Thursday, 20 June 2013 10:29

Think tanks in Latin America have major role to play on climate change

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By Guy Edwards and Susanna Mage Key Points
  1. 23 out of 79 (29%) think tanks from Latin America identified in the University Of Pennsylvania study have programs, projects or publications (PPPs) relating to climate change.
  2. Brazil has the highest total number of think tanks (7) with PPPs on climate change. Mexico (4) and Argentina (3) follow.
  3. Latin American think tanks can play a vital role in building a new narrative for climate action and ensuring its place on political agendas, party manifestos and government policy.
  4. Governments in Latin America could do a better job at ensuring the inclusion of think tanks and other organizations in the formulation, implementation and monitoring of climate policies and related debates.
  5. A report focusing on the details of these PPPs would make an important contribution to allow fellow think tanks, researchers, donors, government and NGOs to compare research findings and to locate potential partners on climate change.
  6. Organizations that conduct work on climate change but do not explicitly state the link on their websites may consider updating the descriptions of these programs and be more explicit about any PPPs relevant to climate change.
Introduction With the increasing frequency and intensity of climate impacts, natural scientists are certainly being kept busy with climate research.  How these climate impacts link to political, social and economic debates and their implications for sustainable growth, human security and foreign relations presents a complex but critical new frontier for researchers in Latin America. In this brief study, we attempt to identify which think tanks are producing research on climate change in Latin America. The University of Pennsylvania’s (UPenn) 2012 report on the world’s top think tanks includes 79 organizations from Latin America. Taking into account the rising interest in climate change across the region and the case for it to be tackled across government and other sectors, we undertook this study to identify which of the 79 think tanks conduct research on climate change. We outline our methods, document the results, discuss their significance and end with some conclusions and recommendations regarding think tanks in Latin America and climate change. Methodology Using the UPenn report exclusively as a guide we gathered the names of all 79 Latin American think tanks listed as ‘top’ think tanks. We visited the websites of each one and carried out a keyword search for ‘cambio climatico’ and ‘calentamiento global’ and in Portuguese ‘mudanças climáticas’ and ‘aquecimento global’ for the Brazilian entries. We then created an initial list of all those think tanks that yielded results for the keywords search. Our second step was to take this list and ascertain which think tanks have programs, projects or publications (PPPs) related to climate change. This analysis is based on an Internet search and due to time and resource constraints is not exhaustive. We were only able to look at think tanks mentioned in the UPenn list and not other recognized lists of think tanks in the region. We were unable to contact each think tank to ask about their research programs. In some cases, think tanks lacked details about their programs in general. There may be cases where think tanks do conduct work on climate change but due to insufficient information on their websites we were unable to confidently include them here. Some think tanks do purport to have PPPs on climate change but this differs wildly between think tanks. It was beyond the scope of this study to analyze the size or extent of PPPs on climate change. A report focusing on the scale of these PPPs would be a useful next step. During our investigation we discovered that some think tanks may show up with references to our keywords, but this does not necessarily mean they have PPPs on climate change.  Instead, theses words may be mentioned in another program or a passing reference in a mission statement, press release or news item. In these cases a think tank appears in the first list but not the second. As Colon et al (2011) suggest, many organizations may claim to have a program on some aspect of climate change, but further details are not provided making it difficult to verify the extent of research. Alternatively, some think tanks may have programs with important climate-related aspects (e.g. energy, agriculture, water) but do not identify their research with climate change and therefore did not show up in our keywords search.With more time and a broader keyword search, more think tanks from the UPenn list might have been included in this study. We hope to contact those organisations working on climate change to obtain further details about their activities. In the meantime, we would like any think tank or organization to get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or leave a comment if you do conduct work on climate change in the region and feel you should have been included in our study. In addition, if any think tank mentioned in our study would like to get in touch,  please do. Part 1: General results
  • Out of 79 Latin American think tanks (TTs) identified in the UPenn list, only 27 (34%) had results for the keywords search.  The reports groups Mexican think tanks separately from those from Central and South America.
  • Mexico: 4 out of the 19 TTs identified in the UPenn study (21%) had results for the key word search.
  • Central/South America: 23 out of 60 TTs (38%) had results for the keyword search.
  • Out of 79 TTs, 5 (6.5%) had a related program such as on the environment but did not explicitly label climate change or global warming.
  • Central and South America have a higher proportion of think tanks (38%) that matched the keyword search than Mexico (21%).
  • El Salvador, Honduras, Paraguay and Venezuela all had one or more think tanks in the UPenn list. However, none yielded results for the keyword search or had PPPs on climate change.
