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Can we govern the climate?

16th May 2016 @ 5:30 pm - 7:30 pm

Public lecture by Harriet Bulkeley, Professor of Geography, Durham University

Fulton A Lecture Theatre, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton

The recent conclusions of COP21 in Paris appear to offer another hopeful juncture on the long road to reaching a global agreement on how society should respond to climate change. Commitment has been renewed, new goals articulated and, perhaps most surprisingly, a host of other actors have been brought into the multilateral domain to add momentum (and legitimacy) to the ongoing international effort. While the impacts and implications of the Paris agreement continue to be pored over, what is clear is that the ideal of a multilateral agreement universally adopted and cascaded into implementation through the public arena has given way to a much more complex political imagination in which actors public and private, local and global jostle for attention and the fate of one seems to be irrevocably bound up with the others.

Within the research community the emergence of this domain, what is termed global environmental governance, has been subject to debate for over a decade. A substantial body of work attests to the role of a range of actors, from cities to corporations, and the multitude of governing arrangements of which they are part in responding to climate change. While we have learnt a great deal about who is now engaging in climate governance, their motivations, interventions and the challenges this poses, I want to suggest that this work remains limited in helping us understand where, how and with what consequences climate governance takes place. Focusing on the actors and institutions involved, we are left with only a partial understanding of the situations, processes, practices and socio-material configurations through which the governing of climate change is (and is not) taking place – in short, we have a limited engagement with how climate governance is being accomplished.

This matters critically for our ability to answer a simple but central question: can we govern the climate? Drawing on research conducted in the UK over the past decade that has sought to examine the ways in which governing climate change is being accomplished in a range of arenas that cut across traditional divides between the state, private sector and community, I will make the argument that addressing this question means opening up our analyses of global environmental governance to new conceptual entry points. Understanding whether we can govern the climate means that we ask (again) how governing is configured in relation to climate change. Using examples from the banking, retail, and energy sectors as well as community initiatives and urban responses to climate change, the paper explores the ways in which the governing of climate change is authorised, ordered, articulated and made to matter through distinct socio-material assemblages and diverse publics. Such an approach not only opens up what it might mean to govern climate change, but also the range of sites and practices through which it can and is being accomplished. From this perspective, governing the climate is not a single project, but an unfolding and ongoing programme embedded in different economies and societies in multiple ways. Accomplishing climate governance requires not that we seek to harmonise and integrate all such responses, but rather that we enable multiple socially and environmentally progressive transitions to be realised.

About Harriet Bulkeley

Harriet Bulkeley is a Professor of Geography, Durham University. Her research focuses on the processes and politics of environmental governance. Her recent books include Governing the Climate: new approaches to rationality, power and politics (Ed. CUP 2014) Transnational Climate Governance (CUP, 2014), An Urban Politics of Climate Change (Routledge 2015), and Accomplishing Climate Governance (CUP, 2016). She is currently involved in researching the politics and practice of smart grids in the UK, Australia and Sweden and continuing work on urban responses to climate change through the JPI Urban and ESRC project Governing Urban Sustainability Transitions (GUST 2014 – 2017). Harriet has undertaken commissioned research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Friends of the Earth, UN-Habitat and the World Bank. In 2014, she was awarded the King Carl XVI Gustaf’s Professorship in Environmental Science and a Visiting Professorship at Lund University, Sweden.

This lecture is the only public part of the programme of the STEPS Centre’s 2016 Summer School on Pathways to Sustainability.


16th May 2016
5:30 pm - 7:30 pm
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Fulton A Lecture Theatre, University of Sussex
Brighton, BN1 9RH United Kingdom
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STEPS Centre