Professor Catriona McKinnon: climate justice
Climate change is the biggest, most difficult and most frightening political challenge that humanity has ever faced.
It's a problem you can neither touch nor see, but if you take the science seriously then you know it's going to impact all of us within our lifetimes. And it's only going to get worse for our children and grandchildren.
It's remarkably complex too; it has an impact at both a regional and global level, and there's a temporal scale to it – it's going to impose incredible damage on future people unless we address it.
A multifaceted, interdisciplinary problem
Climate change will impact everyone on the planet. But it's the people in less developed countries who are going to be affected the worst. There's more to it than just an environmental factor; it has a whole variety of implications, and we can – and should – look at it from a number of perspectives.
Professor Catriona McKinnon is a Professor of Political Theory in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Reading. Her research in climate justice addresses the ethical political, and legal challenges presented by climate change, and is contributing to the global debate surrounding this potentially catastrophic problem.
Leading the way in climate justice research
Whereas climate change is a problem that researchers in fields such as development, law and economics have been analysing for some time, it remained relatively underexplored in political theory until recently.
Catriona first starting focusing on climate justice in 2005. When she started reading around, it quickly became apparent that there wasn't a lot of published work in this area. She had found a rare thing in political theory – a space to build on without having to master huge amounts of previous research.
“Normally you're referencing decades, if not centuries, if not more, of literature and traditions and ways of approaching problems and climate isn't like that, so it's interesting as a space to do work in, and it's politically important.”
The fact that climate change is such a frightening problem is partly what drives Catriona's work in this area, but it's also the hope that she and her peers will be able to help counter its disastrous effects before it's too late.
At the cutting edge of climate change research
Catriona is currently contributing to a project that could be significant in the coming debates about bringing climate change under control.
Solar radiation management (SRM) is a nascent technology that has attracted the attention of prominent climate scientists and federal science agencies in the US. This is because cutting emissions at the rate that is required to keep global warming below 1.5C is politically challenging and perhaps unrealistic.
SRM doesn't solve the emissions problem, but what it could do is give us more time. It essentially involves employing techniques that modify the albedo of the planet, making it more reflective. This would mean that we could reflect more solar radiation back into space and cool the planet relatively quickly as a result.
But there's a major problem with such an approach: there are currently no governance structures in place to manage it at either a national or global level.
This is where Catriona's expertise in climate justice plays a key role:
“I'm part of a group that is writing a report on recommendations for how we could globally govern SRM techniques, with a view to taking seriously concerns about the important ethical and justice issues raised by this new technology. The report will feed into the Carnegie Council's Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative in order to get the attention of the intergovernmental policy community and international non-state actors in the coming years.”
The work that Catriona is doing on the ethics of geoengineering, and more broadly the work on climate justice, will feed into this report. This report will then be taken up to be used as an instrument to influence policymaking in this area.
- Academic Working Group on International Governance of Climate Engineering
- Carnegie Council's Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative
Producing the next generation of climate justice experts
Catriona has attracted considerable funding for her work. The most notable example of this is the £1 million Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Programme in Climate Justice, a major five-year programme offering 15 fully funded interdisciplinary doctoral scholarships in climate justice.
This programme's goal is to produce the next cohort of climate justice experts, who will have the knowledge and understanding required to contribute to the development and implementation of just climate policies.
“We will be sending 15 people out into the world who have a really deep understanding of climate justice – into academia, policy work and non-academic work. I feel really proud of that, actually, I think beyond anything I publish or I write, having enabled those 15 people to have that in their lives, for them and then for the benefits that will bring to whoever they come into contact with is amazing.”
The programme is very well funded, giving the students a wealth of opportunities. There are regular workshops, seminars and events with prominent people in the climate justice space. They also receive incredible opportunities to travel the world for academic visits and field work, which is unusual even for research council-funded PhD students.
“Already, I go to conferences around the world and people say, 'I met your student at so-and-so'. They're already connecting with people...they're making a difference and doing really good work.”
Learn more about the programme
Visit the Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Programme in Climate Justice website to learn more about the scope and goals of the programme.