Climate Justice after Paris conference

Thursday the 28th of January marked the start of the inaugural conference in the University of Reading’s Leverhulme Doctoral Programme in Climate Justice, ‘Climate Justice After Paris’. The two-day event that boasted an impressive mix of academia, civil society and policy makers aimed to dissect the Paris COP21 climate negotiations held at the tail end of 2015. World leaders lauded the negotiations as an unprecedented success, particularly on account of the agreed target to limit global warming to 2 degrees with the very ambitious aim to keep it close to 1.5 degrees. These feelings of jubilation are not universal, and the Climate Justice conference hoped to provide some necessary scrutiny.

The event at Reading brought together an impressive line-up. Excellent keynote speakers philosophers Henry Shue and Simon Caney, and special advisor Youba Sokona of The South Centre, were present. Panels formed of experts which included representatives from The Mary Robinson Foundation, World Resources Institute and a number of top universities from around the globe were also present. This led to two days of in-depth and fascinating discussion on the key issues that arose from the Paris COP. With a fine-tooth comb, participants reviewed the journey to Paris, reflected on its successes and failures and provided an illuminating insight into the future of the climate battle. A battle that aims to prevent catastrophic, human-induced climate, whilst striving to keep issues of justice central to the process.

By any standards, the conference was a resounding success. It facilitated an environment in which leading figures in the climate justice movement, from a wide spectrum of disciplinary backgrounds, could discuss and debate all of the key topics from COP21. On top of the above, it was also a great opportunity to showcase our research as the first cohort of Leverhulme Climate Justice scholars currently undertaking the first year of our PhDs. We were privileged to be exposed to a level of expertise very few doctoral students would have the opportunity to benefit from. Below are some of the key points that emerged for each student in relation to their specific area of research:

Alex McLaughlin – Sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change

A lot of the conversation at the After Paris Conference was interpretative in a quite a specific sense, with the focus on trying to understand more precisely the implications of the Paris agreement for climate justice. On the whole the verdict was inconclusive. Some of the delegates were optimistic, others less so, and most hedged their bets by pointing out that judgements about the effectiveness of key elements of deal – the ‘ratchet mechanism’ being the most notable – are at this early stage inevitably speculative. Given this emphasis, discussion on the subject of how we ought to split-up the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change was not really concerned with the content of the candidate principles we might, and have, put forward to do so, as much as it was about assessing the degree to which Paris has made the realisation of any such principle more or less likely and considering how academic work should respond to this impact. In this light a number of interesting points were thrown up, only a few of which I can detail here.

Given the inconclusive verdict regarding the success of Paris, one worry, voiced on a number of occasions, was that debates about burden-sharing have become overly abstract. Such is the complexity of the challenge posed by climate change that this is largely unavoidable, and philosophers have spilt much ink trying to come up with principles that strike an appropriate balance between a number of competing considerations. For example, should the burdens associated with climate change be allocated according to a state’s contribution to problem, or their capacity to deal with it, or the extent to which they have received benefits from the activities that caused it, or perhaps even by some combination of all of the above? While no doubt interesting, these debates, or so some delegates thought, have become rather too far removed from what is most urgent. The really obvious and pressing issue that remains after Paris (as was conveyed forcefully by Henry Shue in his keynote) is the avoidance of catastrophic harm. Perhaps we should put our fine-grained philosophical debates about burden-sharing on hold for the time being, or at least make sure they do not pose too much of a distraction.

Another interesting point concerned the manner in which we frame debates about burden-sharing. So far they have largely revolved around the question of historical responsibility. But it may well be that this framing has done more harm than good, tending to pitch states against each other in an adversarial way. If we can exert any influence on the how the narratives around climate justice take shape, then we should bear in mind that more productive ones will be more conducive to reaching agreement. Take Fergus Green’s presentation as a case in point. If it is true, as he suggests, that the economic incentives facing states with regards to mitigation have become considerably more positive in recent years, then we should be sure to emphasise this point. This would not remove the need for us to scrutinise the deeper distributive questions in play. But while we should always care about the spread of the costs associated with mitigation (in a way that doesn’t distract too much from the need to avoid catastrophic harm, of course), it would make a difference to our thinking about the issue if it turned out that states were set to fare better overall than we first thought.

Finally, I thought that Aaron Maltais’ presentation did an excellent job of outlining why these sorts of debates about climate justice remain so important. While we might be forgiven for thinking that the implementation of INDCs moves the achievement of justice in this sense one step further away, he outlined a number of ways in which debates about burden-sharing will remain crucial. First, although responsibilities to mitigate will not be allocated directly according to a certain principle and will instead rely on voluntary commitments from states, it is likely that the more these contributions align with what we perceive to be fair, the more effective they will be. States will increase their own ambitions, so the argument goes, the more they see others doing their part. Second, thinking about burden-sharing will provide us with a yardstick to judge these voluntary commitments. We will still want to be able to condemn a situation as unjust even if it has become less likely that we can change it. I think this second point is a crucial one. It is important to remember that the precise details of the Paris agreement do not fundamentally alter the questions about who should contribute what toward climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Callum Nolan – Business and Global Warming

Following COP21, I found myself struggling with two big questions– How can we make the radical cuts in emissions required to get below 2 degrees, and where does the money come from to pay for it? The private sector has been cited as a big part of the solution to these questions. They have the resources to do so – but why should they expend these tackling climate change? My (admittedly sceptical) view is that businesses seldom act out of the kindness of their collective hearts and as such the conference made for an interesting opportunity to probe the drivers, and risks of private sector involvement.

So in a period of unprecedented corporate inclusion in climate change policy, what does business stand to achieve from playing a role in combatting climate change? Many signs from the conference pointed to a genuine realisation from the private sector that the way business is done has to change, and rapidly. This essentially leaves businesses with two options – engage now and integrate necessary actions into a profitable business strategy, or prolong action and play catch up later. Fortunately it appears a number of businesses have chosen the former.

Sceptical hat firmly back on, questions then arise of whether there are risks associated with increased proximity to the private sector. None that outweigh the benefits of their inclusion it seems, with a number of panel members saying that ideas of greenwashing may be overstated. Likewise it was pointed out that this proximity is not necessarily a new thing, with reference made to the pervasive influence of fossil fuel companies and their attempts to halt divestment. Is there risk of the new wave of apparently well-meaning businesses having similarly veiled interests? Potentially, but it seems one we must take regardless.

Vera Van Gool – Risk and uncertainty as support for climate action

Since my research focuses on how we should go about taking precautionary measures in the face of climate change, risk and uncertainty are two key concepts to my project. At the conference these two concepts kept popping up in presentations and conversations, fuelling my interest in the debates and engagement with them. I would like to focus on one particular talk that caught my attention and share this speech and my thoughts on it with you here.

Keynote-speaker Henry Shue opened the first conference day. He argued that if we predict that a climate risk might occur of which the magnitude is great, we have to implement precautionary measures, even though we might not know its probability. This can be described as a form of the ‘precautionary principle’, coincidently the focus of my own research. In Shue’s argumentation the magnitude or seriousness of the risk is determined by the prospected loss and/or irreversibility of the event. The latter he calls threshold-likelihood, which focuses specifically on tipping-points in the Earth system. Furthermore we have a special responsibility to prevent the tipping-points this generation has the last-opportunity to prevent. If we grant that we are the last generation able to take effective action to prevent a tipping-point, it is immoral to postpone action.

Shue presents a strong argument for taking precautionary measures; if we are fast approaching irreversibly disastrous events, then tackling them should be of primary importance. However, and as Shue himself acknowledges, this precautionary view is based on a rather narrow interpretation of the precautionary principle. I myself would like to think there is a broader set of climate concerns this principle can respond to. This is what I would like to explore in my PhD project and the conference has helped a great deal in crystallising these thoughts.

Joshua Wells – Has Paris put geoengineering on the table?

Geoengineering is the idea of using technology to manipulate the climate. Whilst controversial by nature, it does offer a potential solution to questions of how to limit the warming that the planet may experience. So far geoengineering has not been taken too seriously in the context of the degrees target on climate change. That is to say, geoengineering has not been deemed necessary in order for humanity to not surpass this level of warming. COP21 in Paris may have gone some way towards bringing it back on the table, in that it was determined that the aim should be for there to be no more than 1.5 degrees of warming. At first glance this move is great, appearing to be a genuine commitment to drastically limiting climate change.

The Reading conference had a panel on the 1.5 degrees target, with the key question raised concerning the potential costs of reaching this modified and ambitious target.  The concern was that this reduced target would make it difficult to achieve mitigation while respecting the human development goals that are also central to the agreement. In saying this, something of a consensus emerged that 1.5 degrees is more aspirational than genuinely expected, leaving the question: at what cost should policymakers try to achieve this target? Darrel Moellendorf raised the point that geoengineering is an obvious action which comes to mind. If policy makers are completely serious about 1.5 degrees, then this seems unachievable given the rate at which we are cutting carbon, unless quite extensive geoengineering is implemented.

This seems particularly interesting. The argument seems to be that the more ambitious we are in our target for climate policy, the more likely it is that geoengineering will emerge as a likely option. I do not think it was the intention of Paris to put geoengineering on the table, yet if we take 1.5 degrees seriously it seems likely that we will have to do this to achieve it or achieve a seismic shift in our own behaviour.

By Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars Alex McLaughlin, Callum Nolan, Vera Van Gool & Joshua Wells