Photo: Penny Urquhart
Dr. Balgis Osman Elasha is Climate Change Specialist in the Compliance and Safeguard Division of the African Development Bank (AfDB). As well as her considerable international exposure, which includes authoring chapters of several IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) assessment reports, she has a wealth of experience working across all regions of her home country, Sudan, where she started out as a forester. In 2007, Balgis was amongst a select few IPCC representatives at the Oslo ceremony to receive the Nobel Peace prize, shared between the IPCC and Al Gore for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about climate change. And in 2008, she was recognised as one of the UNEP Champions of the Earth for outstanding achievements on climate change. I met up with her last year at COP 22 in Marrakech, where we took some time out of our schedules to have this conversation.
We first explored what most concerned her about the impending climate crisis. This was just a few days after the US presidential election. Balgis alluded to the changing geo-political situation, and possibilities that some of the developed countries will not stick to their commitments under the (non-binding) Paris Agreement – a frightening thought when significant and urgent actions are needed to avoid a potential catastrophe.
She also spoke eloquently about the scale of the impacts already being experienced in Africa – for example, increasing climatic extremes in Sudan, particularly high temperatures, are causing health problems for some people, and far-ranging indirect impacts on all economic sectors. She said, “My concern is that in Africa we are amongst the most vulnerable, but yet we are still experimenting – most of the adaptation projects are only reaching a fraction of the population. So we need larger programmes that will address climate change. We need to learn the lessons that will address the nitty gritty of the immediate problems, as a base for these ambitious programmes … there is a lot of work to do, it’s not only financial, we need capacity building, we need awareness, we need commitment, and we need people to start to be more pro-active and be part of this process. And it needs to be everyone: we don’t wait for government, we don’t wait for donors, we don’t wait for a few elites, we need everyone to be part of it.”
But, as Balgis said, “there are some hopes, it’s not all gloomy”. She mentioned mechanisms being put in place, like the Green Climate Fund, to deliver on the means of implementation of the Paris Agreement: climate finance, technology transfer, and capacity building. As she said, “if we improve the capacity of African planners, leaders, and experts to be able to develop bankable proposals, then they can access finance and technologies, and you will see big initiatives like the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, hosted within the African Development Bank. You see this now trying to harness the renewables potential in Africa, acting seriously in bringing in partners, and putting in place plans. Renewable energy is one of the real options for Africa which has not been tapped for such a long time … ”.
We spoke of how renewable energy is increasingly seen as essential for adaptation, especially in the African context, where there are currently no real emissions to think about. Looking forward, renewables for mitigation will come into play. But now we need to harness renewable energy for getting Africa out of the poverty trap, and for developmental needs: electricity, agriculture, health, water, education and improved industry.
Finally, Balgis mentioned the power of climate extremes that can be related to climate change to trigger commitments and increased action, saying “Most of the time people don’t act under favourable conditions, or based on forecasts, they act when they see themselves in the middle of a situation, in the middle of a crisis … so while you don’t celebrate disasters, still they contribute to building this momentum”.
Concerning personal insights into climate change, Balgis spoke of being in a Sida-funded forestry training programme in Sweden in the 1990s. Here, lectures introducing the scientific discourse on observed climatic changes opened her eyes to how existing changes in Sudan’s weather patterns and forests could be linked to climate change. Further revelations came while working on the greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory of Sudan’s First National Communication to the UNFCCC in 1999 – in her words, “Although I am a forester, I had never before linked GHG emissions to how carbon would be released with deforestation.” To her surprise, the GHG inventory identified deforestation as the major source of emissions in Sudan.
This interior process convinced her of the importance of disseminating simple and easily digestible information about climate-related vulnerability and GHGs to people at the grassroots, as well as policy makers. She realised that seasonal climate forecasts needed to be translated for easy adoption – by farmers when planning their crops, for hydropower engineers to estimate impacts on power generation, and for health professionals planning disease control. And Balgis became personally aware through this of the ‘science-policy gap’ that still bedevils the climate change arena. She describes how this thorny issue can play out: “Government does not want to issue a forecast which is not 100% accurate, that could create political issues, some economic crisis maybe – because if they speak of a drought, then some people will start storing grains and that could create a crisis in the market, so do we need to communicate this information, and then we create this crisis?”
Turning to the crux of our conversation, I said, “You described the situation in Africa, and especially a country like Sudan, which is already very hot, with severe potential impacts. It can be a bit disheartening sometimes, quite hard to find good news. We do try to search for the positives, but given the projected physical impacts, most parts of Africa will suffer. Barring some benefits in some places, on the whole we see mostly aggravations to our development.” She agreed with this. I continued, “So is there anything that you use to make meaning, to be able to carry on with this work? Some people turn to beautiful landscapes or art, or to poetry or literature, or to spiritual solaces. I know that I draw inspiration and strength from natural areas. Is there anything like that for you – that you use to comfort yourself, or just to make meaning out of what is going on around us in the world?”
Balgis: “When it is very hot in Sudan, people like to go to places close to the Nile, we try to do that many times. It brings the breeze when you go closer to the Nile, and we go to enjoy the landscape, sitting under the natural stands of Acacia nilotica trees. Fortunately we have a place south of Khartoum on the White Nile, close to the dam, which is called Jebel Aolia (this means mountain of the religious people). You can buy fish fresh from the boats of many fishermen and grill it sitting under the trees, with your family and friends. So you can head out from Khartoum from the morning till the evening, and then return. It gives you a positive energy that can help you continue for the whole week.”
Penny: “Some breathing space, unwinding.”
Balgis: “Exactly. Yeah. Others go to national parks, but for me personally, I like that. Now I really miss that.”
We laugh, sharing a sense of mutual appreciation for our nature-based coping strategies. Now stationed in Abidjan, with a demanding position at the AfDB, Balgis doesn’t have much time to relax and often works in her spare time and holidays on speaking engagements and co-authoring chapters on IPCC and other processes like IPBES – the global assessment on biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Penny: “So you need to get out into the natural areas even more to recharge?”
Balgis: “Yes, exactly, to recharge (laughs). But then being with the family, some friends, people from the field, discussing this, it is an outlet – feeling a sense of community, shared concerns.”
We discussed how socialisation is very important and finding a sense of community is a necessary haven. I think this was something many people had felt the week before, when the results of the American election brought a sense of dread to anyone grasping the magnitude of the risks climate change poses. Being with people who felt the same as us somehow helped, we could make each other laugh – sometimes. And not needing to explain, within this community with shared values and goals, exactly why one felt trepidation, or depressed, or sucker-punched, was a relief. Sitting alone at home would have felt a lot worse.
I left the conference venue feeling so grateful to Balgis – for her time, her commitment, her warmth and intelligence – and especially for the camaraderie that our conversation aroused. Nature is a deep and abiding source of comfort, but so is a heartfelt engagement with a climate champion like Dr. Balgis Osman Elasha.