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The New Climate Activism: An Interview with Jen Iris Allan

21 January 2021
The cover of Jen's new book
The cover of Jen's new book

Last month saw the launch of Jen Iris Allan’s first book, The New Climate Activism: NGO Authority and Participation in Climate Change Governance, published by University of Toronto Press. I wanted to virtually catch up with Jen to find out some background on the book, what motivated it and the research she undertook. This gives us insight into the issues that Jen cares about and the ways she has developed to support improving the planet.

So when did you first become interested in the politics of climate change? And what motivates your research in this area?

Actually, I wanted to avoid climate change for my PhD! There are so many pressing environmental issues, but scholars focus so much on climate. At the time, I wanted to research deforestation and forest conservation, building from work in my MA and with IUCN. Most forest-related conversations were happening in the context of climate change, and from there it was a slippery slope into climate.

Am I right in thinking then that this book came out of your PhD research? Could you tell us a little bit about your PhD and what you were interested in researching?

It did! I wanted to focus on NGOs for my PhD, either comparing their strategies across different environmental issues or comparing strategies across different global governance forums on forest-related issues. I had seen the interesting dynamics among NGOs when I worked in the sector and wanted to explore that more. But, after months of poking into all sorts of nooks and crannies, the empirical puzzle was not coming. Then, I went to a UN Climate Change meeting in Warsaw. One afternoon, someone dressed as a polar bear handed me a condom, saying this would help the climate. I thought about that claim, and how I hadn’t heard anything about population (for very good reasons) in the negotiations. I then looked around and realized all sorts of claims were made by NGOs about climate change – that it’s a gender, labour, justice issue.

I found my puzzle: why would these NGOs start working on climate, when they lacked expertise and experience in that area (because scholarship says that expertise and experience are important for NGO influence). Why did some get traction for their issues in the negotiations, while others (like Mr. Population Control Polar Bear) remain outsiders?

What kind of research did you undertake? What informed the analysis you provide?

Probably too much. Why did I think five case studies was a good idea? The case studies were comparative, representing different characteristics, as well as experiences and outcomes in climate governance.

In total, I did over 70 interviews, social network analysis, and participant observation. Each method had a role. The social network analysis helped me describe how NGOs working on a social issue relate to one another, and how that changed over time as they started climate-related campaigning. The interviews helped me explore the perceptions and strategic decisions of NGO staff and leadership, and how “traditional” climate actors viewed these newcomers. The participant observation was vital to understanding the social environment of climate negotiations, and efforts of newcomers to fit into that community.

How is the book different from your PhD and how have your ideas developed since you defended it in 2017?

It’s an odd exercise to turn a dissertation into a book. So much of the justifications are suddenly less necessary. I was lucky because my supervisor advised me to write the dissertation with a book structure, meaning to integrate the literature review into the introduction and theory chapter, to move most of the methods section to an appendix, etc.

After taking a break from the dissertation-turned-book, I realized that there was a stronger through line about authority. I also merged chapters, because some cases were more similar than I expected when I started research and wrote the dissertation. There is more flexibility with a book in that way.

What do you want to contribute to debates about climate activism through your book?

My book contributes to international relations thinking about NGOs in a couple ways. First, it shows that NGOs are mobile actors in global governance. We tend to focus on environmental NGOs in environmental governance, human rights NGOs in human rights circles, etc. My work shows that sometimes, they choose to multiply their presence – environmental NGOs at the World Trade Organization, labour unions at climate negotiations. Scholarship largely focused on the strategic mobility of states – to shop forums to advance their preferences. NGOs do this too.

Second, the book explores authority, that for NGOs it’s context specific and doesn’t really travel to other issues. But, authority can be established and built in a new context. It takes allies on the “inside,” linking the NGOs’ core concern (say, gender) to specific rules in the new forum, and rallying support for that link.

Are you mainly aiming to address an academic audience with your book or is there a message in there for climate activists too?

It is mainly for academics, but there are lessons for climate activists. The “new” climate activists (as I call them, meaning those that brought social issues to climate change) also trialled new forms of activism, like civil disobedience and protest marches. They also transformed how we think about climate change and showed how effective it can be to put a human face on what can seem like an abstract environmental issue.

You aren’t just a scholar are you, you are also a writer for the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, and you mentioned that you worked for the NGO sector. Would you ever identify yourself as a scholar activist? What would you identify as your core role in climate politics?

Oof, that’s a big question that I’ll try to answer succinctly. I want my academic work to respond and contribute to change (or lack of) on the ground. Environmental policy and policymaking can be slow, incremental, and inequitable. For me, my scholarship is geared to asking how to address those problems. So I do a lot of outreach and action, like working with ENB because it helps provide information to negotiators that are on smaller delegations and brings transparency to global governance. Or working with NGOs to advance issues like a green recovery from COVID. In the future, I want to try to do more co-created scholarship, where stakeholders help design the questions around what they need to know (vs the usual model of me taking my “academic” questions to them). I don’t know if that makes me an activist scholar or scholar activist, or just someone really wanting to try to make the world better, in my small way.

As you mentioned right at the outset, your environmental concerns extend beyond climate change don’t they, what issue is most often on your mind?

Chemicals! We’re all born with PFOS (a toxic, long lasting flame retardant) in our bodies. Some chemicals disrupt our hormonal systems. Climate change may be rewriting the processes of the planet. Chemicals are disrupting some of the basic processes of our bodies.

Thank you Jen for your time and congratulations on your book.


1 comment
  1. Harry Conway

    I found Jen’s response to converting her PhD thesis to a book very interesting. The merging of chapters and moving the method section to the appendix. Overall, it is good to know there is more flexibility when it comes to the book compared to the PhD.

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