Doctoral Scholar’s Conference: Dialogue between Disciplines

The Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars’ conference, titled Dialogue between Disciplines, was a productive and stimulating conference which brought together scholars working on climate justice across different disciplines. As such, it proved useful not only for the Leverhulme scholars at Reading, who each presented their work, but also for furthering dialogue between the various fields of study and topics represented. Presentations were from the three key note speakers – David Schlosberg, Stephen Gardiner and Marion Hourdequin, Leverhulme Climate Justice Doctoral Scholars and other guest speakers undertaking research related to climate justice.

Day 1

The conference opened with a keynote from David Schlosberg from the University of Sydney, who spoke on Adaptation, Community Discourse and Just Transformation. Much of the discussion surrounding ‘justice’ in the case of climate change tends to focus on mitigation, and often specifically on the just distribution of the costs involved in mitigating climate change. David’s presentation was, then, a welcome turn towards adaptation, which has been examined perhaps more extensively by those working in human geography and other related disciplines. David’s paper examined the ‘discursive disconnect’ between the values expressed in governmental discourse and citizens’ discourse surrounding adaptation in Sydney. Where government documentation tended to express itself in terms of risk management, citizens who had been engaged in public deliberation events tended to express themselves more in terms of social vulnerability. In the deliberations, citizens highlighted threats to their basic needs, and expressed desires for ‘transformative’ change. Whilst it is difficult to know the extent to which David’s findings might be generalizable, what it did highlight was the need for participation in adaptation to climate change. Much of the discussion of climate justice focuses on distributive justice, but in the case of adaptation planning it seems imperative that procedural justice and recognition is at the forefront of our policy planning. Public deliberation, and the recognition of the values expressed by communities, not only stresses the importance of certain aspects of adaptation, but raises insights that those outside of the communities concerned would be unable to foresee.

The first Doctoral Scholar-led panel followed David’s address. Callum Nolan and Manogna Goparaju presented on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Climate Change. Callum’s presentation was on his research, which examines stakeholder perceptions of CSR, using cases of Multinational Oil Companies in Nigeria. His work focuses on the conflict between multinational oil companies and local communities in this context, and the possibility of using CSR as a mechanism for productively engaging with the conflict. One important consideration here was that there seems to be an identifiable responsibility on the part of the oil companies, and a clear gap in state provision. Mobilising CSR might then be an attractive path to pursue in order to make tangible progress. Understandably, some of those coming from a political theory or philosophy background expressed scepticism at the idea of CSR in such a context being mobilised in order to achieve ‘justice’. There are certainly political and moral issues at stake in such a contested domain, and the worry of companies being disingenuous in their CSR efforts. Nonetheless, if tangible progress can be made through such mechanisms in radically non-ideal conditions, then abstract considerations of justice do seem to be less weighty as reasons.

Manogna also spoke on CSR, though her researched examined it in the Indian context. It was firstly highlighted that current understanding of CSR in India seems to have fundamentally different roots: there is a long-standing tradition of voluntary CSR activity, whereas CSR in Anglophone contexts has largely been a strategic enterprise. This longstanding tradition in India has recently been codified as a legal obligation for companies fitting certain criteria. Manogna examined the reasons that companies engage in societal and environmental CSR activities, as well as the barriers that they face in choosing environmental CSR activities. One of the more interesting points that arose in the discussion was on the perceptions of and reactions to the legally-mandated CSR activity. Though many companies had already been engaged in CSR, the relatively low legally-mandated level of engagement might have provided a strategic reason for some companies to actually reduce their CSR engagement.

The next panel was on the Multilateral Nature of Climate Negotiations. Danny Waite presented first, on the roles and influences of the two under-examined groups in the UNFCCC negotiations, AILAC (The Independent Association of Latin America and the Caribbean) and AGN (The African Group of Negotiators). Danny’s presentation was primarily an account of his proposed methodology for the research, but raised interesting questions about the way to determine roles and influences, which harked back to Robyn Eckersley’s investigations into what constitutes a ‘climate leader’ that we had encountered the previous week. The second presentation, from Laura Iozzelli, raised similar conceptual questions. Laura examined transnational cooperative climate initiatives, looking at their legitimacy and effectiveness (and possible relations between the two). The meanings of both ‘legitimacy’ and ‘effectiveness’ were put into question in the course of the presentation. Standards of legitimacy, such as the extent of participation, accountability and transparency, might be important metrics. However, it was also suggested that effectiveness itself could lend legitimacy in some cases, and so that we ought to be clear about what we mean by these terms when assessing transnational cooperative climate initiatives in these terms.

The first day of the conference closed with shorter presentations, introducing the research of the new cohort of Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars. Bennet Francis (Philosophy) presented on climate change as a structural injustice, and what this might mean for our notions of ‘responsibility’. The starting point was to reject the idea that climate change is a ‘tragic’ phenomenon, both the Greek sense of the word and in the idea that climate change is a straightforward ‘tragedy of the commons’. Rather, he argued, we ought to think of climate change as a collective injustice which manifests itself in the societal structures we construct. Next, Daniel Harris (Politics) presented on the significance of historic wrongdoing, focusing on the case of climate denial. Daniel’s presentation mapped some of the normative terrain involved, highlighting the importance of being clear about what we mean by both ‘denial’ and ‘scepticism’. One important consideration was in determining exactly where the wrong of climate denial can be located; in order to be clear in this, he also distinguished between organised climate denial, and other climate denial (which might still be considered ‘harmful’) which does not stem directly from organised misinformation campaigns. My own presentation (Jamie Draper, Politics) focused on what high-emitting states owe to those migrating and displaced in the context of climate change. I proposed two possible avenues for research, the first focusing on normative arguments for states’ obligations to those migrating internationally in this context, with the background presumption being that states have prima facie rights to determine to whom they open their borders. The second possible avenue would examine what states might owe even where their borders are open, in terms of assistance in building resilience and facilitating migration, as well as compensation for those displaced in the climate change context. Jessica Omukuti (Agriculture, Policy and Development) then presented her research, on the practical considerations raised in enacting climate justice. Jessica’s proposed research engaged with questions of equity and how it translates from policy to practice. She pointed to the difficulties associated with transforming policies on equitable adaptation into practice, noting that the two do not always inform each other. Her research sought to understand conceptions of equity across adaptation policy and practice, as well as policy-practice interactions. Finally, Lydia Messling (Politics) presented on the role of climate scientists in communicating with the public. One of the central questions was whether climate scientists ought to be ‘advocates’, and related questions that emerged concerned the role of scientists in society, possibility of neutrality and of expertise, and the role of communicative media in shaping opinion. Lydia closed her presentation, and the first day of the conference, by highlighting how differently presented graphs could have quite different connotations, despite presenting the same information.

For myself, and I am sure for the other first-year scholars, the presentations proved to be invaluable in gaining feedback and ideas from a range of academics working in related areas. At this early stage in our research, gaining insight into possible pathways to pursue and possible pitfalls to avoid was very useful. Above all, however, the first day of the conference demonstrated the diversity in the study of climate justice – not only in terms of sub-topics, but in terms of methodologies and the strategies of different disciplines. Cross-disciplinary work is often hard to do, and it was heartening to see productivity at the same time as academic diversity.

By James Draper, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar