Science, Society and Schnitzel

From the 24th-18th April, Vienna once again became the temporary home for 14,496 scientists from all over the world, as they gathered for the European Geosciences Union General Assembly, 2017. The week packed in 4,849 oral presentations, 11,312 posters (never before have poster tubes been such a demanded fashion accessory – save maybe for the fabric posters that became fashion themselves), 1,238 PICO presentations (think speed-dating-style consumption of new research), 88 short-courses, 322 organised side sessions, and what one can only guestimate to have been around a gazillion cups of coffee. For a cappuccino-drinking graph-lover, it was heaven.

The EGU’s Annual Conference showcases cutting-edge research from Earth, planetary and space science, and is the perfect opportunity to meet the people who write the papers you cite. The range of disciplines present is proof of how much we already know about our planet and the laws that govern it; the number of conversations being had across disciplines is evidence that that we still have so much to learn. I was at the EGU to update my scientific knowledge around climate change (by trying to grasp as much as I could of what was flying over my head), and to listen to scientists’ concerns and strategies for engaging with policy-makers and the general public. The ‘March for Science’ had happened the weekend before the conference, with many of the conference attendees participating, so my research area of policy advocacy was something that appeared in several sessions across the week.

A lot of the sessions that I attended were about the communication of science and engaging in the policy-making process, particularly in a context where science seems to be ignored. Interestingly, there were a few key themes that repeatedly appeared in sessions discussions:

Trust in Science
People still trust science to provide reliable results that we can base decisions on (although may sometimes feel like some people don’t). It is important, therefore, for scientists to maintain transparency. Being seen to advocate a specific policy can generate distrust. Both Sarah Connors from the IPCC and Luca Montanarella from the EU Joint Research Council emphasised the importance of being trusted to provide all policy options, not just what policy a scientist thinks is best as policy-makers have other concerns to factor into their decision making. However, some politicians may be selective in the science that they use, requiring scientists to speak up when their science is being misused (although quite how the scientific community embark upon this is controversial). Therefore, one of the key factors of being trusted is being honest about what you do not know and to be transparent about the scientific process and how conclusions are made. Heike Langenberg, editor of Nature Geoscience, said that whilst peer review can create trust and seek to make things transparent, it is mostly something that exists between other scientists – the ‘transparency’ achieved here does not translate into something that the public can readily identify as being transparent. We therefore need to be vigilant about over-reach, and how the media portray science to the public.

Nutshell: Be transparent about what it you are doing and why, and speak up when science is being misused in order to maintain trust.

Building relationships
Part of effective communication must be understanding your audience, and what it is they need. Having a relationship and engaging in dialogue with others is therefore essential for gaining this understanding. This dialogue is not just ‘educating’ the public, but being willing to be educated yourself about what concerns people have and the language that they use to describe the observations they have. Iain Stewart even suggested that we might want to consider using the public’s language around risk, rather than imposing our scientifically constructed risk-language in order to facilitate better communication and understanding. Ultimately, you can’t beat narratives with facts, scientists need to create narratives too, and that can only come from engaging in a dialogue with the audience.

Nutshell: Co-creating narratives with audiences can help engage them and facilitate mutual understanding.

Get involved
It’s as simple as that really. Check what policy-makers are looking into by signing up to receive consultation alerts (such as here for the UK Government). If you think your research (or that of a colleague) is relevant to an issue being discussed, you can submit it to the respective committee. There are lots of opportunities to engage (which will increase through building relationships with others who are involved in policy-making), including writing to your local MP or working with business and NGOs (see below).

Aside from policy, also get out there and engage with the public. Be it in schools, churches, mosques, temples, museums, libraries – there is lots going on and people love talking to a ‘real’ scientist. However, this all takes time and energy and money. Funders seem to be increasingly interested in measuring ‘impact’ and are willing to support some aspect of this, but it can be hard to justify the cost of engaging in outreach activities. This was something that many scientists felt frustrated about as outreach was something that they could see the importance of doing, but lacked the resource to do properly. Most scientists that expressed this said that they did a lot of their outreach work in their own time, and based on what funds they could scrape out of projects.

Nutshell: There are lots of opportunities for scientists to feed into policy-making and to engage with the public, but scientists need better support in freeing them up to do so.

Form of communication
So much of research is applicable to policy, but getting the research noticed by policy makers can be difficult. The ways in which research is presented to policy makers can really make a difference. The policy makers on the various panels suggested that presentation and timing were key. Graphs, maps, or any other form of diagram should not try to show more than three things – three colours are more than enough, and preferably red, yellow and green. The boundaries for these colour schemes have usually already been agreed by different regulatory bodies, so find them out.
Getting the timing right about when and how research is presented can also influence how useful it is for policy-makers. Knowing how to frame the important aspects of your research for policy-makers, and when that information will be particularly useful for them requires researchers to be in conversation with policy-makers.

Nutshell: Keep it simple, and know when would be best to show how your research can contribute.

Businesses and NGOs
Policy advice doesn’t just involve government. Of course, researchers need to be aware of how they should associate with certain businesses and NGOs, but often these organisations can be in a good position to help inform and test run policies and procedures. Businesses and NGOs can also act as a bridge between the research community and government as they can help translate the research into scenarios that are directly applicable to policy. There are also lots of areas that government does not cover, so when it comes to innovation and striving to create new methods, businesses and NGO’s are often keen to crack on.

Nutshell: Government policy is just one area where change can occur, businesses and NGO’s are often more willing and able to work at the cutting edge of innovative ideas.

