ESRC Festival of Social Science

On 11th November, the University of Reading hosted an ESRC Festival of Social Science event ‘Climate Justice: can fairness create a green future?’. The broader aims of the festival were to raise awareness of the social science research currently being conducted in the UK, and the Reading event showcased the PhD projects of the Leverhulme Climate Justice scholars studying at the University.

The sold-out event was open to the public, and it was encouraging that so many were interested enough in climate change to give up their Saturday afternoon to come and talk about it. The challenge for the Scholars was to communicate their research in an engaging and informative way to this primarily non-academic audience. To this end, each prepared a poster shedding light on at least one aspect of their project and these were dotted around the foyer of the Minghella Studios, through which the attendees could meander freely. The audience were encouraged to put their questions to the scholars and to feed back on the ideas presented. These enquiries – certainly from where I stood beside my poster – were astute and challenging, and an audience keen to engage ensured that no Scholar had to resort to competitive sales patter to attract passers-by.

Every twenty minutes or so, the chatting was put on hold so that a selection of scholars could deliver a short synopsis of their research. These talks, delivered dramatically from a staircase overlooking the foyer, had a twist: the presenters’ vocabularies were limited to the thousand most common words in the English language. In keeping with the spirit of the day, the idea here was to challenge the scholars to communicate their research free from the jargon that quickly swamps academic debates. And it was a challenge: neither ‘climate’ nor ‘fairness’ were permitted on this restriction, for example, let alone the more niche ‘stratospheric aerosol injection’ that is the subject of one particular project. Given these constraints, the scholars did a good job, and the light-hearted tone of these talks was a compliment to the more focused discussions that took place in between. ‘The world is getting hotter’, we were told, because ‘we have been burning lots of dead animal bits’, and ‘this is very bad’.

The climax of the event was a screening of the film Greedy Lying Bastards and a Q&A with Professor Catriona McKinnon, director of the Leverhulme Programme. Craig Rosebraugh’s unsettling documentary is an attempt to expose the role of corporate sponsored climate denial, one notable obstacle to climate justice, in shaping public opinion and blocking effective policy. It made stark not only the perniciousness of these corporate interventions into debates about climate science but also, by focusing partly on the stories of victims of climate change-related extreme weather events, the urgency of the issue that confronts us. In rounding off the event, Professor McKinnon brought together the various strands of climate justice research that had been discussed throughout the afternoon and indicated where were new lines of study might develop in the coming years.

Overall the event was effective in balancing a pragmatic appreciation of the extensive barriers to achieving climate justice with an optimism about people’s capacity and genuine willingness to take concerns about fairness seriously. I also thought (and hope!) that the discussions were informative without being overly dry or abstract. These balances are not easily struck in climate justice events involving academics, and a lot of credit has to go to the shrewd planning of the organisers and to a public audience whose impressive knowledge about climate change constantly pressed the scholars to connect their research to contemporary political events.

Written by Alex McLaughlin, Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar

COP23 Day 1: Procedural Problems in the Plenary…

by Danny Waite

Source: UNFCCC Twitter 06/11/2017
Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji, speaking at COP23 opening ceremony on 06/11/2017

At 11am local time in Bonn, Germany, on Monday 6th November, the prime minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama officially declared COP23 – the first “island COP” of the UNFCCC – open, to kick-start the next wave of negotiations on how to tackle climate change. It was a rousing call to action – a drive to build a coalition of governments and across all sectors of society, to “put everyone first by locking arms and moving forward together”. The science on climate change, said the new COP president, is now clear: climate change poses a multitude of dangers, from floods to droughts, hurricanes to threats to human health and food security, particularly for the most vulnerable peoples of the world. As prime minister of Fiji, this suffering is, of course, something Mr Bainimarama has seen first-hand, and is anxious to protect his people from. In the wake of the recent revelation that 2016 saw record carbon emissions, the COP president urged his counterparts to advance their ambitions and to meet their Paris Agreement commitments in full – in particular, to commit to the most ambitious target of 1.5°C warming relative to pre-industrial levels. After all, Mr Bainimarama reminded the conference centre, “We are all in the same canoe”.

What followed the COP president were similarly passionate responses to the dangers of climate change. Each of the executive secretary of the UNFCCC, the secretary general of the WMO, and the chair of the IPCC cited the fact that 2017 is likely to be the warmest year on record and stressed the urgency of the window for action with which the world is now presented. They were joined in their calls for implementation of action by Barbara Hendricks, the German Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, who urged parties to persevere in moving away from fossil fuels and to address the “scientifically proven” and “existential threat” that is climate change. Every dollar spent, said Ms Hendricks, pays for better health, cleaner air, and more economic opportunities – a world in which our children and grandchildren can thrive.

