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.


John Broome : Do not ask for morality

As part of the conference entitled ‘Climate Ethics and Climate Economics: how to finance ‘well below 2 degrees?’ ’ at the University of Nottingham, April 12th to 15th, John Broome gave a public lecture entitled ‘Do not ask for morality’.

A controversial title for a controversial talk. In his talk, John Broome (former White’s professor of Moral philosophy at Oxford) argued that we should not ask for morality when it comes to response from our governments to climate change. The logic of his argument was that we have to be realistic and the demands of morality are too great for governments in this context.

He started by briefly outlining what he means by morality in the context of climate change. He explained that morality has the fundamental premise not to do harm, and even though there may be exceptions to this rule, the circumstances of our emissions are not one of them. Therefore we ought not to emit, we should lead carbon neutral lives. If governments were to follow the demands of morality they would ensure that citizens have net zero emission throughout their lives. This is clearly demanding and Broome thinks that governments are not going to meet this standard anytime soon. Therefore we should look elsewhere and work out what behaviour may be realistic from governments. Broome gives the example of the British government reducing its support for domestic schemes to cut emissions one week after the COP 21, to show the how unlikely it is that governments would meet their moral duties.

Broome explained that the reason why climate change is often seen as moral issue is because we are asking people to make a sacrifice. At the very least it tends to involve asking people to stop emitting carbon. This premise motivates Broome’s argument. He thinks if it is possible to talk about climate change without asking people to make a sacrifice then people should be willing to perform that action and it is no longer a problem of morality due to the absence of sacrifice.

Broome thinks we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions without sacrifice due to the fact that greenhouse gases are an externality. An externality is any cost which is borne by those who do not perform the action. In the case of greenhouse gases, it affects people who do not emit them.  Broome uses logic from economics to say that externalities are inefficient and therefore a Pareto improvement is possible; that is to say, at least one person or group can be made better off without another group or person being made worse off. This is a remarkably strong claim and very counter intuitive to those outside the realm of economics. It basically says no one needs lose; no sacrifice need be made to cut our carbon emissions.

This is a complicated argument to which I cannot do justice, but I will briefly outline it. Basically, Broome thinks for a Pareto improvement to be possible, there needs to be the opportunity for compensation. He looks intergenerationally and asks the question: can future generations compensate present people for cutting their carbon emissions? Again, at first glance most people would say ‘no’. However, he argues that future people can compensate present people due to the fact that we will leave people in the future a set of goods. That set of goods is made up of capital stock such as roads, hospitals and resources. Therefore we can reduce the set of goods we leave them and use those goods to compensate people now for not emitting. People in the present would accept the compensation – assuming it is adequately high and future people would accept it – because it allows them to live in a world with less climate change. This would mean reducing our investment in the capital stock and using that money to compensate present people instead for their lower emissions.

This argument is undoubtedly complicated, but if it is correct then its appeal is that it creates a way in which governments can act on climate change without asking for sacrifice from their citizens. This increases the political feasibility of such action. To be concerned about the idea of future people paying the present not to harm them is a valid concern.  Broome is clear that morality would never demand that you compensate someone for not harming you, and yet a practical solution to overcoming the obstacles currently barring governments from creating policies that would lead to the reduction of carbon emissions must be found.  For Broome, the economic principle of efficiency without sacrifice may provide that solution.

By Joshua Wells, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

Normative Orders, Frankfurt, March 3/4, 2016

On March 3/4th we were lucky enough to attend the ‘Climate Ethics and Economics Workshop’ at Goethe University, Frankfurt. It was an international as well as interdisciplinary event, with a link via Skype to a parallel conference at Duke University. The key note on the first day, broadcast from the US without a single technical glitch, was Geoffrey Brennan. It was Frankfurt’s turn to transmit across the channel on day two, and John O’Neill brought our side of the workshop to a close and raised the curtain on the second day for those the other side of the Atlantic. It would be impossible to sum up all we learnt at the conference, but below are a few key themes that we thought particularly interesting.

One topic that always makes for interesting conversation between philosophers and economists is that of discounting. The debate, stated generally, is about how we ought to weigh the interests of the present against the future. The jumping off point is most often the Ramsey equation, which is an attempt to organise the relevant considerations into a single formula. Two aspects of the discounting debate received the most attention. Kian Mintz Woo’s paper focused on the divisive question of which sort of arguments, from who, we should bring to bear on the different areas of the formula. Certain parameters, Kian argued, might not lend themselves philosophical argumentation and might instead call for a degree of expert elicitation. How we conceive of expertise in this area was, naturally, a bone of contention, and the disagreement made for an intriguing Q&A. In a similar vein, Matthew Randall sought to sharpen our focus on one aspect of the Ramsey equation, this time that of the projected growth rate. Matthew’s concern was that the equation, at least as currently formulated, is not adequately sensitive to low probability catastrophes. His paper was an effort to remedy this oversight. Both presentations on discounting, while very different, reaffirmed how difficult it is to select the specific numerical values for the equation.

