgiar.org

These topics will be covered at the Global Landscapes Forum at the Warsaw Climate Change Conference in November 2013.

This work forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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