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Reflections from COP23

Climate change action requires global, interdisciplinary participation

Student Life

By Perla Hernandez

Almost two years after world leaders signed the Paris Agreement, the first legally binding climate treaty, countries met for the United Nations (UN) Climate Change conference (referred to as COP23) in Bonn, Germany, last fall.

More than 19,000 participants attended the negotiations; I attended as representative for the Young Liberals of Canada as part of the International Federation of Liberal Youth.

Perla Hernandez at the United Nations' climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany, last fall.
Perla Hernandez at the United Nations climate change negotiations in Bonn, Germany, last November.
Photo: Submitted

My takeaway from the plenaries, side events and meetings is that climate change must be addressed from a collaborative, multidisciplinary, polycentric perspective.

One of the main questions during the conference was how to provide a co-ordinated and appropriate response to climate change — a task we’ve been trying to address for over 25 years.

Developments at COP23 might shed some light.

Natural and social sciences

We are moving forward to tackle climate change, but not fast enough or at the rate required on a global scale.

Significant cuts in carbon emissions are necessary to keep increases in the globe’s temperature below 2°C, let alone the 1.5°C goal stipulated in the Paris Agreement. If we want to achieve the Paris Agreement target, we have to think differently and get everyone on board.

One of the events I attended was hosted by the Climate Action Network with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the international scientific body for climate assessment. At this event, Dr. Hoesung Lee, IPCC chair, talked about priority areas like the IPCC’s upcoming 1.5°C special report and a new approach that includes the social sciences.

As a political science graduate student, it was powerful to hear Dr. Lee speak about how vital it is to engage a full range of academic disciplines – natural and social sciences — to provide a holistic approach for addressing climate change.

As political scientist and IPCC contributor Dr. David Victor posits: “The insights that matter are out in the darkness, far from places that the natural sciences alone can illuminate.”

Since climate change is caused by human action, social sciences — political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, et al. — have an important role to play. Social science must help communicate science into policy; provide strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions; and provide insights about social behaviour with the environment.

Ms. Herandez with Antonio Guterres, UN secretary general, during COP23.
Ms. Herandez with Antonio Guterres, United Nations secretary general, during COP23.
Photo: Submitted

From state-centric to polycentric

Climate change is a global problem. It requires international co-operation, a challenge when nations have differing national interests and policy agendas.

A theme at the negotiations was the need to engage subnational levels in the climate movement. I attended an event with Patricia Espinosa, executive secretariat to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, where she said: “There is no single solution to climate change. All must take action: countries, cities and regions.”

Waiting for national governments to agree on a single worldwide solution to climate change has proven to be challenging. A bottom-up approach, including communities, cities, regions and provinces, can help complement national efforts while providing strategies that are appropriate to different geopolitical contexts and inclusive to the needs of different populations. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom proposed a polycentric approach to climate change back in 2009.

In addition, non-state actors can reinforce climate action. In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, subnational governments, institutions, civil society and businesses reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement — they’re planning to submit their greenhouse gas targets as part of the U.S. targets. They even attended COP23 under the We Are Still In contingent formed by more than 100 U.S. governors, business leaders, university presidents and civil society members.

All aboard

I also had the opportunity to meet with Canada’s ambassador to Germany and special envoy to the European Union, Stéphane Dion.

Mr. Dion talked about the need for a paradigm shift in governance to a collaborative holistic model.

“Sustainability should be integrated in every department: finance, global affairs, department of health and so forth,” he said.

Ms. Hernandez and other student leaders with Stephane Dion.
Ms. Hernandez and other student leaders with Stéphane Dion.
Photo: Submitted

Mr. Dion also stressed the importance of getting society – the converted and the non-converted – on board with the sustainability paradigm shift and to transfer knowledge on climate change’s challenges and opportunities so that the model is no longer an abstraction and becomes a reality. In my opinion, this is one of the roles that social scientists can take on to help build a bridge across disciplines, cultures, countries, generations and different spheres of social reality.

There are many questions that will need answers in the coming years with regards to climate change, but there is are opportunities in all fields for the willing. We need everyone to work together and examine complex problems from all angles — business as usual won’t cut it. In my opinion, there’s no better time to be a social scientist.

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