‘We need local solutions to local climate change problems’
This is according to Professor René Pellissier, the programme manager of climate change and sustainable development at the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA).
She was a participant at the international conference of the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA) from 16-18 March in Johannesburg, South Africa, titled, ‘University, business and partnerships: A driver for 4IR solutions post COVID-19’.
Pellissier took part in a session on the role of climate justice amid progress signified by 4IR. She told University World News in an e-mail interview that “we must step towards adopting 4IR technologies, integrating artificial intelligence (AI) into research and collecting and using big data in urbanisation, migration, agriculture and environmental protection”.
UWN: As a researcher and higher education specialist, which areas of climate change – and aligned initiatives – are you currently focusing on?
RP: As head of climate change and sustainable development at SARUA, one of our main projects has been to enhance the capacity of the region’s universities to contribute towards climate change initiatives through the design and implementation of a masters programme as well as short courses on climate change. SARUA is a membership-based organisation and has 66 public universities in 15 countries in the Southern African Development Community.
This [the work done by SARUA] would create a platform that delivers climate education for university students and relevant stakeholders such as those in governance and policymaking who must have the knowledge and skills to negotiate and participate meaningfully in global negotiations and conversations on behalf of the continent.
UWN: Universities are increasingly tasked with advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, in this instance, mainly SDG13 (climate action). What can universities do?
RP: In order to advance SDG 13, universities must be able to provide and integrate well-designed climate action education, in studies and to focus on development-related capacity-building.
For example, the SARUA masters curriculum has a focus on key concepts of climate change and sustainable development. This embodies development of transdisciplinary thinking and skills, mitigation and adaptation theory and practice with a focus on agriculture, food security and climate change.
As research priorities, it is fundamental to adopt global trends and broader concepts related to sustainability, in terms of disaster risk and risk reduction, especially given the cumulative effects of extreme weather-related events on economies and livelihoods.
The African region needs more effective use of the SDG framework as a guideline to adaptation and building resilient communities as well as ecosystem-based strategies to protect and restore ecological infrastructure in adaptation approaches. In other words, we need local solutions to local climate change problems.
I relate to the opinion from the January 2021 article by Maia Chankseliani and Tristan McCowan in Higher Education:
“Nevertheless, while there are widespread initiatives, and an increasing number of universities aligning their activities with the SDGs, there is a significant gap in knowledge and evidence.
“There is still a need to document the wide variety of activities relevant to sustainable development being undertaken by universities, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and to assess the consonance between activities of teaching, research, community engagement and campus operations.
“Furthermore, rigorous research is needed to gauge the impact in practice of these activities on society, beyond the intentions or assumptions of the work. As a result, there exist a number of unanswered questions in terms of the institutional forms and practices that can best support the SDGs, and the influences of local and national contexts.”
UWN: What role can academics and universities in Africa play in integrating climate change processes, knowledge and information in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)?
RP: The 4IR is about advancements of technology and the abundance of information. However, information is only as good as our willingness to deal with it and use it.
To do that, we need to design systems that can support the huge influx of information to better support the student study life cycle.
Technology has already shown its usefulness in the time of COVID through blended learning models. There is more to technology than that, however.
Artificial Intelligence has already shown its value through machine learning but we need to be careful not to allow AI to branch out of human control.
In our control, it allows for skills and activities, even quantum computing, that humans cannot do. It can also be a negative force as was shown recently when AI was used to create thousands of new chemical compounds by researchers wanting to show the negative implications of AI on human safety. This can be managed through AI ethics, provided we deal with that now.
UWN: How can the gap between climate researchers and policymakers as well as communities be addressed?
RP: As a continent, we must move from climate theory to climate action and, therefore, it is critical to build alliances and partnerships between different role-players in terms of climate change. This calls for inclusion of local contexts and indigenous knowledge in climate adaptation strategies.
UWN: What would you say are some of the challenges facing women researchers in the climate change fields and what are your recommendations to grow more researchers in the climate action fields?
RP: It is mostly about capacity and visibility. The role of female researchers in an area of human-centricity cannot be denied and it is important to look at global trends and expectations.
We need to allow for capacity to be developed. Note that capacity-building is not necessarily the same as policy development. I agree policy development is the end game, but capacity development is more suitable to achieving immediate and on-the-ground positive outcomes.
UWN: During the THENSA conference, you discussed what the climate would look like in 2050. How could the African region prepare for these changes, and what would be your recommendations as a researcher and futurist on how Africa can prepare to meet these changes?
RP: Beyond the emission reductions registered in 2015, no further efforts were made to control emissions. We are heading for a world that will be more than three degrees Celsius warmer by 2100.
There are five major areas of concern, which include accelerating industrialisation, rapid population growth, widespread malnutrition, depletion of non-renewable resources and a deteriorating environment.
As academics and learning institutions, we must step towards adopting 4IR technologies, integrating AI into research and collecting and using big data in urbanisation, migration, agriculture and environmental protection.
UWN: What does climate justice mean in the context of Africa, and where does it fit into the bigger climate change debate?
RP: Climate justice acknowledges that climate change can have differing social, economic, public health and other adverse impacts on underprivileged populations.
These inequities must be addressed head on through long-term mitigation and adaptation strategies. It is important to connect the dots between civil rights and climate change, the biggest victims of climate change have negatively correlated responsibility – particularly youth or developing countries that produce fewer emissions.
Climate change and social justice must be promoted, not only within climate change studies and research but in climate activism bringing together learning institutions, communities, corporates, civil society and policymakers. Africa is the case study of a diverse society and should be the birthplace for climate justice.