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Specter of disaster provides important backdrop to Paris climate negotiations, researcher says

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

LAWRENCE — As the United Nations climate talks in Paris enter their third day, a University of Kansas researcher on environmental rhetoric and climate politics is available to discuss the developments.

World leaders, including President Barack Obama, opened the summit's first two days, and now negotiators will try to hammer out a deal on a global climate change policy. The talks are scheduled to continue until Dec. 11.

Phillip Drake, assistant professor of English, researches environmental rhetoric, climate politics, climate science and representations of disasters. His projects include analysis of the "trigger debate" surrounding the Indonesian mud volcano that displaced more than 40,000 people in 2006.

Q: What are the particular challenges in a summit like this that includes the intersection of science and policy?

Drake: What is interesting about the Paris Climate Summit is that discussions are informed largely by previous IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, reports that survey and synthesize scientific climate research. This research shows overwhelming evidence both of rising global temperatures and that human activities are impacting this rise. Thus, this summit is more about policy than science.

Q: How prominently will disasters play in these talks about trying to prevent or stem climate change?

Drake: Without getting into specifics, since I’m not present in Paris, the specter of disaster provides an important backdrop to the negotiations. While the effects of rising sea levels will certainly attract attention, other threats like extreme weather events and disruptions to agricultural production are indicative of the high stakes of a changing climate.

Q: Obama has also mentioned he wants “legally binding” action to occur from this summit. Would that be an ideal outcome in your mind? It seems the public perception is that these political events rarely yield productive results on environmental issues, so I assume rhetorically that’s what that statement is addressing.

Drake: I can’t speak to the feasibility of establishing legally binding agreements, as there seems to be legislative obstacles on both domestic and international fronts. However the agreements are formalized, there is unprecedented political will for reducing emissions, establishing systems that ensure accountability, and providing assistance to developing nations with growing energy needs. Ideally, these agreements will result in swift and meaningful change, but it is also important not to overlook the cultural impact of the summit. Even without dramatic policy shifts, the Paris Summit could be a turning point in discussions about climate change throughout the world.

To schedule an interview with Drake, contact George Diepenbrock at gdiepenbrock@ku.edu or 785-864-8853.