Catriona McKinnon on Hope and Climate Justice

What is hope to you?

Hope sits in the space between uncertainty and possibility. When you are hopeful about an outcome, you believe this outcome could be a future state of the world – even if it is unlikely to come about. I would describe myself in that sense as a hopeful pessimist.

What is the relationship between hope and justice?

Hope is fundamental to justice. When you think justice is impossible to achieve, you replace hope with despair. This can lead to a severe debilitation of the will, to apathy and a lack of resistance towards injustice and the forces that bring it about.

What is climate justice?

Climate justice shines a spotlight on the fact that climate change does not affect all people equally. We are often invited to think about climate change as a shared problem, but the reality is that some will suffer far more than others: namely the world’s poorest people, women, and Indigenous people. Future people are also in danger. Climate justice focuses on the unequal spread of climate impact vulnerabilities, and asks those of us with the greatest resilience, power, and advantage to carry the brunt of the burdens of action on climate change.

How is climate justice different from other challenges to justice?

Climate change forces us to think about just how poor our political institutions and our political traditions are with respect to considering the long-term future and the interests of people and other living things. It is particularly hard for young people – we lack a sense of intergenerational justice.

We need to reconnect with nature in ways that enable us to see that the natural world is our home rather than a resource to be exploited.

How could political institutions be better equipped to react to climate change?

Various proposals are starting to come out of political philosophy and climate ethics – such as the idea of an ombudsman for future generations. We also need to make sure that corporate interests and profit do not influence politics in the way they do now. Unfortunately, the U.S. decision assigning personhood to corporations and granting corporations constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech was a huge setback to swift action on climate change.

There are attempts to establish personhood for non-human actors like oceans or rivers.

In 2017, the Whanganui River in New Zealand became the first river in the world to be considered a legal person and thus to possess legally enforceable rights. There is now a whole movement around these ideas that has its roots in deep-green ecophilosophy. But there are also voices questioning whether simply adapting this legal framework and extending rights to non-human nature is the right way forward – or if we instead need to overturn the existing conceptual framework and start anew with respect to the way in which we relate to nature.

What could such a new framework look like?

One problem with assigning rights to nature is that rights are held against other rights-holders within a legalistic framework. That’s not a good model for how we ought to relate to nature. We need to reconnect with nature in ways that enable us to see that the natural world is our home rather than a resource to be exploited. On the other hand, we are running out of time. Perhaps the urgency of the ecological crisis means we should make the most of those frameworks to protect what is left.

If hope is an emotion and laws are the outcome of rational processes – is there a way to combine these two areas, to overcome the dualistic worldview and to create climate justice?

Hope is not enough. We need to supplement hope with an array of other ways of relating to one another. Anger certainly has a role, as do frustration and courage. And solidarity is a very important dimension – solidarity with nature. The ecological crisis is forcing us to think in a more expansive and creative way. Climate justice should utilise the laws we have to find routes out of the climate crisis, while encouraging new visions for living lightly on the Earth.

Should academics become more activist?

I am not an activist, mainly because of my personality. I am pretty introverted and I just would not be very good at it. Academics certainly face sets of difficult choices. Many are scared to death about what they know about the ecological crisis and want to shout from the rooftops about it, and to use the authority they have as scientists. But there is a real risk of them undermining that authority by getting into the arena of activism.

You are working on a political theory of climate change - what are the elements of this theory?

We ought to add to the fight against climate change the moral ideals that are embedded in international criminal law. I propose a new criminal offense called "postericide" – committed by conduct which puts the human race at risk of extinction. I argue that certain agents are vicariously liable for the conduct of large collectives – such as corporations – that impose this risk on us. International criminal law addresses conduct that “shocks the moral conscience” of humankind. The postericidal conduct we see around us in the Anthropocene has this character.

What steps could be taken to make “postericide” a real criminal offense?

I’m not sure that’s the real prize. International criminal law notoriously lacks teeth with respect to the prosecution and punishment of heinous wrongdoers. The real value of international criminal law is the expression of fundamental ideals that bind the human community together. For example, although most architects of genocide do not come to trial at the International Criminal Court, the “bucket” of conduct captured by the concept of genocide has entered our moral consciousness; that is for the best, I think. The crime of postericide could capture the public moral imagination in a similar way.

Where do you see allies in this struggle?

Young people, no question. This is part of what makes hope so important: if the young lose hope, we are all lost. In terms of academic work, it has become cliché to say that we have to work across the traditional disciplinary boundaries. I think philosophers are very well placed to lead in this respect because they address the questions about the ecological crisis that everyone cares about.

Could you finish this sentence: for me, this is personal because –

I am a person living within the ecological crisis. I think this should be personal for everyone. This is not happening externally to us. This is happening within our lives.

CATRIONA MCKINNON is a political theorist who studies climate justice and climate ethics. With a focus on contemporary liberal political philosophy and the theory and practice of toleration, her work tackles the question of what, regarding the climate crisis, we owe to future generations. While most of McKinnon’s work lies in political philosophy, she is increasingly transitioning to transdisciplinary work on climate justice with the goal of better informing climate policy.

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