Grassroots participation needed to tackle climate issues

“The global climate crisis requires a society which can foster solutions to environmental problems and appreciate the domestication of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

This is the opinion of Dr Olga Laiza Kupika, a natural resources conservationist, associate professor, and chairperson of the department of wildlife ecology and conservation at Chinhoyi University of Technology in Zimbabwe.

Kupika spoke to University World News about her work as a climate change expert. She also shared her perspectives on the Conference of Parties (COP27) and the Africa Climate Story Media Initiative (ACSMI).

UWN: What is your area of expertise and what have you been working on relevant to climate change in Africa?

OK: Part of my work around climate change in Africa is training, advocacy, capacity building, collaborative research, community and stakeholder engagement; climate governance, and climate communication.

My research interests are vast. They include climate change adaptation and mitigation, climate governance, climate justice, local ecological knowledge, ecosystem resilience, natural resources conservation and governance, community-based natural resources management, ecosystem services, biodiversity conservation, gender and sustainable livelihoods, community resilience, education for sustainable development, and sustainable development goals.

My aim is to promote sustainable use of natural resources, promote natural resources governance and community-based approaches to wildlife protection and management through implementing innovative natural resources stewardship models and identifying best practices for co-creating a sustainable future for people, places and the planet.

UWN: What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman in the climate change fields and what could be done to create more space for women researchers in these fields?

OK: As a woman in climatology, I had to overcome barriers to access funding for climate research while trying to create a balance between my social and academic life. Vulnerable women and the youth, particularly those in rural communities, have limited knowledge and few dedicated platforms on how to access funding opportunities and capacity-building and training to promote climate action. In addition, I had to face stereotyping rooted in cultural and religious beliefs.

Advocacy to promote gender-sensitive climate policies is needed to facilitate action which redresses gender imbalances in the climate space.

This includes mainstreaming gender and climate issues in environment-related policies. As the need for more women in climate science fields grows, it is important to promote training and capacity-building on climate justice and gender equity as well as offer a quota (based on merit) of funding for women in climate change research.

UWN: Based on your fieldwork, what are some of the pressing issues facing African communities, particularly women, due to climate change and variabilities?

OK: A high proportion of indigenous women in drought- and flood-prone areas play a key role in providing basic household needs such as nutritional foods, water, shelter, health, quality education and safeguarding cultural and natural heritage.

However, they have limited opportunity to play a leading role in providing local development solutions in the fight against climate change due to various factors. Firstly, there is limited access to education for the girl child due to limited resources, and a lack of access to career guidance.

Indigenous women can play a leading role in climate action, but their voices are suppressed due to cultural barriers. As such, there are few indigenous women climate experts in the region. In addition to this marginalisation, there is limited access for women to participate in climate developmental activities in leadership and decision-making processes, especially at local and national governance levels.

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

OK: Universities act as teaching, learning, research and innovation hubs for climate action. Academics are part of the think tanks for any progressive society, hence they are key in addressing climate change-related challenges.

Partnerships with stakeholders such as local communities, government, civil society and media practitioners can aid the work of universities and academics in tackling the climate crisis as they generate scientific evidence to inform decision-making on climate-change matters. Universities generate ideas that lead to innovative solutions to promote community and ecosystem resilience.

UWN: Given the broad challenges Africa faces, what is the importance of environmental literacy for African communities, youths (students and graduates), and even policymakers?

OK: Environmental literacy helps to equip, capacitate and produce an informed society that can participate in climate-change discussions and contribute meaningfully, based on local scientific evidence. This knowledge can also add value to climate policy discussions and negotiations by enhancing understanding of the changes and the trajectories regarding environmental matters, allowing co-sharing, co-generation, and co-development of ideas and networking from an informed perspective.

The global climate crisis requires a society that can foster solutions to environmental problems and appreciate the domestication of the global sustainable development goals, as well as ensure the sustainability of programmes to address the climate crisis.

UWN: How can the gap between climate researchers, policymakers and communities be addressed?

OK: As a region, we must promote participatory approaches in research and community engagement to allow co-generation of ideas at grassroots level and co-design solutions to the climate crisis. Universities need to transform the academic, technical information into simple language which can be understood and utilised by actors and produce socio-cultural solutions which enable society to adopt the innovative technologies.

Climate researchers, local communities and policymakers must connect through partnerships and collaborations, especially through climate centres of excellence which bring together all actors in the climate crisis space.

UWN: One of the critical issues in addressing climate change is climate finance. What can African researchers do to lobby government and key partners in climate action to invest in climate research, education and innovation?

OK: Collaboration and partnership between academia and industry stakeholders allow for pooling of technical and financial resources to promote climate action. Stakeholders such as local and national governments as well as development partners should mainstream climate crisis issues in their budgetary plans.

Academics should engage in problem-solving oriented research and harness innovative ideas to produce goods and services which eventually generate funding for further research.

UWN: Africa has an opportunity to host the Conference of Parties (COP27) 2022 in Egypt this year. What are some of the critical issues that you would expect to be addressed?

OK: Discussions for adaptation to climate change, especially climate-smart solutions to address food security issues and other challenges must be prioritised as well as the issue of loss and damage due to climate change. Africa is suffering the most yet contributes very little to global emissions.

The issue of climate finance and commitments must be dealt with, especially funding mechanisms to promote climate action. Mechanisms for compensation for the losses incurred, addressing loss and damage through technical and financial support is the key to achieving climate justice.

Discussions must also emphasise achieving just energy transition through climate legislation, technology and capacity-building in clean and affordable energy while building strategies for achieving the net zero target. The conference must also discuss digital technologies and solutions to promote early warning systems at grassroots level to minimise damages and losses due to extreme events.

UWN: You were a speaker at the launch of the Africa Climate Story Media Initiative by the Pan African Media Alliance for Climate Change (PAMACC). What were some of the key take-always and how is the initiative relevant to the climate change discourse in Africa?

OK: Africa is a vanguard and not a climate victim. The ACSMI is a collaborative initiative by PAMACC and Africa on Air which took place in Nairobi from 26-28 July 2022. ACSMI aims to strengthen media debate and public discourse on Africa’s climate story ahead of the COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt and beyond. The initiative is working with different journalists to publish dozens of ground-breaking climate change stories from frontline communities in Africa.

The initiative encourages more conversations about the climate crisis and climate emergency, amplifying the local voices or narratives on the climate crisis, empowering local communities, and all actors, especially the vulnerable groups.

During the ASCMI launch, I had an opportunity to present on early warning systems with a key message on the need for media practitioners to mainstream indigenous knowledge systems when disseminating and communicating on climate hazards.

My speech also focused on the need to promote further research, investments, policy change and practice, and the need for engaging all active stakeholders in the field of hydrometeorology and risk-informed early warning capacity development.

Africa can leverage vast natural resources such as minerals and forests to provide sustainable solutions to the climate crisis while promoting sustainable food systems.