Knowledge co-production a prerequisite in climate change battle

Universities can help to initiate discussions to strengthen the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and can promote the political accountability needed to attain them.

This is according to Dr Jessica Thorn, a lecturer in sustainable development at the school of geography and sustainable development at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, and an African Research Initiative for Scientific Excellence (ARISE) fellow at the University of Namibia’s department of environmental sciences.

In addition, she has worked with the United Nations’ environmental programme as well as with several African governments, including those in South Africa, Kenya and Ghana.

University World News spoke to Thorn about the role of higher education in climate change, women who work in this specialisation field as well as the importance of climate justice.

UWN: What is your area of expertise and what work have you done on climate change in Africa?

JT: As a social-ecological system scientist, I have a background in ecology and human geography. My work broadly concentrates on climate change adaptation, biodiversity conservation, the sustainability of mega infrastructure and green transitions in semi-urban, smallholder and mountain systems.

Beyond academia, I am an author of the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change Sixth Assessment Report Working Group 2 Africa (human settlements, poverty economy and livelihoods, ecosystems) and mountains chapters.

UWN: What role do you see universities and academics playing in advancing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, mainly SDG 13 (climate action)?

JT: Universities are responsible for training future leaders that will drive sustainable transitions. No longer is it sufficient to look at challenges in a siloed manner, but rather [we have to look at it] as a wide range of interrelated goals as represented by [Africa’s development blueprint] Agenda 2030.

We now acknowledge science and knowledge co-production must be policy relevant and consider the needs of local stakeholders. This is evident through new types of departments, for instance the school of geography and sustainable development at the University of St Andrews and MSc programmes that look at the intersection of sustainable development.

Universities further have a unique role as they can initiate discussion to help ensure commitment to and strengthen implementation of the SDGs, and promote the political accountability needed to attain them.

A future foresight tool I regularly employ is participatory scenario planning which helps to foster collaboration, and provide a neutral space to discuss synergies and trade-offs about alternative pathways of development in the near to medium term.

Across Africa, we need more collaboration, where universities work closely with governments, civil society and private actors. Universities require more open dialogue, so policy decisions to meet the SDGs are informed by co-designed, co-produced evidence.

Similarly, universities need to partner with communication specialists to get the messaging right, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.

There is a need for sustained long-term partnerships but, often, governments are unaware of the relevant knowledge base and topical expertise within universities, along with the possibilities for capacity-building.

Meanwhile, academics do not perceive governments as partners or users of their knowledge, as a critical element for translational research, an opportunity for new funding streams, or for their students to learn (such as through placements and exercising creative problem-solving skills).

Thus, strengthened partnerships between universities and governments can largely contribute to solving cross-sectoral and systemic challenges associated to SDG 13.

UWN: What are some of the opportunities and challenges for women in climate science fields in Africa? What can be done to bring more women researchers into climatology areas?

JT: Women have a critical role to play in climate change science and development across Africa. Women are uniquely placed to drive innovation and transformation through science with society, transdisciplinary practice, embracing issues of diversity, meaningful representation and participation with a variety of stakeholders.

Yet, women remain underrepresented in climate change science in Africa and, indeed, globally. There is a growing body of evidence that shows women’s progression in a career of science is generally slower than men’s, while there is a great attrition of women in science at more senior levels of leadership.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, political, institutional and individual factors contribute to this underrepresentation of women in science. The most acknowledged factor is during the ‘rush hour’. This is during the early stages of a scientific career, with intense productivity which collides with women’s childbearing years and social expectations about establishing families.

Women who are trying to progress to senior positions are often hit by what is commonly described as a glass ceiling, while women are less underrepresented as they climb higher up the career ladder – the ‘leaky pipeline’.

There also remains challenging working environments for women which do not recognise changing family roles, do not address sexual harassment in the workplace, and reinforce a tendency [that] women and men [have] to work in different occupations.

As a result, the low representation of women in science has major consequences, not only for gender inequality, but also for lack of diverse perspectives in knowledge generation, and women’s role in setting research agendas.

However, new innovative grants and fellowships structures such as the African Women in Climate Change Science fellowship are helping bolster women’s careers and leadership roles in science.

Additionally, institutions such as the African Academy of Science have gender quotas. However, these aspirations are not translating into action fast enough and more can be done.

Mentorship programmes can help illuminate a clearly defined career path at more senior levels of academia. Curricula and equal access programmes from early stages of education can offer role models of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics [STEM] and encourage girls to complete tertiary education in non-traditional subject areas.

At national levels, there is a greater need for African governments to enforce equality legislation, while mainstreaming gender equality at institutional levels.

At the community level, supportive social structures are key – where multiple caregivers take on roles at different times. I believe that these steps, among others, will be critical in the coming decade to bring more women into climate change science.

UWN: In your own perspective what does climate or social justice mean within the African context, and where does it fit into the climate change debate?

JT: Climate justice is closely related to notions of environmental justice and at the heart of our work. One way of understanding climate justice is in recognising that indigenous and marginalised people are typically not responsible for anthropogenic activities which induce environmental degradation and fossil fuel emissions.

Yet, these people are often excluded from decision-making processes, bear the largest brunt of climate change impacts and do not have the financial buffers against climate risks, such as early warning systems.

Climate justice calls for strengthening the voice of the youth, people living with disabilities, small-holder farmers, among others.

Climate justice cuts across a wide range of thematic areas – whether interventions such as disaster risk reduction, smart cities, renewable energy and net zero infrastructure.

The approach requires a view of systems and the interconnectedness of problems – whether poverty, biodiversity conservation, flood risk management, governance, participation, the water-energy-food-climate nexus, among other socio-economic challenges.

In order to counter concerns of climate justice, we need to raise awareness about land degradation and desertification; challenge oppressive norms, behaviours, and distribution of resources, as well as increase women’s bargaining power.

UWN: As Africa prepares to host the Conference of Parties 27 in Egypt this year, what would you say is the importance of environmental literacy? What would you say are some of the youth needs to consider?

JT: The Conference of Parties (COP27) will be crucial for Africa. It is an opportunity to highlight the importance of adaptation and the severe consequences for marginalised populations on the continent if we do not [succeed in limiting temperature increase].

The topic of climate justice must resonate loudly, particularly considering Africa contributes to only 4% of global carbon emissions. Discussions related to loss and damage, access and benefit sharing, and scaling of financing will be key.

Environmental literacy, particularly for the youth, is important, not only because they are the future leaders, but they often call for bolder political and personal action.

For instance, a recent African Youth Survey in 2021 of people between the ages of 18 and 24 found that 70% of African youth are concerned about climate change.

Yet, few are satisfied with their leaders’ actions; 85% said their governments should be more proactive in addressing climate change (led by 99% Rwandans, 95% Ethiopians and 95% Malawians); many want bolder policy action; two-thirds said they actively support, participate in or donate to environmental causes, while 64% are trying to reduce their carbon footprint.

In addition to environmental literacy and the role of youth in political advocacy, businesses must ensure young people have employment opportunities which align with their value system and governments can ensure that the youth’s well-being is enhanced and eco-anxiety is reduced by scaling access to green space, while also adapting to and mitigating climate change.