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Rethinking climate politics

Robyn Eckersley is not satisfied with the status quo.

She doesn’t just explain why things are the way they are. She also imagines alternatives, suggests long-term solutions and raises dangerous, “unthinkable” ideas.

Eckersley, a political scientist, works on the international politics, governance and ethics of climate change (among other things). She asks difficult questions about whether current efforts to tackle climate change are enough – the answer is no. She then asks why, and what could solve the problem.

This topic takes Eckersley from her office at the University of Melbourne to UN climate summits – Copenhagen in 2009, Durban in 2011, Doha in 2012, Lima in 2014 (shown in the photograph). She plans to attend the 2015 summit in Paris where a treaty on climate change is due to be signed.

Intellectually, the boundaries are wide also. Eckersley has written a paper proposing a new UN Climate Council, where a small group of key countries (the most capable, the biggest emitters, the most vulnerable) works on the core of a climate treaty, to put to a broader UN audience. Called “inclusive minilateralism,” this might circumvent the slow pace of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The proposal was discussed widely. “It’s got people talking, and for an academic that’s probably as good as it gets,” Eckersley says.

She’s also written on the looming problem of climate refugees, researching what rights they should have and proposing an international fund for them. “You’re building momentum to think big, rather than small, on behalf of those who are least responsible and most vulnerable.”

And she’s not shy to discuss a “coal non-proliferation treaty”. This would be similar to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Eckersley says countries wouldn’t touch the coal proposal – “it’s just unthinkable ... too dangerous an idea” – but it would be a fast, direct means of slowing climate change, and should be debated. She cites the recent success of the global fossil fuel divestment movement, which encourages divestment of assets in high-emitting companies, as an example of the unthinkable becoming the do-able.

“It’s about finding a window of opportunity and then stretching people’s thinking about what can be achieved,” Eckersley says of normative political theory (ie what ought to be). “It’s a great feeling to open out the debate because people tend to succumb with resignation to the status quo.”

Eckersley, Chair of Political Science in the University’s School of Social and Political Sciences, says there’s a long history of humanities and social science academics asking ethical questions and exploring solutions. Policymakers working in the field might be so pressured by short-term issues they struggle to find the perspective to ask the big questions, she says.

“I like to step back a bit and look more critically,” Eckersley says. “I’ve always been a big-picture person.”

Eckersley publishes widely, co-authoring a book, journal articles and three book chapters – and that’s just in the past two years. She’s on the editorial advisory board for publications including Environmental Politics and New Political Economy.

She’s also working on an Australian Research Council project on what makes some countries leaders on climate change, while others are laggards. Eckersley is comparing five countries – Germany, the UK, Norway, the US and Australia. Her research has found it’s not just about dependence on fossil fuels; political culture and foreign policy traditions are better predictors of leadership on climate change.


Listen to Robyn Eckersley making the case for military intervention to protect the environment.


Professor and Head of Political Science