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Shifting Power Through Climate Research: Applying Decolonial Methodologies

Colonial legacies and unequal divisions of power embedded within Global North-South relationships continue to affect and shape climate research. This article explores how these dynamics can be better considered and addressed during research processes.
Multiple Authors
Fishing village in Dhaka
Eastern Housing Pallabi, Dhaka, Bangladesh | Photo by Sunny Hossain Meem on Unsplash


The climate crisis is fraught by unequal power dynamics, and its impacts are linked to centuries of colonial exploitation. The wealth and resources expatriated through colonialism provided fundamental pillars for industrialization and the resultant rise in carbon emissions, enabled by an economic system that has been supported through colonial appropriation of developing countries. This history continues to shape the development trajectory of the Global South, as a force that perpetuates a cycle of dependency and is a factor in countries’ debt crises, which further limit them from pursuing their development goals.

Colonial legacies, unequal power dynamics and economic disparities also continue to impact dominant knowledge systems on the environment and climate change. Global institutions, and northern researchers are overrepresented within academic publications that dominate the climate-knowledge economy and the setting of related research agendas.Relations of power also unfold on smaller scales, through the privilege and positionality of researchers and different actors. Though contexts differ, the ramification of colonial legacies in the global knowledge-production system provides a common starting point for researchers’ self-reflections.

Against this background, the discussion brief aims to provide insights into ways that individual researchers can aim to shift rather than reinforce unequal power relations in climate and environment research that disadvantage marginalized communities and the Global South. Whilst focusing on climate change research, the brief builds upon the longstanding literature on decolonialism, as well as methods of knowledge co-production through a framework of shifting power through research. However, it is not a “how-to” guide. Instead, the researchers discuss considerations that others can and should bear in mind, applicability of which depends heavily on the contexts in which they work.

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Project design

Project design

Unequal power dynamics must be addressed from the start: when researchers apply for funding. Existing funding mechanisms often perpetuate power imbalances that enable and cement the dominance of research and researchers in the Global North in knowledge production and dissemination. In the proposal-development and funding-application phases, researchers can aim to critically examine the call for proposal and/or grant-application mechanisms. The eligibility criteria, proposal review procedures, application deadlines, project life cycles, and evaluation schemes may, intentionally or not, discourage or limit applicants from developing countries and/or indigenous communities.

Secondly, shifting power at the design phase also involves considering who is involved in a particular research institute or project team. Considerations of diversity and inclusion should inform hiring practices for research staff, project team formulation and advisory board selection. For example, research projects could prioritize hiring research staff and interns based in the countries or local contexts where they are conducting research.

Thirdly, power imbalances should also be considered when selecting research partners. Unequal research practices may result in limited intellectual contribution from local scientists, and an over-reliance on scientists based far away. Thus, an equitable design process could be embedded from the very beginning of the project, moving away from the norm of having a “lead” institution, and instead setting up equitable decision-making processes that include all partners.

Finally, power considerations should also be central in making decisions about methodologies selected and the designs that determine how research is conducted. These considerations should apply across different research activities, such as fieldwork, modelling and policy analysis. Researchers could promote inclusion and engagement of research partners and participants as early as possible in the process.

Project implementation

During project implementation, it is important to recognize that researchers are not separate from the field in which they undertake research. Once in the field, the relative privilege of the researcher shapes how data are collected and what kinds of knowledge are produced. It has also been recommended that researchers should engage in active reflexivity in the field to be constantly aware of how their positionality affects their research and research participants. This involves researchers iteratively reflecting and discussing how they might be “read” by participants and how that might shape their interactions.

Active reflexivity is also necessary to identify cases when the presence of a researcher in the field might create tensions that have nothing to do with the immediate actions of the researchers but everything to do with their status as researchers. Conducting fieldwork in such situations requires the researcher to be sensitive to the aspirations of the community and their goals/perspectives when interacting with a participant. Overall, research needs to be conducted in a manner which respects local ownerships of knowledge, methods and cultures and aspirations of the communities being engaged.

Shifting power considerations also apply when working with secondary data. Researchers should consider the sources of the data and what kind of knowledge a project’s work builds on. This includes recognizing and include different systems of knowledges, as well as actively including indigenous schools and scholars from the Global South for future citation. Researchers should aim to carefully consider where and how data were collected, and by whom. What purpose did the gathering of the data aim to serve? The answer to this fundamental question is essential for ensuring that research is not simply magnifying already powerful voices within communities and groups over those that are marginalized.

Dissemination of findings

Dissemination constitutes the tip of the research iceberg. It is the most visible phase of research; thus, fair acknowledgment and co-production are particularly important in this final stage. A key consideration should be answering the question, “Who are you writing for?” Any research products about a community should be developed to serve that community.

Regarding publications, research partners should be included and acknowledged in the paper unless otherwise indicated when planning the research. Roles and responsibilities for preparing and publishing research outputs should be shared among research partners. Local communities and research participants should be given the option to co-author outputs, and to be involved in the writing and review process if appropriate.

Regarding policy recommendations, researchers also need to ensure that “solutions” recommended to combat the climate crisis acknowledge colonial roots and offer alternatives to shift away from these trends and power dynamics. For example, resilience framing as a “solution” has been criticized for preserving the status quo and reinforcing existing colonial political and economic structures. To help shift power, researchers should aim to investigate and recommend solutions that build resilience and adaptive capacity by addressing the root causes and underlying drivers of vulnerability. Such an approach would raise more radical and decolonial solutions, such as recommendations for debt relief and reparations as forms of climate finance from developed to developing nations.

Researchers could also opt for non-academic outputs. One approach could be publishing key findings in local media that directly reach local communities, such as local newspapers. Innovative mediums and platforms of dissemination are also multiplying, such as story-telling or visual and artistic practices that center research communication around local and Indigenous voices and practices. Most importantly, researchers should ensure that research is communicated back to research partners and local communities, in ways that are actionable and beneficial to the participating communities.

Key takeaways

By discussing certain inequalities embedded within climate research, this brief attempts to craft a concrete set of considerations for how researchers can aim to shift, rather than perpetuate, existing, unequal power dynamics in their work. Table 1 summarizes these proposed considerations.

It is hoped that this work can help bring the wider research community together to challenge these structures, and to work towards more long-term institutional change. Changes must also take place in the cultures, paradigms and mindsets at research institutions. Researchers must ask themselves important questions. What research and research practices are appropriate? How must research practices change? As a next step, there is a need to ensure that proposed considerations are cognizant of local contexts and histories.

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