Crawford climate change negotiator wins Discovery Early Career Researcher Award

05 September 2023

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Dr Siobhan McDonnell is an Associate Professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy. Siobhan is a legal anthropologist with over twenty years of experience working with Indigenous people in Australia and the Pacific.

Siobhan McDonnell has been announced as a recipient of the Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) for her project on how Pacific Island states negotiate effective climate action at the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP).

Her project Not drowning, fighting?: UN climate governance and Pacific Island countries aims to significantly advance understanding of UN climate governance processes and the spaces and strategies utilised by Pacific Island countries to influence the final decision outcomes. This should then identify key climate change outcomes for the Pacific and Australia that will help address climate security issues and the status of Pacific Indigenous knowledge systems and uncover how to further strengthen their voices.

The project title was inspired by Pacific Climate Change Leader Brianna Fruean’s powerful speech at COP26 in Glasgow, which ended with, “We are not drowning, we are fighting. This is our warrior cry to the world […] This is my message from earth to COP.”

Siobhan says her project is about “sitting alongside Pacific researchers in all the spaces I have been working in since 2019 and asking, ‘How are climate negotiations useful for the Pacific?’ There are all of these barriers. Pacific nations are small in the scale of these negotiations. However, they often achieve so much. So, this project is about asking what the real story is and asking how the Pacific works so effectively in these spaces.”

Its design means that each year Siobhan will be able to take five Pacific Island researchers to COP and get firsthand internal information on the UN climate negotiations. She will then work with these researchers to further understand how Pacific Island states and Indigenous peoples are represented at the world’s biggest climate conference.

To put this into perspective, in 2022, at COP27 in Egypt, more than 45,000 people attended, with only about 1,000 of those as negotiators. The rest of the attendees were comprised of lobbyists, people looking for deals, civil society and the media. This research aims to understand if the spectacle of the event, and to “raise the profile of Indigenous and Pacific Island voices or do they get lost in the chatter”.

One concern being raised by Pacific nations and Indigenous voices is that the UN process does not work fast enough to create climate change impacts. According to the Climate Clock, we are 5 years and 325 days from Climate Change reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius. However, Pacific Nations don’t have years to wait, they are already suffering real-world disasters at an alarming rate that is only increasing. This project will therefore look at how to scale up the speed of action by understanding what exactly it takes to make progress at the negotiating table.

This project was awarded funding of $428,000 and it was the second and last attempt Siobhan could make in this category. DECRA is not just about the project design, applicants are also judged on how their personal background specifically will enhance the work. Siobhan is a Lawyer, an anthropologist and a negotiator for the Pacific in global climate negotiations. It is through this work she has built respect and a wealth of contacts, including an ANU Climate Alumni program, that will make this project unlike any other.

While Siobhan’s DECRA will begin in 2024 she is currently working along Dr George Sala Carter and Dr Virginia Marshall to run the ANU Climate Alumni program taking First Nations and Pacific Islander scholars to COP. Applications for this year’s program are now open and you can apply here.

If you are a Pacific Island or Indigenous researcher and Siobhan’s DECRA project is of interest, you can reach out to her directly here.

If you would like to hear more from Siobhan on her climate negotiations in Bonn in Germany earlier this year, you can listen to her conversation with Professor Sharon Bessell on Policy Forum Pod here.

Congratulations on your remarkable achievement, Siobhan!

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