Over the weekend a light went out. As a new week dawns, the world is just a little bit dimmer. Professor Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) passed away at his home in Dhaka on Saturday evening. Saleem was an acclaimed academic, renowned researcher, relentless climate justice activist, visionary leader and prolific changemaker. He was also a devoted husband and father, brother and uncle and so many other things. Saleem loved and was loved by family, friends and hundreds if not thousands of colleagues who had the opportunity to work with him.
He was also my mentor.
I first met Saleem over a decade ago. In the coursework for my Master’s degree I was studying responses to climate change in developing countries. Learning theory and wondering: what does all of this look like in practice? There was a question I couldn’t shake and had begun to ruminate on: does adaptation truly address underlying vulnerabilities and can it truly be targeted to benefit the most marginalized? Heavy questions. A potential quagmire of investigation. So many paths to go down.
And that led me to Bangladesh. The first country to submit its National Adaptation Programme of Action and a laboratory of learning on adaptation policy and practice. My dissertation supervisor had a connection to the International Institute for Environment and Development where Saleem was then a senior fellow having recently stepped down as head of the climate group, which he had founded.
I was nervous when I reached out. Saleem was an icon. Surely, he wouldn’t be willing to speak to me. But perhaps he’d put me in touch with someone who might have time for a lowly Master’s student. Surprise dawned when within minutes of sending my request Saleem had responded. He said he would be happy to speak to me. I was delighted.
Not only did Saleem support me with the research for my Master’s dissertation but he put me in touch with many others who consented to an interview, people I wouldn’t have known to contact. People who agreed to speak with me, likely because Saleem asked them to. And all this for someone he didn’t know and had no obligation whatsoever to help. But that was Saleem. Always willing to help a young researcher, or really anyone at all.
When I finished my dissertation I sent it to Saleem with a note thanking him for his support and asked him to let me know if he heard of any opportunities I might be a good fit for. He did me one better. He said: “Do you want to work at my new centre in Bangladesh?” I said yes. It is one of the greatest decisions I have ever made.
A few months later I landed in Dhaka and began an internship at ICCCAD as a visiting researcher (a title I still hold today). A few days after I arrived in Dhaka, still getting my bearings, Saleem and ICCCAD were hosting a strategy meeting for the Least Developed Country (LDC) Group, the bloc of what was then 49 of the lowest income developing countries. I was asked to support the meeting. Suffice it to say it was truly a baptism by fire if there ever was one. I was tasked with taking notes. But most of the discussions were so far over my head they were incomprehensible. The lexicon was completely foreign. Acronyms sprinkled everywhere. What is SBSTA? The SBI? The KP? I was so out of my depth it was laughable. But Saleem didn’t care. He didn’t see that. He always saw something in me I didn’t see in myself.
As I settled into my temporary home in Dhaka I continued helping where I could, figuring out where I could add value in the landscape of work ICCCAD was doing. And then one day Saleem told me about a new project ICCCAD was part of – the Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries Initiative – which had recently launched. The project was driven by a global consortium and was focused on an issue called Loss and Damage. I had no idea what that meant. The two words separately, yes. But the policy agenda? No idea. But I would soon learn that few people did and I was about to work with them.
Saleem asked me if I wanted to lead the project for ICCCAD, to coordinate a national study which consisted of five small research projects all focused on different elements relevant to assessing and addressing loss and damage in Bangladesh. Again, I said yes. Why not? It was far from what I envisioned when I had gone to Bangladesh. Not adaptation. Not work on the ground but rather globally focused. But it felt like an important opportunity. So I leapt.
It still confounds me that Saleem had faith in me to take on the project. I was completely out of my depth. And I do mean: Completely. Out. Of. My. Depth. But that was Saleem. He threw you into the deep end and let you sink or swim. A micromanager he was not. He had too much going on for that.
At the time Saleem was spending most of his time in London. He and his family hadn’t yet moved back to Dhaka and wouldn’t make that move permanently for several years. I was the only one at ICCCAD working on the project and I had absolutely no clue. Just no clue. I really can’t overemphasize that. But I figured it out with Saleem’s guidance. And while I sputtered initially and I definitely made mistakes —so, so many mistakes— eventually I began to swim rather spectacularly. Because Saleem created a container which made that possible.
Saleem believed that making mistakes is part of learning. That without making mistakes we can’t grow. He was a huge advocate for failure. Not for failing intentionally but for taking risks. Saleem had so many ideas, yet only a fraction of them ever came to light. In almost every conversation an idea was born, often more than one. Sometimes they went somewhere and became something. Other times they didn’t. But Saleem was never short on ideas. So he didn’t sweat it when they didn’t lead to anything. There was always another one.
Anyone who ever worked for Saleem will know that he set the bar high. Very, very high. He was someone with high standards and he expected those he worked with to meet them. He expected dedication, commitment and going above and beyond. And that meant long, long hours. I’ve never wanted to impress anyone more than I did Saleem in those early years. It’s hard to work with someone who literally knows everything. I still don’t really understand how he did it except that he was always reading something. Rarely did I feel like his intellectual equal. Although as my knowledge of Loss and Damage increased he began to defer to me more and more. Saleem knew what he knew and what he didn’t and he was always ready to seek the council of experts on the things he didn’t know.
I stayed in that role, coordinating the Bangladesh study on Loss and Damage, for two years. And by the end I had a fairly good idea of what loss and damage was, how to assess and address it, though that’s certainly evolved since then. I learned on the job. We all did. Saleem gave me opportunity after opportunity to grow as a researcher, as a coordinator and as a human. He offered to co-write papers with me. He sent me to meetings in his stead. He gave me advice at every turn.
I left ICCCAD for another role when the project didn’t get funding due to the politics of Loss and Damage. My next leap found me working in Africa. I took those lessons from Bangladesh with me and continued to draw on Saleem’s wisdom and seek his guidance. In fact, It was Saleem who encouraged me to take the opportunity in the first place. He wanted to see me apply the lessons I’d learned in Bangladesh to a new context. He wanted to see what I could learn, how I could grow. He was always encouraging me to fly because he knew I could. And I was still learning that I had wings at all, let alone how to use them. But every time I needed anything he was there.
Those years in the laboratory of learning —or the incubator of ideas as Saleem often called Bangladesh— watching people like Saleem shape policy and practice inspired me to do my PhD on how leadership and policy entrepreneurship shaped Loss and Damage policy in Bangladesh. No one was more supportive of my research than Saleem.
He was always asking me: When are you going to come back to Bangladesh? But even though I rarely had the opportunity to go back to Bangladesh once I finished my PhD, anytime I needed support all I needed to do was to reach out. Saleem always had time for a call. Even with everything he had going on. I still don’t know how he did it all, even with the 18-hour days he often worked.
It took me a long time to recover from trying to match his hours. His commitment was unparalleled. He was so passionate. In fact, not working was difficult for him. I frequently worried about him. I often said to him: “Please take better care of yourself. We need you”. And we did. We do. But he continued to work so hard for us all. And now he’s not here to guide us.
As the years marched on I found my own feet. I still often worked with ICCCAD but was also doing other things. I always stayed in touch though. Saleem always considered me part of the team. He always came along to the things I organized when he could. Saleem was always willing to support me. I still remember one such dinner one evening during COP 24 in Katowice. We had sat down at our table and were chit chatting to our neighbours. I knew that I should say something as the convener of the dinner but I was nervous. And then Saleem, who was sitting across from me, cleared his throat, looked me in the eyes and said: “Erin, it’s time.” And so, I sat up taller, threw my shoulders back, lifted my chin and cleared my own throat to get everyone’s attention. I welcomed everyone to the dinner and then Saleem came in with his words. He didn’t want to steal my thunder by speaking first because the dinner was my thing. But Saleem always had something to say. And he was always inspiring, ever articulate and never wavering.
When I heard the news of his passing yesterday I started sobbing immediately. It was a complete shock. I walked around in a daze all day. It felt like a bad dream. It still doesn’t feel real. A world without Saleem? Doing this work without him? I have a list of questions I was going to ask him in Dubai. Questions about leadership, how to lead a team, how to learn from failure. The typical things I ask him about. I took it for granted that he would be there. And now he won’t. I feel like those early days when I was so certain I would sink. This grief feels like sinking too. I don’t know how to do this work without him. He has always been there to guide me when I needed it.
The Loss and Damage Collaboration began as a very small group, about 15 people. The aim was to support the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the Loss and Damage negotiations and to harness the work that civil society was doing to ensure it was fit for purpose for LDCs. We eventually expanded to support all developing countries but we started out focusing on the LDCs as that was the group I worked with at the time. I started the Collaboration wearing my ICCCAD hat, the affiliation through which I supported the LDC Group on Loss and Damage. And of course, Saleem was one of the founding members and he continued to be a key member of the Collaboration as we grew and evolved over the past few years.
Saleem’s loss is being felt by so many. That much is clear. The climate policy world is reeling. Today felt surreal. Just now a colleague called me and hung up before I could pick up. I messaged back and after we reflected on how devastated we each were I asked if they wanted to talk. They replied: “Yes but I don’t know how. I think I’ll just cry and cry.” And I felt the same way. It feels hollow. I feel hollow, aimless, rudderless. Because that’s what Saleem was: he was our rudder, steering us, guiding us, leading us.
And now he’s gone. So where do we go now? What do we do now? The answer is to put one foot in front of the other and keep on keeping on. Just like he would tell us to do if he were here. To take what he gave us and keep it alive, make it grow. To make him proud by taking his legacy forward. And that’s just what we’ll do.
So rest in peace dear Saleem. Know you were loved. Know you are missed. Know that you left so much behind. That your work lives on in so many of us, including in me. Know that I am grateful for having known you. For everything you taught me. For all the opportunities you gave me. And I will do my best to keep your legacy alive with everything I am and everything I have. To become the person you always knew I could be and do the things you always knew I could do.
This Obituary was originally published by The Loss and Damage Collaboration on 30 October, 2023.
Authors: Erin Roberts is the founder and global lead of the Loss and Damage Collaboration. She started her career working on Loss and Damage in Bangladesh and continues to apply what she learned there in her day to day including the life-changing lessons she learned from her mentor Saleemul Huq.