UCL Uncovering Politics

Climate Change Loss and Damage

Episode Summary

This week we’re discussing the politics of climate change and loss and damage policy, ahead of the upcoming COP28 conference.

Episode Notes

Our guest today is Professor Lisa Vanhala. A Professor in Political Science here at UCL and an expert on the politics of climate change. Lisa recently gave her inaugural lecture: Governing the End: The Making of Climate Change Loss and Damage, offering a fascinating insight into the way that UN meetings and negotiations over climate change get framed, and how they proceed, informed by the ideas of Goffman and Bourdieu. 

She also examines the ways that civil society organisations engage with the law to shape policy and social change both around climate change and around equality and human rights, including in her award-winning first monograph, Making Rights a Reality? Disability Rights Activists and Legal Mobilization.

Lisa joins us this week to talk about a comparative politics of climate change loss and damage.


Mentioned in this episode:


Episode Transcription


climate change, framing, ucl, damage, loss, issues, work, people, committee, kinds, ethnographic, research, politics, term, political science, interviews, organisations, years, political, impacts


Emily McTernan, Lisa Vanhala


Emily McTernan  00:06

Hello. This is UCL Uncovering Politics. And this week we're discussing the politics of climate change and the upcoming COP28 conference with Lisa Vanhala.


Hello. My name is Emily McTernan. And welcome to UCL Uncovering Politics – the podcast of the School of Public Policy and Department of Political Science at University College London. 


This week, we have another of our occasional special 'life of' episodes with a member of the department who has contributed – and continues to contribute – invaluably to the political science world and beyond. 


Our guest today is Professor Lisa Vanhala. A Professor in Political Science here at UCL and an expert on the politics of climate change, Lisa recently gave her inaugural lecture: Governing the End: The Making of Climate Change Loss and Damage, offering a fascinating insight into the way that UN meetings and negotiations over climate change get framed, and how they proceed, informed by the ideas of Goffman and Bourdieu. 


But this is only one facet of Lisa's research. She also examines the ways that civil society organisations engage with the law to shape policy and social change, both around climate change and around equality and human rights, including in her award winning first monograph, Making Rights a Reality? Disability Rights Activists and Legal Mobilization.


Her academic career to date has found the Universities of Oxford and the LSE and, of course, UCL. She has held visiting positions in the EHESS, Paris; at the European University Institute in Florence; and at the Centre for the Study of law and society, University of California, Berkeley. And she's worked for a huge range of civil society organisations and philanthropic foundations, from the Public Law Project to the Baring Foundation. 


And I'm delighted that Lisa joins us now. 


Lisa, welcome back to the podcast.


Lisa Vanhala  02:00

Thanks, Emily. It's such a pleasure to be here.


Emily McTernan  02:02

The subject matter of your fascinating inaugural lecture was climate change loss and damage, a very timely issue given the deal struck earlier this month over the loss and damage fund. We'll be looking at the details of your research shortly. But for now, let's start with what we're talking about when we talk about loss and damage. 


Lisa Vanhala  02:19

So climate change loss and damage is one of those terms that has really emerged through the UN system. 


But what we're really talking about kind of in the real world, in concrete terms, are those losses and damages that are inflicted by the impacts of climate change. So when climate change makes hurricanes more frequent and more extreme, that can have impacts on kind of infrastructure; people can lose their homes, people lose their lives; this can have an impact on kind of community cohesion, on individuals' mental well-being. 


And there's a wide range of impacts that are being intensified or caused by climate change. And those follow-on impacts that we might think of as economic, or what are often referred to in that UN space as non-economic losses, kind of cover the breadth of the types of issues. 


And of course, that term, non-economic – and I mentioned this in my inaugural lecture – is really unsatisfying. I'm pretty sure it's an economist that came up with that term. But it's really referring to those things that are kind of most important to human beings – kind of cultural identity, wellbeing, health, mental health, life and kind of ecosystems that communities might depend upon. So it refers to a whole range of different harms, both tangible and intangible, that are caused by climate change. 


And so that's what's kind of talked about in this particular space that I study in the UN. 


Emily McTernan  03:43

Is there a clear distinction between the economic and the non-economic or do they get run together? Is the fund thinking about dealing with these differently or in very much parallel ways?


Lisa Vanhala  03:52

Yeah. I think in some ways it's a kind of false dichotomy, right? So if you think about something like health, which is categorised under that non-economic side of things, that of course has impacts on kind of business productivity. And things like loss of infrastructure might have really important impacts on community cohesion. So any of these particular types of losses that we might look at has both economic and kind of dimensions that affect kind of environmental, social, political types of issues. 