Source: The Malay Mail Online

A pity, then, that the following items on the COP agenda lacked the same degree of harmony. The president had got only as far as presenting item 2(c), the adoption of the agenda itself, before cracks began to appear in the international community. COP President Bainimarama announced that two items had been submitted by parties – the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iran respectively – which, in the president’s pre-COP closed door meetings with blocs and parties, had not garnered a consensus view, would not be considered for inclusion in the agenda, and that instead they would be investigated by the president of COP22 with a report to be written by Saturday. This prompted retorts from both parties, who asserted that their submissions had been deposited months before, and concerned increasing ambition levels for the COP negotiations, in particular for the pre-2020 period before the Paris Agreement comes into effect. Four other parties – India, Switzerland, Costa Rica, and China – urged the president at various points to reconsider, given the importance of starting action as soon as possible, and noted that no other parties had openly explained why a consensus was not achieved before the COP. Nevertheless, the appeals fell on deaf ears, and Mr Bainimarama repeated that the items would be addressed on Saturday. It was evident that, as the Indian delegate clarified, to ignore these requests was a serious issue of trust for developing countries at the COP.

The remaining COP agenda items – the election of other COP officers, the admittance of observer organisations, and the organisation of work for the subsidiary bodies – as well as the CMP and CMA meetings, passed without objection, although this was to prove the calm before the storm. The last event of the morning session, which overran by more than an hour, much to the irritation of the Tuvalu delegation, was the joint plenary between the COP, CMP, and CMA committees, in which blocs of countries set out their initial negotiating positions. What little patience was left by this point began to fray as every speaker bar one easily overran the allotted time of three minutes – indeed, Ecuador, on behalf of the G77 & China bloc, even warned in advance that their speech would exceed the time limits. It became apparent early on that there was a clear divide in the room – developing country blocs, such as the G77 & China, AOSIS, the LDCs, the LMDCs, the African Group, AILAC, BASIC, and ALBA, all reiterating their frustration at the problems with the provision of finance, technology transfer, and capacity building measures to the developing world. A particular source of irritation was the “conditionality” which, it was argued, developed countries had attached to access to finance. In the words of the Brazilian delegate, speaking on behalf of the BASIC group, this was “tantamount to a renegotiation of the Paris Agreement and a departure from the spirit of the UNFCCC.” Loss and damage was equally contentious, and a permanent place for the Warsaw Mechanism within the Paris Agreement was called for repeatedly.

In response, the developed world seemed to have little to say besides generic platitudes. The EU recognised the increased severity of extreme weather and the need to help the world’s most vulnerable communities, and called for the Paris pledges to be scaled up and for draft decisions on all Paris work programme items to be completed next year. The Environmental Integrity Group committed itself to the Paris process, and called for ambitious implementation guidelines. The Umbrella Group was “committed to playing our part” and shared the COP presidency’s desire for a successful high level event. The theme they all shared, however, was a stated desire for enhanced transparency in determining national action plans on climate change, something which is likely to place them at loggerheads with the developing world, especially given their perceived standstill on all things finance-related. The US had even less to say – its delegate spoke for a mere 30 seconds, stating no more than that the Trump administration’s position is unchanged, but that the delegation will continue to participate over the next two weeks.

The moment of greatest drama in the morning session came when it was Saudi Arabia’s turn to speak, on behalf of the Arab League. The Saudi delegate voiced his displeasure at the plenary rule of presenting statements in English only – perhaps with one eye on the clock (!) – and refused to speak in any language other than Arabic, citing parties’ “legitimate right to speak in their mother languages”. He “resented such disrespect”, and even went as far as declaring that “it seems like statements by some groups are not important”, deploring the fact that delegates had been asked to work through their lunches – although, as he also noted, by the time of his speech, the conference room was all but empty. “Absolutely not acceptable” was his final verdict, triggering an apology from the presidency.

All in all, then, a decidedly frosty morning in Bonn on day 1 of COP23. It already appears that the parties will have great difficulty in squaring their disagreements, particularly over finance and transparency, and the entire process will not be helped by the air of tension that the first four hours generated. As the Saudi delegate forcefully expressed with his very first words of the plenary, “This is not a good start for the COP.”

Danny Waite is on the COP-Climate Action Studio this week.