Dr Alex McLaughlin, Research Associate
Alex’s research attempts to illuminate and address the moral questions that arise at the intersection of global justice and existential risk. His current project aims to provide a normative framework for thinking about claims to a scarce global carbon budget, taking into account both widespread noncompliance with obligations towards climate change and the existential risks associated with severe climate impacts. Alex’s background is in political philosophy. He was previously a Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar in Climate Justice at the University of Reading, and his broader research interests include egalitarianism, the contemporary relevance of benefiting from historical injustice and methodology in political theory. Alex was awarded a 3-year British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, starting September 2020.
Keywords: Climate Justice, Global Justice, Methodology in political philosophy, Equality
Can you tell us about your pathway to CSER?
My undergraduate degree was at the University of Southampton, where I studied Modern History and Politics. I stayed at Southampton for a further year, completing an MSc in Global Politics. At masters level I specialised in political philosophy, and in 2015 I won a scholarship to join the Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Programme in Climate Justice, at the University of Reading. My PhD thesis provides an account of international obligations towards mitigation and adaptation, paying particular attention to the scarcity of the global carbon budget and historical non-compliance. After completing my PhD, I spent a year as a Teaching Fellow in Political Theory in the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Reading.
Please can you tell us about your main area of expertise?
My main areas of expertise are in political philosophy. As such, I’m interested in questions about how politics should be organised, about the sorts of institutions that should govern us and the sorts of values we should aspire to in public life. I’m particularly interested in three related debates. The first seeks to specify our moral obligations towards those who live outside of our state (global distributive justice); the second aims to determine our moral obligations in relation to climate change in particular (climate justice); and the third considers how we should even go about theorising about these issues in the first place (methodology in political theory/philosophy). These debates have all developed substantially in recent years, and my research to date has tried to speak to all of them.
Please tell us about your current research at CSER?
I’ve just started a project exploring the relationship between global justice and the existential risks associated with severe climate change impacts. I take it there is a moral imperative both to reduce our exposure to existential risk and to alleviate global injustice, and my project focuses on a set of cases in the context of climate change where these two urgent moral imperatives appear to be in tension with one another. The cases share a tragic structure, where the inaction of high-emitting states has exerted an enormous strain on the global carbon budget and in so doing threatened the development prospects of currently poorer parts of the world. The stakes are very high in these cases, and if we want to provide morally justifiable policy which alleviates this tension, we need to know more about how different agents should act. This is what my project aims to do: it will provide an account of different agent’s rights and duties in these contexts and will use this analysis as the basis for policy advocacy.
What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?
Like many others, I’m really concerned about the magnitude of potential climate impacts and about the way this will perpetuate injustice. I also think climate change, though perhaps not unique in this sense, requires us to rethink the way we look at the world – it’s potentially quite a transformative issue. For instance, it poses a real challenge to the popular view that our moral obligations stem primarily from our relationships with those close to us, or from our shared participation in the institutions of the nation-state. Climate change seems to show that we have strong obligations to those much more remote from us in space and time.
What are your motivations for working in Existential Risk?
There are a few different reasons. Unfortunately, I’ve become increasingly pessimistic about our ability to mitigate climate change to 1.5°C or even 2°C, the temperature targets that have been proposed by the UNFCCC at different times. Even if climate change were to be limited to 1.5°C or 2°C, we may have reason to be concerned about existential risk; but if, as I think likely, these targets are exceeded, then we really do elevate these worries. One core motivation for my current project is that we must ensure that the burdens of extricating ourselves from this situation do not fall on those currently in poverty. The second reason I’ve become interested in existential risk relates to the kind of research carried out at CSER. Working at an interdisciplinary centre with such an ambitious agenda is a really exciting prospect, especially for a climate change researcher. I hope the profile of CSER will help my research reach a wider audience.
What do you think are the key challenges that humanity is currently facing?
Climate change, naturally! Since starting at the centre, though, I’ve become more aware of other challenges. Worryingly, the complex ways social and political systems interact with natural and emerging technological systems means that are likely many more potential existential risks than we think.