Globalizing the climate. Climatizing the world

Edouard Morena

In this thematic Notes From The Field, Edouard Morena of CNRS/LADYSS describes a collaborative ethnographic project centring around the COP21 climate talks in Paris, December 2015.


The 21st Conference of the Parties to the Climate convention (COP21) in Paris (2015) is commonly presented as a historic last chance to set the world on a course that prevents catastrophic climate change. By bringing together negotiators, scientists, journalists and representatives of global civil society, it also constitutes a privileged vantage point – an ‘emblematic instance’ – for the study of global environmental governance ‘in the making’.

In focusing almost exclusively on the multilateral negotiations, the bulk of current research on climate governance tends to lose sight of the ‘bigger picture’ of what is at stake in climate debates. Climate negotiations address a growing number of issues, from debates about development, energy and forests, to biodiversity, equity and urban planning. In turn, climate conferences gather a wide array of actors from different backgrounds that carry distinctive understandings of the problem, its causes and possible solutions. This points to a transformation of global debates involving both a ‘globalisation of the climate question’ and a ‘climatisation of the world’.

In order to fully capture this process, we have developed an innovative collaborative research methodology that combines rigorous analysis of the state of play in global climate politics with detailed ethnographic and sociological on-sight observations. This requires going beyond official negotiating texts and declarations, and analysing COP21 as an arena where new framings of global problems, approaches to global governance and alliances between key actors are tried and tested; framings, approaches and alliances whose impact transcends the climate issue per se. In short, we take COP21 as an entry point to provide the reader with a comprehensive and insightful account of global climate politics, as well as of the dynamics that shape global governance in the 21st century.

Project description

Drawing on rigorous analysis of the global climate debate and participant observation of COP21, our research aims to offer an original account of the current state of play in the field of global climate governance. It will build upon a multidisciplinary team of twenty academics with recognised experience in the fields of global environmental governance.[1] One of its key objectives is to reframe debates on global climate politics by (1) analysing global climate governance ‘in the making’ through a combination of long-term analysis and on-sight observation; (2) identifying and analysing the key spaces of participation in the global climate debate (media, scientific community, business, civil society, agriculture…). Among others, this will involve looking at how they are organised and structured, as well as the relations between spaces. Finally (3), we will examine a series of crosscutting themes (development, traditional knowledge, biodiversity, security and migration…), how they circulate between social spaces and how they are re-framed and altered in the process.

Studying climate governance ‘in the making’: globalising the climate, climatising the world

Dominant framings of the climate question in terms of a global collective action problem to reduce carbon emissions have led scholars to focus their attention on the UN negotiation process and its outcomes in terms of treaties, COP decisions and reduction commitments. In response to these framings, recent analyses suggest that global climate governance is undergoing a ‘bottom-up turn’ (Nature Editorial, 2009, Damian, 2014). This requires us to look ‘outside’ and/or ‘beyond’ the UN process (Ostrom, 2010, Moncel et van Asselt, 2012, Stripple et Bulkeley, 2014). Such accounts point to the growing importance of non-state and subnational actors who are engaged in efforts to decarbonize the global economy and build resilience to present and future climate disruptions (Bäckstrand, 2008, Bulkeley et al., 2012). A second line of inquiry sheds light on the fundamental disjuncture between the UN governance process and the broader social and political processes that contribute to global warming (Unruh, 2000, Levy et Egan, 2003, Altvater, 2007) – a situation that two of the editors of this volume term the ‘reality schism’ (Aykut et Dahan, 2015) and that is central to understanding the on-going global governance ‘gridlock’ (Hale et al., 2013).

Building on these approaches, the research offers a holistic account of the climate debate. Its authors believe that the climate problem cannot be reduced to carbon emissions. What is at stake in the climate negotiations greatly exceeds the climate question per se and encompasses issues of development, energy futures, science-society relationships, and contrasting visions and modes of engagement with the natural environment. So as to fully capture the climate issue’s ‘totemic status’, we will focus on two analogous movements. On the one hand, we are witnessing the globalisation of the climate problem through the growing inclusion of issues and involvement of actors (Dahan et al., 2009, Dahan et al., 2010). On the other, issues that were initially unrelated to climate change are in the process of being ‘climatised’ as different actors address the climate question and reframe their respective concerns through a ‘climatic lens’.

