Legacy of COP 26: solving the climate crisis will be people-led, not science-led

Science and technology policy student Amanda Ribeiro extracts lessons for the scientific community from attending COP26

Amanda Ribeiro is a science policy intern at the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA)

Until a couple of months before the 26th UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, I didn’t know I would be attending the most important international event of our time. And being absolutely honest about it, up until joining it, COP26 sounded to me like an event for my colleagues from sustainable development, something far from my field of study: science and technology policy.

Fortunately, the experience completely exceeded my expectations and made me understand that the solution to the climate crisis will not be science-led, but people-led. It was also an intensive hands-on crash course on climate change, the role of civil society in shaping policy and the beginning of some important reflections on my own practice of science and technology policy itself.

For context, I was working with a global organisation created to coordinate efforts from indigenous peoples and local communities from the Amazon Basin, Brazil, Indonesia, Mesoamerica and Africa. I managed to get a front row seat to the incredibly interesting movements from a civil society organisation delivering their message in international negotiations – based on extensive dialogue and articulation between indigenous peoples and local communities, professionals from communications, international relations, environmental engineering, interpreters, activists, NGOs and scientists – of their vital role as a solution to climate change.

In between preparing communications materials, briefing leaders, organising logistics and doing interpretation for meetings, I observed one key question from governments and funders when meeting with indigenous peoples and territorial communities’ leaders, which could be summarised as the following: “We agree that indigenous peoples and local communities must be part of the solution to tackling climate change, so tell us how we can support you?”

This question took me straight back to many of the discussions held on my master’s degree on the politics of participatory methods, grassroots innovation and methods for innovation democracy and policymaking. Back then, many of the debates held in class seemed quite abstract. During my COP26 experience, they proved to be urgent, leading me to reflect on three lessons for science and technology policy practitioners and scholars relevant to a people-led climate solution.

“Frontier knowledge” will not solve climate change

As a starting point (hard as it might be to accept), it is important to reconcile ourselves to the idea that investing in expanding humanity’s knowledge frontier through basic science might not provide the most adequate solutions to climate change. As much as we all value the benefits of many technological revolutions brought by radical innovation, preserving forests and biomes intact is still the optimum solution to climate change. However, doing that is more of a political problem than a technological one.

For instance, guaranteeing the preservation of 958 million hectares of land in 24 countries and storing of at least 253.5 gigatons of carbon, could be tackled with protecting land rights and the inclusion of indigenous peoples and local communities in climate policy decision making processes.

In this context, and as much as I agree that science and technology are important for climate solutions, science funders need to be careful on not over-investing in “techno-fixing” climate change, but include the political and social sciences dimensions into the equation, by encouraging projects that, for example, seek ways to build stronger bridges between traditional and scientific knowledges, not only on their technical qualities, but in the social tools that allow a harmonious integration of indigenous people and territorial communities; or by defunding research on economic activities that are harmful to nature and these communities who are in the frontline of climate change, such as fossil fuels and mining activities.

Science communication fuels participatory policymaking

Science is brilliant, but it is hermetic without narrative. If as science and technology policymakers we want to contribute to fighting climate change, we need to support science communication projects that support people in exploring and understanding the consequences of the climate crisis.

And the crucial word here is “support” – that is the dialectic process of listening, engaging with ideas (that you may disagree with), countering your arguments and ultimately being shaped and shaping by such interactions. Which gets you very quickly into the space of participatory methods of policymaking. In a practical way, this means that science and technology policymakers need to provide policy tools to facilitate these exchanges, via grants, programs, projects, or any other tool that allows knowledge to be democratised and co-created among society.

Impact assessments will never be ideal, and that is OK

Since the inclusion of the impact weighting in the 2014 REF in the UK, there has been much criticism of the idea of defining and capturing impact, as well as much study and reflection on how to do it. However, being at COP26 challenged me with the idea that perhaps the mere fact of having an impact dimension is enough. The exercise of assessing impact can be enough to trigger impactful behaviour from researchers.

Yet even working on some research projects on impact, I remember quite clearly that media outcomes were not considered as relevant as changes to policy or commercial outcomes. Media coverage was critical for the ideas that the alliance was proposing (all science based), and cannot be undervalued as an impact measure.

Indeed my COP26 experience showed me that good science can become evidence-based policy only when there are people, such as all the leaders and activists I worked with, shaping the message, framing the call to action and pushing the need for change in the policymaking process.

If the solution to climate change will not be science-led, but people-led, how do science and technology policy makers add the people dimension to its practice?

Science and technology policy practitioners and researchers are fundamentally interested in how knowledge is created and disseminated in society. I believe that science and technology policy has a strategic role to play in answering how policymakers can support the work done by IPLCs to tackle the climate crisis:

  • By ensuring that research projects have both a techno and social problem-solving approach;
  • By investing on science communication and participatory approaches to science policy; making, embedding practices from, and;
  • By making sure that rewards and recognitions systems are geared towards responsible impact

Attending COP26 was a turning point for my professional practice. If before the conference, climate change was a separate issue, after it it is easy to realize how cross cutting the concern with the topic should be to all areas, including science and technology policy.

And above all, I learned that it is not just thinking about nature-based solutions, but nature and community-based solutions that will allow us to build a sustainable and more socially responsible planet.

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