Be relevant: Researching the politics of climate change in 2015 and beyond

Mat Hope is an Associate Editor at Nature Climate Change, focusing on the journal’s social science coverage. For submission enquiries or any other correspondence, contact him at Mat.Hope@nature.com. He also writes occasionally at www.climate-hope.co.uk and can be found on twitter (@matjhope).

Make no mistake: the politics of climate change is back on the agenda. Over the next nine months, quality academic research will be indispensable in helping to explore, untangle and understand a potentially defining moment in the world’s efforts to tackle climate change.

Here is my challenge to the community.


A defining year

A few weeks ago, the Guardian launched its ‘keep it in the ground’ campaign, calling on the world’s fossil fuel companies to leave about 80% of reserves untouched. On its front-page was Bill McKibben, an academic-turned-campaigner, describing how a “relentless climate movement is starting to win big, unprecedented victories around the world”.

guardian oil

Whether or not that is true, 2015 is set to be a significant year in the world’s struggle to address climate change. Many events will shape the agenda over the course of the year, each with ramifications for research.

The focal point, of course, will be the international climate talks in Paris in December. The 21st meeting of the parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been touted as world leaders’ most significant, and possibly last, chance to show that climate action driven by an overarching institutional process can be effective. The last time attention was so focussed was in Copenhagen in 2009 when, despite President Obama’s last-minute appearance, policymakers left with tails between their legs.

A number of domestic skirmishes in the run up to Paris will define the tone of the talks.

China is formulating its 13th Five Year Plan, with all eyes on whether it can deliver its recent pledge to ensure emissions peak in 2030. India continues to prioritise economic growth over all else, with the environmental implications of such an approach yet to become clear. The Middle East is yet to wholly respond to the impact of unstable oil prices, with its reaction crucial to the industry’s future.

In Australia, prime minister Tony Abbott fights for political survival, potentially creating space for compromise over his promise to dismantle the country’s climate policies. Australia’s ‘coalition of the unwilling’ ally, Canada, will likewise have to decide if it can sustain its obstructionism in the face of intense international pressure to relent.

Elections, as always, will play a part. The UK will head to the polls in a month, and the US’s electoral juggernaut is gathering momentum. On both sides of the Atlantic, climate policy is emerging as a way to differentiate between the contenders.

Teamed with such national politics is the possibility of climate change returning to the front of the public conscience, as signified by the world’s largest climate march at the end of last year. Such support has been bolstered by institutions as diverse as the Church of England and the World Bank , which have mirrored the activists’ calls for action.

Each of these presents avenues for inquiry, with responsive, high-quality research integral to explaining the complex, interrelated, aspects of the events as they emerge.


Research agenda

But only if researchers are game for the challenge.

The joy of political research is its diversity. It can help us understand how social movements interact and influence politicians (or otherwise). It can clarify and model the power dynamics between state and subnational alliances, old and new. It can probe and unpack how institutions like the UN and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change work, and whether they remain fit for purpose. And it can help explain how personal experiences – from those caught in extreme weather from New Orleans, to Somerset, to Vanuatu – affect public perception and shape strategies for dealing with future impacts.

Many of the field’s existing tools can be applied to better understanding the dynamics of these problems, and how they affect the world’s chances of tackling climate change. But the events of 2015 also represent an opportunity to use new theories, and test new methods, on what is no longer an issue in its infancy.

Stalwart political science models exploring the dynamics of the mother of all collective action problems will have a role. But so will new modes of inquiry, perhaps casting light on the role of social media, or seeking to connect the media-public-policy nexus in novel ways.

Such research may be quantitative and full of equations. Or it might be qualitative and rely on tools only just emerging. Maybe it will be both. Each and all has a place. The unifying aim, however, must be to demonstrate research’s practical side.

This is my challenge to the community: Be relevant, in whichever of the myriad ways that word can be applied.

The continued utility of reconceptualising, redefining, and reimagining the problem is becoming questionable. Probing underlying problems can provide insight into future obstacles, but only if researchers also look to the future.

Climate change is a threat with a ticking clock. The urgency of the problem should be reflected in research that ultimately points to solutions.

With that in mind, and with all the knowledge and expertise at the community’s disposal, 2015 has the potential to be a defining moment for politicians and researchers alike.



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