Emily McTernan  04:27

And where are we at with the fund? So COP27 was a huge breakthrough. Is that right?


Lisa Vanhala  04:32

That's right, yeah. 


So in Sharm el Sheikh last year, it was really hailed as kind of a monumental moment when it was agreed that there would be – and the decision text coming into the UN was very specific that this was – the introduction of a new loss and damage dedicated fund and financial arrangements. 


And that language, when you look at it really closely, very much is kind of representing the compromise that was reached between developed countries who were arguing: look, we have funding mechanisms already that exist that deal with this kind of thing. Let's just use them. And there they're thinking about kind of humanitarian assistance or disaster risk management type funds or sustainable development more generally. Developing countries really wanted a new and dedicated fund to make sure that that funding is going to be additional and not just kind of rebranding funding or development aid that that's already been given. 


So over the last year, there's been a UN committee, and this is where we see this kind of big breakthroughs at COPs. But actually what you really need to do, and what our project has been doing, is really following what happens in those bureaucratic processes that follow the big COP decisions in the newspaper headlines. 


And so a committee called the Transitional Committee has been meeting. They were meant to meet four times and come up with a series of recommendations for COP28 coming up in Dubai in a couple of weeks' time. At the end of the fourth meeting, things kind of fell apart, there was a stalemate. So they had a kind of hastily scheduled fifth meeting at the beginning of this month and did come up with some text. So there was a lot of contention around the decision, which was put forward as a take it or leave it decision. 


And so procedurally, I think some of the members of that committee were unhappy about that outcome. But there is a text that's now going to COP28. So it'll be interesting to see what happens at COP28, whether that kind of holds together or whether it's unpicked in discussions as countries come with their various needs or demands that weren't met by that text.


Emily McTernan  06:35

Before we get into the details and your look behind the scenes of all of these processes, and the things that you've found, let's pause to talk a little bit about your earlier work. So in addition to looking at how organisations can use the law to address climate change, you've also explored how organisations use it to address human rights inequality. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about that strand of your research? 


Lisa Vanhala  06:55

Yeah, sure. So I have, you know, for the last 15 years, really been studying what we talk about in the socio legal literature as legal mobilisation – this mobilisation of law in pursuit of policy or even broader social goals. 


And so what I did earlier in my career and continue to do, you know, through some of this work on climate change and otherwise, is look at how – particularly groups that are interested in enhancing equality across society or promoting human rights – how and why they might turn to the courts as opposed to legislative arenas or other kinds of regulatory bodies. And look at kind of why some groups do that and why they don't and then what happens when they do. 


So my first book was focused on disability rights movements in Canada and the UK. And in that I tried to apply a sociological institutionalised theoretical approach to explain why some groups when they adopted a certain understanding of disability – social model of disability, we would refer to it as – which really understands disabled people primarily as citizens rather than as recipients of kind of welfare benefits or through a medical model lens. 


And what I found is that those organisations that were early adopters of this social or human rights model of disability were more likely to turn to the courts. And what I was trying to do there was overturn more conventional wisdom that said, you know, groups are more likely to go to the courts if they have more funding or if they're having more difficulty, kind of, you know, in the kind of existing political opportunity structure to have an influence on the kinds of goals that they have. And what I tried to argue is that this identity and organisational based analysis better explains when some of these groups are able to go to court. 


And that was, I think, a really important area of work. It's starting to influence the kind of thinking that I'm doing at the moment at the intersections of disability and climate change. And so thinking about climate change impacts, and what is that like for disabled people, you know, across the world. 


But I've also had the privilege of working with a number of organisations in helping their thinking about where and how the law might be useful for civil society organisations trying to advance or, in the current context, really kind of protect existing human rights, particularly in this country. 


Emily McTernan  09:27

What do you think explains that connection between wanting to go to the law and having this social model disability where you think disability is about how society is disabling you rather than interpreting it as a-?


Lisa Vanhala  09:37

Yeah, what I found was that really among kind of the early activists – and this was true across Canada and the UK – was that leaders in particular had I guess what you might refer to as like an 'aha moment' where they really began to see themselves differently and began to push within the organisational ecosystem, both by creating new, more radical disability rights organisations, but also working within existing more traditional organisations that were still stuck in a medical model of disability. And so it was very much a kind of argument based on a micro level analysis of what was happening to people and the way that they were understanding themselves and understanding what disability is. And yeah, it was a fascinating process. 


