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Interview with Henry Shue on the ‘Politics of the Climate Emergency’


To coincide with COP26, BJPIR's first ‘Editors Choice Collection’ brings together articles from the 2019 BJPIR 'Breakthrough' - put together by Elizabeth Cripps – that focused on Henry Shue’s (1993) foundational work on the egregious injustices in global climate policy whereby poor countries compromise their development strategies whilst rich continue their unsustainable lifestyles (see Shue, 2019). In an interview with Emma-Louise Anderson (Co-Director of CGD and Editor of BJPIR) and Viktoria Spaiser (Associate Editor of BJPIR), Henry Shue (Professor Emeritus of Politics and International Relations at Merton College, Oxford University) discusses the politics of the climate emergency’.

Shue critiques the tendency for policy to be influenced by ‘economistic thinking'  that tends to blur all desires together as 'preferences’ because it obscures important distinctions, including  between ‘wants’ and ‘needs’. He explains how his article (1993) on ‘subsistence emissions’ and ‘luxury emissions’  draws important attention to the how ‘some emissions are the result of people doing things they really need to do  and other emissions are results of people doing things they enjoy doing or would like to do  - but don’t really need to do and that this should be taken into account if we are going to try to be just’.  He highlights that where there is no enforcement in the Paris Agreement, it is necessary to apply ‘political and moral pressure’ on political actors - including appealing to the justice of every nation doing its fair share.

Henry Shue discusses the scholarly influences on his work, including the ‘The Climate of Risk’ (2017) by Lauren Hartzell-Nichols (Department of Philosophy, University of Washington), which ‘talks about how we think about the risk of catastrophe and how you assess high magnitude, low probability risks such as our passing tipping points in the climate’. He highlights the important analysis of duties from Elizabeth Cripps (Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Edinburgh) in Climate Change and the Moral Agent (2013), which challenged standard theories of moral accountability and makes the moral case for collective action on climate change. He also reflects on the crucial work of Catriona McKinnon (Department of Politics, University of Exeter) in Climate Change and Future Justice (2012) on questions of intergenerational justice.

The Editors of BJPIR are promoting the collection as a call to political scientists to give the  politics of the climate emergency urgent attention, including the intersecting issues of environmental change, health, energy, resources, rising inequalities, (in)security and discontent. This is a crucial part of their broader vision for BJPIR to be at the forefront of efforts to understand and address the politics of global challenges, broadly understood. In his interview, Henry Shue welcomes this attention to climate change. He highlights some of the gaps in our understanding and the questions that political scientists should be tackling. He encourages normative theorists to pay attention to empirics and tackle questions related to the just distribution of paying for adaptation, losses due to climate impacts and CO² removal from the atmosphere.  He challenges political scientists more broadly to engage with the questions related to the relationship between inequality and mass movements and the effectiveness of movements such as Extinction Rebellion. He highlights the need to understand the importance of multilateral agreements and alternatives to them (including sanctions and border taxes). He urges us to have further understanding of national level action.

Read more on the politics of the climate emergency - including Henry Shue's breakthrough article - in BJPIR's Editor's Choice Collection here