Back to business: interview with Professor Valentina Bosetti

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Valentina Bosetti wears many hats: she is a professor of Climate Change Economics at Bocconi University, a senior scientist at the European Institute on Economics and the Environment, and has been a lead author on the last two editions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report.  

Tra i Leoni asked Professor Bosetti about how the scientific & research communities have adapted to working and collaborating under the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, how she feels about returning to “business as usual”, and her thoughts on the upcoming COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. 

 I imagine that working on the IPCC and being a member of the CMCC are a highly collaborative jobs whose routine has been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic — how has interaction between researchers changed with restrictions under COVID? 

Do you think the shift has had a positive or productive influence on how work is conducted (and will be conducted in the future)? 

For the first year, at least, we were one of those categories for which the nature of our job did not change a lot — mostly because we tend to work with colleagues located far away and we always work with a lot of remote calls etc., so we were used to all the instruments that are now popular with most people. We had “in the bank” a lot of relationship networks and even friendships with colleagues from all the travel we had done before. So, for the first year we mostly benefitted from all the past relationships we had accumulated. In a small sense, some of us were actually happier that we had to travel less. 

Now that we’re well into the second year, I can tell you that, first of all, what I just said is very selfish and is valid for anyone who already had a past in research — for younger research this was a complete mess. Second of all, now what we had “in the bank” is starting to be depleted, and a lot of work that was in the pipeline has gone. It’s not that easy to brainstorm new work from a distance — you need the little advantages of being in the same place [as your collaborators]. While we now have this [relationship] with our Italian colleagues, it’s still complicated [to work with] our European colleagues, and mostly out of the question for US colleagues and colleagues from other continents. My big fear is that there will be a tendency to be more nationalistic in research, and this is something we have to fight against. 

For the IPCC I think this was instead very problematic because we need to coordinate hundreds of people working in different chapters. What works at the week-long meetings that we have every six months is that not only do we work with the other people from our chapter, but in the evenings, mornings, and nights we go to cross-chapter meetings that are extremely important. This really didn’t work virtually. 

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When you’re in a remote setting its easier to speak for people who are native language speakers, it’s easier for people who have a tendency to take all the stage to keep it for longer — there were many many problems that affected the IPCC’s process. 

 Do you think that the process of research and especially of data collection has been hindered by COVID restrictions — i.e., scientists physically unable to carry out their field research (surveys, geological or biological sample collection etc.)? 

In economics there is not much of that — there’s mostly in development economics. 

Research at the North Pole and all that kind of research kept going. Big research projects to collect data on, say, the number of forests etc. mostly kept going. But smaller projects for smaller groups — poorer groups — may have not gotten permits [travel and access places for research.] 

For sure there will be a slowdown in all research fields where you need to collect data, if you’re not a part of big groups. This will probably create an even greater wedge between rich researchers — meaning researchers from rich US universities — and other researchers. 

It is well known that the effects of the pandemic will be felt far into the future, and even though global fossil CO2 emissions decreased slightly in 2020, they are expected to bounce back in 2021 and onwards. 

Despite this negative outlook, do you think the shock of COVID-19 has had any positive effect on the public consciousness of and engagement with the problem of Climate Change and other environmental issues? 

I’ll give you the researcher answer. We looked into a large data collection on people’s perceptions, attitudes, and fears towards some of the big challenges in the world. We were collecting the data before COVID started and kept collecting afterwards. In principle we have the perfect natural experiment where a big problem comes up and we can check whether there is a final pull of worry or not. What we found is that there was a pull of attention — on twitter data, on newspapers, the place for climate change [in people’s minds] was replaced by the space that COVID was taking up. 

In terms of reported fear for climate change, we didn’t see any inflection, and this would suggest the theory of arousal: when you start to be panicked and fearful, then it is reflected in all other spheres. So, it’s not that being afraid of COVID was taking away from being afraid of climate change — actually, the two reinforced each other. 

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When you think about what we see in the public discourse and the attention that policymakers are devoting to the problem, there is a big connection that is due to the fact that the re-launching of economies to respond to climate change has been framed as “clean, sustainable.” I don’t know whether that is only marketing or for how many countries it will be something more solid than that. Certainly, it has been in policymakers’ heads that the COVID-recovery is a possibility to resolve the other [climate-related] problems as well. 

 How are you preparing for the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this November? 

I was supposed to participate in events in Glasgow, but at this point I assume that there won’t be any physical events for non-negotiators. As for all the side events that normally take place at COP, they will most likely happen in a remote format, though everything is very unclear at the moment. 

 How important are physical meetings and conferences to the work you do as a researcher? 

Until a few years ago, most people were suggesting that COP conferences were not leading anywhere. I think anybody today can see how the [COP21] and the Paris Agreement was the place where people noticed. Between Paris and the youth movement, things have already changed a lot. At this point we have to capitalize on this momentum — this is why it was a pity that last year we didn’t have a COP conference. It will be very very crucial to work on this momentum and move it forward. 

Some have criticized the move to continue with the COP26 conference in-person while some countries (esp. in the global south) are still struggling with getting the spread of COVID-19 under control. 

Do you share the same doubts, or do you welcome the return to in-person events (especially to discuss such a vital topic as Climate Change)? 

I don’t know the political background, but I was expecting that in every English embassy in various countries that the possibility of getting the vaccine would be given to all negotiators. I have no idea if this has happened. 

Of course, every country should be able to send their own negotiators and they should create something like the bubble they did for the Olympics. We did spend a lot of money to organize the Olympics bubble and to host [the athletes] from all over the world, and there was no problem to give them the vaccine. I’m happy with that, but the same should happen for climate negotiations. If we did this for the Olympics, and nobody claimed that some subsets of countries were given a smaller opportunity, we should make sure that the same if true for climate negotiations as well. With a lot of logistic organization, we could have people coming earlier, spending their fourteen-day [isolation period before the conference]. 

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I have already heard some people asking the same question that you are asking — Are we leaving some countries out of the negotiations? Having witnessed the COP negotiations, I can tell you that I’ve always felt that it was an amazingly democratic process where the best is done to make sure that all countries are able to speak, so I’m sure that they’re going to do the same this year. 

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