Driving Accurate Science into Social Policy

As a student with an interest in the science of climate change, I was excited to have the opportunity to broaden my horizons and engage with the policy and activism aspects of climate change at COP22. My focus for the week was understanding the role that scientists play in creating and guiding climate change legislation, as well as their methods of effectively communicating their work and the seriousness of the situation.

I was luckily able to participate in Earth Information Day, which was designed to be a discussion of the up-to-date state of the climate and an opportunity to optimize engagements and connect information between the scientific community and party delegates. Held in one of the two giant plenaries on site, I looked forward to what the forthcoming discussion held.

Earth Information Day.

Many of the talks given by the scientists focused on their new data sets and models of projected temperature increases. The main overarching theme was that more money and resources were needed for research and measurements to go from a global background level to a higher resolution regional scale, with the ability to pinpoint accurate levels of carbon emissions and temperature increases in specific areas.

A delegate from Mali asked why the goal of keeping temperature increases below 1.5 °C was no longer possible. I was shocked to hear one of the scientists on the panel respond that the goal of 1.5 °C or below was still a possibility. Throughout the conference, the scientists pushed the message that we could limit temperature increases to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. I was distraught to see this because the honest truth is that even if we completely stopped carbon emissions today, we would still surpass 1.5 °C and probably 2 °C. It was difficult for me to discern if the scientists legitimately believed this or if this was a message meant to maintain hope. While the numbers of 1.5 or 2 °C hold symbolic value, I think that they focus people on goals that are unrealistic and divert attention from pressing issues such as how vulnerable countries will adapt. Sure, these are numbers that can be advertised and sound really nice to everyone. But they assume that future technologies such as carbon sequestration will play a big role in limiting emissions to the atmosphere and that as part of the Paris Agreement opt-in system, countries will continue to enhance their emission limits.

A screenshot of a picture posted by the official Instagram account of the UNFCCC, promoting the message that keeping temperature increases below 1.5 °C  is still possible.
A presentation showing how much room for carbon emissions (shown by the red slices) we still have left before we reach our temperature benchmarks of 1.5 and 2 °C.







Although more detailed data would certainly be helpful, I was frustrated that this was the main talking point. Doing more research is the easy part; as scientists, we can all continue to play our usual parts and produce more data. What is far more difficult, but more necessary, is to shift our focus towards advancing our science into social realms to ensure that our data are taken seriously and properly translated into public policy. If the data clearly show that climate change is occurring due to anthropogenic influences and that there are exponentially increasing temperatures, shouldn’t our priority be to make sure that climate change policy meets the requirements of what our data demand to avoid catastrophe? How do we clearly communicate important results such as the fact that the last time we were this warm 125,000 years ago, global sea levels rose 5 – 9 meters (Dutton and Lambeck, 2012)? We must transition away from remaining impartial and begin to engage with policy makers and the public, even if it will require time and for us to move out of our comfort zones.

Unfortunately, none of the speakers seemed to discuss techniques for communicating science and effectively making sure that policy reflected the increasingly dire outcomes for people and biodiversity around the world. As a result, at the end of the first discussion session I clicked a button to activate my microphone and asked the panel of scientists how well they thought policy makers incorporated their data. It wasn’t clear if they didn’t want to answer the question or didn’t take me seriously as a college kid, but they skirted around my question and responded that they believed governments took the issue of climate change very seriously.

At the end of the day, the bedrock of the UNFCCC process is fundamentally based on high-precision science. More research needs to be done to understand how climate change will affect diverse ecosystems around the world and how deleterious effects can be mitigated.

However, that is simply not enough.

As a scientist, I am used to being able to put in the time and effort to do experiments and accomplish my goals. However, I quickly realized at COP22 that the realm of climate change politics was a formidable foe and a completely different and uncomfortable game that involved compromises, a bit of propaganda, and extreme patience. But that does not mean that we can shrink away and wait for others to draft policy.

Rather, we must engage and fight to make sure that people understand the consequences of our data and that social policies of vast importance include responsible features that acknowledge and account for the current and future problems that science has shown we will all face.

