Turning climate governance upside down

by | Jan 12, 2017 | All posts, Events | 0 comments

A rethink of contemporary wisdom on governing the climate is increasingly urgent. Successive climate summits, strategies, targets and action plans have been implemented, but the chances of staying within anything like safe temperature increases are diminishing fast. Professor Harriet Bulkeley delivered the final SCI seminar of 2016, posing the question: can we govern the climate?

A Professor in the Department of Geography at Durham University, Harriet Bulkeley’s career has contributed to the fields of global environmental governance, urban politics and sustainability transitions to name but a few. This career has spanned a time when there has been a pressing need to govern the environment. Students in universities today will often have known nothing other than a post-Kyoto agreement world. One could therefore be forgiven for being forgetful, or unknowing, of a world before climate governance.

Leg warmers, mix tapes and Gary Lineker aside, the 1980s was more importantly the era when climate deliberations began. Emerging out of a need to create a collective response to a common problem, governance was framed, and remains framed, as an issue of ‘the commons’. One need only acknowledge the wording of the principal of “common but differentiated responsibilities” enshrined in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty as evidence. What Prof. Bulkeley argues is that this framing of climate change as a ‘top-down’ problem to be solved should give way, as Mike Hulme has argued [PDF], to an understanding of climate change as a condition to be worked at.

Turning governance on its head

Climate governance (or lack, thereof), has generally taken place as an international regime, where the UNFCCC, supported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has brought about various international agreements and commitments such as the Kyoto Protocol. Other actors, such as NGOs or various business groups, have been relegated to lobbying for their respective stakes in this agreement. The assumption of this model has been that the mechanisms, instruments and finance would trickle down from the international scale to the local. But curiously, in recent years, this model of governance seems to have been disrupted.

Prof. Bulkeley argues that the recent Paris Agreement inverts this model. Under the agreement, parties submit and maintain an inventory of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) that they intend to achieve. Moreover, at the time of writing, there have been 12,549 registered “commitments to climate change action by companies, cities, subnational, regions, investors, and civil society organisations”. Coupled with various new forms of climate finance, including development organisations and the private sector, the Paris Agreement has been constructed from the bottom-up. The IPCC has similarly shifted its position from providing science at the top of the agreement, to understanding what solutions are required from the bottom-up. Climate governance, therefore, appears to have been turned upside down.

This shift in governance has also been noted in the academic literature. The global governance debate has moved toward observing a multi-sited geography, encompassing a diverse array of actors, institutions and interventions around climate change. Such a perspective sees power (to bring about decarbonisation) as diffuse, rather than centralised. Transitions studies have considered decarbonisation as occurring within existing regimes, observing the relation between social and material factors and similarly highlighting the spatial dispersal of agency for change.  There is a clear theoretical appreciation for how climate politics can be found across a diversity of spaces.

From problem to publics of possibility

Climate governance, argues Prof. Bulkeley, is not only a question of calculating problems, but one of diagnosing possibilities. Under this perspective, the agency of everyone from dairy farmers to factory managers is increasingly important to decarbonisation. But this is not to suggest that power has shifted from the UNFCCC to these actors. Instead, Prof. Bulkeley argues that power is relationally produced between actors in this system, whilst still involving the UNFCCC. Governing is done through the arrangement and management of people and objects that make low-carbon ways of being comprehensible and possible. But how then can particular sites be made ‘matters of concern’ related to climate change?

Prof. Bulkeley’s research not only evidences her claim that action often emerges out of the pursuit of possibility, but also suggests some avenues by which climate change can be made a matter of concern. In her work with Tesco, green consumption appeared as a possibility to fulfil new consumer needs. These new business avenues were exciting, desirable and possible, rather than part of a collective response to a problem. Prof. Bulkeley’s work has also highlighted the importance of sensibility – the faculty of feeling and emotion. The HSBC climate champions programme, where 40,000 HSBC staff were recruited to become ‘citizen scientists’, bearing witness to climate change in their valued environments. Such an approach affords the staff with an emotional connection to climate change. Central to all of this, for Prof. Bulkeley, is the process of creating what she terms (after Bruno Latour) as publics, which might otherwise be understood as a group of solidarity.

Governing the climate is often controversial, particularly when other publics are involved. The shelving of a hydropower scheme in Hexham, in Northern England was given as an example of this, where an angling public contested “the fish mincing machine”. Despite the threat to the fish population eventually toppling the scheme, decarbonisation itself was largely uncontroversial – as, Prof. Bulkeley notes, is often the case. Prof. Bulkeley reads this as encouraging, but, as the hydropower scheme has shown, constructing thesepublics is nonetheless a challenge. Drawing on a different example, Prof. Bulkeley observed some steps by which it might be done. Despite rocky beginnings in attempting to communicate targets, Brixton low carbon zone cultivated solidarity relationships over food growing, solar energy and insulation. The construction of these climate publics, as communities with an emotional understanding to some aspect of climate change mitigation, can – and has – gathered momentum, enthusiasm and will to improve.

In Alice in WonderlandAlice asks the Cheshire cat which way she ought to go, to which the Cheshire cat replies, “well, that depends on where you want to get to”.  As for Prof. Bulkeley, this serves as a central metaphor for her argument. Our attempts to govern the climate thus far have led us on the wrong path and continue to do so. Prof. Bulkeley’s call for change is an ever-more timely one. Now is the time to orient ourselves on a road where our carbon footprints will have less impact. The promises of heroic summits are never realised, the trickle-down of action never happens. Prof. Bulkeley suggests an alternative, reconsidering power and agency to change, not as flattened, but as diffuse across a wide array of actors – from the UNFCCC to dairy farmers. For Prof. Bukeley, it is in carefully linking these actors as communities of mutual climate change sensibility that new climate publics can be formed around possibilities for action.


  • Joe Blakey