A Critical Discourse Analysis of Statements on Climate Action and Cooperation at COP27

Provenance of the research: 

by Alexandra Wenzel

  1. Title of thesis/research question: 

Title: Il y a les phrases que vous dîtes: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Statements on Climate Action and Cooperation at COP27

Research question: How have fossil fuel producers, vulnerable groups, and ENGOs discursively constructed climate action and cooperation in their speeches at COP27? How do these discourses compare to each other?

  1. Type of thesis: Masters
  1. University affiliation: Geneva Graduate Institute
  1. Research timeframe: January 2023 – June 2023 (Accepted August 2023)

1. Abstract/Summary: 

The role of discourse in shaping the existential issue of climate change is immeasurable. What do we talk about when we talk about climate action and cooperation? Discourse serves as the basis of understanding from which policymakers construct an issue and the solutions which are proposed. Understanding how climate action and cooperation is constructed by different actors at The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is therefore a critical issue to ensuring meaningful solutions. The purpose of completing a CDA lies in understanding what is climate action and cooperation for two critical groups; those who have, and continue, to contribute the most to the issue and those who are the most vulnerable. This dissertation seeks to understand: How have fossil fuel producers, vulnerable groups, and ENGOs discursively constructed climate action and cooperation in their speeches at COP27? How do these discourses compare to each other? Using the methodology of a critical discourse analysis, this dissertation compares the high-level statements at COP27 of these actors. The results of the analysis show that while both groups include discourses of ecological modernization and green governmentality, only the vulnerable groups and ENGOs utilise a climate justice discourse. Furthermore, fossil fuel producers have a stronger frame of energy and the economic cost-benefit of climate action in comparison to vulnerable groups and ENGOs who focus on historical responsibility and urgency. This area of research is significant because understanding how actors construct climate action and cooperation is critical to achieving sustainable, just climate solutions and having meaningful climate diplomacy.. The full dissertation is available to read here.

2. What were the most important or surprising findings of your work?

From OPEC’s energy security and climate sceptic discourse to CAN’s climate justice and populist discourse, the understanding of climate action and cooperation varies dramatically. The findings showed differences between the discourses used by fossil fuel producers, those most vulnerable to climate change, and ENGOs, but there was also a significant impact based on the structural role of the actor at the UNFCCC. The discourse used in the actor’s speeches may be influenced by the status of the actor at the UNFCCC; if the actor is a party to the convention or is only an observer. 

On a personal note, while some statements analysed were only a page long, performing a critical discourse analysis extracts substantial meaning from the text. Only a small piece of text can illustrate the actor’s view on the relationship between human society and the environment. For example, some actor’s see climate change as a mere issue of reducing carbon while others focus on the underlying socio-economic structures which have created climate change. Overall, it showed the importance of taking a constructivist approach to understanding this existential issue and our shared, or in many cases divergent, view of addressing it. 

3. What did you struggle with during the research and/or writing process, and how did you overcome these issues?

The most difficult part of the research process was narrowing down the research question. My own work builds off the research of past discourse theorists who have studied climate discourses at the international level. While crafting my research question, I considered multiple approaches such as comparing the climate discourses throughout time at different COPs or comparing the discourses of an actor in different spaces, looking at how actors may adopt different discourses in the plenary to the side events or conference rooms. Ultimately, I wanted to look at the interests of responsibility and fossil fuels as my main variable because it poses an important and timely question on how different actors understand and cooperate on climate change. 

4. What are you doing now, and what are your plans for the coming year?

I am now on the ProVeg UN Youth Board where I recently attended COP28 and supported the organisation of the Food4Climate Pavilion. In this role, I promote sustainable, inclusive, and plant-based food systems.  This coming year, I will continue my work at the intersection of human rights, communications, and environmental action at the Global Pact Coalition. 

5. Following the above, did your research impact those plans in any way?

My research certainly has made me more aware of the underlying social, economic, and political structures that affect debates on climate action and cooperation. What do we talk about when we talk about climate change? It is a question that is core to ensuring that we create a sustainable, livable future for all. And its answer has very real impacts for all of us. 

6. Do you have any advice for people who are undertaking this type of research?

As for all types of research, continuously ask questions and check your own position and biases. Critical discourse analysis requires peering into the power structures, the narratives, the way in which the world around us is constructed. This type of analysis thus requires asking as many questions as possible to better understand the data. A critical discourse analysis serves as a powerful tool to unearth the underlying reasons certain climate action solutions are portrayed as acceptable while others are deemed unacceptable. It allows us to see how some actors are seen as cooperative while others as antagonistic, and gain a better understanding into how climate change is constructed. 

Author Bio: Alexandra Wenzel is passionate about climate communications and environmental rights. Her past work includes successfully campaigning for the recognition of the Right to a Healthy Environment as an Ambassador for the Global Pact Coalition. She continued this work on human rights-based climate action as an intern at the Center for International Environmental Law. Alexandra recently graduated from the Geneva Graduate Institute with a Master of International Affairs Specialising in Environment. 

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