As scientists, we must drop the fear of drawing attention to ourselves and speak up to the world even if our first attempts are incoherent or not well received. We must reject the alarmist label from those who do not believe our science or consciously choose to discredit it. In order to find solutions to a global problem, we must collaborate with each other, scientist to scientist, across other disciplines, with everyone; and reject the norm of individual achievement as the driver of scientific career progression. We must be politically active and support politicians that are in favor of increased funding for research. We must reach out and incorporate the public into our work to demystify science, increase transparency, and reduce the power dynamic between scientists and the public. These are all things that I believe that scientists must and can do.

Let’s hold off on “smiling for the planet” until we make sure that policy reflects what decades of data have been telling us.


– David

Dutton, A. and K. Lambeck. 2012. Ice volume and sea level during the last interglacial. Science 337(6093):216-219.

Footnote: If you are interested in learning more about how the science can become better incorporated into the humanities and social science, check out Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by E.O. Wilson.

Holding the World in their Hands

Christina Hui ’17 and Patrick Houston ’17 take a hands-on approach to saving the world from the cataclysmic effects of climate change at COP22 in Marrakesh during the second week of the conference.

Christina Hui and Patrick Houston take a hands-on approach to saving the world from the cataclysmic effects of climate change at COP22 in Marrakesh. There were warnings from Sec. State John Kerry, Jeffrey Sachs (Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia), and others that if all nations met their "ambitions", we would still be far short of what was needed to meet a target of 1.5 degrees Centegrade rise in CO2 emissions over pre-industrial levels.

There were warnings from Sec. State John Kerry, Jeffrey Sachs (Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia), and others that if all nations met their “ambitions”, we would still be far short of what was needed to meet a target of 1.5 degrees Centegrade rise in CO2 emissions over pre-industrial levels.

COP in the heart of Marrakech

As we entered Djemaa el-Fna, the crowded, pulsing, square at the heart of the medina, we saw this neon sign high above the square.  Storytellers, acrobats, musicians, and maybe even snake charmers (we couldn’t see over the thick crowds surrounding some of these groups) drew huge crowds, as did

As we entered Djemaa el-Fna, the square at the heart of the medina, we saw this neon sign high above the square. Storytellers, acrobats, musicians, and maybe even snake charmers (we couldn't see over the thick crowds surrounding some of these groups) draw huge crowds, as do the food stalls and shops. Since one of the COP buses dropped off between the Koutoubia Mosque and the square, it was easy to visit at the end of the COP day. Somewhat insane in its noise and throngs and energy, but what an experience!

the food stalls and shops.  Since one of the free COP buses dropped off between the Koutoubia Mosque and the square, it was easy to visit at the end of the COP day.  Somewhat insane in its noise and throngs and energy, but what an experience!

Necessary Next Steps: Statements from around the world

On Thursday, 11/17, the second to the last day of COP 22, each nation gave its closing statements in one of the largest plenary tents at the COP. Most statements lasted about 5 minutes, during which ambassadors from departments of environmental protection, sustainability, or interior development from countries around the world reiterated urgency for action on climate, and asserted where improvements are still needed. While COP 21 was popularly considered the “last chance” for the world to lay meaningful groundwork for future carbon emissions commitments, COP 22 has been considered by many “the COP of action” in which the groundwork laid in Paris must be reinforced and furthered. In many ways, it seemed that the outcomes from the COP, in terms of the progress made with building onto the Paris Agreement, was not as concrete as many had hoped. Still, the remarks were varied and in addition to the reasons for concern, many of the countries shared their priorities and their actions which provide reasons to be hopeful about the world’s will to address climate change.

The front of the large plenary in which nations gave their final statements.


One common concern voiced by many developing nations called on developed nations to craft stronger and clearer Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Malawi, Bhutan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo- who was representing itself and less developed countries (LCDs) in general, and Cuba were among these states who pressed developed nations to take greater actions to curb their carbon emissions. Honduras, generally emphasized the need for INDCs from all nations to be crafted in a clear way so that progress is measurable, so nations can be held accountable for shortfallings, and so areas for improvement are identifiable. The ambassador from Honduras directed these instructions at all nations and not just developed nations.

