Pursuing Better Climate Knowledge Today, For More Resilient Societies Tomorrow

A conversation with Ángel Muñoz, Associate Research Scientist on Climate Variations and Predictability at the Earth Institute’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, 

This is the fourth interview in our Climate Crisis, Global Land Use, and Human Rights Interview Series. Read the other interviews with BHRRC, LiKEN, and INFID.

By Solina Kennedy

November 12, 2019

The climate crisis threatens to drastically alter people’s relationships with the land on which they rely. Meanwhile, many climate solutions are themselves land-intensive: solar and wind energy, carbon dioxide sequestration, and finding places for people displaced by climate change to live and grow food. The result is an ever-increasing competition for land, as well as governance and justice challenges that are both intractable and inextricably linked. 

On September 27th, 2019, Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (CCSI), Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Landesa, and Wake Forest Law School hosted a day-long conference on the intersection of the climate crisis, global land use and human rights (conference materials and video recording is available here.) This series of blog posts turns to experts and key stakeholders in relevant fields to offer their perspectives on relevant challenges, gaps, and solutions at the nexus of these issues.

In this interview, Ángel Muñoz, Associate Research Scientist on Climate Variations and Predictability at the Earth Institute’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, discusses the importance and implications of equipping countries with access to good climate data, climate services, and supplementary financial tools to optimize resiliency within communities. 

1. How does your work relate to climate change, land use and/or human rights?

At the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), we work to provide the best climate science available to enhance society’s capability to understand, anticipate and manage the impacts of climate to improve human welfare and the environment. One of the most important things we do is analyze the impacts to society of the interactions between climate change and natural climate variability. Climate obviously impacts land and humans in a myriad of ways. If you think of climate as a symphony, climate change makes up some of those instruments, but you also have the natural climate variability that has always existed, even before humans began to impact the environment. If we can better understand how the climate change and natural climate variability signals interact with each other, we can help improve resiliency and better address the issues of land use and human rights that are intrinsically connected to climate. 

2. Within the nexus of the climate crisis, land use and human rights, what do you see as the biggest issues? 

We see access to good climate information and services as one of the main issues. And through providing better access to them, IRI is able to equip countries to face the issues that are linked to climate, such as hunger and crop failure. An important aspect of our work is how to co-develop, translate, and implement those climate services in different countries so that the local people can take full advantage of them. This is a complex task, and the approach must vary depending on the region, the institutional network context, and the particular socio-economic sector.

Take Guatemala’s ‘climate migration,’ for example. We know that the migration is a result of many factors, not just climate change and variability. If we can increase food security in such a way to improve one of these factors, then the people living there will have better local incentives to stay on their land. By providing reliable climate data to a region, we equip the locals with the information to make informed decisions. And we subsequently provide supporting financial instruments to assist them in the face of undesirable circumstances. Our forecasts might suggest that it will be a better yield than the previous one, thus incentivizing farmers to stay; or, if it is looking to be another bad year, they can confidently remain in place, knowing they will have a set of financial instruments to help them deal with whatever is to come.  

3. What strategies or solutions are you pursuing to address these issues? And what are the main hindrances you face?

IRI’s mission is to enhance society’s capability to understand, anticipate and manage the impacts of climate in order to improve human welfare and the environment. We do this through providing forecasts and information products, as well as supplementary financial instruments to deal with the effects of climate. These solutions are country and context specific; so we partner with local institutes to create approaches that we can help catalyze in different regions. This can take the shape of working with the local institutes, the national debt services, local government and different governmental institutions to increase the quality of the data––the observed data, but also the forecasts––and working together to tailor that data to be useful for regional decision makers. 

While climate services are an important part of the solution, we also know that forecasts are not perfect. So in addition to providing climate information, we work to help these local institutes to co-design and implement new financial instruments to better deal with the aftermath of variable climate patterns. An example of this is index-based insurance, which is insurance based on particular indexes such as observed rainfall amount. Forecast-based financing mechanisms is another example; if we know this year is going to be a bad one and a drought is coming, we suggest different ways in which particular institutions like the government can provide funding ahead of time to increase the resilience and adaptive capacity of the society in that particular region.

4. If you held the microphone on a world stage, what would you ask of your fellow colleagues—be it activists, lawyers, climate scientists, etc.—working on the issues of the climate crisis, land tenure, and/or human rights? 

Awareness. Perhaps this is the way we all tend to work–to simplify matters. But when working with this complex link between climate variability and climate change, land use and human rights, sometimes the scientific community might be over-simplifying the different factors that are involved. We must be aware of the complexity, and aware that sometimes the socioeconomic factors might be far more important than the actual climate interactions. The climate definitely is important. Climate change is a reality. It is there. And it undoubtedly interacts with other variables–amplifying or minimizing the impacts, depending on the variable–but sometimes we focus on only one side of the story. We need to have a more holistic view of the problem in order to find the solutions. Interdisciplinary work and collaboration between different institutes with different expertise is key. Collaboration both aids in amplifying this collective awareness and works to deconstruct and minimize the bias I’m speaking of. 

5. What do you wish more people better understood regarding the intersection of the climate crisis, land tenure and human rights?

We definitely have the power to change things. And in this century, we can use different avenues, including social media, to work collectively to address these issues. On one side, we can work to make each other aware of what is happening in terms of these interactions of climate change and climate variability. This is probably the most important problem we are facing as humans part of an ecosystem and planet; and making people aware of it is one of the most important things we can do. And at the same time, if we unify these efforts, we can send a massive message to the authorities, and change key behaviors that are impacting the environment and contributing to these crises in the climate, land use, human rights nexus. I think this is something that, in a coordinated manner, we can achieve.  

More information on the September 27th Climate Crisis, Global Land Use, and Human Rights conference, including the video recording of the event is available here.