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Laura Schmitt Olabisi talks about planning for climate change in Africa

Updated: Apr 29, 2020

MSU Professor Laura Schmitt Olabisi (second from left) and colleagues in Nigeria

It’s very common for scientists to build models of the things they study—think of weather systems for example. But how many scientists invite the subjects of their research to collaborate with their model building? One such is Laura Schmitt Olabisi, of MSU’s Food Security Group and MSU SciComm’s guest speaker on February 6. Schmitt Olabisi models environmental processes--on paper or in a computer—with the help and participation of the people who live and work in those environments. This process, called participatory modeling, grows out of the idea that environmental solutions work better when experts and citizen-stakeholders each bring their special perspectives and learn from each other in order to define and describe the problems facing them and make joint decisions about solutions. It is highly interdisciplinary work. Professor Schmitt Olabisi’s models blend biophysical science and ecology with social science to study how natural processes and human behavior interact with each other. When scientists and nonscientists work together, the solutions they craft are more robust and more likely to be accepted in the community that is impacted by them.

Not surprisingly, much of her work involves developing policies to adapt to climate change—and not only in the United States, one of world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. Climate impacts will also be important in parts of the world like west Africa, making adaptation equally important. Though there are debates about which policies to follow, existing effects in the system would keep climate change growing even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today. Under climate change, Africa faces a 15% to 40% loss of food production. Schmitt Olabisi’s own work helped shape agricultural policy in Nigeria to include a component on climate adaptation. She also wants to connect impacts in local communities with policymaking at state level such as a participatory mapping project.

One example is the state of Ebonyi in southeast Nigeria where villages located along the banks of the Niger river have long been prone to flooding. This pattern, long a feature of life there, is now becoming more unpredictable, possibly because of climate change. Schmitt Olabisi and her colleagues, including Onyinye Choko, Robert Onyeneke, Stella Nwawulu Chiemela, Lenis Saweda Liverpool-Tasie and Louie Rivers III used surveys and interviews to identify local social networks and community leaders who were already involved in building resilient climate strategies. When these existing local climate strategies are identified, it becomes possible to support them, scale them up and adopt them elsewhere.

At global level, Schmitt-Olabisi is co-author of the Africa chapter of the latest IPCC report summarizing the latest scientific knowledge on climate change. In Africa at present, there still isn’t a lot of climate change science and those who do the science have to be careful about what they’re sure about and aren’t. She says this makes working in Africa very interesting and different from typical scientific processes elsewhere.

If you want to get involved in climate change policy in Michigan, Schmitt Olabisi says there’s a vast range of ways and places to do it. You don’t have to wait for the federal government to take action; you can start closer to home at the state or even the local level. One example would be local municipalities which have jurisdiction over green space and the way local buildings are designed.

Schmitt Olabisi discussed four roles people can play if they want to influence policy including stealth advocate, honest broker or lobbyist. Recognizing that none of us is truly objective, an honest broker tries to present as much of the information as possible in order to help others make up their own minds—a role she herself prefers to play. Lobbyists try to narrow the range of policy choices in accordance with the interests they represent, such as industry or environmental groups.

The talk ended with a lively Q and A session. Audience members wondered how people reacted to her presence as a western white scientist. Did they wonder what she knew about local problems in Africa? The truth was the opposite: people looked more to her than to her Nigerian colleague who was leading the project. Participatory modelers have to remind local participants that they are equally the experts and show them where they can find local knowledge and information and that they do not always have to hire outside consultants.

Another wondered: since scientists almost always tend toward honest broker side of policy work, what has to happen for them to become a partisan advocate?

Schmitt Olabisi thought different people have to have different answers depending on what they’re comfortable with. One of big challenges scientists face is the public doesn’t understand how science works. Frequently scientists express their conclusions in the measured scientific language of probabilities or risks, hedging any blunt conclusions with careful qualifications. Now, she says, more scientists are comfortable simply saying, “Yes anthropogenic climate change is happening.” At the same time, scientists must work to teach decision makers how scientists reason and why they sometimes say future climate lies within a range of outcomes rather than committing to a single conclusion.

Photos courtesy Laura Schmitt Olabisi

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