Many poorer nations in the global South emphasized the fact that while their nation emits relatively little carbon emissions, they are bearing the brunt of the effects of climate change. Of the 14 or so national closing remarks that I sat in on, these concerns were mentioned by all the countries mentioned above. Much aligned with this concern, Honduras, Malawi, and what I believe was Jamaica communicated that they are spending so much of their money on storm recovery that they are unable to make gains in economic growth and disaster mitigation projects. To address challenges like this, the $100 billion dollar Green Climate Fund was proposed several years ago, to be enacted in 2020 for which developed nations would supply the fund to developing nations. While $100 billion may sound substantial, consider that Hurricane Sandy (NJ, 2012) costed $50 billion and Hurricane Katrina costed $129 billion. On the global scale, $100 billion to assist developing nations with climate mitigation, adaption, and disaster recovery is not very much and several countries expressed concern that the fund is woefully inadequate. Others focused on how it should be allotted and there was a reoccurring assertion that much should go towards loss and damage suffered by nations already feeling the drastic effects of climate change.

Inside the plenary in which nations gave their final statements.

The representative from Bolivia gave a unique remark in that he not only briefed over on how his country is suffering from and acting on climate, but he also criticized some of the functions of capitalism which he said perpetuate the climate crisis and climate injustice. The representative from Bolivia called out what he termed “ideological colonialism” of climate change which, if I understood correctly, referred to governments of developed nations promoting climate policies that strengthen the corporations within their nations, rather than focusing on doing the most good. The speaker shamefully noted that it is the same corporations who got us into the climate change crisis, who are now trying to pose as the “saviors”. In other worlds, he was pointing to what could be considered large, global scale green-washing. Ultimately, the government official from Bolivia called for a need to “change the capitalist system that perpetuates the climate crisis…to ensure a commitment to life, humanity, and the integrity of our natural home”.


First a disclaimer: I don’t necessarily view nations’ calls for improvement as necessarily negative feedback. I believe this demonstrates that states are taking the situation seriously and are committed to progress. With that said, there were some closing statements that were particularly more hopeful in that they demonstrated how nations are acting now. The nation of Georgia stated that it is “not a passive recipient of (international) aid, but a contributor (as well)”. While noting that it is a relatively low emitter of GHGs, Georgia backed up this statement by explaining how it has been acting in the country’s two areas of focus: one, by helping its neighbors who have higher emissions to make reductions by furthering its own capacity for wind, solar, and geothermal energy which those nations could acquire from Georgia; and two, by fortifying the education system that prepares young people to enter and contribute to a green economy.

The representative from Denmark boasted of the country’s strong offshore power production in what was either wind or hydropower production. He said that Denmark has produced as much as 5 Kw of electricity from these operations (per year I believe) and that this progress demonstrates that offshore energy can compete with the production levels of fossil fuel capabilities. The topic of gender equality was brought up by a few nations including Honduras and Malawi. If I understood correctly this is to include both recognition of how climate change disproportionately effects women as well as how women can and need to be included in developing solutions. Additionally, Honduras emphasized that the transition to a more sustainable world must also strengthen workers’ rights and incorporate sustainable urban development in current construction. Both Honduras and Georgia emphasized the importance of integrating studies on climate and environmental into our education systems and more generally increasing access to education. All four of these themes- women’s’ rights, workers’ rights, sustainable urban development, and education equity are included in the UN’s 17 key objectives for solving climate change.

Finally, nothing was mentioned about a Trump presidency in the closing statements of the national remarks that I attended. Challenges and questions remain: allotting and ensuring an adequate Green Climate Fund- especially for nations already or soon to be dealing with loss and damage; determining how initiatives can effectively address many of the UN’s 17 key objectives; and ensuring that INDCs are concrete and actionable are large tasks. But based on what I witnessed this week, I think the global commitment to solving the greatest crisis of our time has not waned aside from the U.S. The rest of the world is acknowledging the science, and many are already feeling the impacts in their everyday lives as they struggle to obtain safe drinking water, to breath clean air, and to produce and acquire sufficient food, so ignoring the issue is nearly impossible.

I leave the COP with gratefulness looking back at the U.S. commitment to act on climate change under the Obama administration, with shame and frustration for what the upcoming Trump administration claims it wants to do, and with hope looking forward, based on the demonstration of unwavering commitment to action from the global community to tackle the issue of climate change.