  • The following countries did not appear in the UPenn list at all: Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Belize, and Puerto Rico.
  Figure 1: Think Tanks and keyword search results Part 2: Country profiles Here we zoom in and focus on those Latin American countries with think tanks included in the UPenn study that match the keyword searches and include programs, projects or publications (PPPs) on climate change.   Figure 2: Think Tanks with programs, projects or publications (PPPs) on climate change Table 1: Latin American countries with think tanks (TTs) included in the UPenn study which matched the keyword searches and include programs, projects or publications (PPPs) on climate change.     **For more detailed information on the country profiles and the names of TTs which match the keyword searches and include programs, projects or publications (PPPs) on climate change, click here. Discussion For our purposes, the UPenn study was only quite useful compared to a regionally focused study on Latin America with research programs and agendas outlined in detail. We also found that the UPenn study did not contain a number of Latin American organisations that we believe should have made the cut. On the Intercambio Climático website we include a list of think tanks and research institutes with PPPs on climate change. In this case we found some entries that are present in both the UPenn and Intercambio’s lists such as Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental and Grupo FARO. However, there were some notable absences from the UPenn study: Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (Belize), Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (Costa Rica), Centro del Agua del Trópico Húmedo para América Latina y El Caribe (Panamá), Programa Salvadoreño de Investigación sobre Desarrollo y Medio Ambiente (El Salvador), Vitae Civilis (Brazil) y Consorcio de Investigación Económica y Social (Peru). In addition, only two out of seventeen members of the Latin American Platform on Climate - Fundação Getúlio Vargas (Brazil) and Fundación Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Argentina) - are included in the UPenn study. One possible reason why these think tanks can be found on the Intercambio Climático list and not the UPenn study may result from the lack of visibility of these organisations. During our research, we found that some organization’s websites either had little detailed information on their programs, were not very user friendly, and/or locating information within the website quickly was difficult. However we concede that some organizations may have very good relations with policy makers and place less emphasis on a detailed website as this is not required for them to influence policymakers. Yet, a more detailed and user friendly website would help those organizations be even more effective in disseminating their research and influencing policy discussions with actors further afield. As Enrique Mendizabal suggests, the concept of a think tank in Latin America is not accepted by all the organisations that can be described as think tanks. Think tanks in the region are a diverse group and represent NGOs, centres for academic research, research consultants, political or partisan research centres and political groups, among others. However, not all label themselves as “think tanks”. Some have adopted the label for financial reasons, as their donors seem to prefer financing think tanks. There are many who behave more like NGOs than research centres and yet still carry out many or all of the organizational and functional characteristics of the centres recognised as think tanks elsewhere i.e. to influence the ideas, policies, relationships, and practices of other political actors, public or private. Others reasons may relate to the criteria for including think tanks outlined in the UPenn report such as the scale of a think tank’s operations and its audience. There are probably numerous other organizations in the region producing important research on climate change that are not present in any list. Colon et al (2011) argue that research capacity on issues of climate change is highly uneven in Latin America: there is a lack of resources available and many universities do not offer training. There is also significant reliance on expertise outside the region to conduct research. Work on the impacts of climate change emerges as one of the greatest concentrations of research activity, while dedicated programs of research on links to development, poverty or social exclusion are sparse. Colon et al (2011) also point out that there appears to be significantly more work on climate adaptation and vulnerability than on mitigation. This is unsurprising given Latin America’s low contribution overall to global emissions. The latter is often covered by research on transportation, energy and housing but not directly or explicitly linked to a climate change agenda. However, with emissions on the rise due to a growing middle class and increased energy demand, climate change researchers could make important contributions here. Conclusions and recommendations This study identifies that 29% (click here for the list) of the top think tanks from Latin America according to the UPenn study have programs, projects or publications on climate change. Taking into account that the Inter-American Development Bank suggests economic damages in the region caused by climate impacts are estimated to increase and reach US$100 billion annually by 2050, the gravity of the issue suggests that more think tanks could make important contribution to developing research and knowledge on this issue. One area of particular priority is the importance of strong domestic narratives on climate change. There is a misplaced assumption that global climate policy is less relevant to domestic debates. On the contrary, the domestic agenda may in fact be more significant and could be the jumping off point for greater progress at the UN climate talks, which could entail major implications for the region. As E3G’s John Ashton suggests securing the next global treaty on climate change in 2015 will not be achieved by negotiators at the UN talks but by politicians back home. Since Latin America’s total emissions account for roughly 11% of the global total, an idea pervades that the region can let others take care of the bulk of emission reductions. However, this perspective is misguided: some Latin American countries are in an