Desperately seeking climate science translators: the humanitarian community urgently needs a new profession

Author(s) Markus Enenkel Andrew Kruczkiewicz
Myanmar early warning drill
Brad Zerivitz/American Red Cross/ShaRed

A new professional profile is needed: climate science translators who specialize in the brokering, translation and tailoring of climate science data to humanitarian and development decision makers – especially in the context of anticipatory action.

While disaster risk reduction strategies are evolving to include more comprehensive and sophisticated programs in the humanitarian sector, such as anticipatory action, these require specialist skills in understanding the climate science involve in forecasting, the nature of risk and vulnerability, and the operational requirements of using complex data to prepare for and respond to crises.

The humanitarian and development users of climate data who are currently tasked with making decisions – frequently in challenging settings under extreme stress – often don’t have the skills needed to understand the opportunities and constraints presented by available climate data. These skills should be the foundation of developing new career paths for a new generation of climate science translators (CSTs).

Breaking down silos

With an understanding of climate data, such as forecasts and risk maps, as well as the standard operating procedures and operational constraints of the humanitarian sector, CSTs can fill critical gaps in both applied research and decision support. In doing so, they can support the process of breaking down the silo mentality which is prevalent in efforts to integrate climate science and risk data within decision making. The good news is that there are existing examples of CSTs operating at the interface between climate science and humanitarian decision making – however this role has not had a name, and thus has led to the people and activities in that space seen as either partially climate science related or partially aligned with humanitarian action.

In the area of climate risk financing, for instance, CSTs have been effective in bridging the gap in understanding how , while uncertain, can indicate what direct impacts on physical assets could be. This has led to a clearer framing of the differences between global climate models and weather forecasts, as well as giving an opportunity to match expectations between what the models can and can not tell us about the potential future states of systems.

Evidence of growing demand

Employers in the humanitarian and development sector have already begun to realize the value of structured, sustainable integration of climate information within decision-making. An analysis of climate change-related positions advertised on one of the largest global humanitarian job portals shows a steady increase in demand (in terms of percentage of all jobs) for CST skills, from 30% in 2011 to 51% in 2020.

However, career benchmarks for CSTs are still unclear, leading to a career environment that fails to promote growth, monitor effectiveness or acknowledge success.

The CST skillset

If current climate science translators are to thrive, and future translators are to follow, we need to establish two things: a clear description of job profiles and core skills, and transparent criteria for success.

The climate science translator should be able to:

  • Know the strengths and limitations of Multi Hazard Early Warning Systems (MHEWS) and climate data;
  • Understand the needs of humanitarian and development decision makers;
  • Understand how to integrate new sources of information and methods into existing humanitarian and development workflows that are gradually shifting towards anticipatory action;
  • Be able to explain potential links, or lack thereof, between climate impacts, livelihood changes and political conflict;
  • Act as a responsible, ethical broker of data;
  • Understand and explain concepts of uncertainty, accuracy and skill related to climate and weather forecasts;
  • Identify and utilize climate science, humanitarian and development networks to adapt, iterate and develop solutions;
  • Identify misinformation or disinformation, such as fake news, and communicate to decision makers the veracity of climate data;
  • Understand the incentive structures, profit models and ethical codes used by prospective private sector partners.

This new professional profile would offer a career path to aspiring professionals so they don’t have to make a definitive choice between the climate science and humanitarian sectors. As things stand, scientists who also support humanitarian activities may suffer from fewer funding opportunities and less exposure, as they are less likely to publish as much as their fellow researchers. Similarly, humanitarians who work as scientists to understand complex socioeconomic or climate processes may gain much less experience in the field.

If young professionals wanting to advance in their careers are forced to choose, the emerging anticipatory action sector may lose out on some of the brightest minds.

Emerging professions for an emerging humanitarian approach

As climate extremes increase, and our capacity to forecast and communicate risks improves, anticipatory action continues to evolve – becoming a critical approach for humanitarians to identify and assist vulnerable people, ideally via locally-led instruments and through policy development to ensure sustainability.

 To meet growing demand for CST professionals, the humanitarian and climate science sectors need to join forces to clearly articulate the CST role and develop the appropriate tools to promote its evolution.

A detailed report on this research is published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (BAMS) as ‘The humanitarian sector needs clear job profiles for climate science translators – more than ever during a pandemic’, by Markus Enenkel and Andrew Kruczkiewicz.

About the authors 

Markus Enenkel is an anticipatory action and disaster risk financing specialist who works on projects with numerous humanitarian, development and DRR agencies including the World Bank, OCHA, and UNDRR. His current focus is on the accessibility and gaps in critical weather and climate data, and the requirements for humanitarian decision making for anticipatory action.

Andrew Kruczkiewicz is Senior Staff Researcher and Co-Director of the Earth Network on Disaster Resilience at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, and Science Adviser at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre.

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