ESRC Festival of Social Science

On 11th November, the University of Reading hosted an ESRC Festival of Social Science event ‘Climate Justice: can fairness create a green future?’. The broader aims of the festival were to raise awareness of the social science research currently being conducted in the UK, and the Reading event showcased the PhD projects of the Leverhulme Climate Justice scholars studying at the University.

The sold-out event was open to the public, and it was encouraging that so many were interested enough in climate change to give up their Saturday afternoon to come and talk about it. The challenge for the Scholars was to communicate their research in an engaging and informative way to this primarily non-academic audience. To this end, each prepared a poster shedding light on at least one aspect of their project and these were dotted around the foyer of the Minghella Studios, through which the attendees could meander freely. The audience were encouraged to put their questions to the scholars and to feed back on the ideas presented. These enquiries – certainly from where I stood beside my poster – were astute and challenging, and an audience keen to engage ensured that no Scholar had to resort to competitive sales patter to attract passers-by.

Every twenty minutes or so, the chatting was put on hold so that a selection of scholars could deliver a short synopsis of their research. These talks, delivered dramatically from a staircase overlooking the foyer, had a twist: the presenters’ vocabularies were limited to the thousand most common words in the English language. In keeping with the spirit of the day, the idea here was to challenge the scholars to communicate their research free from the jargon that quickly swamps academic debates. And it was a challenge: neither ‘climate’ nor ‘fairness’ were permitted on this restriction, for example, let alone the more niche ‘stratospheric aerosol injection’ that is the subject of one particular project. Given these constraints, the scholars did a good job, and the light-hearted tone of these talks was a compliment to the more focused discussions that took place in between. ‘The world is getting hotter’, we were told, because ‘we have been burning lots of dead animal bits’, and ‘this is very bad’.

The climax of the event was a screening of the film Greedy Lying Bastards and a Q&A with Professor Catriona McKinnon, director of the Leverhulme Programme. Craig Rosebraugh’s unsettling documentary is an attempt to expose the role of corporate sponsored climate denial, one notable obstacle to climate justice, in shaping public opinion and blocking effective policy. It made stark not only the perniciousness of these corporate interventions into debates about climate science but also, by focusing partly on the stories of victims of climate change-related extreme weather events, the urgency of the issue that confronts us. In rounding off the event, Professor McKinnon brought together the various strands of climate justice research that had been discussed throughout the afternoon and indicated where were new lines of study might develop in the coming years.

Overall the event was effective in balancing a pragmatic appreciation of the extensive barriers to achieving climate justice with an optimism about people’s capacity and genuine willingness to take concerns about fairness seriously. I also thought (and hope!) that the discussions were informative without being overly dry or abstract. These balances are not easily struck in climate justice events involving academics, and a lot of credit has to go to the shrewd planning of the organisers and to a public audience whose impressive knowledge about climate change constantly pressed the scholars to connect their research to contemporary political events.

Written by Alex McLaughlin, Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar