Advising, presenting, and advocating: academics at the UN climate change negotiations

While December may find most undergraduate students in the library studying for exams, many academics will leave the ivory tower to attend the COP16 climate change negotiations. The “academic and scientific sector” is part of “civil society” at the negotiations (although some academics are part of official delegations, and thus are not restricted in the same ways as civil society). As befits a policy arena based on such biophysical and socioeconomic complexities, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change draws heavily on the expertise of physical and social scientists through various avenues, including the prominent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Academics will attend COP16 to present as part of one of many side events, host exhibits, participate in technical and academic sessions, promote the research and programs of their institutions, and, of course, observe the negotiations. Some go as part of their research—whether to connect with other experts on a subject or to study the event itself (a graduate student I know went to the climate negotiations last year in Copenhagen as part of her research on how activists use social media).

As part of an official delegation, academics can act as advisors, particularly on specific technical or scientific issues. While it is important that climate change negotiations are conducted with a thorough understanding of the science of climate change and its socioeconomic implications, there are criticisms that having so many academics involved creates a bias towards technical solutions that don’t take into account cultural knowledge and values. There are also academics who advocate for the importance of learning from indigenous cultures and of ensuring that proposed methods for dealing with climate change do not come at the expense of local communities or cultural traditions, but they tend to be less numerous and have weaker relationships with national delegations.

While many academics act purely as advisors, others take on prominent advocacy roles. Many academics will watch carefully from afar (watch for future blogs on how you can watch plenary sessions via livestream). Canada’s prominent climate scientist Andrew Weaver was featured in numerous interviews concerning the COP15 negotiations in Copenhagen and doubtless will be in the media again when the negotiations kick off in just over a week. Stay tuned for updates from Cancun about what Canadian academics have shown up and what they are up to!

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