Why inequality in science is a problem for everyone

A recent paper by Friederike Otto (and others) shines a spotlight on problems with the science behind efforts to understand how human-induced climate change has affected recent extreme weather events in low-income countries. The problems identified are, however, the same throughout climate science.

Understanding how climate change affects extreme weather events is critical to mitigating the impacts and preparing for the future. Friederike Otto has been on the forefront of research into this science, called event attribution, which informs strategies for disaster risk reduction schemes and adapting to changing risks.

Her research reveals there is a significant discrepancy between where attribution studies are conducted and where extreme weather events cause the largest damages and socioeconomic losses, i.e. in low-income countries. Arguably, these much larger damages signify a greater need for information on how the likelihood and intensity of such high-impact events have been changing and are likely to change in a warmer world.

This problem leads to an overall worse understanding of the impacts of climate change and thus also our ability to adapt. The reason for this, Otto argues, is not only that data availability is difficult in low income countries, but it is fundamentally because of who is doing and, most importantly, who is not doing the science.

Otto and her team have identified six priorities to address the issue, including recommendations for improving the science and building capacity in developing countries: 

  1. Assess different sources of data systematically for extremes (reanalysis, satellites, forecasts…).
  2. In regions with few historical observations, explore storylines to identify plausible futures.
  3. Develop a standardised approach to attribution studies and best-practice guidelines to allow for clarity on the event definition. Moreover, some basic tests on the results could be recommended. 
  4. Rescue old data (often found in undigitised archives) and make historical and current weather data unbureaucratically available to local researchers and scientists.
  5. Build the capacity of researchers in developing countries to conduct attribution analysis, for example through knowledge exchange initiatives, prioritising PhD applicants from the places where the most impactful extreme events happen, or enabling developing countries to fund their own research programmes.
  6. Implement event attribution analysis firmly within the hazard-vulnerability-exposure risk framework to understand other aspects of the event which generated sever impacts.


Read the full paper online