Creative Communication
Science is an art, so to use art forms to communicate your science makes perfect sense. If science is a creative process too, then scientists are creatives. Sam Illingworth’s poetry workshop was a brilliant example of how we can talk about science with a different language, and translate our scientific creativity into another art form. No longer restricted to a technocratic methodological lab report, research findings gained rhythm and rhyme, and created a space for researchers to express the frustrations and joys experienced in their work. Whilst geologists are unlikely to be the next Shelley or Shakespeare (not much rhymes with potassium feldspar…) collaborations between researchers and artists are providing some truly beautiful public outreach projects and create potential new methods of data analysis.

(rhyming)Nutshell: There’s nothing more boring than a standard graph, whereas sniffing a meteorite is quite a laugh.

To embrace different forms of communication, I tweeted a watercolour-summary of the week at the EGU including quartz crystals, poster tubes, sausages and the never ending series of escalators.

For more information on the EGU, go here, or you can watch a few of the key sessions on their youtube channel here.

Clear Eyed Equity: Setting a Climate Equity and Justice research Agenda

The Leverhulme climate justice scholars were fortunate enough to be invited in their entirety to a one day workshop in Bonn, entitled “Clear Eyed Equity: Setting a Climate Equity and Justice Research Agenda”. Hosted by the Germany Development Institute, the conference sought to connect academics and practitioners with an interest in the justice dimensions of climate change, hoping to deliver a manifesto that reflects the future aims and pertinence of the movement.

The day began with three hard-hitting key note lectures, starting with friend of the project Sonja Klinsky (Arizona State), who stressed in no uncertain terms just how central equity is to any genuine progress. Through this, she rejected claims that we should act first and worry about equity afterwards, questioning the feasibility of any climate action that failed to pay suitable attention to this complex dimension of the climate problem. Another key theme from her talk were the importance of creating a vibrant, supportive and, importantly, interdisciplinary network of climate ethicists (partly facilitated by an email list that she has set up – details of which will be at the end of the blog). Timmons Roberts’ discussion drew upon a temporal analysis of high-profile climate discussions, to map whether the arc of history was heading towards climate justice – with the unfortunate (but maybe unsurprising) answer being ‘no’. Finally, Tom Athanasiou (Eco-Equity) delivered a sobering analysis of the extant state of play with regards to climate change, essentially concluding that we are nearly 30 years past the point of urgent action and are now staring real catastrophe in the face. With regards to arresting this rapid decline into the abyss, he highlighted the importance of addressing the startling fact that we are living in a grossly unequal world (a recent Oxfam report suggests that just 8 people own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who constitute the world’s poorest people). While this exists, Tom suggests, an adequate response to climate change will never be mobilised.

Much of the next portion of the day involved the synthesis and discussion of the various policy briefs submitted by equity scholars globally. These were sorted into five ‘bundles’, which explored paradigmatic questions of equity, equity under the UNFCCC, justice at the local level with a focus on adaptation, equity in transformational change and social and cultural responses to climate change (the final four running in pairs, concurrently). A plethora of different ideas and themes arose here, demonstrating just how broad and multidimensional the questions of equity that arise in the context of climate change can be. To mention but a few, there were discussions of technological and energy justice and their crossover with climate justice, how justice may look at a local level, intra-community injustices and the importance of social sustainability – including the need to develop an understanding of the creation and dissemination of environmental knowledge across scales.

The workshop ended with a summary of the day’s proceedings, along with a brainstorming session on practical action that could be taken by the group as a collective. The early contours of a manifesto were deliberated, as well as identifying the need to create a platform in which scholars could discuss their particular research interests. The group then mapped a list of actors with whom they should interact, although the all-important questions of how these interactions should take place were unfortunately limited by time, to no doubt be continued on a later occasion. What was undoubtedly an excellent, and productive day was rounded of by a suitably eloquent toast by Timmons Roberts and Tom Athanasiou to their friend and prominent climate ethicist Paul Baer, who sadly passed away last year.

Having reflected upon the conference, it is abundantly clear that there is an ever-growing and incredibly committed, intelligent and passionate community whose aim is to make tangible and lasting progress in the daunting task of achieving climate justice. To this end, it would be near impossible not to come away feeling buoyed by the day’s proceedings. However, the real success of the workshop lies in what happens next – the actioning of the innovative ideas, the increased interdisciplinary communication and development of a thriving and organised network of researchers and activists alike and the development and dissemination of a bold manifesto are the true indicators of how much the workshop has accomplished.


The climate justice and equity emailing list can be subscribed to by contacting, and also found on twitter @CJENetwork.

Climate migration and resettlement workshop: thoughts from the discussions

The one day workshop, organized by the Climate Change, Culture and Society Cluster in collaboration with the Leverhulme Doctoral Programme in Climate Justice at the University of Reading, had a diverse range of participants from both academia and INGOs working in migration, loss and damage and resettlement of displaced groups and individuals.

The general objective of the workshop was to understand the conditions under which bottom-up claims-making for displacement and resettlement would be possible for those displaced and/or resettled because of both fast and slow onset disasters.

A few issues came up that I found particularly interesting:

  1. Uncertainty of climate change projections and attribution of extreme events, which was discussed in relation to the use of uncertain information to make attributions and decisions regarding who should claim and pay for displacements and resettlements.[1] This was also related to the attribution of displacements to climate events, with the awareness that displacements and resettlements were not entirely a result of climate and climate change related events, but were because of the combined effect of other social and political factors which interacted to produce displacements and resettlements. This resonates with knowledge on climate change impacts where the capacity to adapt is a factor of risk to climate related shocks and stresses as well as vulnerability, meaning that an individual’s ability to adapt to climate change is not purely dictated by their exposure to a climate risk, but is also a matter of other pre-existing social and economic factors which might or might not be related to the climate risk in question. It was therefore noted that in such cases, actors needed to be clear on what percentage of the overall impact and cost of resettlement and displacement would be attributed to climate change.
  2. Development of long-term policies on displacement and resettlement. Clarity of terminologies relating to displacement, resettlement and claim-making was still required, as well as an understanding of what displacements, migrations and claims-making meant for individuals and states, both now and in the future. A presentation by Reuven Ziegler illustrated how legal definitions relating to refugees and displaced persons has evolved over the years and has moved from just considering individuals who cross national borders (arising from civil conflict) to include internal and climate driven displacements.

However, meeting discussions pointed towards a limited understanding, by state actors, on how best to define policies relating to displaced people, leaving them more likely to have negative effects resulting from less forward looking policies. Georgia was used as an example, whose refugee policy, developed more than two decades ago, was costing the government millions of dollars as a result of the new and continuously changing structure of migrants and displaced people. This policy was unable to comprehensively define who would be considered a refugee, which has produced unprecedented negative effects on both government planning and resources capabilities, as well as the socio-economic consequences on refugees and displaced groups.[2]

Most important of all, the workshop sparked thoughts of equity, especially in relation to who should make claims, what sort of claims should be made/accepted, and on what bases these claims should be distributed. These were discussed both inter and intra-generationally. It is important that displacement/resettlement and the resultant impacts on groups and individuals  be analysed in two ways: internally, in regards to understanding groups that are most impacted within communities, and identifying the ‘voiceless’ in the claims-making processes, for example children, whose needs can easily be overlooked in such cases; and externally, which requires a focus on host communities (people already inhabiting a place) or those indirectly impacted by displacements or resettlements. For example, if a displaced community is a major producer of a region’s staple food, then their displacement has ramifications on the food security of other communities who either buy food from the displaced community, offer farm labour etc. Additionally, resettlement of communities results in direct and indirect impacts to host communities, both politically, economically and socially. Ethics and equity require that these impacts not be ignored.

However, one question remains unanswered, and this related to what I mentioned earlier on defining policies that serve the present and future generations: what is the limit of claims-making? How far should claims relating to generations or indirect impacts within a generation be considered?

By Jessica Omukuti, First Year Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

[1] From presentation by Ted Shepherd, University of Reading.

[2] Kurshitashvili, 2012. The Impact of Socially Ir/responsible Resettlement on the Livelihoods of Internally Displaced Persons in Georgia



What’s wrong with Trump’s climate denial?

By Professor Catriona McKinnon (Director, Leverhulme Programme in Climate Justice)

Later this week, a climate denier will become the President of the United States. Donald Trump claims that ‘nobody really knows’ whether climate change is happening, and has asserted in the past that climate change is a hoax. To make things worse, Trump has filled his cabinet with several climate deniers, and his transition team have raised fears of a ‘witch hunt’ of climate experts in the Department for Energy.

I'm not a big believer in global warming

Today, a letter to the Prime Minister Theresa May, signed by leading figures in the UK climate research community – including some at the University of Reading – expressed fears about what this could do to the evidence base for global climate policy making. If the new Trump administration follows up on his campaign pledges to tear up existing US climate policies, the future could be bleak for the Paris Agreement, which may be the best and last hope for global action on climate change.

Many people in the climate research community are appalled by the climate denial of Trump and his incoming cabinet. But what, exactly, is wrong with it?

The climate denial of Trump and his cabinet is not bad science: it is not science at all

One thought might be that Trump’s climate denial is outrageously bad science. The essence of science is contestation and disagreement, and science in a state of health makes space for mavericks who strike out with bold new hypotheses, sometimes enabling great leaps forward. Should we be horrified by Trump’s denial because he does not fit this mould? This would be a serious mistake. The climate denial of Trump and his cabinet is not bad science: it is not science at all.

Such views  have grown from a set of organised, well-funded, strategic, deceptive, ideological practices undertaken by a range of conservative think tanks in the US, funded by those with fossil fuel interests, and which have perverted climate legislation in America. The tactics these deniers employ include claims of conspiracy among climate scientists, appeal to fake experts, cherry-picking data, and outright deception.

High stakes of climate risks

So he says he doesn’t believe the experts. So what? To understand why Trump’s climate denial is so heinous we must be alive to the severity of the climate crisis and how little time is left to take meaningful action to contain it.

Climate change damages human security on a global and intergenerational scale. Even if all countries achieve the emissions reductions to which they have voluntarily committed in the Paris Agreement, average global temperatures are likely to rise by between 2.7C and 3.5C by 2100. And if countries don’t meet these commitments, and instead continue to increase emissions of greenhouse gases – the ‘business as usual’ scenario –  we could see truly catastrophic temperature rises in the range of 4.78C to 7.36C by 2100.

And let’s be clear: average temperature rises in either of these ranges will have devastating impacts on food production and security, will increase disease, cause conflict over scarce resources, displace millions of people, and deprive them of their livelihoods and cultures. Furthermore, this damage could extend far into the future, with terrible consequences: as a recent study in Nature Climate Change put it, ‘the next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far’.

It is appropriate – required, even – to be horrified by the aggressive climate denial of Trump and his cabinet

We have a brief and shrinking window of opportunity to avert climate catastrophe for our grandchildren and the further future. In this context, it is appropriate – required, even – to be horrified by the aggressive climate denial of Trump and his cabinet. This is far from an ordinary exercise of freedom of speech. Climate denial in the context of the climate crisis is like the famous crowded theatre case, of which Justice Holmes stated ‘[t]he most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic’. Using this model, here is how we should assess Trump’s climate denial.

Shouting ‘no fire!’ 

A fire (climate change) has started in the theatre (planet Earth), from which there are no exits. Unchecked, the fire will kill and injure many in the theatre, especially those in the cheapest seats (the global poor, and the future poor). Many people can smell the smoke, but many others have not yet noticed and are still enjoying the show. Some speakers (climate scientists) are trying to warn everyone so that the fire can be contained before it quickly spreads out of control, with dire consequences for the people waiting outside to see the next show. These warnings are measured and calm, and reflect the consensus among them on the causes, severity and likely impacts of the growing fire.