By Kiefer. from Frankfurt, Germany (Goethe Universität Frankfurt, Goethe Installation) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Kiefer. from Frankfurt, Germany (Goethe Universität Frankfurt, Goethe Installation) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Another subject which drew multiple papers was that of geoengineering. Daniel Callies, one of our hosts in Frankfurt, took up a frequently aired worry about such proposals along the lines that they would amount to our ‘playing God’ with the climate. This concern about geoengineering is not always advanced with much precision, though, and the first part of Daniel’s presentation helped to disentangle the different possible ways in which it might be, and is, invoked in these debates. Building on this, the second part engaged directly with some formulations of the objection, casting doubt on at least the most uncompromising, absolutist version of the argument. The second paper on geoengineering, presented by Harald Stelzer of Gratz University, made for an interesting complement. Here the aim was less about trying to assess specific arguments for and against geoengineering than it was about taking a step back and trying to get a clearer sense of the interdisciplinary contours of the field. The picture that emerged was a complex one, and Harald concluded by gesturing toward a multidimensional consequentialist framework that might provide us with some guidance. What both presentations had in common was a call for more subtlety and nuance in our thinking about geoengineering. Given the nature of the topic it is perhaps of little surprise that one finds a polarised and politically charged debate, but both Harald and Daniel warned against viewing it in such all or nothing terms. There are many moral considerations that must be given their due in this context and many different degrees of geoengineering that we might contemplate.

A final aspect of the conference we thought worth flagging up – again of an encouragingly interdisciplinary nature – was the frequency with which economic models were used in the aid of philosophical argumentation. As a case in point, Darrel Moellendorf’s stimulating paper deployed a predictive model as a way to explore the potential implications of his favoured principle of intergenerational equity against Nordhaus’ utility function. By projecting the comparative costs of mitigation from this point forward, Darrel wanted to gain an understanding of where the principles would likely diverge in practice, rather than just in theory. The results were interesting. While Darrel was sold on the theoretical merits of the principle of equity over its utilitarian counterpart, in practice the latter appeared to better spread the costs toward those more able to pay. On the face of it, such a conclusion does not sit well with the egalitarian intuitions that underpin the principle of intergenerational equity. A number of courses of action might follow from this insight and we await Darrel’s completed paper to find out his own full response. A general take home point, though, was that models can provide a valuable aid in helping philosophers understand the implications of their principles over time – especially through facilitating comparisons with alternatives.

Aside from the academic content, the conference was a lot of fun. We are grateful to the Leverhulme Trust for providing us with the opportunity to go and to Normative Orders for their generosity in hosting the event.

By Alex McLaughlin and Joshua Wells, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars



Climate Justice after Paris conference

Thursday the 28th of January marked the start of the inaugural conference in the University of Reading’s Leverhulme Doctoral Programme in Climate Justice, ‘Climate Justice After Paris’. The two-day event that boasted an impressive mix of academia, civil society and policy makers aimed to dissect the Paris COP21 climate negotiations held at the tail end of 2015. World leaders lauded the negotiations as an unprecedented success, particularly on account of the agreed target to limit global warming to 2 degrees with the very ambitious aim to keep it close to 1.5 degrees. These feelings of jubilation are not universal, and the Climate Justice conference hoped to provide some necessary scrutiny.

The event at Reading brought together an impressive line-up. Excellent keynote speakers philosophers Henry Shue and Simon Caney, and special advisor Youba Sokona of The South Centre, were present. Panels formed of experts which included representatives from The Mary Robinson Foundation, World Resources Institute and a number of top universities from around the globe were also present. This led to two days of in-depth and fascinating discussion on the key issues that arose from the Paris COP. With a fine-tooth comb, participants reviewed the journey to Paris, reflected on its successes and failures and provided an illuminating insight into the future of the climate battle. A battle that aims to prevent catastrophic, human-induced climate, whilst striving to keep issues of justice central to the process.

By any standards, the conference was a resounding success. It facilitated an environment in which leading figures in the climate justice movement, from a wide spectrum of disciplinary backgrounds, could discuss and debate all of the key topics from COP21. On top of the above, it was also a great opportunity to showcase our research as the first cohort of Leverhulme Climate Justice scholars currently undertaking the first year of our PhDs. We were privileged to be exposed to a level of expertise very few doctoral students would have the opportunity to benefit from. Below are some of the key points that emerged for each student in relation to their specific area of research:

Alex McLaughlin – Sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change

A lot of the conversation at the After Paris Conference was interpretative in a quite a specific sense, with the focus on trying to understand more precisely the implications of the Paris agreement for climate justice. On the whole the verdict was inconclusive. Some of the delegates were optimistic, others less so, and most hedged their bets by pointing out that judgements about the effectiveness of key elements of deal – the ‘ratchet mechanism’ being the most notable – are at this early stage inevitably speculative. Given this emphasis, discussion on the subject of how we ought to split-up the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change was not really concerned with the content of the candidate principles we might, and have, put forward to do so, as much as it was about assessing the degree to which Paris has made the realisation of any such principle more or less likely and considering how academic work should respond to this impact. In this light a number of interesting points were thrown up, only a few of which I can detail here.

Given the inconclusive verdict regarding the success of Paris, one worry, voiced on a number of occasions, was that debates about burden-sharing have become overly abstract. Such is the complexity of the challenge posed by climate change that this is largely unavoidable, and philosophers have spilt much ink trying to come up with principles that strike an appropriate balance between a number of competing considerations. For example, should the burdens associated with climate change be allocated according to a state’s contribution to problem, or their capacity to deal with it, or the extent to which they have received benefits from the activities that caused it, or perhaps even by some combination of all of the above? While no doubt interesting, these debates, or so some delegates thought, have become rather too far removed from what is most urgent. The really obvious and pressing issue that remains after Paris (as was conveyed forcefully by Henry Shue in his keynote) is the avoidance of catastrophic harm. Perhaps we should put our fine-grained philosophical debates about burden-sharing on hold for the time being, or at least make sure they do not pose too much of a distraction.

Another interesting point concerned the manner in which we frame debates about burden-sharing. So far they have largely revolved around the question of historical responsibility. But it may well be that this framing has done more harm than good, tending to pitch states against each other in an adversarial way. If we can exert any influence on the how the narratives around climate justice take shape, then we should bear in mind that more productive ones will be more conducive to reaching agreement. Take Fergus Green’s presentation as a case in point. If it is true, as he suggests, that the economic incentives facing states with regards to mitigation have become considerably more positive in recent years, then we should be sure to emphasise this point. This would not remove the need for us to scrutinise the deeper distributive questions in play. But while we should always care about the spread of the costs associated with mitigation (in a way that doesn’t distract too much from the need to avoid catastrophic harm, of course), it would make a difference to our thinking about the issue if it turned out that states were set to fare better overall than we first thought.

Finally, I thought that Aaron Maltais’ presentation did an excellent job of outlining why these sorts of debates about climate justice remain so important. While we might be forgiven for thinking that the implementation of INDCs moves the achievement of justice in this sense one step further away, he outlined a number of ways in which debates about burden-sharing will remain crucial. First, although responsibilities to mitigate will not be allocated directly according to a certain principle and will instead rely on voluntary commitments from states, it is likely that the more these contributions align with what we perceive to be fair, the more effective they will be. States will increase their own ambitions, so the argument goes, the more they see others doing their part. Second, thinking about burden-sharing will provide us with a yardstick to judge these voluntary commitments. We will still want to be able to condemn a situation as unjust even if it has become less likely that we can change it. I think this second point is a crucial one. It is important to remember that the precise details of the Paris agreement do not fundamentally alter the questions about who should contribute what toward climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Callum Nolan – Business and Global Warming

Following COP21, I found myself struggling with two big questions– How can we make the radical cuts in emissions required to get below 2 degrees, and where does the money come from to pay for it? The private sector has been cited as a big part of the solution to these questions. They have the resources to do so – but why should they expend these tackling climate change? My (admittedly sceptical) view is that businesses seldom act out of the kindness of their collective hearts and as such the conference made for an interesting opportunity to probe the drivers, and risks of private sector involvement.

So in a period of unprecedented corporate inclusion in climate change policy, what does business stand to achieve from playing a role in combatting climate change? Many signs from the conference pointed to a genuine realisation from the private sector that the way business is done has to change, and rapidly. This essentially leaves businesses with two options – engage now and integrate necessary actions into a profitable business strategy, or prolong action and play catch up later. Fortunately it appears a number of businesses have chosen the former.

Sceptical hat firmly back on, questions then arise of whether there are risks associated with increased proximity to the private sector. None that outweigh the benefits of their inclusion it seems, with a number of panel members saying that ideas of greenwashing may be overstated. Likewise it was pointed out that this proximity is not necessarily a new thing, with reference made to the pervasive influence of fossil fuel companies and their attempts to halt divestment. Is there risk of the new wave of apparently well-meaning businesses having similarly veiled interests? Potentially, but it seems one we must take regardless.

Vera Van Gool – Risk and uncertainty as support for climate action

Since my research focuses on how we should go about taking precautionary measures in the face of climate change, risk and uncertainty are two key concepts to my project. At the conference these two concepts kept popping up in presentations and conversations, fuelling my interest in the debates and engagement with them. I would like to focus on one particular talk that caught my attention and share this speech and my thoughts on it with you here.

Keynote-speaker Henry Shue opened the first conference day. He argued that if we predict that a climate risk might occur of which the magnitude is great, we have to implement precautionary measures, even though we might not know its probability. This can be described as a form of the ‘precautionary principle’, coincidently the focus of my own research. In Shue’s argumentation the magnitude or seriousness of the risk is determined by the prospected loss and/or irreversibility of the event. The latter he calls threshold-likelihood, which focuses specifically on tipping-points in the Earth system. Furthermore we have a special responsibility to prevent the tipping-points this generation has the last-opportunity to prevent. If we grant that we are the last generation able to take effective action to prevent a tipping-point, it is immoral to postpone action.

Shue presents a strong argument for taking precautionary measures; if we are fast approaching irreversibly disastrous events, then tackling them should be of primary importance. However, and as Shue himself acknowledges, this precautionary view is based on a rather narrow interpretation of the precautionary principle. I myself would like to think there is a broader set of climate concerns this principle can respond to. This is what I would like to explore in my PhD project and the conference has helped a great deal in crystallising these thoughts.

Joshua Wells – Has Paris put geoengineering on the table?

Geoengineering is the idea of using technology to manipulate the climate. Whilst controversial by nature, it does offer a potential solution to questions of how to limit the warming that the planet may experience. So far geoengineering has not been taken too seriously in the context of the degrees target on climate change. That is to say, geoengineering has not been deemed necessary in order for humanity to not surpass this level of warming. COP21 in Paris may have gone some way towards bringing it back on the table, in that it was determined that the aim should be for there to be no more than 1.5 degrees of warming. At first glance this move is great, appearing to be a genuine commitment to drastically limiting climate change.

The Reading conference had a panel on the 1.5 degrees target, with the key question raised concerning the potential costs of reaching this modified and ambitious target.  The concern was that this reduced target would make it difficult to achieve mitigation while respecting the human development goals that are also central to the agreement. In saying this, something of a consensus emerged that 1.5 degrees is more aspirational than genuinely expected, leaving the question: at what cost should policymakers try to achieve this target? Darrel Moellendorf raised the point that geoengineering is an obvious action which comes to mind. If policy makers are completely serious about 1.5 degrees, then this seems unachievable given the rate at which we are cutting carbon, unless quite extensive geoengineering is implemented.

This seems particularly interesting. The argument seems to be that the more ambitious we are in our target for climate policy, the more likely it is that geoengineering will emerge as a likely option. I do not think it was the intention of Paris to put geoengineering on the table, yet if we take 1.5 degrees seriously it seems likely that we will have to do this to achieve it or achieve a seismic shift in our own behaviour.

By Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars Alex McLaughlin, Callum Nolan, Vera Van Gool & Joshua Wells

After Paris – Was COP21 a tipping point for international action on climate change?

Less than a week after the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris, The London School of Economics hosted a panel discussion, chaired by Lord Nicholas Stern to reflect on the apparent success of the event.

Bleary eyed from what was no doubt a manic fortnight in France, an impressive panel lined up to provide insight from industry, academia and government. The line-up had all attended COP21, and consisted of:

  • Peter Betts – Direction of International Climate Change at the Department of Energy and Climate Change
  • Anne Bolle – Senior Advisor on Climate Change Policy at Statkraft
  • Zoe Knight – Managing Director of Climate Change Centre at HSBC
  • Alina Averchenkova – Co-Head of Climate Policy at the Grantham Research Institute

Lord Stern began by reflecting on just how significant an achievement it was to obtain such a bold climate agreement signed by 195 countries, an accomplishment that sees other such global agreements throughout history pale into comparison. This was a sentiment shared by all of the panel members, unanimously agreeing that the outcome of COP21 was at the very top end, and in places above any prior expectations as to how successful it could have been. Broadly, the topics of discussion could be split into three categories – What happened before and during talks to generate such an ambitious agreement, and what will have to happen after the COP21 to ensure its successful implementation.

Leading up to COP21

Homage was paid first and foremost to recent COP meetings, in particular Durban (COP17) and Lima (COP20). Lord Stern cited Durban as the birthplace of an increasingly collective effort between the developed and developing nations, especially larger ones such as China and India. Countries such as these began to acknowledge that the transition to a low carbon economy is an appealing prospect, and is essentially the only feasible option given the deeper understanding of the realities of climate change we now possess. Issues of air quality in China, which have received notable media coverage of late, generate public pressure for the switch to renewable energies, which a number of panel members feel is a move that is now more affordable and effective than ever.

Likewise, Lima was praised for inviting nations to submit Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), a series of documents outlying what various countries post 2020 climate ambitions are.  This provided negotiators with a base line climate commitment from submissions reflecting targets from 185 countries, and served to provide the smaller parameter of expectations held by negotiators leading up to talks.

