Climate researchers blaze an uncertain trail


Tanzanian farmers use cell phones to document climate change, keeping track of how new pests and weather patterns affect their crops. Their work is the product of a unique climate change research method pioneered by Swiss-based scientists.

This content was published on October 24, 2012 minutes

“Our first slightly naïve idea was that we would need to communicate climate change information to the farmers,” says Juanita Schlaepfer-Miller, an artist and researcher at the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) who travelled to Tanzania to see how climate change was affecting agriculture.

“However, it soon became clear that they actually know about climate change and they are already adapting to it, so the project became about creating a platform for them to communicate their adaptation strategies.”

So, the farmers were given cell phones and were taught how to use them to create images and audio clips showing the effect climate change was having on their everyday operations.

‘Trans-disciplinary research’ is a general term for this method of researching a real-world issue like climate change by surveying the situation on the ground and working with locals and experts in other fields before identifying the precise research goals.

Swiss institutions were at the forefront of developing and encouraging this research method now being adopted around the world, according to professor Hans Hurni, president of the Centre for Development and Environment at Bern University.

“From the beginning we said, we do not go to a certain country with a fixed idea of what we want to research, we go there to negotiate, meet people, to meet scientists and non-scientists, to identify problems jointly and do our research jointly,” he says.

Outcomes for communities

The farmers in Schlaepfer-Miller’s project eventually sent in more than 2,000 images, audio interviews and descriptions, many of which showed new pests attacking their harvests, the fallout from heavier-than-usual rainfalls and new crops that were being grown to adapt to changing climate realities. (See the accompanying gallery for examples of these images.)

One of the farmers who was especially interested in the project eventually got a grant to cover an agricultural conference in his region as a journalist would, bringing back anecdotes and information to share with his fellow villagers. The project is still active even though the researchers have gone home, and villagers are now using the cell phones to communicate among themselves and with their agricultural extension office about best farming practices.

“The idea behind it was that it would form a collaborative knowledge base of information. Not  just one snapshot of a community, but a story over time,” Schlaepfer-Miller says. “In Africa it’s very important to have the input of the local people because climate change is very localised in the way it is affecting people.”

Evaluation challenges

However, Schlaepfer-Miller sees some problems with the outcomes of trans-disciplinary research projects – namely, that few institutions have figured out how to properly evaluate them. She argues that many funding organisations still evaluate projects based on traditional, data-driven criteria, which goes against the original goals of the project.

Carolina Adler, another researcher at ETH Zurich who has been working on a project helping Nepalese villagers adapt their tourism industry to climate change, says the key to proper evaluation of her project was making sure the institution she was working with understood the research goals from the start.

“People tend to frame the issue in terms of only climate change and we find that, on the ground, the issue is much broader than that,” Adler said. “It really depends how well in tune both facilitators are in terms of not just closing the door on one outcome or one initiative.”

Adler’s project ended up not only focusing on climate change in Nepal but also on how the locals adapt to new weather patterns while preserving and opening their sacred lands to tourism. Her research team got involved in development efforts, documenting how the area’s only airplane landing strip kept getting washed away due to heavier rains and working to help the local people find a practical solution.

The hunt for funding

Securing funding to keep a trans-disciplinary project going is often a major challenge, especially since such projects tend to be long-term endeavours with uncertain outcomes.

Christian Pohl, who works with Adler at ETH Zurich, has focused on trans-disciplinary research for many years and says that many funding institutions still have a hard time understanding the research model’s goals.

“There is a big conflict between traditional research where the focus is on understanding something, and that which trans-disciplinary researchers are doing – trying out a solution, modifying it, testing it out, changing it,” Pohl says. “And I think the greater research funding sector often doesn’t have those kinds of projects on its radar yet.”

Pohl adds that finding funding can get especially difficult if funders sense there is a political angle to what the researcher is trying to accomplish.

“I get many responses that the work is too political if we meet a research-oriented funder and we want to do some development work,” he says. “For many people, that is politics, that’s not pure research.”

Switzerland itself is in a good position to adapt to climate change, according to Dr. Christoph Ritz, Executive Director of the ProClim-Forum for Climate and Global Change.

This means, he argues, that the Swiss have a duty to help other countries cope – for example, by using precipitation models from alpine areas and applying them to mountainous countries, like Nepal, that are struggling with the effects of increased rainfall due to climate change.

“I think it’s our responsibility and also our duty to look at the rest of the world and the seven billion people living in it today.”

NCCR North-South

One of the biggest Swiss organisations promoting trans-disciplinary global change and development research is the NCCR North-South – an exchange and collaboration programme among researchers from countries in the northern and southern hemispheres.

While institutions in the northern  and western hemispheres tend to be at the forefront of climate change research, the countries in the southern and eastern parts of the world tend to be those most affected by climate change itself.

The NCCR is divided into eight geographic regions where the project operates satellite offices to help promote research there. The ninth head office is located in Switzerland.

The NCCR is one of 27 National Centres of Competence in Research implemented by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The NCCR has also partnered with DEZA, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (DEZA) to secure funding for trans-disciplinary research projects.

Professor Hans Hurni, director of the NCCR North-South, says the programme’s focus was born out of parnterships Switzerland had already developed with certain countries.

“We didn’t want to give them up, we wanted to strengthen them, and so we chose places like West Africa, East Africa, Asia, South Asia, Nepal, countries where development cooperation had been taking place,” Hurni says.

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