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 http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

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

Loss & Damage: Paris should be learning from Bangladesh

On Thursday the 16th of June 2016 a workshop on the contested article eight on loss & damage (L&D) of the Paris agreement took place at the University College London. An eclectic mix of scholars and practitioners assembled at this workshop to discuss this ambiguous article which is in need of further clarification.

It became clear very early on that there is no consensus on how L&D is conceptualised. Both Emily Boyd’s and Lisa Vanhala’s work shed light on how contested it is and how we might understand the different interpretations. In Boyd’s presentation she presented four or even five different typologies that characterise L&D. She presented each typology on a spectrum, on the one side of the spectrum we have L&D as ‘business as usual’ through the, already agreed upon, adaptation and mitigation measures. On the other side of the spectrum we have L&D as ‘inevitable climate change loss‘ as an existential challenge. Different actors seem to prefer a particular typology, Boyd said, depending on what their respective interests are. Therefore reaching a consensus on what L&D is, will be that much more challenging.

However, there may be a benefit to the consensus not being reached as a form of what some call ‘constructive ambiguity’. This came up in the presentation by Lisa Vanhala when she touched upon how L&D was going to be accepted in a treaty; by leaving enough wiggle room for parties, not requiring them to commit to any particular policy measures. Furthermore for Vanhala it was clear that there is a discursive divide in describing L&D, one approach describing it as a measure of dealing with risk and guaranteeing insurance, the other describing it as a measure for ascribing liability and claiming compensation. Respectively each framework has either a focus on uncertainty, the risk-insurance frame, or on harm, the liability-compensation frame. It seems reasonable to question this divide when considering the idea that harm and uncertainty might be contemplated in conjunction.

On the day lawyers, policy makers, philosophers, climate scientists and geographers alike took great interest in this workshop on L&D. This led to a diversity of the use of L&D and, as Simon Caney observed, a very different understanding of what it is about. Policy makers for example were involved in the run-up to and in making of the 2015 Paris agreement, resulting in a view that L&D is a concrete component of the agreement. Whereas academics who were not (generally) involved in making the agreement and only engaged with L&D after it was made, might hold that its constructive ambiguity leads to only a voluntary basis for States to commit to L&D. Moreover it was surprising that there were no economists present, as ‘finance’ is such an important part of the L&D debate.


Flooding in Bangladesh. By Staff Sergeant Val Gempis (USAF) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All attendees agreed that workshops like this one need to happen more frequently, because L&D is in need of greater exploration. There is a conception that L&D is happening at this moment in time, depending on how the term is understood. Given the diverse ways that it is understood there is a danger that it will take far too long for us to work out its conceptualisation when we need to take action now. A key lesson is that, despite the difficulty of conceptualising L&D, action can still be taken on article eight. A pioneering role-model we might look towards as an example is Bangladesh. Saleem Huq presented the Bangladeshi’s government strategies for handling L&D. The most striking thing about this seemed to be the fact that the government was financing its own responses and does this for at least two reasons: 1. to prove its own independence, and 2. since Paris has not instigated action on L&D when it is needed now. In conclusion this case-study shows that Paris should be learning from Bangladesh, Bangladesh has no need to learn from Paris.

Reflecting on the workshop, when we were making our way home, it seems ironic that L&D was going to play an even more prevalent role in our day. Arriving at Paddington a freight train had caused great damage on the track, our loss because we faced a long journey back.

By Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars Vera Van Gool and Josh Wells

Ethics & Uncertainty

Ethics & Uncertainty Workshop, 04-06-2016, Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace

Långholmen hotel, hostel, conference centre and restaurant, Stockholm

Långholmen hotel, hostel, conference centre and restaurant, Stockholm

On the 4th of June a host of philosophers from across the world came together to discuss the topic of uncertainty in relation to ethics. Although the workshop’s location was slightly ominous (as it was at the former prison on the Långholmen island in Stockholm) the atmosphere of the congregation was open and accommodating. Everyone was here to constructively and collectively think about uncertainty as one of the more challenging topics facing ethicists. Among the topics we addressed were how to properly evaluate the values we hold, how to judge our decisions in the prospect of extreme events, and how we go about assigning a value to an increase in our chances of success in our decisions. I will briefly discuss some of the content of the discussions on these topics below.