Both Lord Stern and Zoe Knight said that the past 18 months of discussions between USA and China, both of whom are undoubtedly massively important players in global climate politics, were of critical importance. Given the adversarial nature that often characterises this complex relationship, and with fingers pointed at China for the hindrance of previous discussions (in particular the disastrous COP15 in Copenhagen), the importance of having them on board at Paris cannot be understated.

During COP21

The panellists portrayed an event that from the off had a very different feel to COP’s before it. The presence of 150 leaders of state from the first week of the event was symbolic of the importance levied on the discussions. This was in stark contrast, Lord Stern noted, from Copenhagen, where national leaders simply came to ‘clean up the mess’ at the end of the meeting. A focus on combined actions, and ‘ramping up’ countries INDCs as opposed to sanctions may have generated the trusting, optimistic feeling around the talks that many of the panellists commented on. This feel good factor may have been furthered still by talks commencing with what Peter Betts felt were a more honest set of expectations, based around a realistic range of possible outcomes – a lesson learnt he felt from Copenhagen.

The USA may not have always been synonymous with successful climate policies, evident through their objection to the otherwise widely agreed upon Kyoto Protocol. However, Mr Betts spoke very highly of their role in ensuring talks went smoothly, referring to the massive time and capital invested by the USA into the proceedings. This was second he said only to the French, also praised not only for their hosting abilities but their diplomatic approach to creating an inclusive environment in which discussions could be held. He also noted the importance of the USA’s role in alleviating concerns of vulnerable nations about loss and damage, a primary focus of many for obvious reasons. By cementing agreements early on loss and damage, Betts said, it facilitated the vulnerable nations to focus negotiating efforts on mitigation, helping move the process forward.

As lead negotiator for Britain and the EU, Betts was well placed to provide insight on Britain’s aims going into the discussions. Three that received special mention were:

  • Implementation of a 5 year review cycle
  • Improved transparency and accounting mechanisms
  • Legally binding agreements wherever possible

He appeared content that these have been achieved, which is no mean feat considering the difficult balancing act of keeping the USA on board, and facing larger developing nations that often wanted none of the above through fears of infringement on national sovereignty.

Moving Forward from COP21

On paper, even the most sceptical amongst us would struggle to say that COP21 was not a relative success, although saying that global temperature increase will be limited to 2, with an aim of 1.5 degrees and actually doing it are quite clearly two very different things. Whilst nothing can be taken away from the accomplishments of COP21, leaders are now faced with difficult questions of implementation. As Alina Averchenkova pointed out, emission cuts in the INDCs submitted amount to 55 gigatonnes, with 40 needed to achieve the desired limitation of global temperature increase to well below 2 degrees. Whilst not insurmountable, she expressed the necessity for the trust built in recent years to continue for implementation to be successful. Also, increased public awareness and improved decision making structures in developing countries are very important factors in reaching the set targets.

Many of the further suggestions emerging from the panel on how to successfully implement the COP21 agreement were rooted within the market. Learning how to effectively encourage and spend private investments, carbon pricing and increasing knowledge amongst the financial sector on climate change were all named as means of doing so. Zoe Knight felt that the commitments made in Paris will break the cycle of blame that emerges between industry and the government, as industry can now feel more comfortable investing in a low carbon economy thanks to a more concrete, long term commitment from world leaders. She also believes that the knock on effect of China delivering on their cuts (whose signals she felt, suggest they will) will have a knock on effect on countries that export high carbon products to China, meaning a rethink amongst them on how they do business.

Having realistic expectations was apparently vital to the COP21 proceedings, and I feel also necessary as an audience member of this panel debate. Beyond the mutual backpattery, I came out feeling that given the calibre of speakers I hadn’t gained quite as much insight as I may have liked. Difficult questions from the crowd were on occasion tactfully (and sometimes not so tactfully) dodged. This included issues such as continued fossil fuel subsidies and Britain’s recent cuts to renewable investment, which are incongruous with the glowing picture of our mitigation ambitions painted by Mr Betts. Something I did feel was interesting however was the makeup of the audience. It was not full of the hemp laden, academic types that one may expect at such an event, but suit wearing, industry representatives, which may bolster the rhetoric that the private sector is starting to pay climate change the attention it deserves, and desperately requires.

It is probably unfair to expect answers to tough policy questions, especially within seven days of such a historic and no doubt arduous event. As Zoe Knights pointed out, it is important to remember that Paris is simply a first step towards tackling climate change, not the solution. In this case however, scepticism is healthy, and necessary if climate change is to be kept a priority in the months and years to come.

By Callum Nolan, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

Pondering our pre-Paris protest

On the 29th of November thousands of people took to the streets all over the world to have their voices heard by the world leaders negotiating climate action in Paris. Being PhD students passionate about tackling climate change we could not let this opportunity pass by to get up from our desks and add our voices to those of activists, NGOs, religious groups and countless ordinary people trying to speak up. So, we joined in the action in London!


Looking back at COP21 in Paris, which concluded on the 11th of December, and considering the Paris agreement one cannot help but feel that a small victory has been won. A hundred and ninety-five countries have agreed to decrease or limit their emissions by 2020 to cause no more than a 2°C rise in global average temperature compared to pre-industrial levels (pre 1800), with the ambition to keep it close to 1.5 degrees.[1] The question we are left with however is: in what way has all this activism helped towards reaching this agreement?


It’s hard to put a figure on just how much activism influences those seeking and reaching political agreements. However, actions like these are sure to make an impression, even if it’s only visually. From our own experience, being only two people in a sea of protesters, we can say it feels empowering to be part of sending the univocal message “make Paris a success”. We noticed many banners calling for climate justice, and felt glad that this was a clear part of the protest’s message. Even if there were a multitude of slogans being carried proudly in the march and divergent religious and non-religious groups of people representing their beliefs, we all contributed to sending this clear message together. This just goes to show: the health of our planet is something everyone can (and arguably should) care about. Surely solidarity and speaking up is important for galvanising public support for climate action and climate justice. We are glad to be making a contribution to the wider pursuit of climate justice through our research.

To conclude, this is our message to all the climate-activist sympathisers out there (particularly those normally sitting behind a desk researching climate change): if you feel tempted to take to the streets, don’t hesitate; storm those barricades!


[1] UNFCCC Adoption of the Paris Agreement Paris, 30 November to 11 December 2015: pp.2 and 22

By Vera Van Gool (Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar) and Phil Coventry (PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science)

The Paris Climate Talks: Politics, Policies and Principles

Edinburgh, 20 November 2015

Recently we attended a symposium addressing the UN climate change Conference of the Parties in Paris, due to begin at the end of November. The symposium started with a challenge from Sandra Boyack, MSP, for attendees to engage with civil society groups, raise awareness about climate change and climate justice, and disseminate our research through new and unconventional channels. This set the tone for a wide-ranging discussion, with panels covering domestic French politics and climate change, climate politics and justice, and the civil society response to climate change negotiations.

All of the panels considered the circumstances of the Paris conference, both in terms of the political moment, and the local and global reaction to the recent terrorist attacks. This would become a key theme of the day.

Speakers in the first panel, about French politics, went beyond political parties’ positions and discussed how the Paris conference is an important event in President Hollande’s term of office, since the outcome will inevitably provide political capital to either him or his opponents. This significance is only heightened by the terrorist attacks, which have placed a spotlight on the president and his handling of the aftermath. Dr Carl Death took a broader perspective in the second panel, describing Paris as a moment of political theatre where all participants are on show and need to be seen performing their respective roles.

Civil society panellists discussed the effect of restrictions recently placed on public protests and advocacy in Paris. While an important obstacle to the impact civil society groups hoped to have on the delegates and the media, panellists made clear that the restrictions have stimulated new and imaginative methods of communicating with the public and making their messages visible to conference delegates.

The significance of civil society was a second theme that ran through the symposium, and was specifically addressed in the third panel. Adrian Shaw, from the Church of Scotland, picked up on Sandra Boyack’s point that faith groups offer a substantial and potentially influential cohort to engage and motivate about climate change. Mary Church provided an insight into Friends of the Earth activities and priorities in Paris, and Louisa Casson, from E3G, brought a wider perspective on civil society activists and campaigners. These contributions made clear that national and transnational groups are gearing up to provide the vocal and insightful pressure from the outside of the Paris conference that is so vital to robust governance.

The second panel, covering climate politics and expectations for Paris, emphasised the role of civil society in providing visible activity but also the need for their in-depth analysis and information more quietly behind the scenes. This echoed Sandra Boyack’s insight into the important contribution civil society groups made to Scottish climate change legislation, by providing authoritative suggestions that fed directly into wording, targets and principles.

While nowhere near as dynamic as civil society, numerous panellists commented that climate change governance does show signs of evolution; this was a third core theme of the day. Central to this is the model of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), where individual countries design their own voluntary commitments. Dr Paul Tobin described these changes as ‘politically promising’, but translating them into a robust treaty remains a significant challenge. The idea of ratcheting up expectations and commitments was raised by several speakers. This would involve scheduled checkpoints every few years to review progress and new technology, and agree more stringent measures. Ratcheting up is emerging as a potential means to turn the INDCs, which have fallen short of what is necessary to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees, into scientifically adequate action.