excellent position to lead the race for low carbon growth. If they stand aside then this may undermine vital opportunities to develop sustainably in the future when Latin America’s emissions will also be higher as energy demand surges and the middle class continues to grow. Latin American countries should do a better job in communicating their successes on climate action as many countries have shown early leadership by imposing voluntary emission reduction goals. This leadership can build confidence and create momentum towards greater ambition on emissions reductions at the UN climate talks. At home, it is crucial to discuss low-carbon, climate resilient strategies in ways that increase their public appeal, interest from investors in low carbon growth and government policy and legislative action. More think tanks in the region can contribute positively to this endeavor. As Monica Araya suggests, Latin American countries need a new “why” for climate action as the region lacks a convincing story on climate that works for mainstream politicians. The debate against the high-carbon economy cannot be won unless the battle for a low-carbon shift becomes a political battle that is fought at elections.  The conversation should shift toward the protection of people, increased resilience, and inclusiveness. Latin American think tanks with positive experiences of promoting political narratives for elections could make vital contributions to help generate ideas for this new narrative that embraces a vision for climate action that is consistent with notions of prosperity. Despite the limited number of think tanks identified in this study, there is some very important, timely and critical research being produced on climate change in the region by a range of domestic, regional and international state and non-state actors. However, how this research is being utilized beyond academic conferences, workshops and closed government meetings and being successfully communicated, taken up, and debated by policy makers and implemented is unclear. At the same time Latin American governments are engaging in detailed policy discussions and conducting their own research on ways to tackle climate change and attempting to implement climate policies. These processes are often conducted behind closed doors without the participation of non-state actors such as think tanks. Greater effort by government to include think tanks in the region is required in order to open additional avenues for the exchange of knowledge and ideas. A report by the Latin American Platform on Climate Change (2012) on climate policies in 10 countries in the region analyzes the level of their implementation and political support. Although important steps have been taken, implementation of climate policies is lacking. The report reveals that climate policies are weakly integrated with development policies and the issue is still marginal on domestic policy agendas. The report describes a widespread recognition of the valuable role of citizen participation: various climate plans and programs include some type of mechanism or institution for societal participation in the process for formulating or monitoring these policies - although there are great disparities between them and their level of implementation. The issues highlighted in the Platform’s report suggest that think tanks with successful experiences of influencing policy and agenda setting are highly relevant to the challenges facing climate change policy. Think tanks could contribute to the next round of reports on climate policies envisaged by the Platform and offer valuable insights on the conclusions of the latest reports. As Edwards (2010) and FFLA (2008) point out, there is a need for greater research on institutions and governance relevant to climate change in relation to decision-making and issues of inter-institutional coordination. In conclusion, 29% of the Latin American think tanks included in the UPenn study do conduct some work on climate change. Given the dominance of other research topics including democracy, development and economics, this number is perhaps understandable.  However, we concede that there are probably many more think tanks that deserve to be mentioned, but due to time constraints we were only able to consider those included in the UPenn study. Again, we invite any think tank in Latin America working on climate change either mentioned or not to get in touch or leave a comment below. Climate impacts in Latin America will continue to cause devastation if global emissions go unchecked. Latin American countries are not passive bystanders, but rather have vital experiences and ideas to offer. Think tanks in the region can play a greater role on climate change and positively contribute to national, regional and global debates. Greater collaboration is required and the experience of these think tanks could be vital for other organizations and governments seeking to increase action against climate change.   References Colon, F, Newell, L, & Newell, P. (2011) CDKN Research Mapping Study: Latin America, April 2011, unpublished document. Edwards, G. (2010) Scoping Study of Climate Change Activities across Latin America and the Caribbean to Inform the CDKN Regional Strategy,Brown University. Fundación Futuro Latinoamericano (2008) Consultation to Assess Regional Priorities, Capabilities and Research Gaps on Climate Change and poverty Reduction in Latin America and the Caribbean,Quito: FFLA. McGann, J. G. (2012) 2012 Global Go to Think Tanks Report and Policy Advice, University of Pennsylvania.
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Guy Edwards

Guy Edwards is a Research Fellow at the Center for Environmental Studies, Brown University, where he manages a research project on the politics of climate change in Latin America. Along with co-author, Professor Timmons Roberts, he is currently writing a book on Latin American leadership on climate change for MIT Press. He has also written various academic papers, policy briefs and op-eds for a number of different publications. As co-founder of Intercambio Climático and formerly co-editor of the website, Guy has worked closely with the Latin American Platform on Climate and the Latin American office of the Climate and Development Knowledge Network. He has also worked for the Overseas Development Institute, the consultancy River Path Associates and as the resident manager of the Huaorani Ecolodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon.