Researchers in the Global South are geopolitically distant from the places and people influencing global climate change debates. Their contribution in terms of academic publication is not large. Yet, by examining a South African research center, we show that these researchers negotiate their marginalization, optimize their local advantage, and navigate between national and global imperatives. Climate change requires global action and is a site of activism for Southern countries, which also face urgent developmental challenges requiring applied research. Climate change mitigation has to be addressed with attention to inequality. Our Southern soft-funded research center valued applied research and immediate policy impact over conventional peer-reviewed journal outputs. Impact assessment that relies on research metrics, such as citation counts, may miss some of the accomplishments of Southern institutions such as this one. These Southern researchers actively make choices and pursue agendas and are not just the victims of inadequate resourcing and Northern domination.