On the basis of the talk by Seth Lazar we discussed when aggregation of interests is permissible or impermissible. When choosing between options where an agent or a minority has to suffer as a consequence of choosing to satisfy a more weighty or more universal claim of other agents or a majority, the question can be asked: how big may this sacrifice be in light of the gain we predict to get? In conjunction with this question we also touched upon how it might be appropriate for an agent to retract her claim if the opposing claim is sufficiently weighty. In addition we discussed how we can make sure one option is (either objectively or subjectively) better than another, because often this is in itself uncertain.

The former Långholmen prison cells now converted into hotel rooms

The former Långholmen prison cells now converted into hotel rooms

Another interesting point came up in a discussion on how to deal with risks associated with extreme events. In this talk by Sven-Ove Hansson he suggested that a process of ‘hypothetical retrospection’ might be appropriate when weighing our options; a method in which we place ourselves in the shoes of our future selves and imagine how we would look back on all the possible decisions we could have made, in order to assess how we might or might not want live with the consequences of our decisions and actions. The crux of this analysis is to see whether we would have chosen the same option as ‘fitting’ with our values at the original moment in time to foresee any possible regret. Problematic in hypothetical retrospection might be that, psychologically speaking, as time progresses human beings can become satisfied with whichever decision they would have made. Coping mechanisms could be at work over time that would allow for an agent to come to terms with her decision. The agent could also have difficulty imagining how the future self assesses the moment of decision or the possible outcomes.

We also looked into how humans might value chances depending on how much ‘good’ they achieve or how close the chances might move us towards our objectives in reflecting on the talk by Orri Steffanson. Decision theory generally assumes that human beings care equally about an increase in chances in a variety of scenarios, irrespective of the circumstances. As long as chances increase by the same amount, say by 0.1 be it from 0.5 to 0.6 or 0.9 to 1 in different scenarios, this increase should be of equal import. However an alternative evaluation of chance increase was presented where humans might value an increase in chance more the closer it brings us to ‘certain success’ or moves us away from ‘certain failure’. In this second evaluative framework the mid-range options, e.g. where we enhance a 0.5 chance to a 0.6 chance, is then judged as less important than a 0.9 to 1 increase. This is not to say that one evaluative framework is right or wrong or even better or worse, it is just to say that some individuals might be driven by a pure increase in chances irrespective of whether it brings us even close to reaching our goals, whereas others are driven by a view that values the chances that bring us closest to our objectives more in comparison to the chances that ‘only’ increase our chances in the mid-range of options where we are not close to success or failure.

Even though climate change was not the central topic in this workshop, issues associated with uncertainty that were brought up can be applied all the same. On the question of the permissibility of aggregation one might for example say that it is permissible or even required for the more developed countries to retract their claims to resources (be it emissions or money) in the face of the less developed countries and their claims to development. We might want to use hypothetical retrospection in climate change policy-making when we consider the impact of values on which we base our decisions; what possible futures will upholding values like ‘maximising utility’ or ‘moderation’ lead to and would we be able to live with these decisions in retrospect? Lastly the point of differing frameworks for evaluating chances might have an impact on which issues we choose to address over others and the frameworks can

A view of the Långholmen island

A view of the Långholmen island

uncover this bias. Hypothetically speaking: if a policy strategy that increases our chances from 0.9 to 1 of stopping floods in an area were to cost the same as investing in a 0.1 increase in our chances from 0.5 to 0.6 for mitigating methane emissions, the former option could grasp the policy makers’ attention over the latter. The problem here is that this bias does not necessarily reflect how important addressing the respective issues is in comparison.

This workshop has made me realise once more that we have many challenges on our hands when it comes to uncertainty in tackling climate change. Not only do we have to decide how to approach predictive uncertainties in the climate sciences, which can be seen as a ‘classical’ climate change uncertainty. We also have to deal with the uncertainty of whether we will be able to live with (governance) choices we make in the future, whether we believe we have upheld the right values and whether we chose the ‘right odds’ when choosing policy strategies.

By Vera Van Gool, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

A Visit from Peter Stoett: Plastic, Violence, Climate and Justice

The Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Programme in Climate Justice was fortunate enough to welcome visiting scholar Dr Peter Stoett for a series of one to one meetings, reading groups and a masterclass on key themes surrounding plastic pollution, eco-violence, environmental crime and justice. Peter is Director of the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre at Concordia University in Montreal. He has carried out research across the globe, with a rich body of published work looking at primary international relations and law, environmental politics and human rights. Peter’s visit provided a fascinating insight into a number of the peripheral issues that surround, and are often further exacerbated by global climate change. Collectively we explored the resurgence of environmental or ‘eco’ violence, the governance of environmental crime and whether neglectful contribution to climate change should fall under this remit, and finally the links between plastic pollution and climate justice – which will be the focus of this blog.

