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.