Another group are sitting mainly in the most expensive seats, and have easy access to fire extinguishers (Trump and his cabinet). This group are shouting louder that there is no fire, or that it is not serious, or that there is plenty of time left to put it out. They shout a lot about how the other group are hoaxers, or lack real evidence that the fire has started, or don’t really agree that there is a fire. And they are not using the fire extinguishers, and won’t let other people get to them, because they and their friends would lose their nice seats in the theatre by having to do this.

Many of the people in the theatre are either confused by these conflicting messages, or are convinced by the fire-deniers. There are enough people in this combined set to significantly slow down the efforts of those listening to the accurate warnings who are trying to put out the fire, and of those who are trying to persuade the fire-deniers to hand over the extinguishers.

The right way to condemn the climate denial of Trump and his cabinet is as an endangerment of humanity

In this scenario those shouting ‘No fire!’ endanger all those in the auditorium, as well as the people queuing up for future shows who will be taking their seats in a burning building. Focusing on this kind of crowded theatre scenario reveals the right way to condemn the climate denial of Trump and his cabinet: as an endangerment of humanity.

This post draws on Professor McKinnon’s published work, and was funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship (RF-2014-021).

  • ‘Should We Tolerate Climate Denial?’, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, Vol. 40, Issue 1, pp. 205-16.
  • ‘Endangering Humanity: An International Crime?’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, forthcoming 2017.

Dialogue between Disciplines Conference Day 2

In general, Day 2 saw the conference participants listen to and engage in discussions on morals and ethics of climate change, distributive justice, governance of geoengineering, attitudes towards nature and issues related to participation and recognition.

Key take-aways from the key-note presentations were:

  • Wealthy states are engaging in moral corruption by suggesting shadow solutions that would extort poor countries but still fail to address the problem of climate change;
  • To achieve distributive justice, actions need to target participation and recognition as an important element, which would ensure that groups are not excluded from discussions regarding climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Stephen Gardiner from the University of Washington gave a keynote presentation about the moral corruption engaged in by developed states in addressing climate change. This, per Gardiner, had been exhibited through the forms of extortion that developed states were trying to impose towards developing countries for the developed states to engage in the cuts in greenhouse gas emissions that were required to avoid dangerous climate change. His question was: As in other examples of extortion, the victim must have something that the perpetrator of the extortion must desperately need for an exchange to occur. In this case, what would poor countries own that the wealthy states do not (or cannot get through other means)?

Gardiner’s talk also touched on the prevalence of shadow solutions proposed by developed countries (e.g. geoengineering), where he admitted that even though these solutions seemed to be able to work, they would not solve the problem – achieving reductions in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Gardiner’s talk is linked to earlier work by Henry Shue (1999)[1], where Shue questions the effectiveness of incentives for developed states to engage in emission cuts. Shue asks: What types of incentives would be appropriate? What is the limit of providing incentives? Who provides these incentives and who pays?

Discussions panels were clustered under three themes:

  1. Distributive justice and climate change

Alex McLaughlin assessed the use of Simon Carney’s ‘Intergrationism’ approach in analysing the distribution of costs and benefits of climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Nimrod Kovner’s presentation looked at distributive justice in climate finance, where he discussed the implications of additionality of adaptation finance to development finance by developed states to developing countries, given the large overlap between the two.

  1. Contemplating governance of geoengineering

Joshua Wells presented on ‘Moral Schizophrenia’, which he referred to as a case where ethical considerations raised in geoengineering debates would be used to endorse other types of action before geoengineering is endorsed.

Daniel Callies on the other hand presented on legitimacy of institutions and governance of solar radiation management, where he sought to develop a broad framework of what these governance structures would look like.

  1. Attitudes towards nature

Samantha Earle discussed how imaginaries can affect how we engage in the climate change problem, and how these cut across attitudinal, moral and public spheres. Vera Van Gool talked about how green virtues may provide a framework for fostering new values that would create a society that is able to tackle climate change.

The last key-note speaker was Marion Hourdequin from Colorado College, who presented on Climate justice, recognition and participatory parity. Hourdequin discussed the important role of recognition and participation in ensuring that marginalized groups received climate justice. Giving case examples from the US and Mozambique, she demonstrated how people could be denied participation and recognition due to their social characteristics, which would eventually deny them distributive justice.

Hourdequin’s presentation placed recognition and participation as a key element for distributive justice, as compared to other works which see these as key for procedural justice. However, this presentation and that by Schlosberg on day 1 had one clear message: participation and recognition determine the extent to which adaptation or mitigation approaches are just.

By Jessica Omukuti and Lydia Messling, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars

[1] Shue, 1999. Global environment and international inequality.

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

What is the value of being a reflexive academic?

On Friday the 23rd of September 2016 the working-group Critical Approaches at Reading (CAAR) organised a workshop on the methodology of Critical Reflexivity (CR). The purpose of this workshop was for early career researchers from various disciplinary backgrounds to get together and discuss how we could engage with this methodology in our own work. For the purpose of this blog I will write about the lessons I personally took away from this workshop as a researcher starting out in the field of philosophy and more specifically in Climate Justice.

The Origins of CR as a methodology can be traced back to the discipline of cultural anthropology. It is widely accepted by anthropologists that if you do some form of ethnographic research, you have to reflect on how you and your own background might influence the findings about the communities you research. Questions that auto-ethnographers would ask themselves vary from “how do I impact and position myself in relation to the subjects of my research? “, through “can I ever have an insight in another community as an outsider?”, to “is it possible to eliminate personal biases from my research?”. In other disciplines it is less common to ask yourself these type of questions, mostly because in the sciences it is generally not accepted to elaborate on one’s own background to show how (or rather ‘why’) you came up with your research results. Rather the sciences aim to uncover universal truths and objectivity, not personal fancy and subjectivity.

