The Politics of Climate Change

University of Reading politics Professor, Catriona McKinnon, leads the way in climate justice. 

Climate change is one of the most urgent, complex issues facing humanity. We know it will impact all of us within our lifetimes and that the problems we are facing now will only get worse for our children and our grandchildren unless we address them.

While significant progress has been made when it comes to our understanding of the causes and environmental impacts of climate change, what is still lacking is a body of academics and advisers with sufficient understanding of both the scientific and justice aspects of climate change. We need these experts to enable the development and implementation of climate policies.

A multi-faceted, interdisciplinary problem

Climate change impacts everyone on the planet, but it’s the people in less developed countries who are going to be affected the most. There’s more to climate change than just environmental factors; 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, here at the University of Reading. Her research in climate justice addresses the ethical, political and legal challenges presented by climate change, and contributes to the global debate surrounding this potentially catastrophic global 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 has remained relatively underexplored in political theory until now.

Professor McKinnon first started focusing on climate justice in 2005. When she initially began to explore the subject, it quickly became apparent that there wasn’t a lot of published work in this area. She found a rare thing in political theory – a space to develop without having to master huge amounts of previous research.

“​Normally you’re referencing decades, if not centuries, if not more, of literature, traditions and ways of approaching problems. Climate change isn’t like that, so it’s interesting as a space to work in and it’s politically important.​”

The fact that climate change is such a frightening problem is partly what drives Professor McKinnon’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.

Solar Radiation Management

Professor McKinnon is currently contributing to a project that could be significant in upcoming 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 Professor McKinnon’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 of 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 to get the attention of the intergovernmental policy community and international non-state actors in the coming years.”

The work that Professor McKinnon is doing on the ethics of geoengineering, and more broadly on climate justice, will feed into this report. The report will then be used as an instrument to influence policymaking in this vital area.

Find out more about Professor McKinnon’s research.

Producing the next generation of climate justice experts

Professor McKinnon 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.

The 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 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 have published or written, having enabled those 15 people to have that opportunity in their lives, for them, and for the benefits that they 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 showcasing 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.”