Presenter: Saleemul are you able to excavate the origins of your interest in environmental issues?
Saleemul: Well I guess the origins of my interest in environment more generally was when I finished my PhD in the UK at Imperial College and went back to Bangladesh where I’m from. I taught at the University for a few years and that wasn’t very satisfactory. So a few friends and I set up our own research institute called The Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies. This is now in the mid 80s, and at that time environment was an issue that wasn’t being looked at very seriously by many people, and we wanted to do something that was different and new and relevant, and was multidisciplinary that drew on people from different backgrounds and different institutions.
So we set up something called the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, which because a non-government, non-profit research institute. And the focus of most of our work was on environment more generally, environment development issues. And then in the early 90s I started getting involved in climate change and I did some of the early work on impacts of climate change initially in Bangladesh and then also some other developing countries. And since then I’ve focussed most of my own personal work on looking at climate change impacts, vulnerability and now increasingly on adaptation.
Presenter: What are the most prominent pieces of work you’ve been involved in in the last year or currently?
Saleemul: Well I’ve been, for the last few years I’ve been a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And the third assessment I was the lead author for the chapter on adaptation. And then the fourth assessment I was coordinating lead author for the chapter of, that looked at adaptation and mitigation. And more increasingly I’m looking at how to build up awareness and then capacity on adaptation in some of the poorest and most vulnerable countries, where the understanding of the problem is very very low and by and large nonexistent. Until very recently, the awareness has grown enormously but capacity is still way behind.
Presenter: You’ve started to answer my next question, which is to look one year, five years and ten years out in terms of perhaps your own personal journey with the issue, the institutions you work in, and maybe more broadly what you anticipate. As I say looking for flagstones, milestones of one year, five years and ten years out?
Saleemul: Well let me start by looking back a little bit. I’ve, the last few years I’ve been looking at the link between climate change and development, particularly in the poor countries for poor people. And that link is mainly the impacts they’re going to suffer and what they need to do to adapt. The last five or six years have been spent raising levels of awareness about the problem because it was very low. I think that’s been achieved and Copenhagen is very much a landmark in that sense in terms of the level of awareness from the highest political levels to the heads of state who are here, to very large numbers of civil society who are here as well. The thing that then happens is once you raise awareness, people say all right we understand the problem now tell us what to do about it, and we don’t know enough about it to do that. So the answer for that is rapidly building up capacity amongst a very wide cohort of people from researchers and academics through to government officials through to NGOs.
So the next few years I’m focussing on trying to ramp up capacity in those poor developing countries, and I’m doing that through setting up an institute in Bangladesh, which is where I’m from. So I’ll go back to Bangladesh. But it will be an international institute called the International Centre for Climate Change and Development. And besides Bangladeshis we’ll be bringing people from other countries, particularly from Africa, to teach them about it, but not only teach them in a classroom sense, show them what can be done, because Bangladesh is actually a couple of steps ahead of most other countries in terms of awareness and activities, all the way from government to civil society to media, and so by bringing cohorts of different people to Bangladesh, training them, exposing them to their peers who are doing things of a similar nature, that they can then go home and do.
Which perhaps if they went to the UK or America they would get the theoretical training but what they saw there would not be applicable back home; what they see happening in Bangladesh would be applicable and we hope that would become a useful source of training and capacity building for people from developing countries. And I think the next five years definitely requires very large up-scaling of capacity and knowledge of this issue. And over 10 years we need to be able to start doing things and incorporate that into our normal development planning.
Presenter: Can you just say something about the ways in which you think Bangladesh is been a little bit ahead of the game in terms of its adaptation specifically?
Saleemul: Exactly, yes. Well, Bangladesh is an interesting case study. It’s a least developed country, so it’s part of the least developed countries group which are nearly 50 of the poorest countries in the world. Most of them are Sub Saharan Africa. In the UNFCC process, a number of years ago, there was a fund set up for them called the Least Developed Country Fund, which provided some initial funding for each of the countries to do something called a NAPA (National Adaptation Programme of Action) to identify some immediate and urgent adaptation projects.
Bangladesh was one of the first countries to do that, to complete their NAPA. They then realised that the problem was much more severe than could be tackled by just doing a few isolated projects. So they moved on themselves to a higher level of strategy if you like and developed a climate change strategy and action plan, which is primarily focused on adaption but not exclusively. They have also included mitigation there because they want to do what they can on that. And that is now going in to implementation. And interestingly, a few months ago, when that was presented to the Cabinet, the Finance Minister of the country said you know this is so important we shouldn't be waiting for external funding to come, and he allocated $50 million of the national budget to implementing the National Climate Change Plan.
So Bangladesh now has a budget item which is implementing a climate change strategy, which every ministry is supposed to develop a plan for and access those funds for. And at the same time they also are appealing to the international community to leverage that fund and provide a lot more funding. But as I said Bangladesh is several steps ahead of most other countries in taking this matter seriously, figuring out what they can do about it, and then growing, trying to do what they can and appealing for help to do more.
Presenter: My penultimate question is what do you think it is that’s changed the Bangladesh politics of climate change?
Saleemul: Well two things I think. Firstly, the level of awareness of the severity of the problem, and Bangladesh I think is globally well known as being one of the most vulnerable countries. It’s vulnerable to floods; it’s vulnerable to cyclones; it’s vulnerable to drought. So it sort of ranks very high on all parameters of climate vulnerability. That awareness is now generalised. And secondly, they are looking at development planning incorporating climate change, and they’ve done some pilots for example in disaster risk management.
So there’s a cohort of scientists and people in the country and the government and NGOs that are now beginning to look at these issues, try to do things. And the quintessential point about adaptation learning and generating knowledge and experience is that we will learn to do adaptation by doing adaptation. It’s a learning by doing process; it’s not something that you learn the theory of and then go and apply it with a silver bullet. It’s so context specific that every place, every people are going to have to try to do things and then learn from that, so it’s a learn-do-learn process. And Bangladesh as I said has done a little bit along those lines. Still a long way to go, but they are ahead of the game.
They have built that capacity, that nascent capacity that they can build on. And compared to many other least developed countries, Bangladesh does have a reasonable cohort of scientific capacity that can readdress this issue, the government, you know, it’s a democratic government, it listens to its people to some extent, not ideal. But they do respond, and it has a history of good disaster management, which is a good base to build on and build in climate change adaptation into disaster preparedness.
Presenter: My last question is deceptively simple. Do you consider yourself a more optimist or pessimist looking ten years out?
Saleemul: I’m an incorrigible optimist. So I always look for the possibilities rather than the problems. And even in this circumstance here when, you know, everything seems to be breaking down in Copenhagen, I still think we’ll get a good agreement out at the end. So I always look for the silver lining in even the darkest cloud, so I remain optimistic.