Building a climate future requires a regional approach

Advancing climate research on questions that are internationally significant demands knowledge from all regions of the world.

This article is part of the ISC’s new series, Transform21, which will explore the state of knowledge and action, five years on from the Paris Agreement and in a pivotal year for action on sustainable development. It is republished from the Conversation under a Creative Commons licence.

Understanding the coupled climate system – or how the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, land surface and biosphere work together – requires research on a massive scale, informed by data and information from multiple sources all over the world. The cutting-edge questions for climate science today are too large and too complex for any single researcher, scientific agency, nation or discipline to answer alone.

This recognition is what drives the work of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) to support and promote internationally coordinated climate science that can have an impact both at the global and the regional level. In line with WCRP’s new strategic plan and its lighthouse activities, WCRP is now working to deepen its connections with climate scientists and the users of climate information in different regions of the world, and especially in those areas where WCRP is less well known.

We caught up with Helen Cleugh, Vice-Chair of the WCRP Joint Scientific Committee, to find out more about the series of WCRP regionally-based climate research forums, which Helen is spearheading.

“These consultations are an integral part of our broader strategy. For the World Climate Research Programme to be relevant and meaningful, we have to complement our scientific strengths and scientific goals with deeper engagement, and that includes connecting with people at the grassroots level.”

Dr Helen Cleugh, Vice-Chair of the WCRP Joint Scientific Committee (JSC)

The regional meetings are a new initiative for WCRP, resulting from discussions with the programme’s leadership which had revealed that some of WCRP’s broader scientific community were not that familiar with the new strategy and new initiatives being developed under its implementation plan. There was a clear need to strengthen and complement what was already happening in different regions through existing WCRP core project activities and other related networks.

“We realized that we could provide an additional, complementary platform or forum for engaging directly with scientists in the regions,” explained Helen, “what’s more, our aspiration is that this wouldn’t be a one-off activity – these regional meetings could be held periodically”. With in-person international scientific meetings on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual meetings provide an opportunity to share the latest climate science and make new connections, including with people who might not normally attend an in-person gathering. The meetings are being developed with regional focal points nominated by members of the WCRP community, and it’s hoped that the initiative can help to build diversity among the leadership and core project teams and networks of WCRP in different regions.

‘We’re very conscious that – as important as WCRP has been for coordinating climate science around the world over the past four decades – we have gaps in terms of our diversity. That has multiple dimensions, but one of them is around our connections in the regions of the world. We’re over-represented in Europe, North America and Australia, and less well-represented in nations in the southern hemisphere, particularly in South America and Africa. We have made good progress but we’ve still got a way to go,” said Helen.

It’s a long-term process, and one that aims to be mutually beneficial for WCRP and for the scientists in each region.

“This is not only about doing science and science coordination that’s useful and relevant for different parts of the world, it’s also about discovering the science that’s being done in those parts of the world and helping to share it with the rest of the global community,” said Helen.

So far two regional climate research forums have taken place. The first, for Oceania, was held on 10 February in collaboration with the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS), as part of the AMOS Annual Conference 2021. Over 200 participants joined the discussion, and many more have since watched the recording online:

Importantly, the events are not just about promoting WCRP – there’s also space for discussion and critical reflection about how WCRP could better serve the needs of the climate science community in the future, and users of WCRP knowledge and information.

As part of the Oceania regional forum, Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, from the University of New South Wales, shared her perspective on what WCRP had offered her as an early-career and mid-career scientist. Sarah talked about how WCRP data sets had been “fundamental” for her research, and the networking opportunities that came with being part of the Young Earth System Scientists (YESS) Community, as well as the chance to co-author a paper on the next frontiers for climate research. She also called for transparency around how the programme functions, so that people who are in mid-career “no-man’s land” between being an early-career researcher and a more senior scientist who might be part of WCRP’s scientific governance could understand what the pathways to becoming more involved with the programme are. 

Climate scientists themselves make up the core audience for the climate research forums, together with other members of the agencies in which they work.

One of the exciting things about the meetings, says Helen, is that because they are rooted in regional communities, there’s scope to tailor the discussion to meet different needs. There are standard elements to each meeting, but otherwise the format is designed around regionally significant priorities. When the second climate research forum took place on 7 April, this time for Eastern Asia, there was a special session for early career scientists to discuss the possibilities for building networks in the region. Other sessions featured leaders from meteorological agencies in China, Japan and Korea, and explored the opportunities for scientific collaboration in the region and the role for WCRP:

So why should scientists take part in a research forum for their region? First of all, the meetings are an opportunity to listen to interesting scientific presentations on the latest regionally relevant climate science. The Eastern Asia forum, for example, featured a presentation on the ‘Third Pole’ environment programme looking at the role of the cryosphere in the climate system.

Secondly, says Helen, climate scientists recognize that addressing the challenge of climate change requires collaboration, both from a scientific perspective and in terms of global coordination. And that requires nations and agencies to work together.

“It’s bigger than any individual. That’s where WCRP comes in. By connecting with WCRP, climate scientists might find new contacts that are doing work relevant to what they’re doing, and connecting with them might benefit their careers, whether that’s in terms of gaining expertise or ways to craft funding and grant proposals that point to some of the priorities that a programme like WCRP has identified.”

Dr Helen Cleugh, Vice-Chair of the WCRP Joint Scientific Committee (JSC)

By hearing from speakers on the regional needs for collaboration, Helen hopes that the Climate Research Forums will also be meaningful to other stakeholders, such as the users or funders of climate science.

“We want to hear from our audience about what kind of specific follow-up activities would be meaningful and beneficial in each region. We would really like a two-way dialogue about the alignment between our priorities and the priorities of the agencies in the region. We are trying to make time in each of the forums for an active dialogue and exchange. Actions might only come from a follow-up discussion, but it’s important to have these first conversations,” said Helen,  “we can’t do this alone”.

Join the next Climate Research Forum:

A Forum for North and Central America, the Caribbean and Greenland will take place on 11 May.

Find out more and register.

Find out more about all of the WCRP Climate Research Forums.


Photo: NASA Johnson via Flickr.

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