The description “massive climate event” conjures images of typhoons, El Niño, glacial calving.
But Indiana University assistant professor of international studies Jessica O’Reilly uses it to describe the annual conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The main international treaty on climate change, the convention is “an agreement to seek an agreement to lower carbon emissions and prevent anthropogenic climate change,” O’Reilly said.
O’Reilly, who joined IU’s School of Global and International Studies in the fall of 2016, speaks from experience. In prior years, she has represented her former institution and the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition at the annual U.N. climate convention Conference of Parties. This year, O’Reilly was granted credentials allowing her and a handful of students to attend Conference of Parties 23 in Bonn, Germany, Nov. 6 to 17.
In Bonn, she will learn whether Indiana University’s pending formal observer status is approved. If so, O’Reilly will attend COP 24, in December 2018 in Katowice, Poland, with 10 students.
The annual event involves about 25,000 participants, O’Reilly said. Apart from those engaged in the formal diplomatic negotiations, many delegates are members of civil society. Some of these observers, such as universities, are categorized as “research and independent nongovernmental organizations”; others are referred to as “environmentalist nongovernmental organizations.”
The many events taking place alongside the negotiations present what O’Reilly calls “a master class in climate research.” The landscape is not unlike that of a world’s fair, she said, dotted with pavilions in which NGOs provide education on climate-change-related topics including displacement, indigenous rights and “resilient cities.” The U.S. government is not funding a pavilion at COP 23, O’Reilly said, but a pavilion representing the cities, states, universities and other organizations that have reaffirmed their commitment to the Paris Agreement through the America’s Pledge initiative will occupy the “We Are Still In” pavilion. (Bloomington is one of those cities.)
The author of “The Technocratic Antarctic: An Ethnography of Scientific Expertise and Environmental Governance,” O’Reilly – an environmental anthropologist by training – is not a climate scientist but a climate researcher. In field work that has taken her from Indonesia to New Zealand and Antarctica, she studies the socially based production of quantitative, scientific reports, texts often considered to be neutral.
“The way that we’re traditionally educated about science and scientists is that they are objective, they follow the methods, and there is some pure truth in the world,” O’Reilly said. “And it is more complicated than that, because we all live in a world that’s political and human and messy.
“I look at climate scientists as a cultural community, or a set thereof,” she said. “I see these (reports, treaties and conferences) as cultural performances and events. What is the human story behind these texts that we read? How did they come to be, and how do they come to be enacted at this really interesting historical moment where the U.S. is causing some uncertainty in this political system?”
O’Reilly did not start out with the intention of studying the ways of climate scientists. She embarked on a more traditional interpretation of environmental anthropology in graduate school, studying in Indonesia for six months. Prior experience as a National Park Service ranger nurtured a twin passion for environmental management, which in turn led her to Antarctica.
“When I started learning about environmental anthropology, it was the indigenous people who had the cultural understandings of the environment and scientists who had something objective,” O’Reilly said. “But as I learned more about cultures of science, I came to see that scientists had really specific world views as well that were disciplined into them by their research and their experiences in the field.”
O’Reilly has studied how cultural, social and political considerations shape the way scientific information is generated, modified and distributed. To pre-empt accusations of exaggeration by climate skeptics, for example, scientists will often present the most conservative estimates in the range produced by their experimentation and modeling, a strategy O’Reilly and her co-authors have dubbed ESLD (“erring on the side of least drama”).
In other cases O’Reilly has observed, scientists venture beyond the strictly quantitative realm when predicting highly uncertain outcomes, such as the timing of the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet and the subsequent rise in sea levels. In such cases, “while there are advances in the hard sciences, in observation and in modeling,” she said, “you’re not going to get anything definitive yet.” In order to start somewhere, scientists draw upon “expert elicitation,” their informed, intuitive sense of the subject. O’Reilly acknowledges the leeriness with which this method might be received. But it’s this very gray area where she focuses her attention.
“While back-of-the-envelope calculations are legitimate work – indeed, such calculations may be said to be a large part of what scientific reasoning is – such informal practices seem mysterious or even fraudulent to non-expert observers,” O’Reilly writes in a chapter of Climate Cultures: Anthropological Perspectives on Climate Change (Yale University Press: 2015). “Instead of glossing over the controversies and disagreements implicit in the production of (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) assessment reports, I work with participating scientists to analyze how their micro-practices inform the state of climate science knowledge. By bringing this guesswork under critical scrutiny, we can understand how these micro-practices inform major scientific projections and start to plan for a changing environment.”
Yael Ksander is a writer/editor with the School of Global and International Studies.