CEM runs interviews with interesting people in Manchester working on climate change. A couple of weeks ago a PhD student at University of Manchester, Hannah, talked to us about her research into multispecies justice. Today, Charlotte Weatherill shares her perspectives, on vulnerability, development and the slow violence of the status quo…
Who are you? Where were you born, do undergrad. How did you come to be aware of climate change as an issue?
I’m Charley, I’m a PhD student at the University of Manchester. I commute from Lancaster, having moved back to my home town after doing my undergrad degree at Cardiff University. The department at UoM is really strong on environmental politics, but I am much happier living somewhere smaller and quieter.
Climate change is the issue that took me to university as a mature student, as I wanted to understand why climate change has not been acted on, despite the depth of evidence that exists and the violence that is already being done by continued emissions. That question is still driving me.
Tell us a bit about the UNFCCC / IPCC project of measuring and ranking states according to their ‘vulnerability’, based primarily on development markers, for the purposes of adaptation finance distribution? Which nations are rated as particularly “vulnerable”?
Vulnerability has been an important concept to the UNFCCC and the IPCC from the beginning, as a way of discussing differential distribution of climate change impacts. This has created pressure for vulnerability indexes that measure and rank countries, in order to develop a hierarchy of need in allocating adaptation finance. My analysis so far is showing that this ranking project, whilst claiming to be measuring vulnerability to climate change, is based largely on developmental markers such as GDP and population. This is justified through the logic that a country’s wealth translates into ‘capacity’ to adapt to climate effects. This is a capitalist logic that values economic growth over the harm and loss of life that climate effects cause, either in extreme weather events or through slower processes such as sea level rise or desertification. It is a logic that is protecting the global economy as it is currently structured, as it portrays development as the solution to climate change, as opposed to the driver of the extraction and consumption that is causing it.
The debate over which countries are the most vulnerable is ongoing, but countries that are most commonly described as being particularly vulnerable within the UNFCCC are the so-called ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs) and the ‘Small Island Developing States’ (SIDS).
You mention that there was then a contestation / co-optation coming from activists who use vulnerability discourse to fight for mitigation. Can you give a quick example and explain (How) does this connect with the parallel language around “loss and damage” which the rich nations have done so much to avoid.
Despite the problems with vulnerability ranking, the fact that it has been tied to resource allocation means that there has been a contestation within the UNFCCC over who counts as vulnerable, for example Central America made a push for inclusion alongside SIDS and LDCs before COP21. There has also been a co-optation of vulnerability discourse by climate change activists, who want to use the term for its justice implications. The islander activist group the Pacific Climate Warriors, for example, has the slogan, ‘We are not drowning, we are fighting’ (1). This is a favourite of mine, as it also pushes back against the common narrative of the ‘sinking island states’. Politically, there is a strong message that comes from saying that islands are not sinking, they are being sunk.
From my limited knowledge of it, ‘loss and damage’ has a similar message, that refuses to accept the economy as it is currently constructed, or any additional debt burden from climate finance. Unfortunately, comments made by politicians such as Australia’s deputy PM who defended the country’s emissions against justice claims made by island states by saying, “They’ll continue to survive because many of their workers come here and pick our fruit” (2) show the contemptuous, colonial attitudes that persist in attitudes to islanders. It also shows the limits of demands that allow a country to continue large-scale coal production, while justifying it through their aid budget.
Traditionally women and especially women of colour end up on the pointy end of problems caused by rich white old men, and climate change is no exception. If you were asked to explain “feminist / anticolonial approaches to climate politics / island states and vulnerability” to an interested but possibly sceptical young person, what would you say?
Climate change is a product of the international economy that drives demand for extraction and consumption. It is also driven by the assumption that wealth provides protection against climate effects, and a systematic devaluing of the lives of the ‘vulnerable’ global poor, a racialised and feminised population that is repeatedly treated as disposable by international capitalism. Pointing out that women, and especially women of colour, will be affected disproportionately by climate change, is an intervention that feminists have long been making into the vulnerability debate that has traditionally focussed on ranking states, with little regard for differential distribution within states, and between different groups of peoples.
This intervention alone does not go far enough as it still doesn’t challenge the dominant argument that vulnerability is an inherent weakness that will be solved by development. The reason that I argue that the critique also has to be anti-colonial, is that without an understanding of how colonial and neo-colonial policies endure, the drivers of climate change vulnerability cannot be understood. To give an example, island vulnerability to climate change is not just a product of sea level rise, but of a colonial history of forced displacement, extraction and occupation that did great harm, and undermined local adaptation practices and knowledge systems.
Here in Manchester campaigners are trying to get a seventh scrutiny committee, so that local climate policy gets examined every month, at a granular level. Why did you sign, and what do you think might be effective ways of getting signatures from people who live, work or study within Manchester City Council’s boundaries.
My focus has always been international rather than local politics, the intricacies of which have always escaped me, but I signed as I agree with the spirit of the petition. The urgency of climate change action means it needs to be integrated into every decision making level. In the UK our economy is so fundamentally carbon-based, that almost every decision that is made, is climate change politics. Signature-gathering is not my area either, but I do know that people care about air quality, and their local environment. Making explicit the links between climate change policy and local health, and connecting with other local activist groups would surely provide positive benefits for everyone.