Fat Tails – Imposing and Redistributing Risks

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


Dr Jonathan Herington

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

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


Professor Robert Pindyck

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

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

By James Draper, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

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

An introductory note – by Callum Nolan, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

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

Tartu's town hall in the main square

Tartu’s town hall in the main square

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

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

University of Reading Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars in Climate Justice

University of Reading Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars in Climate Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming speech

Conference welcoming speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset over Tartu

Sunset over Tartu

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


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

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

[3] Ibid. 418- 434.

[4] Ibid. 418.

[5] See United Nations website http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

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

A view of Buda and Pest

A view of Buda and Pest

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

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

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

Working group on the precautionary principle in practice

Working group on the precautionary principle in practice

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

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

By Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar Vera Van Gool

Loss & Damage: Paris should be learning from Bangladesh

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

By Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars Vera Van Gool and Josh Wells

Ethics & Uncertainty

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

Långholmen hotel, hostel, conference centre and restaurant, Stockholm

Långholmen hotel, hostel, conference centre and restaurant, Stockholm

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

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

The former Långholmen prison cells now converted into hotel rooms

The former Långholmen prison cells now converted into hotel rooms

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

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

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

A view of the Långholmen island

A view of the Långholmen island

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

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

By Vera Van Gool, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar

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

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

By Claire Fackler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Claire Fackler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Callum Nolan, Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar


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

Peter Stoett, Visiting Scholar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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