The inspiration for this particular special issue of GCR21’s Quarterly Magazine came from the confluence of the release of the IPCC’s WG1 Report in September of 2021, and the fact that the postponed COP26 would finally be held in person in Glasgow in November. Certainly, any number of other dynamics could have inspired a special issue on climate, from this summer’s extreme flooding in Germany and massive wildfires elsewhere in Europe and the US. As one twitter user commented, 'half of the world is on fire, and the other half is flooding.'
While this is clearly intentionally hyperbolic, the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report) does indeed point to not only a frightening future for humanity (and the ecosystems we rely on) but also a frightening present. As climate science becomes more and more clear, it points more starkly to the fact that we have entered the climate crisis. Some have seen in this the potential for galvanizing change given the fact that the devastations of climate change have reached beyond the Global South, now impacting also the nations that are historically vastly more responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. For example, John Vidal, the Guardian’s former environment correspondent recently saw this as a 'reason to be optimistic' (Vidal 2021). After all, 'every country has now had a taste of climate change.' (ibid.).
However, this characterization of reality, while consistent with the laws of physics and chemistry, is not the only reality that exists in the realm of climate policy negotiations. As a researcher of UN environmental policy-making, I am regularly struck by the disjunctures that are brought to light in the arenas within which I have gathered data over the past 23 years. Having attended approximately 50 UN meetings pertaining to climate, biological diversity, and Indigenous Peoples, I have learned to see these disjunctures not as irrational aberrations that need to be explained away, but as representative of contradictions that are deeply embedded in our current social organization.
How to make sense of this? Why do policy makers fail to act when the science is clear? Just today (12 November), a new rallying cry emerged within the halls of the COP: 'Science has delivered! How will you respond?' yelled civil society participants. For starters, I can say that Greta Thunberg was not wrong when she stated the following at the Fridays for Future rally in Glasgow on 5 November:
Many are asking what it’ll take for people in power to wake up. But let’s be clear - they’re already awake. They know exactly what they’re doing. They know exactly what priceless values they’re sacrificing to maintain business as usual.
There is not one answer to these questions or one way of understanding these contradictions, but those of us who analyze global environmental governance can posit some explanations, each providing an angle on an extremely complex global problem. For example, Gale (2013) suggests that current intergovernmentalism is incapable of delivering strong action on climate change due to the fact that, in climate negotiations, 'the marginalization of scientists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples and affected populations in small island states means that greater weight is placed on protecting short-term economic and social interests to the detriment of the planet’s ecological future' (Gale 2013: 33).
My work does not contradict Gale’s, but provides a somewhat different angle. As I frame my data gathering and analysis in a perspective that is inspired by the ontology of Institutional Ethnography, an approach to sociology pioneered by Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith, I focus on the work that policy makers do to enact that which often gets abstracted into such terms as 'global environmental governance.' Very sophisticated work knowledges are consistently deployed within the context of the negotiations. These work knowledges demonstrate that the practitioners of policy are highly skilled in engaging in the arena within which they negotiate, strategize, and deliberate. Smith frames it this way: 'Institutional ethnography’s modest proposal is to work from what people are doing or what they can tell us about what they and others do and to find out how the forms of coordinating their activities ‘produce’ institutional processes, as they actually work' (2005: 60). 'For institutional ethnography, the social as the focus for study is to be located in how people’s activities or practices are coordinated' (2005: 59, emphasis in the original).
So yes—policy makers understand the dynamics and may very well have a clear sense of the magnitude of the climate crisis. And yet, while they are delegates entering an arena in which climate policy is being negotiated, their work is clearly circumscribed by a multitude of interests and organized by institutions and ideologies that are nearly always at odds with creating 'binding commitments.' In simple terms, one could argue that their work is not to 'save the earth' but instead to engage in the making of policy as representatives of nation states within the context of a broader institutional framework that supports such things as national sovereignty, a commitment to economic growth, and colonial legacies, to name merely a few of the competing ideologies. This is a process that is designed to work at a snail’s pace as participants must be constantly attentive to shifts in the terrain that open up strategic possibilities to either push forward or to delay.
To further illustrate just how far apart the worlds of policy and activism are, I will draw from my notes taken at this most recent COP in Glasgow. The following segment of an intervention from the delegate of Antigua and Barbuda, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS, is illustrative of many of the dynamics that speak to the social organization of policy work that is done competently by delegates daily at COPs.
…As has been said many times from the beginning of this COP—from world leaders to COP Presidency and policy makers, the science is front and center at this COP. There have been critical reports since the last session, and especially since the last COP, especially of course the IPCC Working Group 1 Report.
We are here to ensure that science is adequately reflected in the UNF triple C process, and at this COP going forward. We do appreciate the informal note from the May/June session, and we think that the co-facilitators did a really good job preparing this document and it could form a good basis for more work going forward….
The IPCC is by far the most extensive and up-to-date scientific assessment available to us. Multiple years of production and several review rounds of experts and governments resulted in thousands of papers approved by the parties. It is the most [inaudible] and rigorous science that we should adequately draw from in this important process, as mandated by paragraph 85 of 1.CP.18. Unfortunately, we feel that this was not fully achieved in the second SED…
Interventions are rarely off-the-cuff, and are instead the result of delegations’ engagement with existing texts. Governments have limited opportunities to articulate their positions, so they ensure that their message is written ahead of time, to be read out when called upon by the meeting facilitator. In order to be effective, delegates need to speak to the agenda items and deploy the concepts that hold currency within the climate regime. Here, in the statement by Antigua and Barbuda, we see a strategic use of the IPCC’s work to attempt to push policy in a particular direction. The reference to previously-agreed-upon text (e.g. 'paragraph 85 of the 1.CP.18') likewise illustrates AOSIS’ sophisticated sense of how to engage in UN deliberations. Whether their intents will be incorporated into the next iteration of the co-facilitators’ text is not guaranteed, yet they have here laid the groundwork for raising concerns at later stages in the process. Additionally, they have articulated a position with which subsequent parties can align themselves, thus increasing the likelihood that the issues they raise will in fact make their way into the final texts of the process.
All of this seems worlds away from the level of urgency that is expressed by activists on the streets of Glasgow or by scientists who have raised grave concerns that the agreements at COP26 will not be enough to reach the targets of the Paris Agreement. In fact, I have drawn this small segment of AOSIS’ intervention—representing mere moments in the hours upon hours of deliberations that take place over the thirteen (plus) days/nights of the COP—to illustrate the sorts of work being done by 'people in power' (to use Greta’s term). Again, to be clear, I believe that Greta’s analysis is not incorrect. The delegates—whose work revolves around strategic use of language and deployment of the concepts that carry currency in this arena—very likely know that we exist in a climate crisis. However, their work is organized by a range of competing exigencies which can be made visible in the details of the negotiations. These are details that get lost in the 'final' texts of the COPs, and in the analysis of what was a 'success' or 'failure' at each COP, yet these are elements that can be made visible through the sort of research I conduct.
From this perspective, one can begin to contextualize not only the specifics of the language of policy as it evolves over the span of certain structured deliberations, but also the broader scope of norms, rules, and expectations that serve to organize global governance. Reus-Smit long ago pointed out the fundamental premise that 'states negotiate environmental accords within a pre-existing complex of social institutions' (1996: 103). This seems fairly obvious, but much of my research has focused on the workings of actual negotiations in order to arrive at an analysis of just what those 'social institutions' are, and how they serve to coordinate the work being done in this arena.
In this short piece, I have not had the space to elaborate on the significance of this sort of analysis. However, I have pointed readers toward the problematics that I take seriously. There are significant disjunctures between the worlds of activists, scientists, and policy makers, but these are not aberrations to be explained away, but perhaps hints or clues of where to dig deeper to better understand the dynamics unfolding under the UN deliberations.
Each of the pieces gathered for this particular special issue of the Quarterly Magazine provides insights into what scholars who investigate global cooperation pertaining to climate can contribute to the larger whole of our understanding. Each takes a particular angle and provides an analysis—a piece of the larger puzzle that represents our attempts at making sense of a complex and changing world. None of the pieces strive to explain away the complexities, yet take them as a point of departure as they delve into a specific topic pertaining to climate-related global cooperation research. I argue that it is crucial that we investigate such complex and existential problems from the interdisciplinary and critical perspective that is embraced by the KHK/Centre for Global Cooperation Research, and it is my hope that readers of this particular issue of the Quarterly Magazine will also not only see the value in this approach, but will come away having further developed their own understanding of the intersections between climate policy, climate activism, climate science and the geophysical elements of the climate crisis itself.
Gale, Fred (2013). 'When Interests Trump Institutions: Tasmania’s Forest Policy Network and the Bell Bay Pulp Mill', Environmental Politics, 22(2), 274–92.
IPCC (2021). Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.
Reus-Smit, Chris (1996). The Normative Structure of International Society, 96–121, in Fen Olser Hampson and Judith Reppy (eds). Earthly Goods: Environmental Change and Social Justice. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Smith, Dorothy E. (2005). Institutional Ethnography: A Sociology for People. Oxford: Alta Mira Press.
Vidal, John (2021). 'After 30 Years of Cop, Our Ex-environment Minister Is Now Optimistic: The Global Hunger for Change—Evident as Early as the Rio Earth Summit in 1992—Is Now Insatiable,' The Guardian, Monday 1 November.
About the Author
Lauren Eastwoods primary research areas include civil society participation in policy making through the United Nations, the shifting politics of 'fracking' and other forms of energy extraction, and activism in opposition to fossil fuel-based infrastructure.
She is Senior Researcher and Policy Field Convener for Climate Change and Sustainability Policy at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg/Centre for Global Cooperation Research. She is also Associate Professor of Sociology at SUNY College at Plattsburgh.