‘Falling Through the Net’ PhD Research Cluster
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
Humanity, it seems, is capable of grappling with just one crisis at a time. Worldwide searches on Google for ‘climate change’, fairly constant since the beginning of the year, fell dramatically after 14 March 2020 when the world was getting to grips with COVID-19.[i] Despite being a climate change scholar, I played my own tiny part in this trend, frequently being distracted from my studies by breaking news of the pandemic.
My research topic is child exploitation in the context of climate and environmental change. My hypothesis is that, as climate change alters people’s environments and pushes them to migrate in precarious circumstances, opportunities for child trafficking, child labour and other forms of exploitation will increase. Human migration is one aspect of the wider climate crisis, which until recently held top spot in the public psyche for ‘Catastrophe Most Likely to Destroy Us’. The recent groundswell of interest was partly due to Greta Thunberg’s headline-grabbing emotive speeches and her adventurous exploits, such as sailing across the Atlantic to attend the climate summit. Nevertheless, public engagement in the topic has been steadily rising for years, as tales of rising seas in Asia, drought-stricken farmland in Africa, and instances of flooding closer to home began to make regular headlines.
The advent, therefore, of the compelling and tragic COVID-19 drama being played out in real-time is doubly bad news for those of us who want to keep climate change high on the agenda. No doubt, halting the pandemic will take all our efforts. Yet policy-makers and researchers alike must keep a weather eye on our changing climate to avoid missing crucial deadlines for mitigation and adaptation.
The postponement of the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Glasgow, UK, this year is a case in point. Top climate experts urged UK Prime Minister Johnson to keep to the original timetable for the meeting, arguing that the momentum for real global action would be lost if the talks were moved back to 2021. ‘Cancelling it immediately might mean action on climate change gets ignored this year and people on the frontlines in poorer countries can’t afford that’, argued climate advocate Mohamed Adow. Yet, along with the Tokyo Olympics, the Cannes Film Festival and Glastonbury, postponed it was.
COVID-19 may be the biggest threat we face today, but climate change remains the biggest threat we face tomorrow. Our understanding of the nature of the latter relies on constant research, not only on weather patterns, but on social, economic and ecological trends. Monitoring of meteorological systems may stall due to the inability of scientists, particularly in developing countries, to take measurements in the field. Surveys on climate-related environmental damage have also been delayed, and a major five-year Nasa project to monitor storms in the stratosphere has been suspended indefinitely.
Academic research is also jeopardised by the current crisis. Uncertainties around funding, restrictions on travel, as well as the current ban on academics meeting face-to-face to contribute ideas and work together on shared projects, mean major delays to planned research and the likelihood that some potential ventures will never get off the ground at all.
My own research centres around the experiences of child migrants, including those travelling to Europe from Viet Nam. To future-proof my research plans against further travel bans, I have shifted my focus to those migrants who are already on my doorstep. With the assistance of UK-based community organisations and NGOs, I plan to trace two separate diasporas to record the experiences of migrant children. If we are lucky enough to see free movement reinstated within the following year, then I retain the option of expanding my research to other parts of Europe.
Meanwhile, two academic conferences that I planned to attend, on slavery and migration, are likely to be called off, and a PhD workshop organised by Wilberforce Institute students, including myself, will be postponed. Keeping in touch with the research community and building one’s academic network, which is crucial to all in academia but particularly to new research candidates, will require creative solutions. By its nature, doing a PhD can be a largely solitary process, and this is now being exacerbated hugely by circumstances of lockdown and quarantine. Zoom and Skype are lifelines in the new social-distancing era, allowing the continued free-flow of ideas as well as maintaining a sense of community and solidarity in what can otherwise be a very lonely time.
The irony is that, while I have tools at my disposal to adapt to the current landscape, my research subjects may not. The two pillars of my study – climate change and migration – will ultimately be altered by the current pandemic. Factoring in, or perhaps filtering out, the ‘coronavirus effect’ will be vital to my research. For example, it will be important to differentiate between migrants’ experiences before and after COVID-19 and evaluate possible changes to the climate regime as a result of the pandemic, in order to make predictions about future trends and policy needs. In these uncertain times, this will be my greatest research challenge.
[i] Google trends analysis for all searches of “climate change” worldwide between 10 January and 10 April 2020.