For philosophers, and I consider myself an early career researcher in their community, it can be said that they are ever present in their work. They put forward their argumentation and opinion in the articles and books they write, which together can make up a map (of kinds) of their position in the world. Like in the sciences philosophers arguably pursue universality through their work, or in the least logical coherence. However, many philosophers, and I confess to doing this myself, do not enlighten us as to their personal background that may have informed their theoretical judgments. This type of self-reflective work can, I would say, be enlightening with regards to the origin of a particular argument and readers can come to know which aspects influence the formation of scholars’ worldviews. In part it also helps readers, academic or otherwise, understand or even empathise with a philosopher when they get to know where the philosopher as a person fits the bigger whole of academia or humanity.

In my presentation during the workshop I asked myself the following main question: Where do the foundational assumptions I make in my work originate from both theoretically and personally? Apart from having some rough and ready (attempts at) answers to this, it raised more questions. I caught myself wondering with regards to academic theorising whether we can actually separate the subjective from the objective. For the field of philosophy I specifically pondered how we are to say that one philosophical theory is more representative of or fitting in the world we live than another. On a more personal level I questioned why I agree with the theoretical standpoints I agree with in Climate Justice. Did I find those worldviews to be agreeable? Did they convince me they are agreeable? Or did I recognise myself in these views? The first and last question here seem to be able to collapse into one; it looks like a case of assessing how I, as an individual, critically examined the merit of the theories I came across in my field. However, I would say that this is only the subject-matter of the first question. The last one I think expresses more profoundly how we have to consider that in our research there could be this sense of what I might call ‘predetermined agreeableness’. Was I bound to agree with some philosophers as I am just that type of person that has been shaped by some of their views that are still found or seem to underlie part of our society today?

The last, but maybe most central question in this reflexivity exercise for me was: what does all this actually mean for the merit of my work? Does this ‘determinism’ actually influence the credibility of my work? Somewhat, I would argue. Being in the business of philosophy where we attempt to convince others of our argumentation we have to be open to the idea we are not going to convince everyone with our theorising. However, in the field of Climate Justice where most scholars share the conviction that climate change is a grave threat to all human beings, I would hope Climate Justice scholars could make a case that will get some like- or open-minded individuals on board. This is exactly where a tension in my own work lies. On the one hand I admit to the constructed nature of our philosophical beliefs and worldviews, leaning towards the side of constructivism and almost nihilism. On the other I am utterly convinced that we could potentially all agree to do something about climate change, e.g. just for the sake of being human and our natural concern for our wellbeing, leaning towards the side of naturalism and moral realism.

Admitting to the limitations of our work is, I believe, the first step in making more people sympathetic to it. You would hope that showing you are reflexive would create some basis for respect in academia. Particularly showing humility, as is coincidentally a virtue I will elaborate on in my PhD, and accepting fallibility of yourself as an academic I think has the potential to create mutual respect. But also importantly: we need to show courage (another virtue I will write on in my thesis) as academics, stand our ground when defending our standpoint even if it’s considered to be an ‘outlier’ in the field. Humility and courage may seem to be contradictory virtues and I do admit it will be hard to act upon them both in the right measure. However, that is the whole point of the exercise: being reflexive on those attitudes, assessing which measure of each of them is appropriate when and then acting upon them in a balanced manner is what I think makes for a great academic. I hope that I might one day live up to this myself, as leading by example might be one of the most powerful ways of getting our conviction across.

By Vera Van Gool, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

Fat Tails – Imposing and Redistributing Risks

On the 14th and 15th of September, I was fortunate enough to attend the third workshop in the ESRC-funded Climate Ethics and Climate Economics series, entitled ‘Fat Tails – Imposing and Redistributing Risks’. The two days of workshops were accompanied by public lectures on the 13th and 15th of September by economist Professor Robert Pindyck (MIT) and philosopher Professor Steven Gardiner (University of Washington). The event brought together economists and philosophers to examine the issues arising from risk imposition in the context of climate change – a significant task in itself, but one that was certainly fruitful. Though I cannot here explore all of the papers, discussions and ideas that were raised throughout the conference, some themes did emerge.


Dr Jonathan Herington

A central theme that emerged over the two days was the differences in approaches often taken by economists and philosophers, and the possibilities and the best methods of straddling the two disciplines. The prevalence of approaches such as Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) and Risk Assessment (RA) in economics-based approaches was often a locus of concern for philosophers, where in the context of climate change low-probability but high-impact risks can mean catastrophic outcomes. Nonetheless, several papers aimed to demonstrate the possibility of assuaging the philosophers’ concerns here from within the CBA framework. Simon Dietz’s intimidatingly-named but ultimately illuminating “Spaces for Agreement: A Theory of Time-Stochastic Dominance and an Application to Climate Change” began from the point of embracing disagreement over real-life time and risk preferences, demonstrating that in spite of such disagreement, broad agreement can be reached over the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions drastically even in the short term. The central claim was that only those with ‘extreme’ risk and time preferences would prefer not to cut emissions by a large amount. Though the maths in the paper was intimidating for those unfamiliar with the advanced methods used in economics (certainly myself included), its explication in presentation format was patient and clear. Jonathan Herington’s paper “Extreme Climate Risks and the Value of Security” aimed to demonstrate the value of security from three perspectives: welfarism, political liberalism and prioritarianism, where security was understood to be low variance in the probability distribution of access to basic needs. The value of security, it was argued, can be demonstrated by appealing to subjective (in)security (the belief one has about the securability of basic goods) and the effect of (in)security (the emotional responses such as fear and anxiety stemming from subjective (in)security). Security in this sense was deemed valuable in itself for welfare, and valuable for the political liberal in its role in helping individuals to form life-plans and pursue their conceptions of the good. As such, it was claimed that in CBA, we can have a reason to apply an ‘insecurity penalty’ to risky policies, giving a reason to prefer risk-averse options from within these parameters.

