#ScholarSpotlight with Mathieu Blondeel
Mathieu is a Research Fellow at the Warwick Business School – Warwick University (UK). As a political scientist, he specializes in global energy, environmental and climate policy and politics, with a specific focus on the (geo)politics of energy system transformation. He obtained his PhD in International Relations at the Ghent Institute for International Studies, Ghent University (Belgium) where he focussed on the emergence and diffusion of international anti-fossil fuel norms.
In this chat with Global Policy: Next Generation, Mathieu discusses climate change as the defining issue of our time, research outside of academia, and how Gramsci inspires his work.
What is the focus of your research?
At Warwick, I am currently involved in a fascinating research project, funded by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) entitled ‘UK Energy in a Global Context’. The project has two work streams: one on the geopolitical economy of energy system transformation and another on the implications of Brexit for the UK’s decarbonisation and climate policies. In the past year or so, I have been focussing mostly on the first work stream, primarily because Brexit had dragged on for such a long time of course. But, we are now preparing a major report with colleagues at Chatham House on ‘Brexit: one year on’, for which we’ve designed a survey used to gauge stakeholders’ (businesses, regulators, governments, academics, etc.) view on the past and future consequences of Brexit (and to a lesser extent, Covid-19).
For the other work stream, I am interested in the geopolitics and international political economy of energy system transformation. For example, what does a shift away from a world economy driven by hydrocarbons to one driven by electrons mean for energy security? What impact does/will this transformation have on large fossil fuel producers (Russia, Saudi Arabia)? What are the threats and opportunities associated with an increased reliance on so-called critical minerals (such as Cobalt, Nickel, Lithium)? How do international oil companies strategically adapt to this new reality? These, and many more of course, are the types of questions that I engage with in my research.
We’ve just published an article in which we review the literature on geopolitics of energy system transformation with Geography Compass: https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12580. It’s open access so no excuses not to read!
Further, I’m also involved in two other research projects with colleagues from Ghent University; one on the ‘greening’ of central banks, and one on the emergence and diffusion of the international ‘net zero’ norm.
Why is your research important to you?
Personally, I couldn’t agree more with the assertion that ‘climate change is the defining issue of our time’. The extreme weather events of this summer around the world (extreme heat in North America, wildfires in the Arctic, flooding in Western Europe and China, famine in Madagascar, etc.) are only further proof of what lies ahead of us if we do not urgently act on climate change.
The global energy system is responsible for the vast majority of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, so, naturally, it is the number one sector that needs to undergo a transformation at an unprecedented scale and speed. How this transformation is/will be managed is of course not only very interesting to a political scientist, it is also of the utmost importance to make it succeed. To quote Frans Timmermans, the EU Commissioner responsible for the Green Deal, ‘The transition will be just, or it just won’t happen.’ So, I think that it’s one thing to implement climate policies and to realise the energy transformation, it’s another to do it in an equitable and just way that makes sure it’s not the world’s poorest and most vulnerable that must pay the price.
Which academics’ work has inspired some of your key thinking?
Politics is about (the distribution of) power. That also goes for climate and energy politics. One person whose thinking and writing about power that has greatly inspired me is the Italian political philosopher, Antonio Gramsci. Amongst other things, he’s famous for coining the term ‘hegemony’. What is crucial for Gramsci, is that power isn’t exclusively derived from material resources (as conventional Marxists would argue). Rather, Gramsci says, hegemony is derived from an interplay of coercion and economic force, as well as societal consent through discourses, narratives, social norms, and networks.
This shows two things. First, agency plays a huge role in maintaining or undermining unequal power relations. Second, and specifically for climate activists, this means that strategic use of narratives and building coalitions with businesses, investors, policymakers and other stakeholders can help them built an alliance against vested interests that continuously seek to delay action.
What issues do you see your field being focused upon in the next several years?
Above all, I think there will be a lot of attention to the issue of ‘just transitions’. There’s a growing realisation that fundamental changes to the energy system will also have political, economic and social consequences. If left unmanaged, it is clear that the poorest, most vulnerable people will bear the heaviest cost.
Today, climate change is mostly impacting the poorest, developing states in the Global South. Basically, those that have contributed the least to causing climate change. Just transitions should therefore also entail thinking about how we can make sure that (post-)industrialised states help these nations adapt to and mitigate climate change by providing finance, subsidies, debt restructuring, etc. Just transitions of course also refer to the need to provide financial support, retraining etc. to those workers that will lose their jobs in carbon-intensive sectors once the transformation shapes up.
How does your research link to or have an impact on global policy issues?
Climate change is of course a global issue, there’s simply no running away from it. 30+ years of global climate governance and negotiations (and rising carbon emissions) show that there is still a lot of work to be done. Moreover, given the global nature of the energy system (think of oil), the different elements of transformation, that I described in the first question, will have profound global effects as well.
What is the one piece of advice you wish you had been given when starting your academic career?
I was lucky enough to have a great PhD supervisor, Thijs Van de Graaf, who taught me a lot about the ins and outs of academia. I think it’s important to understand that it’s an incredibly competitive sector, something that you figure out quite quickly. Fortunately, that’s no reason to panic. I’ve found out that you don’t necessarily have to stay in academia if you want to conduct thorough research and have a real-world impact. There are many NGOs, think tanks, research institutions, international organisations, and even consultancies that do fascinating research in my field.
What is one must-read book/ article for scholars not in your field?
A true eye-opener for me was Naomi Klein’s 2014 book ‘This Changes Everything’. It’s so expertly and convincingly written, and it really confronts you with the urgency of the climate crisis as she points to those truly responsible for climate change. You should read it in tandem with her 2019 collection of essays ‘On fire’, where she adds policy suggestions missing from the previous book.