Studying ‘social spaces’: an innovative contribution to research on global climate governance

Despite its spatial and temporal concentration, because of their density (tens of thousands of actors scattered over multiple locations, hundreds of events) and blurred boundaries (event spill-over in time and space through preparation and/or media coverage), the COP21 and other similar transnational ‘mega-events’ (Little, 1995) can be difficult to apprehend. Our original methodological approach seeks to overcome these challenges through a collaborative ethnographic and sociological framework that builds on on-site observations and qualitative research methodologies (Campbell et al., 2014). Through this approach we intend to identify and map out the different social spaces of engagement in the COP21 and to capture how global debates unfold within and between these spaces. By social space we are referring to virtual and physical spaces of interaction among individuals who share a common cause and/or worldview. These include, among others, business, civil society, climate science, and the media.

While we acknowledge that climate governance does not only happen during climate summits, we nevertheless believe that the latter – and the COP21 in particular – offer telling insights into the current situation. In other words, the Paris climate conference’s historic status offers a unique snapshot of the current state of play in global environmental governance. Through its unity of time and place, COP21 offers a tangible rendition of what are otherwise elusive spaces of engagement in the climate debate.

Crosscutting themes, circulations and re-framings

Through concepts like ‘discourse coalitions’ (Hajer, 1993, 1995), ‘epistemic communities’ (Haas, 1989, 1992) and ‘expert networks’ (Canan et Reichman, 2002), research on global environmental politics has highlighted the ways through which cognitive factors shape environmental governance. Scientific actors have received particular attention as they provide common knowledge bases and shared understandings of the climate problem and its solution.

Building on these accounts, and more generally on the ‘cognitive turn’ in policy research, our research will look at how crosscutting issues like development, energy, adaptation, as well as agriculture and food surface and take root in a given social space; how they are then translated into the particular language of other spaces and stabilised; and finally how they act as rallying points for a variety of stakeholders across the board. This includes studying controversies and contradictions between various framings that emerge as actors attempt to grapple with the multiple dimensions of the gap separating climate governance from debates on financial regulation, economic globalisation, geopolitics of energy, and models of development. We will pay special attention to the tensions produced by the dialogical movement of ‘globalisation of the climate’ and ‘climatisation of the world’. From a methodological perspective, this involves thorough analyses of debates taking place both within the conference hall (negotiations, side-events) and on its margins (in the various civil society spaces scattered around Paris, hotels that host conference-related events and the media-hub that will be created in the city centre).

The project team

Project coordination:

  • Stefan Aykut, Université Paris-Est / Lisis
  • Amy Dahan, CNRS / Centre Alexandre Koyré
  • Jean Foyer,  CNRS/ISCC
  • Edouard Morena, CNRS/LADYSS

Research team:

  • Sarah Aguiton, Centre Alexandre Koyré/IFRIS
  • Catherine Aubertin, IRD / Paloc
  • Alice Baillat, Sciences Po/CERI
  • Nicolas Baya Lafitte, Centre Alexandre Koyré
  • Sarah Benabou, IRD / Paloc
  • Christophe Buffet, Centre Alexandre Koyré
  • Valérie Boisvert, Université de Lausanne
  • Monica Castro, Université de Lausanne
  • Armèle Cloteau, Printemps (UVSQ) / SAGE (Sciences Po Strasbourg)
  • Lise Cornilleau, LISIS-Sciences-Po
  • Maxim Combes, Centre Alexandre Koyré
  • Jean-Baptiste Comby, Université Paris 2
  • Daniel Compagnon (Sciences Po Bordeaux)
  • Denis Chartier Université d’Orléans/MNHN
  • Elise Demeuleunaere, CNRS / Eco-anthropologie
  • Josst DeMoor, Leuven University
  • David Dumoulin, Université Paris III
  • Hélène Guillemot, CNRS/ Centre Alexandre Koyré
  • Marie Hrabinski, CIRAD/ARt Dev
  • Arthur Laurent, Sciences Po/CERI
  • Hervé Lecrosnier, Université de Caen
  • Nils Moussu, Université de Lausanne
  • Lucile Maertens, Université de Genève/ Sciences Po
  • Julien Meunier, Université d’Orléans
  • Birgit Müller, CNRS / Laios
  • Mohamed Oubenal, ISCC
  • Aurore Viard-Cretat, Centre Alexandre Koyré


