European Consortium for Political Research, Oslo 2017

On the 7th of September, political scientists and theorists descended upon Oslo for the General Conference of the European Consortium for Political Research. Amongst the many sections exploring myriad topics was one section titled “The Ethics and Politics of Climate Change – Theoretical and Empirical Investigations”. Over the course of three days, this was the locus of diverse discussions on different aspects of climate change politics, including panels on justice in adaptation to climate change, local variation in adaptation, the role of the notion of ‘loss and damage’, and mitigation options after the Paris agreements in 2015.

My own presentation was in the section on justice in adaptation to climate change, and focused on the role of the provision of asylum or refuge to those displaced by climate change as an adaptive response. I argued that, in a certain subset of cases of climate-induced displacement, something like asylum or refuge can be an appropriate (if incomplete) remedy for the harms victims face. Further, I sought to demonstrate that an account of how the burdens or costs of such a remedy can be apportioned according to the responsibility the different contributions of different actors to the impacts of climate change.

As John O’Neill’s excellent paper, “Dimensions of Climate Disadvantage”, showed, however, displacement is only one of a number of ways in which people can disadvantaged by the impacts of climate change. The key point from this paper was that the ways in which disadvantages from climate change impacts are felt are mediated through social factors, such as particular vulnerabilities to climate impacts, and the extent that particular communities are able to be resilient to the impacts of climate change. Whilst political theorists and philosophers often speak abstractly about burdens and benefits and their proper distribution, this paper was a clear reminder that our policy responses must be sensitive to the social scientific realities concerning how the impacts of climate change are felt. Another paper on this panel, “What Should Change and What Should Stay the Same?”, by Fergus Green, also sought to highlight under-appreciated aspects of adaptation. Fergus distinguished adaptation to the impacts of climate change from “adaptation” to the impacts of measures which seek to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Highlighting this kind of “adaptation” gives us useful conceptual tools to engage with growing topics in climate policy debates, such as the ‘winners and losers’ of economic diversification, the impacts of ‘response measures’, and the stranding of fossil fuel assets.

Some of these issues were themselves raised in other panels, such as in Eike Duvel’s paper on stranded assets in the ‘loss and damage’ panel. The fact that topics such as these were discussed in both the sections on ‘adaptation’ and ‘loss and damage’ led to a series of discussions about the conceptual distinction between the two ideas. It became clear that it is easy to use these terms differently, and that clear stipulation of their content is required. In my own case, for example, whilst migration might be understood as an adaptive response to the impacts of climate change, the loss of a home and the subsequent provision of new lodgings elsewhere might reasonably be taken to be a matter of compensation for loss and damage brought about by the impacts of climate change. It should be clear that this is not merely an excessively academic point about conceptual clarity, but has direct implications for climate policy. Policy proposals and mechanisms which concern adaptation and loss and damage draw from different funding schemes, are subject to different requirements, and so on. So, even if the distinction can be messy, it is important to map the borders of these different concepts.

Though an agreement concerning the interpretation of Article 8 of the Paris Agreement, which concerns loss and damage, specifically maintains that loss and damage “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation”, much of the discussion did also focus on the possible role of compensatory justice in tackling climate change. Even if it is not framed in this way in policy discourse because of the political unpalatability of the term ‘compensation’ in international negotiations, proposals which seem to involve the idea of compensation has been set out. In the loss and damage panel, the idea of compensation was explored from a number of perspectives; Laura Garica-Portela interrogated the notion of ‘making victims as subjectively well-off as they were’, which is often understood to be at the heart of compensatory justice, and Pierre André considered whether the distinctive cultural losses faced by those displaced from small-island states means that there can be no such thing as truly ‘fair’ compensation.

The final panel, on mitigation after Paris, focused on the permissibility of, and issues raised by, different mitigation techniques. Ethical concerns surrounding negative emissions technologies (NETs) such as solar radiation management were raised, and Dominic Lenzi’s excellent paper sought to highlight that the possible implications of deployment of geoengineering technologies vary widely depending on the projected scenarios in which they are employed. The usage of market-based mechanisms such as carbon pricing was also debated, especially in Alexandre Gajevic Sayegh’s and Louise Fitzgerald’s papers. Some in the room felt that market-based mechanisms employ the sorts of reasoning which lend themselves to negative externalities and self-interested behaviour, and that, independently of any effectiveness they might have, we have good reasons to be wary of them. Others, however, felt that their ethical standing is determined not by their nature, but by the usages towards which they are put. Market-based mechanisms may be policy solutions, but it is too often the case that their distributional impacts are left unexamined in cost-benefit analyses employed by policy-makers with a strict economistic focus. It’s not clear, however, that these distributional consequences cannot be accounted for, and market-based mechanisms might be profitably seen as one useful ‘tool’ in the policy ‘toolkit’. The important question here, it seems to me, is whether it is possible to sharpen what is all too often a blunt instrument.

Over the course of several days, the conference provided fertile ground for the discussion of a number of important issues, many of which remained underexplored in climate politics debates. The breadth of experience in the room lent itself to insightful discussions which were able at once to pick up on important and subtle points in close detail, and to locate these finer points within the context of a bigger picture of the different aspects of climate politics.