COP26: a masterclass of contested policy making

Published on 18 November 2021

The past two weeks have been dominated by global coverage of the COP26 climate summit with nearly 25,000 policy makers and climate activists travelling to Glasgow to be part of the climate discussions. It closed with a perhaps unsurprising last minute intervention that watered down the final text but kept a pledge that will keep within reach a limit of 1.5C to global heating.

In the immediate aftermath of COP26, any agreement on whether meaningful action has been made in tackling climate change is as contested as the negotiations that took place. It highlights one of the most striking lessons from the summit: it is acutely difficult to inform policy with evidence and reach consensus where topics are highly complex and relate to national self-interest. This particularly where dialogues are unequal and dominated by wealthier countries. Throughout the summit, there was a very clear disparity in attention between that given to countries and communities typically in the Global South already experiencing the direct impacts of change, and countries in the Global North that led policy debate on climate action.

Connecting research to policy agendas

Climate and environmental justice are crucially important to finding sustainable solutions to climate change but rely on researchers using evidence effectively to engage and influence policy makers. This in turn requires research to align to the interests of policy makers. As Silvio Funtowitcz predicted almost three decades ago, environmentalism requires a new kind of “post-normal science”. His vision was that the quality of science for policy would be measured in terms of whether a wider constituency of stakeholders, including communities, were part of the process.

It aligns with a long-held belief at IDS that engaged research provides a framework for evidence to contribute to progressive change. This because it brings together diverse disciplines, perspectives and knowledge and, above all, can deal directly with global uncertainty. This is crucial when we live in times of accelerating social, environmental and economic change which makes the task of shaping policy with evidence more important and more challenging. We have seen this played out during the COP26 negotiations and national and global responses to Covid-19.

Beyond traditional science communications

For researchers and those seeking to connect research with policy makers, the ‘new world’ of digital communications and fast changing policy environments mean that traditional ways of communicating science are sometimes no longer adequate. Increasingly, science is contested and the way in which evidence is applied by policy makers put under public scrutiny. It can reveal the deep equity issues of how research knowledge is generated, published, and used.

Navigating this fast-moving space requires new approaches and also shared learning based on the experience of researchers working in multiple contexts. This insight combined with learning on the theories of evidence has been used to create the dedicated IDS short course which includes practical guidance on how to map policy spaces, address power asymmetries and frame research so it can be better connected to policy making. With opportunities to meet and learn from others facing these challenges, the short course will support you to improve how evidence is applied in policy.


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