Professor Carol Nackenoff and Patrick Houston ’17 leaving the COP on the last day, 11/18.

Ben Goloff ’15 – at COP with SustainUS

Ben Goloff ’15, who is in Marrakesh with SustainUS, met with us on Wednesday, 11/16 to talk about their work, their various COP actions, and efforts to connect with environmental justice activists in Morocco. His colleague Ryan, also part of the conversation, talked about a couple of the EJ issues here, involving a silver mine pollution protest/shut-down/multi-year protest settlement  at Imider and also  the loss of fish stock and local livelihoods in Safi due to serious water pollution issues occasioned by companies like OCP Group, a major producer of phosphates and derivatives.  Ryan designed a poster for SustainUS protesting the Safi pollution, and SustainUS had an “action” (a die-in) in the green zone where OCP was touting its environmental consciousness at COP22.cop-protest-980x482

Ben Goloff '15, who is in Marrakesh with SustainUS, met with us on Wednesday, 11/16 to talk about their work, COP actions, and efforts to connect with environmental justice activists in Morocco. His colleague Ryan, also part of the conversation, talked about a couple of the EJ issues here, involving a silver mine pollution protest/shut-down/occupation at Imider and the loss of fish stock and local livelihoods due to serious water pollution issues

Gender balance at COP – more than just bean counting

I have tried to follow discussions about gender balance at COP.  I wondered whether attention to this issue was merely symbolic politics, but I discovered that there are some interesting considerations here.  My former student was a negotiator for the State Department the first year there there were sessions on gender balance at COP (Warsaw, COP19); the goals on Gender balance and women’s participation were adopted in Doha in COP18 (2012) and is sometimes referred to as the “Doha Miracle,” called this because Christiana Figueres used her position to help get the issue un-tabled and passed at the COP (once a measure has been tabled, it is extremely rare for it to be un-tabled at the same COP, but apparently Figueres told the measure’s supporters that if she saw enough support on the floor, she could help.  So the Doha measure committed the parties to action on gender balance in climate policy.  At COP 21 (Paris), only 31% of the delegates were women, though more are here at COP 22.  Since women are overrepresented among the world’s poor, this was termed immoral by Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland (1990-1997), former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), and Chair of the Board of the Mary Robinson Foundation.  Ms. Robinson spoke at the panel launching The Full View, 2nd edition.

The women and gender constituency at COP issued a series of demands in Marrakesh to promote human rights, justice, and a sustainable future for all.  This includes a demand for governmental commitment to extending and enhancing activities under the Lima Work Programme on Gender (COP-20).

After Mary Robinson spoke, there was an interesting panel on “Improving Women’s Participation in the UNFCCC Process,” Participants emphasized the importance of gender-responsive climate policy in addition to gender balance (which SBI has apparently passed, meaning it will become part of the COP22 agreement).  There is now a Women Delegates’ Fund, which has helped women come to the conference–some nations have no funds for external travel.  So this fund can increase the voices of women.  But how do women assure that their presence is effective?  When they sit on various COP boards (CDM, where they constitute only 10%, CTCN 6%, Finance 35%, or Joint Implementation and Compliance 35% for some examples), are women getting the training in technical capacity and/or leadership skills so that they can be effective?  When women come to COP, networking among women is also essential to effective participation and leadership.

How, too, do we get women’s voices, especially from the grassroots, e.g., from civil society organizations, heard, and these same people involved.  What ARE  gender responsive climates and actions?  Agnes Leina, Founder and Executive Director of an indigenous community group of pastoralists in northern Kenya, talked about how important it was to get grassroots women to DESIGN the table and then participate at the table.  Indigenous knowledge should not be ignored.  She pointed to Article 11 of the Paris Agreement which speaks about capacity building, and said:  “I live to build capacity.”  She wanted to build the capacity of the people to come to COP to talk for themselves.  They need to do this because, for example the CDM (Clean Development Mechanism) includes taking land for conservation (possibly for wind turbines)–but the rights of people who live there matter and they must be consulted.  Will the villages nearby get any of the electricity so generated?  The UNFCCC makes recommendations but they don’t consult the people on the ground.