And what we then found is that, you know, things like money just didn't matter that much, because it was so important to these people to be understanding themselves as citizens pushing for something that they are entitled to as a matter of right, rather than as defined by their impairment and the recipient of charity. And so that framing shift, I think, really helped to explain something that conventional comparative politics theory didn't help us understand.


Emily McTernan  10:55

And we're going to get to how framing comes centrally back into how you're thinking about climate change and the politics of governance. But first, let's talk about the methodology of that project. 


So your most recent research – your six-year-long study into the politics and governance of climate change loss and damage, which we've already discussed, in part – has focused on ethnographic research into UN meetings and negotiations. And I see here that you've done about 400 hours of observational activity in addition to over 150 interviews with diplomats, policymakers, UN Secretariat, staff, experts and activists. 


Could you tell our listeners about why you chose this kind of approach to trying to get to grips with what's going on behind the scenes at the UN before these pronouncements are made?


Lisa Vanhala  11:37

Yeah. I was really influenced about a decade ago when interpretivist scholars and political science started to bring in these kinds of methods and techniques that were used in other disciplines, you know, mainly anthropology, right, where ethnography is kind of the core of what you do, but also sociology. And we have colleagues in geography that that use this particular method. But it really hadn't been used in kind of modern political science. 


And so when I first started working at UCL, I was teaching a course on qualitative methods as political scientists were starting to think really about what using an ethnographic approach could do for political science: what it allows you to study and to see that other methods like interviewing or archival sources wouldn't necessarily let you get at. 


And so part of what I wanted to do in this project was bring this ethnographic approach with a focus particularly on political ethnography. So this is very much in some ways kind of making a decision about how are we defining what political is when we talk about political ethnography, and focusing on that rather than kind of understanding all of a culture in a particular space or space or time. So really narrowing in some ways on to what is political, but of course political ethnography lets one define that idea of political quite broadly, and understands that question of what we mean by the term political as political in and of itself. So there's kind of this meta layer of understanding that there are kind of power dynamics at play when we talk about what is political work and what isn't. 


Emily McTernan  13:22

Maybe you could tell our listeners a little bit more, for those who aren't as familiar perhaps with anthropology, about what's different between this standard interview [inaudible] to political scientists and someone who is taking ethnographic more seriously. 


Lisa Vanhala  13:36

Yeah, yeah. So ethnography is a method – and you know different people speak about it differently – a kind of very simple way of understanding it is a kind of deep hanging out. So you're spending time in a place watching people interacting with people. We might think of it as participant observations, though I think it's something a little bit distinctive from participant observation. But so when we're doing interviews within this kind of ethnographic sensibility that we adopted, a lot of what we've seen or have read or have, you know, kind of observed, then becomes the subject of the interview, to try and help create with the interviewee a shared understanding of some of the things that we've seen that might be puzzling. 


So let me give you an example. So in the first meetings I went to this UN committee I spent hundreds of hours watching, people kept using the term 'catalytic'. They're like, you know, 'this as a committee, we need to be catalysing; our effect is catalytic'. And it was a term I don't really use in my daily life, but it was used kind of disproportionately in this committee. 


And when I began talking to people saying, you know, what do you mean when you say that? It was really interesting, because developed country negotiators or members of this committee would say, Well, you know, we can't really do that much within this UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. So what we're trying to do is get other organisations to do things. And developing country negotiators I spoke to said this: when developed countries use this term in these meetings, it makes us cross because what they're trying to do is make sure that the things that we're talking about are not governed by a lot of the principles that we uphold within this convention space, like the precautionary principle or, you know, kind of equity or, you know, kind of a fair share approach. 


And so that term, you know, in some ways was kind of a dog whistle term within that particular space. But I didn't know that coming in. 


So that's a little bit how that kind of observation work, I think, is complemented really nicely by the interviews. That would be different from a very semi structured approach when we talk about doing interviews, where you ask the same kinds of questions of every participant.


Emily McTernan  15:52

That's fascinating. Did you find the representatives willing to engage with this research? Because you have to – you say you're 'hanging out'. In terms of hanging out, were they willing to do that? 


Lisa Vanhala  16:01

Yeah, I mean, there are like really interesting kind of questions of ethics, and kind of what you have access to and what you don't get to see. And so that's something we've had to navigate really carefully. 


But of course, when we approach people for interviews, there's kind of an explicit consent discussion around that. 


I have found that developing country negotiators have on the whole been more willing to speak to me on the record at least, and which is interesting because of course they have a lot more on their plate, often – those delegations tend to have less capacity in the negotiation, so I think there's been a generosity on their part. But of course, they probably understand this as a way of kind of getting their viewpoint and perspective out there. 


