I am a political scientist with a key interest in political theory which I seek to render useful for the analysis of issues of environmental and climate governance. My empirical research perspective is post-positivist and post-structuralist. I have often drawn on Foucauldian discourse analysis to investigate the social construction of the objects of politics. I have a key interest in theories of power and follow Foucault’s understanding of power as productive and rooted in discourse. In 2005, I published a landmark article in which I applied Michel Foucault’s governmentality concept to the international politics of climate change (Oels 2005). This is one of the founding articles of the new field of climate governmentality studies. For the last five years, I explored the meaning of climate security discourse, claiming that it fostered resilience and climate change adaptation policies rather trying to prevent climate change (Oels 2013). My empirical work in recent years has focused on the figure of the “climate refugee” and its discursive construction (genealogy) in science and international policy documents (Methmann/Oels 2015). I have also investigated if the ‘climate refugee’ is constructed in ways that seek to render him/her governable as Giorgio Agamben’s ‘bare life’. I conclude that while there is a tendency to attempt to produce ‘bare life’, the created subjects are never fully at the mercy of sovereign power as Agamben suggests.
I have a long-standing interest in citizen/stakeholder participation, power and theories of deliberative democracy. For my PhD, I studied the use of the Future Search Conference as a tool for stakeholder dialogue in Local Agenda 21 processes. Jointly with the organisers and participating stakeholders, I developed a methodology to evaluate the success of this policy innovation. I also applied criteria taken from deliberative democracy theory, in particular Habermas ‘ideal speech situation’ (fair and competent process). Moreover, I assessed the building of social capital and long-term impacts in the three pillars of sustainable development (environment, economy, society). I found that the impact of the Future Search Conference over a period of two years in two case studies was limited to social capital building. Larger power structures were inhibiting the policy innovation from having a larger impact. As a result, I have become interested in discourse analysis as a means of studying power structures and how these can shift. More recently, I have started to analyse all forms of citizen participation as technologies of governing at a distance in what Michel Foucault calls advanced liberal government. I claim that citizen participation is a means of creating “active citizens” and rendering them responsible for delivering on certain governmental agendas. I then argue with Jacques Rancière that the truly empowering and discourse changing forms of citizen participation are most likely to be found outside town halls and more in the shape of disruptions to normal ways of doing things.