Faculty spotlight: Thomas Hale

Dr Thomas Hale is Associate Professor in Public Policy (Global Public Policy) at the Blavatnik School of Government. His research explores how we can manage transnational problems effectively and fairly, seeking to explain how political institutions evolve – or not – to face the challenges raised by globalization and interdependence, with a particular emphasis on environmental and economic issues.

With the 21st Conference on the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) underway in December 2015, Dr Hale explains his research on climate action and its influence on the public policy challenges of the moment.

You’re attending COP21 in Paris – what’s important about this conference?

This conference can mark a decisive turning point in the world’s effort to avert dangerous changes in our climate. Over 170 countries have pledged a range of commitments that could get us about two-thirds of the way to where we need to go in terms of emissions reductions. At the same time, we’re seeing a massive groundswell of cities, companies, and other organizations coming forward with their own complementary initiatives. These are massive steps forward—but not yet enough. So what matters is not just the pledges and commitments, but the process they set in motion for future reductions. The next five years are key. If we do not reach a sharper reduction curve by 2020, the growing emissions gap becomes increasingly difficult to fill.

How can these further reductions realistically be achieved?

This is something I’ve looked at recently in drawing up a Policy Memo in October this year on how we can “ratchet up” climate action and support the outcomes of COP21. I identified five key initiatives, or “ratchets”, to increase climate action:

  • Agree to raise national contributions in regular, five-year cycles
  • Agree to practical international review of country pledges that mixes accountability with support for implementation, tailored to countries’ circumstances
  • Support the groundswell of action from cities, companies, and other actors
  • Continue diplomatic efforts at the bilateral, mini-lateral, and sectoral levels
  • Establish a long-term goal and other policy signals that reinforce broader shifts in finance and technology

Will it be easy for these initiatives to be put in place?

In the past quarter century, there’s been a history of countries failing to agree a “global deal” to stop climate change. It’s only now, just as time is running out, that they have created a new kind of regime based not on negotiated targets but on national pledges, international review, and a broader set of complementary actions from across society. This new, catalytic and facilitative model, unprecedented in global governance, is a bold experiment driven by necessity. Putting these initiatives in place would be crucial to helping it succeed. There’s room for cautious optimism but none for complacency.

We’re already seeing good evidence that these shifts are really happening, however. Under the banner of Galvanizing the Groundswell of Climate Actions, a group I founded, I’ve helped to prepare a comprehensive assessment of the “bottom up” climate initiatives that will be part of COP21. It was a massive undertaking, with no fewer than 8 MPP students working on it long into the night and on weekends, but it shows that there is real potential here to achieve something.

I've also contributed more thoughts on developing a framework for “bottom-up” climate governance for an article in Global Policy published this last month, titled “Reinvigorating International Climate Policy: A Comprehensive Framework for Effective Nonstate Action.”

What do you think the biggest obstacle to success in Paris will be?

The issue of finance is a perennially intractable one in climate negotiations. Developing countries will be looking for guarantees that rich countries have a credible plan in place to deliver the financial support they’ve agreed. And while this issue is prone to gridlock, there are also signs of progress. For example, we’re seeing increasingly climate finance flows within and between developing countries, something I’ve written about with former MPP student Sangjung Ha. This is another trend countries can build on at Paris.

What other things have you been involved with through your research on climate action?

In October I also chaired the lecture by Christiana Figueres, the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC for the GEG Annual Lecture 2015 (hosted by Blavatnik School of Government). This was her only public speaking engagement in the UK before the Paris summit and, in it, she shared four global governance lessons on how to address climate change: that decisions need to be considered based on planetary boundaries, that solutions need to be localised but the direction of travel needs to be globalised, that profit and principles don’t have to be against each other and that the time for short-terminism is over. It was a great opportunity to appeal to all the students in the audience – as Figueres said, this is the generation who really can make a difference in addressing climate change and start looking long-term.

The Blavatnik School creates exactly the wealth of opportunities, possibilities and excitement needed to meet these great public policy challenges of our time. I’ve been busy teaching international cooperation within the MPP course, including a special option course on climate change solutions, and I’m hoping to supervise doctoral students working on questions of global economic governance, global environmental governance or transnational governance in other issue areas.

I’ve also just been named by Origin Magazine as one of the 30 Top Climate Change Thinkers and Doers, a list of men and women helping drive forward the climate action agenda, which also includes Figueres. It’s pretty good company to be in!

November 2015