As world leaders in Scotland engage in ongoing, messy negotiations, the stakes for humanity could not be higher. We need better data to adapt to and mitigate the changing climate. But there’s a wide gap between the COP26 decision-makers who are leading conversations in Glasgow and people on the ground with expert knowledge of how climate change is impacting their lives. Without drawing on local knowledge from the people who are most affected, efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change will fall short.

Take work by Dr. Vivek Shandas, for example—a researcher in Oregon who drove around his city measuring ground temperature in the midst of a climate change-induced heat wave that killed more than 800 people in the Northwestern United States and Canada. Dr. Shandas found that poor neighborhoods in Portland were 25℉ (13.8℃) degrees warmer than wealthy ones. By 2070, climate change threatens to make a wide swath of Saharan Africa too hot for humans to live. Community-driven data is essential to identify these impacts and address disparities within and among countries.

Community-led data efforts also hold promise for local environmental management that responds to changing weather patterns. In one example, hundreds of fishing communities and citizen scientists across seven countries in the Amazon basin contribute through an app to a data platform for monitoring fish migration and water quality. As the first publicly-available database of the Amazon basin, Citizen Science for the Amazon is a model for combining local knowledge with traditional forms of data to produce a more timely and granular understanding of environmental change. These types of participatory data governance models are a critical tool in fighting climate change and promoting equity.

As we’ve seen at COP26 this week, climate negotiations reflect global power imbalances due to the gap in economic wealth of the primary emitting countries and those experiencing the worst effects of climate change. The spaces where solutions are discussed are occupied by the people who define what knowledge and innovation are, and how data should be used. These types of top-down data solutions and decisions reinforce global power imbalances. (For more on this, see this report from the Global Partnership and Space4Climate summarizing conversations with more than 40 advocates from 16 countries.)

There is power in community-driven data to spur action on climate. Policymakers need more detailed, inclusive, timely, and disaggregated data that is shaped, gathered, and interpreted with the participation of those who are most affected. We cannot avert one global disaster by means that worsen global inequality and further marginalize people and communities.