Dr Tobin described the potential for more bottom-up, individualised contributions to secure ongoing engagement from states within the UNFCCC and underpin the changing governance process. Dr Sherilyn Macgregor pointed out that behind this promise lies the actual and potential inequality of INDCs. A lack of consultation and representation in the creation process has generated concerns that vulnerable groups within national societies will be disproportionately affected by climate change policies or simply neglected.

Dr Death reminded us that even if climate governance is evolving, some debates, such as a 1.5 or 2 degree temperature limit, seem to have been lost by vulnerable groups. Revisions to the negotiating text in advance of Paris have been portrayed by developing countries as embodying US interests, suggesting that established political themes and controversies remain important in climate governance, and will undoubtedly play a role in Paris.

The symposium ended with small group discussions, which proved lively and fruitful. In our group, talk turned to how differentiation between states, with reference to the Common but Differentiated Responsibility principle built into the UNFCCC, can develop alongside INDCs. There was optimism that the combative focus on burden sharing and geopolitical manoeuvring that was so damaging in Copenhagen may be exorcised through the voluntary contributions approach. Nevertheless, the discussion mirrored the panellists in concluding that Paris will be, in the words of Dr Tobin, ‘environmentally insufficient’.

Despite the challenges, the symposium was a reminder that a huge amount of effort is being poured into the future of climate governance by the academic and civil society communities. While the challenge to disseminate our research and engage with policymakers should remain with us in the months and years ahead, as the moment of truth draws near we must pressure and encourage our representatives, and hope they emerge in three weeks’ time with the beginning of a new and promising chapter in climate governance.

By Philip Coventry (PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science) and Josh Wells (Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar)

Christiana’s Got It All Figueres-ed Out

The Global Economic Governance Programme 2015 Annual Lecture by UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christiana Figueres: “The Imperative of a Global Climate Deal”, at the University of Oxford, 26th October 2015

Let us begin by reassuring you that there is a reason we titled this post with something worthy of a tabloid newspaper. As we will hopefully show in the following few paragraphs, we think the pun is pretty accurate, as well as pretty bad. Having listened to Christiana Figueres discuss her perspective on climate change, it seems she really has got it all figured out – and by “it”, we mean a strong case for the necessity of action on climate change. The “imperative” of action, as her speech was titled.

In the first half of the lecture, Ms Figueres outlined five imperatives for climate action. She began, as seems appropriate for any lecture on climate change, with the scientific imperative. Evidence of warming of the global climate system is unequivocal, humanity is almost certainly responsible through greenhouse gas emissions, and anything over a rise of 2°C to the global temperature average compared with pre-industrial levels could spell catastrophe for large numbers of people across the world. Unfortunately, none of this is new information – which confirms that little progress to date has been made in meeting the challenge of climate change.

It was particularly interesting to us that Ms Figueres chose the moral imperative as second in her list, above both the economic and political cases for action. As scholars on the Climate Justice programme, we are always on the lookout for mentions of justice and ethics! “Thank God for the Pope”, she began by saying, citing Pope Francis’ encyclical letter “Laudato Si’” from May this year, in which the Pope emphasised the responsibility of humanity to look after both each other and the natural world. She was encouraged to see that virtually all of the world’s major faiths agree on the necessity of preserving nature as much as possible, although her interpretation of the moral imperative didn’t really go beyond a discussion of the role of religious faith in support for climate action.

The third imperative was the technological. Ms Figueres stated, quite rightly, that renewable power generation technologies are today much more economically competitive than they were a few years ago. She followed this statement by saying that she always tries to give a positive message in her speeches, which led us to wonder whether she thinks that renewables still don’t offer an economically justifiable replacement for fossil fuels. Nevertheless, it provided a useful bridge to the fourth imperative – the economic case for action. As we said, we were surprised that this did not garner a spot further up the running order of the lecture, as many of the narratives that feature throughout climate negotiations are of an economic nature – for example, questions of whether states can afford to implement certain policies, arguments over funding arrangements for developing countries, and even how climate action will affect the money in the average person’s pocket. Like Lord Stern, Ms Figueres was optimistic. She said that she sees climate change as an opportunity for global development to emerge from a “growth plateau”, because rebuilding infrastructure all over the world in order to combat climate change will “energise” the global economy. She also thinks this will result in a “brave new world scenario” in which the Global South will play an increasingly central role. Did we mention she was optimistic?

The fifth and final imperative presented was the political. Reinforcing her upbeat tone, Ms Figueres confirmed she certainly is more optimistic than she was five years ago. She said that the “saving-the-world-approach”, which could mean altruism, or perhaps the EU’s more progressive stance, “has been tried and doesn’t work”, and that countries are now motivated by self-interest. This made us wonder again quite why the moral imperative was placed so highly on the agenda. Nevertheless, she was pleased that 155 countries have now submitted their national plans for climate action. Although she did make clear that she only sees this as a stepping stone towards a more effective outcome in Paris, she argued, quite rightly in our view, that it is good to get the ball rolling.