Other approaches moved away from the traditional methodologies but were nonetheless firmly rooted in economics; Robert Pindyck, both in his public lecture “Climate (and other) Catastrophes” and his workshop paper “The Economics of Climate Catastrophes” explored expert elicitation as a mechanism for determining the ‘social cost of carbon’ (SCC). His argument was based on what he considered to be fundamental flaws in the methods used in creating Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) in forecasting for climate change, giving them a false sense of scientific legitimacy. The results presented of a survey sent to experts (those with a high number of relevant citations) in both climate science and economics in the end determined a much higher SCC than used in a lot of current policy-making discussions. Pindyck’s further claim was that climate catastrophe, conceptualised as a massive drop in (a broad notion of) GDP, should be considered not on its own terms, but in relation to other possible catastrophes such as global pandemics and nuclear terrorism. Kian Minz-Woo’s paper, “Scouting the Risks Ahead: Expert Elicitation in Practice”, whilst being generally sympathetic to the project of expert elicitation, highlighted some of its potential pitfalls and some worries that it might raise. The anchoring effects of different disciplines, the role of social networks and demographic biases in academic circles and the possibility of overconfidence in forecasting were raised, but one of the central concerns that arose in the Q&A was the possible anti-democratic implications of such a methodology.


Professor Robert Pindyck

Some of the papers did move away from the economics approach into more philosophical territory. James Lenman’s paper, “Contractualism and the Ethics of Imposing Risk” examined some of the conceptual differences between ‘shared risk’ and ‘sacrificial killing’ cases that consequentialist accounts (arguably) seem to struggle with by teasing out intuitions through a range of thought experiments. The distinction between ex ante and ex post approaches helped to make the case that contractualism can differentiate between these kinds of cases through requiring reasonable justification at every stage. Eike Düvel’s paper “Rights-based Precautionary Approaches and Risk Imposition in the Context of Climate Change” examined some of the implications of a Scanlonian contractualist approach in the climate context, arguing that it can address the paralysis that would result from a ‘no-risk’ principle.

Other papers stressed the importance of precaution in the context of risk-imposition and climate change. Our own Vera Van Gool, in her paper “Environmental Fat Tails: what have ecosystems ever done for us?”, made the case for taking socio-ecological resilience seriously, arguing on the basis of a virtue-ethical framework that a Precautionary Principle (PP) can be motivated for protecting natural systems even where there is scientific uncertainty over their ‘usefulness’ to mankind, but without arguing that we need to take a non-anthropocentric approach to justify this. In his defence of the PP in the workshop paper “Motivating and Expanding a Core Precautionary Principle”, Steven Gardiner argued that the differences between standard economic approaches and precautionary approaches need not stem from some ‘great theoretical divide’. He argued that there is often a debate about when the conditions relevant for applying the precautionary principle are met, and that some would argue that these can be determined through CBA approaches, but that what this demonstrates is that there can be good (indirect) utilitarian reasons for supporting the PP, and that debate as such need not stem from deeply rooted ideological differences. Steven’s public lecture, “Climate Ethics: Embracing Justice, Avoiding Extortion” took a perhaps less reconciliatory approach, making a decisive case for the importance of ethical consideration in the international negotiation over climate change policy. He contested the ‘realism’ in the ‘economic realist’ argument put forward by authors such as Posner and Weisbach, and demonstrated that such an approach can lead to legitimising extortion in the context of international climate negotiation. Though it may be the case that there are good reasons to think that the present issue of justice can have a bearing on the extent of the responsibilities we can have for engaging with climate change, such an economic realist argument does not have these at the centre. The importance of ethics and justice was put at the centre of the global climate change debate, and as such Steven’s lecture seemed an appropriate and motivating end to a great two days of workshops.

By James Draper, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

Expanding our horizons, going beyond climate justice: the ECPR experience

An introductory note – by Callum Nolan, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

Monday 11th of July marked the launch of the biennial European Consortium for Political Research Graduate conference in Tartu, Estonia. Doctoral students from across Europe and further afield congregated and three action packed days ensued, with a diverse array of presentations, discussions and roundtables covering many aspects of the political research agenda. Hot in the wake of ‘Brexit’, there was no shortage of debate, be it in the classroom or over a drink in the city’s beautiful old town.

Tartu's town hall in the main square

Tartu’s town hall in the main square

The Reading Leverhulme Climate Justice scholars were fortunate enough to be offered an opportunity to showcase their various research projects, on a self-organised panel entitled “Climate Justice: Tough Decisions in Times of Crisis”. Manchester University based Anna Wienhues kindly offered her services as a discussant. Over the space of two hours we presented on the Beneficiary Pays Principle, Corporate Responsibility for Climate Change, the Precautionary Principle and Geo-Engineering. The panel was well attended and well received, with Anna facilitating talks on broader considerations of sustainability and whether the relevance of more abstract conceptions of responsibility within climate change was deteriorating as the need for action grows increasingly urgent.

With such an assortment of panels, the opportunity arose to step outside of theoretical and methodological comfort zones, an opportunity to engage with our peers in a means that is not always necessarily possible at shorter or smaller conferences. Whilst unable to do justice to the full spectrum of topics on show, we have highlighted a handful of talks below that we found particularly interesting.

