[Editor’s note: Andrew Hurst is the Program Leader  for the Think Tank Initiative. This is the final post in a series on think tanks and climate change edited by Nikki Lulham and Erika Malich.]

What the preceding posts in this series reveal is that think tanks are already deeply entrenched in climate research and action, and in a number of different ways. For instance, think tanks are supporting governments in:

  • Refining and implementing their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs);
  • Informing, implementing, and reporting progress on climate strategies, policies, and plans;
  • Accessing, allocating, and measuring effectiveness of climate finance (see the blog post by Sabastiano Rwengabo of the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment);
  • Assessing vulnerability of different populations and environments to climate change impacts through research (see the blog post by Imran Khalid of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute on their work related to flooding in Pakistan); and
  • Engaging diverse stakeholders in developing solutions to climate change impacts (see the blog post by Rossana Scribano on the work of Investigación para el Desarollo to improve efficiency of water use in the Gran Chaco region of Latin America).

But what unique value do think tanks bring to this kind of work? Solving complex policy challenges requires input from knowledge organizations that do policy-focused research, who are well placed to engage in the policy process from a position of integrity and independence, and who understand how policy is made in their local contexts. Climate change is at the root a development problem, and cannot be divorced from economic development plans and processes. 

Bridging climate and development…

Squaring either adaptation or mitigation efforts with core development goals – such as improving public health, coping with urbanization, and reducing inequality – requires research by experts who understand the local context and the opportunities for change. The climate and development predicament for oil rich Nigeria, for instance, is very different from climate vulnerable countries like Bangladesh. Peru, a middle-income country with a diversified economy and 30% of its population living in a single city faces very different challenges from a country like Ethiopia, which is attempting to industrialize despite currently being largely dependent on rain-fed agriculture and with a primarily rural population. In India, energy access for the rural poor is a real need, as is reducing carbon-intensive energy generation to meet the country’s mitigation targets.

National governments face a dizzying array of complex policy decisions, and an equally daunting set of challenges in implementing whatever choices they make. Think tanks are synthesizers of evidence-based research who can help cut through the vast array of options by, for instance, interpreting national scale climate models to understand short/med/long-term risks, evaluating where policy action or interventions can be most effective, and helping to identify potential new sources of climate financing (including via the private sector) to help pay for proposed actions.

… and the national with the local

Think tanks can also create bridges with local levels to help with implementing national climate strategies and plans. For example, state or provincial governments and municipal authorities often have jurisdiction over services that either help with tackling pressing climate-related issues or are directly affected by them, such as transportation, urban planning, and water management. Think tanks can also help with conducting impact assessments and identifying risks to infrastructure.

Some think tanks are engaged with citizens, helping to increase their understanding of climate issues and also raising awareness for decision-makers about who is most vulnerable to climate impacts and why. Efforts by think tanks can ensure that climate action undertaken by government authorities is transparent and that the money flows where it should, thereby contributing to broader accountability.

The extent to which country-level Paris Agreement commitments will be achieved will depend on how well they address different policy contexts, and can integrate broader social and economic priorities. As actors with deep local knowledge, solid networks that cut across policy domains, and an ability to connect with key decision-makers, think tanks are well placed to help.

But think tanks need support too

It is clear that think tanks have an important role to play in supporting climate action, but they need support too if they are to effectively fulfill this role. Climate-related policy requires good data, innovative research methodologies, and interdisciplinary approaches. For think tanks, this requires investment in skills and expertise, whether for training younger researchers or helping more established ones stay on top of the latest research tools. Such investments must be paid for somehow, and funders need to be aware of this when negotiating overheads or rationalizing core support. Those who value policy focused research and understand the role think tanks can play must recognize that the capacity gap is not just an issue for governments. Policy research organizations need help to maintain, as well as grow, their research capacities.

Think tanks also need to collaborate with one another, both within and across countries. In some cases, this is to achieve the right mix of interdisciplinary research required to inform climate action, and in others, to explore transnational approaches that demand collaboration. Take, for instance, emissions trading schemes within transnational economic zones or the design and implementation of adaptation measures to a transboundary climate “hotspot” like a floodplain. Such collaboration does not always happen organically and, even when it does, it requires support to work well.

Finally, think tanks can be supported by avoiding past responses to seemingly technical challenges, which typically involved sending in northern experts to help southern governments with a technical fix. Not only does this undermine local expertise, it fails to acknowledge the fact that climate change is not a technical problem for developing countries that will be fixed by providing more technical assistance sourced from Northern countries.

Climate action is a deeply political proposition, as it gets to the question of choices over possible futures for societies: carbon intensive vs carbon neutral, adaptation for the few or for the many, or taxing to pay for change vs building market frameworks to facilitate it (or a mixture of both). There will be winners and there will be losers. History shows that those who are most reluctant to act or resistant to change are often the ones with the most to lose. Local policy research organizations understand such dynamics and can engage in these political processes without being partisan, in a way that foreign experts or organizations never can.

Thoughts for think tank funders

There is a conundrum however. How can foreign funders support these local organizations, without running the risk of being seen as potentially influencing certain outcomes and overtly interfering with existing policy processes? In many countries, we have seen a narrowing of space for civil society, which has affected think tanks through limitations on the receipt of foreign funds or in the length of approval processes for foreign-funded projects. To be sure, it is the prerogative of sovereign governments to govern and regulate as they see fit, but in some cases, barriers have been created to old ways of partnering. New thinking and approaches are now required more than ever.

While we reflect on the climate action that our partner think tanks are informing and helping to support in their own countries, we should note that TTI is also grappling with the above issues. While we don’t have definitive answers, we are certainly learning things along the way. Being transparent about motives helps. So does working through networks, where differing approaches and positions of member organizations can diminish perceptions of favouring particular perspectives. And engaging in dialogues with domestic funders who are interested in learning about how to better support think tanks can help too.

Sharing what we are learning about how to effectively support think tanks is a key objective within TTI’s results framework. These lessons are directly relevant for think tanks working on climate issues, as well as for donors who are helping to support this work. And given the stakes, these lessons are extremely urgent ones to pass along.