The lecture concluded with four predictions for the future, based on what Ms Figueres has observed during her time as UNFCCC Executive Secretary. She predicted firstly that many decisions on climate action will be taken “along the lines of planetary boundaries” rather than national boundaries. She developed this with her second prediction: solutions will become more localised, but within the context of the global-level governance decisions. Thirdly, she expects new forms of public-private relationships, with TNCs moving towards the governance space, motivated by things other than profit, and the public sector becoming more efficient and effective. The final prediction was that “we are beginning to get over the disease of short-termism” when thinking about climate action. More than any of the others, we hope that this prediction comes true, as an effective and just response climate change requires an understanding of long-term effects, both on the climate system and on humanity’s relationships amongst ourselves and with the world around us.

Ms Figueres is certainly a charismatic speaker, and it was easy to tell that she is well used to speaking to the public. Her explanation of the five imperatives was clear, albeit rather glossy and slightly simplified for public consumption. It was certainly an inspiring lecture, although we wonder to what degree her optimism is genuinely based on expectation of a satisfactory outcome to the Paris COP in December rather than personal hope and the necessity of the UN’s political neutrality. After all, the IPCC has assessed current pledges and determined that at present they would only limit warming to 2.7°C, and the failure of Copenhagen, the last time the UNFCCC attempted to thrash out an all-encompassing agreement, is still fresh in the memory. Still, Ms Figueres’ optimism is admirable, and hopefully it will prove justified. Perhaps we all ought to take lesson from Peter Pan – “anything is possible if you wish hard enough.”

By Danny Waite (Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar) and Phil Coventry (PhD candidate in the Department of Geography and Environmental Science)

Why Are We Waiting? – Lord Stern at the University of Oxford

Why You Shouldn’t Wait – some thoughts by Joshua Wells and Vera Van Gool (1st year Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars) on a public lecture given by Lord Nicholas Stern: ‘Why Are We Waiting’, Sheldonian Theatre, 22/10/2015, at the University of Oxford hosted by the Oxford Martin School and the Environmental Change Institute

Standing in one of the many queues leading up to the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, we were pondering the question,  ‘Why Are We Waiting?’. However, we were not to find the answer to this question in Lord Stern’s talk. Despite this question being the title of both his book and talk, Stern would emphatically argue that we should not be waiting.

Stern illustrated the importance of this talk by explaining that humanity is at a cross-roads. He appealed to the broad self-interest of humanity. As a species it will cost us more in the long run if we delay action and taking action is becoming ever more urgent. The views he presented here are consistent with his famous review, ‘The Economics of Climate Change: the Stern Review’. Naturally, he also added a new insight to his former work. Surprisingly this insight was that the challenge of overcoming poverty is very much intertwined with combatting climate change. The reason why this is surprising is that the idea has arguably been around for quite some time. He emphasised: “If we fail on the one, we fail on the other”.

Despite this huge challenge humanity faces, Stern is actually very optimistic about the economic incentives that could drive climate-change combatting actions. A transition to a low-carbon economy is where his optimism is placed. He also stresses that the coming century will be determined by the actions we take in the next twenty years. Therefore if his optimism is not to be misplaced we should see significant action within this window. Stern thinks that the success of this will in part be determined by the framing of our actions in combatting climate change. We would need to frame many of our contributions to climate change as cases of market failures. Then it will become ‘extremely attractive’ and ‘feasible’ for policymakers to address these market failures and in doing so climate change.

You might be wondering: isn’t this too good to be true? We were… Stern reassuringly commented that ‘certainty is not on offer’ here. Instead, reduced uncertainty is on offer. We know for sure that our inaction would gravely effect current as well as future generations. So isn’t that enough of a reason to start acting? On the subject of the future, Stern reflected on the way in which economists discount it. He explains that discounting is legitimate when we are engaged with questions of value regarding goods and services. However, he holds that it is not acceptable to apply the discount factor to lives. The value of a life in the future is not contingent upon that future’s wealth.

The talk then progressed to Paris, where Stern shared his thoughts on the upcoming negotiations. There is a general acceptance that the Copenhagen Accord was weak, due to the lack of political coherence and willingness (particularly on the part of the US and China). However, this time things are very different. China has progressed beyond all recognition in the past 6 years and the US now has a president who is in his last term of office and in Stern’s words is ‘seeking a legacy’.  There is now willingness from these two global powers which creates a much more conducive setting for substantial climate change negotiations.

Despite this Stern stressed that the agreement will not be sufficient. The agreement simply will not be strong enough with respect to emissions reductions.  Therefore Stern urged us to take responsibility and persuade our political leaders and representatives that they ought to do the same.