COP21 daily report: The politics and culture of climate change

Cabot Institute Director Professor Rich Pancost will be attending COP21 in Paris as part of the Bristol city-wide team, including the Mayor of Bristol, representatives from Bristol City Council and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership. He and others Cabot Institute members will be writing blogs during COP21, reflecting on what is happening in Paris, especially in the Paris and Bristol co-hosted Cities and Regions Pavilion, and also on the conclusion to Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital.  Follow #UoBGreen and #COP21 for live updates from the University of Bristol.  All blogs in the series are linked to at the bottom of this blog.
The main road in Tuvalu in September 2015, photographed by Viliami Fifita a PhD student in Policy Studies, University of Bristol.  His travel was funded by an ESRC Impact Acceleration Award to assist the Tuvalu government measure poverty and living standards in the context of climatic change and rising sea levels.
The Climate Change (COP21) conference in Paris is one of the most important gatherings of politicians, civil servants, academic experts, journalists, business and civil society representatives of the 21st Century – over 50,000 people are expected to attend.   The need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions is clear as in 2015 global temperatures may rise to an average of 1oC above the pre-industrial level and atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels rose above 400 ppm for the first time in the past 800,000 years.  Some climate model results show that if greenhouse gas emission were stabilised, which would require a 60% reduction in global emissions immediately, then the World’s climate would still warm up to 1.6oC above the average pre-industrial level.
The natural sciences have made huge efforts to investigate the problem of climate change; unfortunately, the social sciences have not been so active.  This lamentable situation needs to change, so under the auspices of the IASQ (International Association on Social Quality) over 200 social scientists from around the world have signed the Sustainability Manifesto which argues that;

one-dimensional solutions cannot address multidimensional problems like those we currently face….. environmental change is still viewed primarily in physical science terms, whereby the (interrelationships of) socio-environmental, socio-economic, socio-political and socio-cultural dimensions of sustainability receive insufficient attention”.

Interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research is needed particularly to fill the current knowledge gaps about socio-political and socio-cultural aspects of sustainability.  A lot is now known about the environmental and economic aspects of climate change but this has not been sufficient to persuade many politicians or some sections of the public that major actions are required which may affect their lifestyles.  Research is needed into how best to overcome these socio-cultural and socio-political barriers to sustainability.

The Sustainability Manifesto has received the unanimous backing of the executive committee of the International Social Science Council (the World’s governing body for the social sciences under the auspices of UNESCO) and the ISSC president, Alberto Martinelli, has called on all “scientists and colleagues all around the world to support the Initiative”.  I have helped to draft the Sustainability Manifesto and have signed it on behalf of the University of Bristol.  

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Professor David Gordon.  Prof Gordon studied environmental and climatic change for his PhD research and has worked at Bristol for 25 years in the School for Policy Studies.  He is the Director of the Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research and was the editor of the European Journal of Social Quality for two years.

Prof David Gordon
This blog is part of a COP21 daily report series. View other blogs in the series below:
Monday 30 November: COP21 daily report

The Alps and the atmosphere

Grenoble.  Image credit Rebecca Brownlow.

In it’s 23rd year, the European Research Course on Atmospheres (ERCA) is notorious amongst atmospheric scientists. PhD and Masters students made their way to Grenoble, France from as far afield as Australia, Bolivia, Russia and India to spend five intensive weeks learning about everything to do with the atmosphere. Grenoble seemed to be the perfect place to hold this kind of course; an alpine city surrounded by mountains we felt very close to the physical interactions of the earth system.

The first four weeks were packed full of lectures with topics ranging from city air pollution to the changing climate mechanisms, from the formation of clouds to the environmental impacts of hydropower. Every day brought a new perspective or entirely different subject to focus on. My own PhD research is about estimating the greenhouse gas emissions of the UK so I really got a great sense of how my work fits in with the wider field of atmospheric science. Luckily all of these hours of lectures were interspersed with copious amounts of food from the university canteen and delicious pastries at break-time. We were in France, we were never going to go hungry!

Getting the bigger picture

One of the most interesting aspects of these first four weeks was the emphasis on the social science side of the work that we do. It is really impossible to separate atmospheric science from an understanding of the politics of climate change and the attitude of the general public towards ecological behaviour. The opening speech of ERCA was by Michel Colombier, from the IDDRI. Michel has taken part in many international climate negotiations and he summarised the current situation leading up to the Paris climate debates in December 2015. He had a warning for us scientists: we were likely to be very disappointed with the seemingly unambitious climate targets of international governments. However, Michel was adamant that we should still see the outcome of the Paris Conference of Parties (COP 21) as a very important step in the right direction.

A couple of weeks later we tried to simulate our own version of the Paris 2015 debates, each person on the course chose a country to represent, and it was a complete disaster! We definitely didn’t come to any agreement and a lot of the time allocated was taken up with Chile suggesting it wouldn’t matter if Tuvalu ended up under water – so, not a very serious discussion! However, this exercise was designed to put us in the shoes of politicians, to recreate their dilemmas, and in fact we weren’t far off. We realised that it is impossible to focus the discussion when every government has its own agenda. We realised that the concerns of the most and least developed countries are worlds apart. And most importantly, we realised that any global climate agreement will be enormously difficult to obtain.

My role in the debate was the UK and it was very interesting researching the UK’s position for Paris 2015. The government has produced a great document that outlines all aspects of their expectations from a climate deal. I have to say, I was fairly impressed with what they are proposing. For example, the UK is prepared to push for an existing EU emissions reduction target to increase from 40% to 50% reduction by 2030 (from 1990 base levels). The UK is also proposing an agreement that really understands the needs of the least developed countries and is creating projects such as BRACED to improve the resilience of developing countries against climate change.

Snow, stars and science

The final week of the course was a weeklong visit to the Observatoire d’Haute Provence. This is really a magical place, a haven for scientists with dozens of little astronomical observatories poking out of a forest of oak trees, made even more magical when the whole place was covered in snow a few days after we arrived. As well as making space observations here they also have a tall tower for making greenhouse gas measurements, several LiDARs (giant green laser beams) that measure various geophysical properties of the atmosphere and an ecological research centre that looks at the impact of climatic changes on oak trees. We were able to catch the comet Lovejoy on an 80cm telescope while we were there, a once in a lifetime opportunity, as this blurry ball of light won’t be seen for another 8,000 years.


Observatoire d’Haute Provence. Image credit: Rebecca Brownlow

Having just started my PhD in September 2014, this winter school experience has been a wonderful introduction to the ins and outs of the field of science that I now work in. It’s given me an international network of friends and fellow atmospheric PhD students, as well as having been a fantastic opportunity to learn from some leading researchers. It’s left me with lots to think about and lots of ideas about science in general, ready to get stuck back in to my project.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Emily White, a PhD student in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol.

Prospects for Paris 2015: some thoughts on climate risk management with heterogeneous countries

Dr. Simon Buckle, Policy Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change (Imperial College), presented at the Cabot Institute his view about credible and viable mitigation commitments in view of the COP 21 on Climate Change that will take place in Paris in 2015. Dr. Buckle’s presentation developed around a political question: do countries want the same climate? In particular, he explained that countries have different attitudes towards risks and this, coupled with the absence of a supranational legal authority, makes climate negotiations particularly complex. So far, such different priorities have caused the failure of UN international negotiations on climate, and countries have systematically missed their targets to limit their carbon emissions. In spite of this, media coverage and public engagement in this topic are sluggish and this undermines the effectiveness of climate policies. I think that the political nature of the issue should be highlighted and critically explored even when presenting climate and economic models, and that’s why Dr. Buckle’s presentation was particularly insightful.


Climate change and political judgment


The last IPCC report concluded that it is
absolutely mandatory to reach an
agreement on mitigation.

The climate challenge represents a global issue whose effects in the long-term are potentially irreversible. Moreover, the last IPCC report concluded that it is absolutely mandatory to reach an agreement on mitigation; this means that countries will have to agree not only on emissions reduction targets but also on responsibilities and burden sharing. In 1992 the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change established the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”, but today it is still contested how responsibilities should be concretely allocated. In fact, the actions that emitters should take to tackle global warming raise fundamental political issues of intra-generational and inter-generational equity. They would require combined efforts to limit carbon emissions and reduce the use of fossil fuels, which represent an integral part of the economic growth and, therefore, are likely to affect the trajectory of a country’s development.

The potential responses can be based on mitigation (the transformation to a low-emission economy to reduce climate risks); adaptation (limit losses through increased resilience) or geo-engineering (for instance, solar radiation management or carbon capture and storage). In engaging with the question about the degree to which we should act on mitigation, economists prescribe different models that take into account, for instance, how economic growth is modelled, or how climate change affects output and growth, whether there are thresholds or other assumptions on ecosystem services. This highlights the political nature of the matter. In fact, the empirical evidence on impacts of climate variability and change and the effectiveness of adaptation is limited and while recent studies (Dell et al. 2012; Brown et al. 2013; Hallegatte et al. 2013) discuss the impacts on growth of climate change, there are not real analogues of large-scale climate change to inform economic models. This means that policies on climate change should be based on a political judgment about risk management, not exclusively on a technical cost-benefit analysis.

A credible negotiating strategy

Dr. Buckle investigates the reasons that have so far lead to the failure of international negotiations on climate. In particular, he developed a stylised model that captures, directly and analytically, the trade off between consumption and the impact of climate damages on the long-term value of a bequest to future generations and how this depends on initial endowments (Buckle et al. 2014). The model relates to international negotiations as it defines a new metric, the desired mitigation efforts, to evaluate countries’ mitigation commitments and informs international actors about the best strategic negotiating aim.

Ideally, the parties involved in the UN negotiations on climate should aim at becoming resilient low-carbon economies, but they differ on many dimensions that might hamper the success of the negotiations. In the view of overcoming this conundrum, Dr. Buckle’s model suggests that a degree of convergence between the parties would deliver the best credible commitment to emissions reduction. In particular, using Game theory considerations, he showed that such convergence would secure a Cournot outcome “where each country determines its own level of mitigation effort taking that of the other country as given” (Buckle et al. 2014:4) and would avoid the risk of a Stackelberg outcome, whereby a small group of major emitters impose their preferred level of climate risk to the international community.

Figure 1 An illustrative emissions reduction game for two countries (in Buckle et al. 2014:4)

While it’s true that a Cournot agreement is sub-optimal and, as such, insufficient to deliver ambitious targets, it is absolutely pivotal that in Paris 2015 parties will sign a credible agreement for the short term. The theory is that if the parties managed to converge towards the Cournot agreement at the COP21, they will, eventually, move closer to a cooperative outcome in the longer term. In substantiating his argument, Dr. Buckle underlined the difficulties of reaching a cooperative outcome based on a global carbon budget. Moreover, he explained that the failures of previous negotiations stemmed from a too-ambitious commitment to move beyond “Business as Usual” that has so far fallen short of delivering the target of keeping global warming below the threshold of 2°C increase.

The Cournot outcome based on convergence, by contrast, would contain realistic targets decided by all the parties and not by few major emitters. Furthermore, the outcome will encourage not only cooperation but also R&D and innovation, which will benefit above all the most vulnerable countries. In concrete, Dr. Buckle argued that the best negotiating option would allow a global CO2 emissions peak by 2030 and a global but differentiated commitment to reduction, according to which developed countries would need to substantially reduce their emissions and at the same time promote financial and technological innovation; middle income countries would focus on reducing emissions intensity/GDP; and least developed countries would need to commit to a more modest reduction in the short term and develop a long-term low-carbon development path, avoiding the risk of carbon lock-in.

The future of climate negotiations?

To conclude, it is mandatory that at the COP 21 the international community starts to engage proactively and positively in order to tackle climate change. Dr. Buckle’s view is that a gradual convergence and gradual move towards cooperative and environmentally effective agreements is preferable rather than facing another failure that we cannot afford.

Dr. Buckle’s conclusions will surely contribute to the debate on how we should achieve a substantial reduction of carbon emissions. From an environmentalist perspective, advocating for a gradual negotiating strategy that is “not enough” could be problematic. The last geopolitical turmoil, however, and particularly the worsening of the crisis in Ukraine, should make us aware that we cannot take the willingness to commit and cooperate of the international community for granted. Therefore, although the proposed solution might be far from optimal, it may just be strategically the most credible one.


Buckle S., Muûls M., Leib J. and Bréchet T. (2014), ‘Prospects for Paris 2015: do major emitters want the same climate?’, Core Discussion Paper – Centre for Operations Research and Econometrics, 2014

This blog is written by Cabot Institute Press Gang member Laura DeVito.  Laura is an Environment, Energy and Resilience PhD student at the University of Bristol.