University of Reading Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars in Climate Justice

University of Reading Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars in Climate Justice

What is the perpetual peace theory to the climate change debate? – A reflection by Vera Van Gool, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

On the 11th of June, the first day of the conference, we had the pleasure of listening to a keynote lecture by Professor in Political Culture Research at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg: Christian Welzel. The title of the presentation was ‘Reinventing the Kantian Peace: An Eroding Mass Basis of War?’,  and proposed a new take on Immanuel Kant’s peace theory which Kant originally put forward in the1795 essay ‘Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch’ (Zum ewigen Frieden. Ein philosophischer Entwurf)[1].

The premise of Kant’s theory is this: constitutional republics do not go to war with one another and are generally more pacifistic than other forms of government. His theory has inspired and influenced many scholars and individuals in politics that came after him. Over the years it has collected many additional, explanatory hypotheses proposed by political scientists as to why constitutional republics, or put more simply ‘democracies’, promote peace. One theory that gained traction is the Capitalist Peace Thesis[2], which suggests that growing interdependencies in terms of trade and knowledge economies promote inter-state peace.

Scholars Ronald F. Inglehart, Bi Puranen and Christian Welzel himself propose another compounding hypothesis.[3] The premise of which is the following:

  1. a) the improvement of living-conditions of parts of the population of a country leads to more tolerance of diversity, and
  2. b) an increasing emphasis of societies on the autonomy and emancipation of peoples, which taken together leads to
  3. c) a decrease in willingness to jeopardise these living-conditions by (potentially) sacrificing one’s life to fight in a war.

As a consequence the changing of worldviews from anti- or mildly-autonomy promoting ones to one that defends and promotes self-regulation, in the words of Inglehart et al. a view with ‘pro-choice values’[4], advances peace over a will to wage war.

Now, this is in itself a fascinating hypothesis. However, since we are PhD students in ‘Climate Justice’, I would like to take the opportunity to reflect on this last premise as presented by Welzel and see what it might mean in the debates of our field. Granting for a moment that climate change is a potential (arguably actual) security issue; climate change will threaten food and water security across the world and possibly challenge state security through mass-migration in particular regions. This might lead to inner- and inter-state conflicts. Following this argumentation, some part of tackling climate change issues might lie in promoting autonomy, emancipation and the development of democracies in the countries most at risk of suffering these climate insecurities. That is if we want to prevent bloody, future conflicts. This seems to be able to form a firmer argumentative basis for promoting and helping countries reach e.g. their Sustainable Development Goals[5].

Welcoming speech

Conference welcoming speech

However, in many ways this linkage of arguments may not be as straightforward, at least not in practice. One of the concerns it seems to me is that democracies, to some extent, show a hesitancy to engage with less stable countries even if it is in a non-military way, through helping fragile states develop by e.g. sending help or donations. This might possibly be explained by a tendency of democracies to engage with inner-state and inter-democratic issues first, because there is less of a risk of jeopardising national security in this way. Then we might enter into this ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ where remote security issues (due to climate change) are ignored by wealthier and more stable democracies for fear of engaging with unstable states. This would result in more instability and insecurity, bringing on conflicts and reaffirming the fear of those democracies of getting involved. Overall however, this attitude would exacerbate security issues worldwide, arguably making them more uncontrollable over time. If we grant all this we are left with a decision to make now: how much are wealthy, stable democracies willing to risk to promote worldwide security as a means to avoid conflict and create a more just world?

‘Climate Change and Far Right Parties: An Unexpected Relationship’ presented by Joshua Wells – A reflection by Alex McLaughlin, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

Rarely found away from the limelight, Josh Wells, in addition to presenting on our Climate Justice panel, delivered a paper titled ‘Climate Change and Far Right Parties: An Unexpected Relationship’, at a session on ‘Electoral Behaviour’. In the absence of the paper’s co-author, Christos Vrakopoulos, it was left to Josh to convey the central argument.

I thought the presentation was a great success, and all the more so given the infancy of the ideas. The central aim of the paper, as its title indicates, was to suggest a link between climate change ideas and an increase in support for far right parties. In Josh and Christos’ view, the sorts of pressures that will stem from climate change will interact with some of the primary drivers of far right support. Significant sea level rises, to take a stark example, will make many coastal regions uninhabitable and as a result will increase the number of people seeking foreign asylum. And as we have seen from recent events in Europe, surges in refugee flows tend to coincide with increased support for far right parties.

Although linkages like this appear pretty robust when considered at a general level, what is much less clear – though it is worth emphasising that Josh did not claim to have this all worked out – is the extent to which these sorts of factors would drive far right support. To stay with the example of international migration, aside from the more cut-and-dry looking case of sea level rise, it can be notoriously hard to establish with any precision the degree to which a certain event that displaces a population (a freak storm, an armed conflict over resources) does indeed stem from climate change.

Anyway, for me the most interesting point that came out of the presentation was the depressing thought that we may well see increases in far right support which are, in one way or another, related to climate change, regardless of how effective we are at dealing with the problem. As briefly indicated above, the expected effects of climate change may well exacerbate one of the main drivers of far right support. But alternatively – and this is said more in hope than expectation – what if we are mostly successful in mitigating climate change? The punchline here is the simple observation that if we are indeed to pull this off, it looks our best prospects for doing so will involve taking measures that far right groups will also find offensive. Again at a very general level, it seems likely that more effective and extensive international institutions will be a feature of a successful climate change regime. This being so, I don’t think you have to try very hard to hear complaints from the far right about the ‘losses in Sovereignty’ and ‘increases in bureaucracy’ that such moves would entail. Unhappily, then, for those of us concerned with the rise of these movements, Josh & Christos suspect that climate change and its politics will be an unwelcome addition to the landscape.

