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/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *