Geographers and COP26 – looking back and forward?

By Alex Jackman and Liz Fox-Tucker, Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers)

Geographers are central to tackling climate change. At COP26 last year – and at many related events – geographers were able to share their expertise and insights on climate change and the action necessary to limit it. The RGS-IBG have been advising, facilitating and promoting these geographical contributions widely over the last year in both the professional and academic communities. Here we highlight a small fraction of the research, reporting, public engagement, advocacy and impact that geographers are achieving around climate change and offer some suggestions as to what might come next.

Geographers at COP26 – from Chartered Geographers…

From our Chartered Geographer community, Paul Munday explained how climate resilience is now integral to credit risk decision-making, with data and modelling enabling analysts to “untangle the links between credit and resilience” and make clear the value of investing in adaptation measures. You can find out more about the finance industry and climate change adaptation/mitigation in our financing net zero report from last year’s expert forum.

At the Resilience Hub, Matt Foote chaired a session on the role of analytics in building climate resilience, and the need for “global databases that are consistent, trusted, open and curated that allow every stakeholder to make decisions openly and collectively”. See also Matt’s follow-up blog on climate risk modelling, and our recent event on climate change and disaster risk. The session also included geographer Jim Hall, who noted the importance of “consistent frameworks” for working across sectors and audiences.

In the Water Pavilion, David Hetherington discussed nature-based solutions and enabling digital toolkits to support communities at multiple scales in managing local water resources and nature-based solutions. You can also watch David presenting in our 2021 forum on blue-green infrastructure here.

Finally, many geospatial practitioners were involved in the Space and Geospatial Virtual Pavilion, with sessions from organisations including the Geospatial Commission, Ordnance Survey, Geovation and AGI.

…to academics…

Geographers from academia also spoke at and around COP26, highlighting the importance of geographical research to climate challenges and the potential for knowledge exchange and collaboration between business and researchers.

Speaking on urban inequality and climate justice, 2017 Back Award-winner Harriet Bulkeley emphasised the need to build climate justice into adaptation funding decisions – noting that “the vast majority of that finance will have nothing to do with the people we are talking about”. You can also hear more from Harriet in her contributions to Society events on climate finance, climate targets and the impact of climate change. In the same session geographer Vanesa Castan Broto also emphasised the importance of drawing on the experiences of climate-change-affected urban communities “in a world shaped by colonial, imperial history, [where] some forms of knowledge are routinely degraded and dismissed”.

In the Water Hub, geographers Justin Sheffield explained climate risks to island water resilience, nothing that “many islands are expected to see a substantial decline in fresh water availability”, while David Sear spoke about the need for modelling and surveying at scales relevant to small islands.

Geographers also explored the role of culture in resilience –  Pat Noxolo on the CARICUK research project and using creative anti-racist approaches to tackle climate change; Nina Laurie on using lived experiences and historic and sedimentary records of El Nino in Peru to understand how marginal desert communities adapt to extreme weather events.

Finally, the COP Resilience Hub featured a large number of geographers, including Sarah Lindley and Alistair Ford on the role of spatial data and analytics in climate resilience; Andy Large on resilience in Asian deltas; Susan Parnell discussed approaches to understanding urban resilience; and Emma Ferranti discussed interacting risks from climate change – with reference to the UK’s storm Desmond. You can find out more on this topic in particular via the DRM PPG’s recent event recording

…and beyond…

But the role of geographers in tackling climate change goes beyond COP26. Across business, policy and academia, the work of geographers is key to understanding our environment and changing how we live in it.

Geographers from around the world contributed to the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report this year – the essential, state-of-the-art review of climate science and the impacts of climate change.  We also noted the work of geographers on related issues in evidence submissions to UK Parliament inquiries, helping to inform lawmakers about key issues and nuances in our changing systems under climate change; and in UN reporting on the impact of climate change on children.

Geographers are also beginning to assess the possible impacts of COP26. The late deal offers, geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin suggest, some progress and scope for new targets, but is insufficient to limited warming to 1.5C. As Nigel Arnell notes, beyond this point climate risks become more and more amplified.  The research, advocacy and decisions made my geographers across all sectors will help understand and evaluate the legacy of COP26, helping build stronger climate action in future.

…and at the Society

The RGS-IBG Professional team, we convened a mid-COP panel with Asminia Syriou, Jonathan Riggall and Laura Fitzgerald explaining how their industries are reacting to climate change, and what professional geographers bring to its challenges. In particular, the panel emphasised the ability of geographers to fostering collaboration and share skills between different sectors.

Jonny pointed out the importance of geographers’ systems thinking and the abilities “to deal with the complex variable levers required for decision-making purposes”, and suggested that changing attitudes and technologies in response to climate change will in turn change how businesses and individuals operate. Laura spoke about the importance of “spatial awareness [and] interconnectivity of developments”, as well as substantial infrastructure changes, to enable positive changes in transport behaviours. Asminia emphasised the need to “focus on enhancing international collaboration” – as well as the role of space data in understanding and responding to climate change effectively.

The Disaster Risk Management Professional Practice Group’s recent Fireside Chat panel tackled the impact of climate change on disaster risk. This has been a key theme of their work in 2021, which has also featured events on the complex multi-hazards climate change creates, and a roundtable to help support the methodology review for the UK Government’s national risk assessments.

As well as the Geography and Climate Change hub page, the Society showcased COP26 geovisualisations, lectures and a collection of papers from the Society’s journals – amplifying the voice of geographers and highlighting their contribution to tackling climate change.

We want to support geographers’ dialogue and collaboration around climate change. If you’re interested in convening a knowledge exchange event, or simply sharing your work, keep us in the loop at or via our Linkedin/Twitter.

About the authors: Alex Jackman is a Professional and Policy Assistant at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) and Liz Fox-Tucker is the Professional and Policy Manager at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers).

Suggested Further Reading

Houeland, C, Jordhus-Lier, DC, Angell, FH. (2021) ‘Solidarity tested: The case of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO-Norway) and its contradictory climate change policies.’ Area

Taylor, P.J. & O’Keefe, P. (2021) ‘In praise of Geography as a field of study for the climate emergency.’ Geographical Journal:

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