 Key References

ALTVATER, E. (2007) The social and natural environment of fossil capitalism. Socialist register, 2007, 37.
AYKUT, S.C. et DAHAN, A. (2015) Gouverner le climat? 20 ans de négociations internationales, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po.
BÄCKSTRAND, K. (2008) Accountability of Networked Climate Governance: The Rise of Transnational Climate Partnerships. Global Environmental Politics, 6(1), 50-75.
BULKELEY, H., ANDONOVA, L., BÄCKSTRAND, K., et al. (2012) Governing Climate Change Transnationally: Assessing the Evidence from a Database of Sixty Initiatives. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 30(4), 591-612.
CAMPBELL, L. M., CORSON, C., GRAY, N., MACDONALD, K., and BROSIUS, P. (2014), Collaborative Event Ethnography of the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Global Environmental Politics 14(3): 1-20.
CANAN, P. et REICHMAN, N. (2002) Expert networks in Global Environmental governance, Sheffield, UK, Greenleaf Publishing.
DAHAN, A., AYKUT, S.C., BUFFET, C. et VIARD-CRÉTAT, A. (2010) Les leçons politiques de Copenhague : Faut-il repenser le régime climatique ? Koyré Climate Series, 2.
DAHAN, A., AYKUT, S.C., GUILLEMOT, H. et KORZCAK, A. (2009) Les arènes climatiques : forums du futur ou foires aux palabres ? La Conférence de Poznan Koyré Climate Series, 1, 45p.
DAMIAN, M. (2014) La politique climatique change enfin de paradigme. Economie Appliquée, tome LXVII(1), 37-72.
HAAS, P.M. (1989) Do Regimes Matter? Epistemic Communities and Mediterranean Pollution Control. . International Organization, 43(3), 377-403.
HAAS, P.M. (1992) Introduction: epistemic communities and international policy coordination. International Organization, 46(1), 1-35.
HAJER, M. (1993) Discourse Coalitions and the Institutionalization of Practice: The Case of Acid Rain in Britain, dans FISCHER, F. et FORESTER, J. (Eds.) The Argumentative Turn in Policy Analysis and Planning. Durham and London, Duke University Press: pp.43-76.
HAJER, M. (1995) The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Ecological Modernisation and the Policy Process, Oxford, Clarendon Press.
HALE, T., HELD, D. et YOUNG, K. (2013) Gridlock. Why Global Cooperation Is Failing When We Need It Most, Cambridge, UK, Polity Press.
LEVY, D.L. et EGAN, D. (2003) A Neo-Gramscian Approach to Corporate Political Strategy: Conflict and Accommodation in the Climate Change Negotiations. Journal of Management Studies, 40(4), 803-829.
MONCEL, R. et VAN ASSELT, H. (2012) All Hands on Deck! Mobilizing Climate Change Action beyond the UNFCCC. Review of European Community & International Environmental Law, 21(3), 163-176.
NATURE EDITORIAL (2009) After Copenhagen. Nature, 462, 957-958, en ligne:
OSTROM, E. (2010) Beyond markets and states: polycentric governance of complex economic systems. The American Economic Review, 641-672.
STRIPPLE, J. et BULKELEY, H. (Eds.) (2014) Governing the climate. New Approaches to Rationality, Power and Politics, Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.
UNRUH, G.C. (2000) Understanding carbon lock-in. Energy Policy, 28(12), 817-830.


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