By Claire Fackler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Claire Fackler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Discussions on the matter centred on Peter’s paper ‘Marine Obligations Ergo Omnes: On Reducing the Plastic Heritage of Humankind’, in which he details the alarming extent to which harmful plastic has become pervasive within our oceans and fresh water sources alike. The ubiquity of this substance, on account of its inability to biodegrade, has led to serious implications for oceans, lakes, rivers and the biodiversity that constitutes them. The scene is originally set by discussing the changing discourse around the topic. Whilst initially larger, visible pollution in the form of discarded fishing equipment, shopping bags and ring pulls, which were often being consumed by assorted wildlife were central to the issue – focus has now shifted to micro plastics, those smaller than 1mm. These emanate from the breakdown of larger plastics, and from their inclusion in a number of household goods and cleaners, such as shower gels and cosmetics. Recent scientific evidence has proved unequivocally that “exposure to environmentally relevant concentrations of micro plastic polystyrene particles (90 micrometres) inhibits hatching, decreases growth rates, and alters feeding preferences and innate behaviours of European perch larvae” (Lonnsted & Eklov, 2016, pg.1213). As such the need to mitigate the impacts of plastics on our natural environment is now critically important.

He goes on to tie the plastic problem to climate change, firstly through the carbon intensity of the plastic industry (which makes a 10% contribution to ‘global warming potential’) and also through its deleterious impact on the ability of those who consume it to ingest organic carbon based matter as usual – impacting the carbon cycling function of our oceans. The paper explores the various institutions to whom the task of resolving this issue has fallen upon – from transnational NGO ‘The Global Oceans Commission’ to The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the United Nations Environment Programme, however he raises concerns over a lack of concrete claims of responsibility and appropriate binding targets to ensure the drastic reduction of pollution. Finally a series of recommendations are made on how the aquatic plastic problem can be addressed moving forwards. The use of citizen science is cited as a useful tool, as well as the necessity of developing clear progress indicators, increased regulation of aquaculture and advocacy of increased funding to be directed in exploring the links between climate change and plastic pollution.

Andy Waddington [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Andy Waddington [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Maybe unsurprisingly, the aspect of this paper that most caught my attention was the startling parallels between the aquatic plastic problem and global climate change, particularly the inherent injustices that reside at their core. Both of these phenomena pose a greater threat to future generations than current, with Asia now creating more pollution than any other region, whereas historically Europe and America were innovators of plastic. There are complicated questions of agency around both, which have often precluded the ascription of responsibility – with small amounts of pollution being discarded in an untraceable manner on a truly global scale. Lastly, and maybe the saddest of the truths that accompany cases of injustice are that those who have contributed least to the problem, will face its wrath with the most severity, particularly the small island states and poverty stricken coastal regions in the global south.

Both climate and plastic are symptomatic of the rampant consumerism that is now status quo across the planet. Americans alone are consuming approximately 50 billion bottles of water a year, which require 17 million barrels of oil to produce. The two issues are inextricably linked, however should we look to ‘bolt-on’ the battle to reduce aquatic plastic to the issue of climate change? This question proved polemic amongst discussants. If, as history suggests, we have a finite amount of political will in regards to the environment, and with tackling climate change being granted centre stage – does it risk the fight against plastics being overlooked? Personally, I am not sure of the extent to which including plastics within the climate debate will be beneficial to the cause. The ambitious (arguably unrealistic) INDCs outlined at Paris are task enough for the 189 represented countries, and to attempt to add plastic into the mix may be a bridge too far, in a movement that has been notoriously slow moving over the past three decades. Whilst to many the concept of climate change remains abstract, a tangibility exists in the plastic movements that must surely play to its advantage. Graphic images of sea birds whose stomachs are full of debris and ‘plastic islands’ in the ocean have the potential to engage with a wider public audience than that of climate, and its harm is undeniable – a movement which has hindered the mitigation of climate change to no ends.

By Callum Nolan, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar


  1. M. Lonnstedt, P. Eklov. Environmentally relevant concentrations of microplastic particles influence larval fish ecology. Science, 2016; 352

Peter Stoett, Visiting Scholar

Peter Stoett is a professor in the Political Science Department, and Director of the Loyola Sustainability Research Centre, at Concordia University in Montreal.  He is currently Visiting Scholar to the Leverhulme Doctoral Programme in Climate Justice at the University of Reading.

Preventing Perfect Storms Deepens the Climate Justice Challenge and Demands Western Introspection

A perfect storm: environmental degradation, violent conflict, and a public health crisis, usually in the form of an epidemic. We’ve seen this scenario unfold several times in recent years, and one might argue these three elements have been present to some degree in most major humanitarian challenges. Climate change will only exacerbate the situation, and climate justice demands not only climate adaptation funding but serious efforts to avoid the confluence of these three factors in the near future.

Too often, climate justice is discussed as though it can be separated from the violence that often accompanies environmental destruction. As though funding for technological innovation will somehow cover the costs associated with climate change. But if we expand our conception of the price people will pay to include the true parameters of associated violence and threats to human health, we must readily concede that technology is only part of the mandate of climate justice.

Of course, environmental justice was a missing factor in many perceptions without climate change to animate it. The earthquake that struck Haiti was a prime example: a natural disaster struck a country with a violent past and twinned environmental (especially deforestation) and health care deficiencies. When Ebola attacked the people of western African states, they were already burdened with the legacies of murderous civil wars in Sierre Leone and Liberia, and the illegal timber trade and other environmental assaults might have helped the bat infestation that started the epidemic in the first place. Sub-Saharan Africa faced an even greater challenge with the HIV-AIDS pandemic, initially caused by bushmeat consumption and spread in part by sexual violence in war zones.

But we will need to consider the impact of climate in humanitarian and health crises as well. The rise and spread of the Zika virus, which has been tentatively attributed to climate change, is also affecting areas where violence is not uncommon, and it spreading in drought-stricken and forest-fire prone Central America. Honduras is literally on fire, not only because of forests burning but because of gang violence and one of the highest murder rates in the world. Adding a zoonotic disease to this is like pouring gasoline on the flames.

Some even attribute the war in Syria to the impact of a long-term drought in that region, coupled with uneven access to health care amongst the Syrian population, leading ultimately to the re-emergence of polio and other diseases. There is no hard and fast causal direction in these cases: one thing does not necessarily lead to another. What we do know is that when all three of these apocalyptic horsemen are present, they feed off each other’s misery and chaos.

This is why wildlife conservation, climate change adaptation, the protection of biodiversity and clean water sources, and other environmental management approaches based on ecosystems services is such an important buffer. Losing natural capital can result not only in flaring tempers around access to resources, but it weakens the effectiveness of responses to natural disasters and the fallout of conflict. Similarly, it is extremely difficult to convince people to care about the environment when guns are blazing and the natural elements are blowing through holes in damaged roofs. Remember the citizens of Sarajevo stripping the trees in that beautiful city as the siege wore on?

Of course the international community is hardly oblivious to these factors, and continues to search for umbrellas, conceptual and technological, with which we can weather these perfect storms. The obvious answers – foster peace and sponsor peacebuilding, erect good governance architecture, professionalize environmental management, and build better hospitals – are not enough; necessary, but not sufficient.

Nor is the ignoble, if understandable, reflex to resort to thicker protective walls, or to somehow quarantine human beings who have the right and ability to travel and flee existential threats.  If we continue to see more humanitarian crises linked to infectious disease, will we see more movement toward the permanent establishment of a global bio-apartheid that savagely separates the vulnerable from those who can afford security? It is even a money-making proposition, and the transnational security industry realized decades ago.

To avoid this nightmarish scenario, we need to learn how to predict, respond to, and avoid the deadly mix of conflict, ecological destruction, and health crises. Despite good intentions there will be much more of this to come.  But, on World Environment Day of 2016, I wonder how self-critical we are prepared to be in order to achieve this.

Importantly, we need to look in the mirror and assess the contributions made by western governments and investments to these problems, with ethical clarity and moral courage. Do we foster militarism with arms sales? Do we accentuate the loss of biodiversity with large-scale natural resource extraction projects? Do we limit access to pharmaceutical products necessary for dealing with communicable and non-communicable diseases to enhance profits? Is climate change, largely the result of historical industrialization and agriculture in the west, making the response to humanitarian emergencies even more difficult?

The answer to all of these questions is, of course, yes. So part of climate justice, if we accept the premise that it has a preventive and not just a compensatory or remedial mandate, must be to take honest stock and appraisal of these western shadows cast in areas where the perfect storms have proven most likely and recurrent. This does not deflect attention from local incompetence, corruption, and malfeasance. But it does add another dimension to the climate justice agenda: the prevention of the violence-ecology-disease nexus resulting in humanitarian crises is not just enlightened self-interest, it is an imperative of climate justice as well.