Only 1/3 of current nationally-determined contributions mention gender, and then only in a passive fashion.  The panelists indicated that they were still sort of just counting women when handing out adaptation money–not changing practices.  Quotas were seen as helpful:  it needs to become completely normal to work with quotas, creating full participation from the start.  Panelists pointed out the strong gender damage environmental policies have.

The theme that consultation is not nearly wide enough was a common one at COP.  Women were demanding more serious incorporation and consultation.


John Kerry States Climate Inaction is a Moral Failure

In spite of a presidential election result that endangers their efforts, the Obama administration is continuing to push hard on climate efforts at COP22. On Wednesday, this push came to a climax with the appearance of Secretary of State John Kerry. While I stood in a tightly-packed tent to hear him speak, I realized that Kerry’s speech seemed to be a direct address at Trump, persuading him to look at the value and ethics of maintaining US climate commitments.

Without calling names, Kerry suggestively stated: “For those in power in all parts of the world, including in my own, who may be confronted with decisions about which road to take at this critical juncture, I ask you, on behalf of billions of people around the world: Don’t take my word for it. Don’t take just the existence of this COP as the stamp of approval for it; I ask you to see for yourselves. Do your own due diligence before making irrevocable choices.”


Kerry stressed the importance of independent and well-informed judgment. The truth is the more individuals, regardless of occupation or background, learn about what is happening to our environment, the more alarmed they become. Kerry called climate skeptics (Trump) to do their part, asking them to closely examine what it is that persuaded leaders all over the world that we are in fact dealing with the crisis of our generation.  

He demanded: “Talk to the business leaders of Fortune 500 companies and smaller innovative companies, all of whom are eager to invest in the energy markets of the future…Speak with the military leaders who view climate change as a global security concern, as a threat multiplier…Ask farmers and fisherman about the impact of dramatic changes in weather patterns on their current ability to make a living and to support their families.”

Above all, Kerry urged skeptics to talk with scientists who “have dedicated their entire lives to expanding our understanding of this challenge, and whose work will be in vain unless we sound the alarm for everyone to hear.” Translating science into policy has to occur now. What we do right now matters, and with each month breaking record high temperatures, we cannot afford to wait.

With this urgency and knowledge that climate change affects billions of people, Kerry declared that the question now is whether or not we are going to have the will to get this job down. To the leaders who refuse to step up, he warns: “If we fall short, it will be the single greatest instance in modern history of a generation in a time of crisis abdicating responsibility for the future. And it won’t just be a policy failure; because of the nature of this challenge, it will be a moral failure, a betrayal of devastating consequence.”

After inviting the president-elect to understand climate science from experts and to see the full picture, Kerry clearly suggests that there should be only one conclusion drawn. He states that those who investigate properly can “only come to one legitimate decision, and that is that they act boldly on climate change and encourage others to do the same.”

Enthusiasm–and problems faced by–the new Climate Technology Center & Network

While CTCN was not in my vocabulary when I arrived in Marrakesh, I began hearing about it on Tuesday at a RINGO meeting (through whom we get our accreditation).  The parent organizations for CTCN are UNIDO (UN Industrial Development Organization) and UNEP (UN Environment Program).  Jukka Uosukainen (who has been involved in UN work on the environment for several decades and who served as Special Envoy for Climate Change for the Govt of Finland), appointed  the first Director of the the Climate Technology Center and Network (CTCN, spoke) to RINGOs because CTCN–which is barely 2 years old–wants the participation of and brainstorming by the research development and science community.  The CTCN answers requests (policy, legal, advisory) for technology upgrading vision and capacity of developing nations.  Since its inception, they receive roughly two requests a week and they have only a ten-member staff.  There is a sense that demand for services that CTCN can provide is growing rapidly. They have had to choose among LDCs’ requests for assistance because they don’t have enough money.  Some of the assistance comes in the form of webinars and on-line support.  CTCN matches applications it accepts with appropriate experts.  An example is that they worked with Colombia on a detailed, climate-friendly, waste management plan for one city.

U.S. negotiator Pershing, in his briefing on Tuesday evening (11/15), said that one of the problems with financing for various COP projects was that public money was not adequately leveraging private dollars.  He calculated that, close to OECD figures that came in in time for the COP pre-meeting three weeks ago, UNFCCC was getting only about thirty cents private money from every dollar of public money, which was not effective.  It is my sense that this is an issue for the new CTCN initiative as well.

