Tomorrow I’ll travel to Bonn to attend the United Nations 23rd Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This is my first COP and my emotions are mixed.
Last year I decided that I wanted to go to COP 22 in Marrakech. Although I’ve been researching climate politics for over a decade, my research has never focused on the central hub of activity, or the climate regime as it is known. Instead, I have been concerned with how, by whom and on the basis of what authority climate change is being constructed as an object of political reality. To address this question, I have studied the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main climate change knowledge producer. However, I’ve become increasingly interested in studying how the authority of scientific knowledge is being challenged, in what forums and by what actors. In order to begin studying these processes of contestation I wanted to travel to Marrakech in December 2016.
There was a problem, however; I needed observer status to attend the COP. I sent a few emails, asked a few friends and explored various avenues, but nothing was coming my way. Rather than attempting to beg or borrow delegate status, I decided I would apply for Cardiff University to become an observer to the UNFCCC.
Obtaining non-governmental observer status to the UNFCCC appears daunting at first. There is a long list of documents to be collected, including a letter from the Vice-Chancellor, and once submitted, the application process takes over a year. Support staff in several departments helped me to collect the necessary papers and signatures, so I was disappointed for all of us when I received an email from the UNFCCC Secretariat telling me we were missing a document that proved our independence from government. The same people came to my rescue, pointing me in the direction of various documents and websites that evidenced the University’s non-governmental status (viewable here).
In June 2017, I received notice that Cardiff University had been provisionally admitted as an observer, with the final decision to be taken at COP 23. This meant that I could attend the conference in Bonn and that Cardiff University would soon be officially recognised as one of 2,121 observers to the UNFCCC!
Here I am, preparing to travel to Bonn. A PhD student I supervise, Valeria Tolis, who is examining the role of the EU in the formation of the Paris Agreement, is already there. So, why are my emotions mixed? Yesterday evening as I was tidying the kitchen and wondering why I was feeling so tense, I recalled the first time I attended the largest annual conference of the discipline of International Relations (IR) – the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention. This event brings together about 3000 academics for four days of conference panels, plenaries, roundtables and various other conversational and networking settings.
When I arrived at this conference, I still thought that the discipline was about discovery – learning about the world and what makes it the way it is. I thought that being an academic was something very special because it was a “profession” that enabled me to study as a day job. As I walked away from the conference on the last day, I couldn’t hold it in, I burst into tears. It turned out that academia – or at least how it was enacted at this event – wasn’t about that at all. There was very little openness. There was a lot of trying to become known, to look good, and to be better than others, and what was worse is that I found myself entering this game. The illusion dissolved and ran down my cheeks.
In many respects my PhD revealed similar illusions. When I started studying the IPCC I thought I was going to be studying climate change. In the end, climate change didn’t take a very prominent place in my study, despite all the activities that were being done in its name. Now, here I am, about to attend the central hub of climate activity, where there will be tens of thousands of diplomats, activists, researchers and other kinds of participants engaging in professional activities around climate change. It’s hardly surprising that I am a bit nervous about what my observations might reveal!
Read the next climate diary entry here.