Absences: Thematic Exclusions at a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference

From the Series: Negotiating the Crisis: Critical Perspectives on Climate Governance

Photo by Robert vanWaarden.

The 18th Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in 2012 in Doha, Qatar. Conducting ethnographic research at this annual international climate conference, many things caught my attention. The plethora of acronyms, buzzwords, and novelty of the language (when is a paper a non-paper?). The complexity of the conference structure, which made the program quite impenetrable. The slogans adorning the buses, like a care label on a pair of jeans stating “not above 2 degrees,” and a pencil lying on a notepad with the words “Sharpening emissions targets. Count me in!” The vast conference space on the outskirts of Doha, staffed by students from an Indian hotel school, recruited to work for the conference as their internship. The three-hour daily commute between the downtown hotels and conference site in near stationary traffic, roads thick with SUVs. The protest march described in a press release as a “march of thousands,” which actually numbered in the hundreds, with the obligatory protestor dressed as a polar bear. The sense of belonging tied to the color of the badge—pink for party delegates, orange for the press, yellow for non-governmental, blue for UN observers, green for intergovernmental. The sense of non-belonging I felt as a seven-month pregnant ethnographer.

The COP18 in Doha. Not a space for a pregnant ethnographer. Photos by Jessica Barnes.

But what was most striking to me was not so much what I saw as what was absent. I had attended the conference because of my interests in water. I was in the process of finishing my first book on water politics in Egypt (Barnes 2014) and was interested in extending that work to think about the ramifications of climate change for the social and political dimensions of water management. Since water is a major sphere of climate change impacts and adaptation planning, I expected it to be a prominent topic of discussion at the meeting. I was not planning to follow the negotiations taking place in the plenary sessions—from a 42-page guide to the negotiations, which made no mention of water, I knew this would not be something the country delegates were talking about (IEPF 2012). But I thought it would feature in the many side events, exhibitions, and workshops, especially given the conference’s location in a region where water scarcity is a key concern. Yet my initial foray into the extensive conference program met with disappointment: a keyword search for water returned only five results.

I attended these events, which mostly focused on community-based water management, but they were tangential to my interests in broader dynamics in water distribution, access, and use. In between, I wandered the conference site in search of water. I looked jealously at the endless panels and events focused on REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) and carbon capture and storage, knowing that if I worked on climate change mitigation, my notebook would be filling with reams of data.

On my second day, I came across the booth of a large international conservation organization, which was displaying a publication titled “Adaptation Hub.” I picked up the brochure and browsed through it, disappointed to find that it, too, did not mention water. I commented to the people behind the booth on my surprise at water’s absence. One pulled a crumpled piece of paper from her bag. It was a statement from the Water and Climate Coalition—a collection of international organizations and non-governmental organizations working on water. Under the headline “Climate change is water change,” the statement urged COP participants to pay closer attention to water resources management as the key to successfully mitigating and adapting to climate change. The fact that there was a need for such a statement speaks to water’s marginalization from the debate. I joked with the people at the booth that I wished I worked on REDD as it seemed to be all anyone was talking about. Underscoring the thematic trends that guide international climate conversations one responded, “Well I think water will be the next REDD.”

A couple of days later, I arranged to meet some representatives of an international water institute. I told them that I had attended the COP because I was interested to see what sort of discussions were going on about adaptation and water resources management. One of them finished my sentence: “… and you found that there weren’t any!” “Yes,” I said. She explained that there is a resistance within the UNFCCC to sectoral discussions “because they don’t want more proliferation. It is already a very complicated process with many separate tracks and processes.” She recounted what she had heard from climate negotiators. “They say of course water is important, but this isn’t the right context. We don’t need to get that specific here. The more specific you get, the more difficult it is to agree.” It was, in her mind, in part a matter of scale. “The problem for us water resources people is that we work at the ground level. Here they are working at another level, at a level of global negotiations. They say that water issues can be addressed in national strategies and action plans.”

The remainder of the conference I attended various panels and sessions, taking notes on what I observed but learning little about water. The resulting fieldnotes did not feed into my subsequent writings on water and climate change. Indeed, they have remained largely undisturbed in a folder until I returned to them to write this piece.

Reflecting back on this experience, on the one hand I can see that I fell into the most basic of fieldwork mistakes. I assumed that my previous experience would be sufficient preparation to seamlessly navigate the new research terrain of an international climate meeting. Without an anthropologist guide experienced in attending such meetings, Gökçe Günel—who not only generously shared her hotel room but explained how the conference worked—I would probably have spent most of the week lost. Moreover, I assumed that other people would be interested in the same things I was. Instead of approaching the space with an open mind to be guided by the issues that others were interested in, I went with a fixed idea of what I was looking for.

On the other hand, my observation of an absence says something about the topics that are deemed worthy of discussion in particular times and spaces. At recent meetings, water has featured more prominently; the COP26 in Glasgow, for example, contained a Water Pavilion for the first time. Still, the fact that it was not present at all in this conference points to the thematic foci that orient climate debates. As ethnographers continue to conduct research at climate meetings, just as important as looking at the topics under discussion is looking at the topics that fall off the radar.


Barnes, Jessica. 2014. Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Institut de l’energie et de l’environnement de la Francophonie (IEPF). 2012: “Guide to the Negotiations: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change COP18 and CMP8. Summary for Policy Makers."