With that in mind, I sat in on the CTCN press conference on Wednesday at 10 a.m. where a handful of  nations pledged $23 million to scale-up funding for CTCN as it “delivers tailored capacity building and technical assistance at the request of developing countries across a broad range of mitigation and adaptation technology and policy sectors.”  What I noted was that Canada and the U.S. were given credit for leading this effort to increase contributions.

The COP Deputy Executive Secretary, Richard Kinley, (Canada) called CTCN a success story.  The Canadian Minister of Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, said Canada would match its original contribution with another 2.2 million.  The EU Commission representative, Roberto Ridolfi, announced a contribution which I think was about $10 million; he added that he thought one of the greatest functions of CTCN would be the networking.  He claimed that 20% of development assistance must now be climate-sensitive. Other contributors in this group were Germany, Japan, Korea, Denmark, Italy, and Switzerland.  Among these, Korea alone was a non-Annex I country.  The Korean representative said they were happy to participate/contribute to sustainable development of other countries, even to a small extent.  They promise to be a strong supporter of CTCN in future.

U.S. Special Envoy Pershing said that the U.S. view about the importance of technology has been one that crosses the bounds of partisanship and rests on belief in the importance of technology in solving problems.  Our own U.S. funds have already been put on the table (that is, he says they won’t be affected by the U.S. presidential election).  He pointed to the enabling environment at the heart of the Paris Agreement, and he looks forward to other nations joining the CTCN funding effort in the future.  He said the U.S. contribution last year was $1.5 million and this year another $2.5 million.

The press asked who would evaluate CTCN activities and how.  The CTCN Director said there will be an interim review on CTCN effectiveness next year.




Musings on Finance & Fairness

The Director of the new Climate Technology Center and Network, Jukka Uosukainen from Finland, told the RINGO meeting earlier this week that “climate is almost everything.”  In other words, it is about health, technology, development goals, forestry, agriculture, gender equity,  status and fate of indigenous peoples, equity, North/South relations, and more.  The Director’s point was that the UNFCCC Green Climate Fund could not be successful if it was open to everything.  Money to meet COP goals is a big issue, whether it is for capacity building, technology transfer, loss & damage, adaptation, mitigation, monitoring, or for meeting the sustainable development goals.

Someone astutely observed to me while we were in Warsaw for COP19 that there are so many needs in developing countries, yet they all have to be expressed in terms of climate change. That is the currency of UNFCCC.  This reminds me of something I assign in Con Law by A. Sarat (if you go to court, you fight on the terrain and use the language that is legally cognizable, e.g. rights rather than needs).  Perhaps UNFCCC, which has 25,000 international participants in its two-week annual forum, despite its often excrutiatingly slow action, IS a fairly successful international forum for pressing a wide ranging agenda. A wide-ranging set of actors come here to press their cases.  Yet despite lots of interesting ideas sparked here (a new network of research institutions seeking to revision and expand capacity building is just one), there are many competing requests and expectations about the flow of money to address climate change.  Finance (for adaptation/mitigation) remains one of the most difficult issues at COP22 in its final hours.

Some of the progressive NGO voices here, and some of the poorer developing nations, point out that developed countries are reluctant to fund adaptation projects in a number of countries.  Public monies from governments seek to leverage private investment.  With regard to non-governmental funding, businesses want their activities to be profitable, the political environment to be stable. The ECO-NGO newsletter of Nov. 18th at COP22 says that the Parties’ own biennial reporting reveals that G7 nations plus Australia are providing $3.4 billion/year in public finance for adaptation activities in developing countries, but at the same time, these same countries have provided almost $67 billion/year in subsidies and public finances in support of oil, gas, and coal production (at home and abroad).  This doesn’t sound terribly sustainable–or sustainability-conscious.

I am sitting in Friday’s high-level segment of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, where 47 nations in the CVF announced they will scale-up their climate commitments, develop long-range low emissions strategies, and use renewables to meet their energy needs.  It is inspiring that the most vulnerable and relatively poor nations are helping lead the way, yet their commitment needs not only to be matched but surpassed by those nations that are more advantaged.  And these nations need, at a minimum, to deliver the financing to which they have committed.