‘Sharing the earth: a proposal of Ecological Justice’ presented by Anna Wienhues – a reflection by Joshua Wells, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

Anna’s presentation was concerned with the question of whether we can extend the scope of distributive justice to non-humans. The focus of justice for her is due to its force, people have a harder time dismissing justice as opposed to other ethical considerations.  Additionally she emphasised the importance of a distinction between environmental and ecological justice. For her, environmental justice is still something which is quite human-centred whilst ecological justice escapes these limitations and genuinely extends distributive justice to beyond this anthropocentric scope. Anna’s presentation was particularly interesting in its willingness to draw on 18th century philosopher David Hume to make the case, for Hume definitely did think that distributive justice is just an issue for humans. The conclusion of her presentation was that the aim of justice which extends to all non-humans is that of enabling flourishing. This is not as demanding a duty as you may think, for she only intends for it to be interpreted in the negative sense. This means that we should not take actions which prevent non-humans flourishing. How we interpret Anna’s criteria is dependent on what non-humans count as being able to flourish. Anna does not use the common criteria of sentience, instead she has the standard of being alive. This creates broad scope for ecological justice.

Anna’s presentation was exactly the type of presentation I had hoped to see before arriving at the conference. It is was by someone who I had never met or heard of, talking about something which I had not thought about, but it clearly has implications for my own area of research. It is unlikely that Anna has persuaded the whole room to take ecological justice seriously (she acknowledged it was very controversial), however I think she has got everyone to think about the question. It is hard to listen to such a provoking topic area and not have any thoughts on the matter. Her argument is going to develop further, and her next challenge (which she is aware of) is to include future generations in her project. Future generations are notoriously tricky to account for in distributive justice. This challenge seems to

Sunset over Tartu

Sunset over Tartu

be great for Anna when we consider her criterion for being an subject of justice/morally relevant in matters of justice so far is ‘being alive’, since this criterion is a threshold future generations currently do not meet. Nevertheless it seems like a very exciting project and I hope to see Anna present in the future when she has attempted giving an answer to this tricky question.


[1] Immanuel, Kant. “Perpetual peace.” Reiss Hans (1991): 93-130.

[2] Inglehart, R. F., Puranen, B., & Welzel, C. (2015). Declining willingness to fight for one’s country The individual-level basis of the long peace. Journal of Peace Research52(4), 418.

[3] Ibid. 418- 434.

[4] Ibid. 418.

[5] See United Nations website

Be humble, be courageous, but above all: be the whistle-blower

A view of Buda and Pest

A view of Buda and Pest

From the 26th of June until the 2nd of July the Central European University in Budapest hosted a summer school on the topic of the precautionary principle (henceforth PP). An assembly of (among others) lawyers, environmental scientists, policy-makers and medical experts attended. Their roots stretched the breadth and length of the globe: from the Philippines to Ireland and Sweden to Uganda. Collectively their objective was to explore the meaning of the PP in both theory and practice. It was with great pleasure and interest that I attended this week packed with learning, reflection and discussion, and a true privilege to be working with this diverse group of people. In this blog I will focus on the message David Gee, a science-policy interface expert and co-author/–editor of the European Environment Agency’s ‘Late Lessons from Early Warnings’ (henceforth LLfEW), shared with us in his talks.

As humans we have proven not to be very ‘wise’ as our Latin title Homo Sapiens might suggest. Gee would like to think Homo Stupidus is a much more appropriate and characterising term for humankind. The reason for this view is that we have proved to fail to take lessons from past cases and failed to take timely precautionary measures when past cases might have taught us it is wise to heed early warnings of harm. The two LLfEW reports, exploring the (mis)use of the PP, have shown precisely this, even though there are some (exceptional) cases in which due consideration was given to early warning signs and they were acted upon.

The problem resulting from not heeding these warnings is that history repeats itself and equally awful consequences of this mistake result. One of the key problems Gee ascribes this failure to is the excuse that there is ‘no full scientific certainty’ on a matter. On the one hand this could mean, and this is the ‘optimistic’ interpretation, that scientific results are uncertain (e.g. they cannot give us a precise probability as to the occurrence of a risk) or the scientific community is divided on the gravity of or causal links leading up to the risk. On the other hand, and as it turns out this argument is given frighteningly frequently, it could mean that there is no scientific data collected whatsoever and this forms the basis of an excuse for inaction. Therefore we, politicians and society as a whole, should urge that due care is taken in collecting relevant scientific data on possible risks and it is given due consideration by policymakers. However, it should not be (morally) permissible to wait for scientific certainty, which can never be reached anyway, or a detailed and refined cost-benefit analysis. This is because with the clearing up of the uncertainty to virtual certainty also comes a more limited timescale to take action or even the inability to address the harm before it manifests in reality. It is essentially an ethical choice which level of certainty we demand of the scientific body before we take action on their findings.

Working group on the precautionary principle in practice

Working group on the precautionary principle in practice

‘Humility’ is therefore one of the attitudes advocated by Gee and his colleagues who worked on the LLfEW reports. Humility as to the limits of our possible (scientific) understanding, humility as to the phenomena we are and possibly will forever be ignorant about and humility as to our confidence that we have truly learned from our past mistakes. Another important attitude advocated by Gee would be ‘courage’. This attitude is essential if we want to make the systemic changes needed to address the systemic issues that arise (like climate change issues or chemical exposure in our day to day life). The reason for rooting for this attitude is that actors involved in shaping the policies that will bring about these systemic changes, which are scientists, policy makers, businesses, but also (and maybe most importantly) the public, should have the courage to rebel against the status-quo and challenge the system. These actors should have courage to speak out against the system that binds them and relay their message to their peers; be the whistle-blower, be it in the boardroom, at dinner parties or in laboratories.

Key questions which are left, which I consider to be a challenge to address myself, are: what constitutes ‘proper’ humility and courage? How do human beings acquire these ‘virtues’? And, perhaps most importantly: is it a feasible solution to our recurrent and arguably inherently human failure to learn from past mistakes, or will aiming to instil these virtues in society be a case of ‘too little, too late’?

By Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar Vera Van Gool