Photo by Robert vanWaarden.

“The ideas of science appear to be an otherworldly realm of artificial abstractions that strive to capture the blood and sap in their scrawny hands without ever managing to do so.”
Max Weber, “Science as Vocation”
“Whoever lives ‘for’ politics makes ‘this his life’ in an inward sense. Either he enjoys the naked exercise of the power he possesses or he feeds his inner equilibrium and his self-esteem with the consciousness that by serving a ‘cause’ he gives his own life a meaning.”
Max Weber, “Politics as Vocation” (quotes in the original)

Between the 1990s and the 2000s climate change went from being a “problem” for scientists requiring the integration of knowledge across different lines of research, to being a “cause” for politicians.[1] How did those with scientific backgrounds make the shift? A response may be sought in how the UN-led process by which global climate change policy was to be crafted established itself within the architecture of individuals’ lives. In the early years of organizing, from the 1970s to the 1980s, the UN relied on institutions such as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), and later the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to amass credible scientific data to ground claims of climate change and its links to human activity. The UN-led process that was launched by the Rio Summit of 1992, and sustained by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), relied heavily on science to communicate the urgency of climate change to nation states to organize them to collectively combat it. By the 2000s, climate change was accepted as already here in the world with the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) under UNFCCC showing less and less reliance upon the IPCC to guide its policy making initiatives, being now powered by its own internal momentum. I should qualify my claims. Country delegates and many others from the Global North still took recourse to science in their communications in part because large swathes of their population were increasingly suspicious of science, unconvinced of climate change as a phenomenon, much less its enormity and their responsibility for it. Those from the Global South, where the impacts of climate change were more clearly in evidence and for whom science was a much more practical enterprise than the near prophetic status it occupied in the north, just accepted the truth of climate change, and went about busying themselves within the process.[2]

And thus an entire generation of country delegates from the Global South who came from a science background came to shift their focus from doing science to doing politics within the negotiation process. In effect, climate change became their vocation. Here are examples of three individuals I interviewed in 2018.

Gebru Jember Endalew, delegate of Ethiopia and the Chair of the Least Developed Countries group between 2017 and 2018, recounts that his advanced training was in Meteorology and Air Quality. He came to the issue of climate change through a circuitous route, beginning as a meteorologist in Ethiopia’s National Meteorological Agency, then in the Department of Development, from there to the Department of Weather and Early Warning and finally to the Climate Change and Air Pollution Studies Team. He represented Ethiopia within the IPCC where he was one of the authors of the Working Group I Science of Climate Change Assessment Report of 2015. He readily admits, “I was much more at ease with approaching climate change as a scientific problem. I had to learn to think about climate change as a political problem before I could be effective representing Ethiopia within the negotiations to which I had come in 2008.” Negotiator training by an international organization concerned to ensure that delegates from the Global South were not overrun by their more Northern, and wealthier counterparts allowed him to find his voice and to eventually lead the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the negotiations.

Amjad Abdulla was delegate of Maldives, Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) group between 2015 to 2018 and at one point the vice-chair and chair of one of the two permanent subsidiary bodies under the UNFCCC that gave scientific and technological support to the negotiators (all this to say that he is a very big deal within the process). He entered it in the early 2000s as a young man from the Department of Climate Change and Energy Department housed incongruously within the Ministry of Housing and Environment with no clear direction in mind. “Maldives has always engaged with [the issue of] climate change so it was like tradition to come. I came with no clue as to what to expect.” Armed with a higher degree in Environmental Science, Policy, and Planning and an unshakable sense that this process somehow mattered, he came back year after year listening until he found his bearing. He now felt that the process was a “family.” Even so, he felt it was all too vulnerable to geopolitics but, “you don’t want geopolitics to enter the process. You want to secure it. Good politics is to keep the process technical. Keeping it technical will make it sustainable, whereas making it political will give it a short time frame.”

Seyni Nafo, High Representative of the President of the Republic of Mali for Climate (which is to say that he didn’t come via a ministry but was sent by the highest office of the country), who serves as a spokesperson for the African Group of Negotiators (AGN), entered the process “almost by accident.” His parents were international civil servants. He was raised in Saudi Arabia and from early on studied finance. When he returned to Mali in 2008, “carbon was very hot then, with developing countries thinking that they could raise a lot of money that way.” Seyni started an investment fund dealing in carbon. A presentation to Mali’s Ministry of Environment led to him being put in the delegation to do side events at the COPs. “I had no background in diplomacy, which was probably good as it would have made me too formal,” he says. Very quickly he became integrated into the process, organizing amongst the African nations so that they could present a common platform at the meetings and undertaking regional initiatives, such as the African Renewable Energy Initiative, an Africa-owned and Africa-led effort to make the regional energy sovereign. He said, “for me this process is all about building solidarity.”

Across these three examples we see climate change transform in representation within climate science and policy from being a scientific problem to a political one. We see it attempted to be protected from geopolitics by treating it as a purely technical problem. And in its latest iteration we see it set up as both a business opportunity and, incongruously, an opportunity for building regional solidarity and energy sovereignty. For better or for worse, for climate change to become a part of the architecture of people’s lives it didn’t just have to go out of the realm of science, it had to enter the realm of livelihood and vocation, and it had to become the occasion for new relations and possibilities for solidarities. All I can say as of now is that climate change is still variably becoming within people’s lives with no clear arc as to its final denouement.

[1] As we know science is never free of politics. I simply posit this transition of climate change from being a problem of science to being one of politics to capture a self-representation within climate science and policy.

[2] Of course, there is no one reason why governments do not want to fully know about climate change risks. See Lisa Vanhala, Michai Robertson, and Elisa Calliari (2021).


Vanhala, Lisa, Michai Robertson, and Elisa Calliari. 2021. “The Knowledge Politics of Climate Change Loss and Damage across Scales of Governance.” Environmental Politics 30: 141–160.