I’m an academi—hey, that looks interesting! Can I draft you a memo?

Most of the past two + years I’ve been really pleased to be in academia, growing into my identity as a geographer. But sometimes I just…lose focus.

Here I am, a lone geography grad student at the UNFCCC COP. And it is huge, it is beyond the grasp of any one person. But I figured I’d follow my issue (biofuels) and see where it took me.

My search for biofuels has taken me to just about every one of the 150+ stands of organizations, endless side events and what negotiating contact groups I can get into (not many), and let me just say: everyone flipping says biofuels are a flipping mitigation measure for flipping climate change, but the UNFCCC process is not so much bringing out the biofuels.

So I’ve tried to be scholastically savvy…I’m interested in how science is used in framing the benefits, risks and uncertainties of biofuels in international negotiations, right? So I’ve looked for a parallel-ish issue within this COP, and I settled on CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage. Basic CCS idea: our main problem is that our energy sources produce too much carbon dioxide…so let’s pump it into the ground. There’s some empty space down in there, we’ve got the technology to do it, and it just so happens that we can actually use the process to flush out extra oil that’s otherwise hard to get out of exhausted wells (Enhanced Oil Recovery).

OPEC countries have been pushing hard for CCS to be included in the Clean Development Mechanism – in other words, for Annex 1 countries (“developed” countries minus US and soon Canada) to be able to offset their domestic carbon dioxide emissions by buying “credits” from non-Annex 1 countries (“developing” countries and the ‘project participants’ (companies, in this case)) for projects that reduce their emissions in some way. So for the immediate future, bringing CCS into CDM will mean paying oil companies to use a not insignificant amount of energy to store some carbon dioxide in the ground, and in the process enable them to extract an incredibly profitable amount of oil.

I wouldn’t say that I’m totally opposed to the basic concept of CCS. But in the past week I’ve heard enough from both the ‘con’ (Greenpeace and CDM Watch primarily) and ‘pro’ (University of Texas economic geology department, the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, etc) camps to feel that this is a technology that calls for precaution. (Turns out nothing raises my hackles quite like an overly confident and condescending economic geologist showing pictures of Perrier to illustrate that an accidental carbon dioxide release would be totally harmless.)

What can I say – I’m not impressed by arguments for rolling out a relatively new, rather large scale commercial technology that are based on ‘there’s absolutely no uncertainty or risk.’ And when pressed, it turns into ‘there’s absolutely no uncertainty or risk because we can choose the perfect geologic structures and monitor everything that happens.’ Right. Well, if that’s the case – and seeing as some of these countries are talking about sticking 40% of our emissions underground, hard to see how there are no uncertainties inherent in that – but even if that is the case, then we should probably make sure that site selection and impact assessments are incredibly robust and thorough, and that monitoring is required for a long long time.

Anyways, the point is, I spent a lot of last week going through draft texts and working with activists to draft language for press conferences and for friendly country delegations. What can I say – it felt natural…it’s what I used to do, it’s what I know how to do … but is it what I’m here to do?

There are other academics here who are unambiguously and stridently political (Professors Michael Dorsey (Dartmouth) and Patrick Bond (University of KwaZulu-Natal) being two outstanding examples). But from what I understand, they specifically study civil society. I don’t. At least, I don’t think that’s what I study.

Remind me again, what does an academic do?


One Comment on “I’m an academi—hey, that looks interesting! Can I draft you a memo?”

  1. I am really enjoying getting into your head. What do academics do? What you are doing…asking lots of questions and examining every angle….so that they can provide a factual view of issues. I don’t know that its necessarily a bad thing to be going about it in a round about sort of way. 🙂

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