But on the whole, I think we did pretty good. We had to push pretty hard to get some developed country negotiators to speak to us and some did, but not on the record. And so that was really useful for kind of background information. 


But, you know, it's been a long process. And I think there's something about when you are doing that deep hanging out, you start to build relationships. There's a very kind of relational element to doing ethnographic work that can facilitate access, but can also complicate the ethics sometimes, right? So we as a team constantly had to navigate the kind of sets of obligations and conflicts of interest in terms of what we use and what we don't use and how we put that out there. 


And part of what I'm doing now, having written up the manuscript, is trying to go back as much as possible to check with people that they're happy and with the kind of interpretation that we've done. But of course, not everyone's going to be happy. And that's just the nature of academic work. 


Emily McTernan  17:49

And alongside that methodological innovation, there's a theoretical background. Perhaps you could talk a little bit about that. So I know that your work's drawing on Erving Goffman and Bourdieu. 


Could you talk a little bit about why those thinkers and how they're informing this ethnographic study.


Lisa Vanhala  18:03

Yeah, that's great. 


I have always really admired Erving Goffman's work. And I find the kind of frame analysis approach really, really helpful for understanding things in kind of all parts of the world and all parts of my life. So it really featured in a real way that I approach the world. 


But what I had done kind of before I started this project was, with a former master's student, we wrote a paper analysing the kind of different frames of loss and damage. And what we identified through interviews that she had done and document analysis that I did was two very kind of distinctive understandings of loss and damage. 


And one focused a lot on kind of harm and injustice, and the idea of global and historical responsibility for climate change. And this tended to be advanced by developing countries, particularly those from small island, developing states, and then least developed countries and then increasingly African countries as well. And this is very much underpinned by a kind of justice framing of the problem of climate change loss and damage. And it's always argued to be very 'political', in quotes, I would say. 


On the other side, we saw the emergence of a more technocratic framing, I would say, that really focuses on kind of risk. In the early years, it focused a lot on the uncertainty of climate change, like whether certain losses and damages were really being caused by climate or whether they were being caused by other things – kind of poor development practices or bad planning. That rhetoric has kind of toned down a little bit, but there has definitely been an emphasis within that particular kind of framing on risk management as the appropriate response to climate change impacts, and that if we only know how to manage risk better, then we'll be able to kind of prevent a lot of losses and damages. And we don't really have to worry about questions like responsibility – this is really just about trying to address the problem, rather than worrying about whether this was caused by climate change or not, or whether this is just a, you know, a normal natural disaster, quote, unquote, because I don't really believe there is such a thing as natural disasters anymore. And our colleague, Ilan Kelman, has written wonderful work on that. 


So you have these two distinct framings: kind of one more technocratic advanced by developed countries, really focused on risk management, and a more justice, harm-based type framing. 


And what I argued with my student in that earlier piece is that the reason we got an agreement on loss and damage – and this was 10 years ago, in 2013 – is you had a more ambiguous loss and damage framing emerge. So people were able to kind of put aside their very specific understandings and consensus around this ambiguity, which we called 'constructive ambiguity' in our piece in 2016, and the book is looking at that, but then also following on from that as well. 


Emily McTernan  21:11

So coming back to the motion of framing.


Lisa Vanhala  21:13



Emily McTernan  21:13

Is the thought that genuinely these two sides are seeing differently, and so they reached this compromise where they could both see the problem in the same light, or that they were choosing to frame it in a way that was friendly to their interests? 


Lisa Vanhala  21:26

Yeah, yeah, it's a really good point. And I don't think you can really separate it with the kinds of data that I have. Like, you'd really need to kind of get inside people's brains to understand.


But the thing I like about Erving Goffman framing approach is he allows for both a kind of more sincere and a strategic framing. And so it doesn't, you know, it doesn't necessarily really matter. Partly what we're what we're trying to do is understand what is that framing doing in the world. And so a lot of work that focuses on framing, it kind of tells the story of, okay, you have these two different frames, and okay, they came to some agreement, and maybe that was strategic, or maybe that was a bit more sincere. But part of what I've been doing in the book is trying to understand kind of why does that framing matter, right? What is it doing in the world? And the story I'm trying to tell is how that has then shaped the kinds of bodies and policies and institutions that are emerging in this particular space, and that have emerged over the last decade.


Emily McTernan  22:23

Are there any outliers? Are there any who should be on the developing nations’ side and end up being risk framers or is it pretty consistent-?


Lisa Vanhala  22:31

Yeah, I mean, in some ways, I'm presenting it very much as an ideal type, but a lot of the people on the developing country side say: Yeah, of course, risk management is a part of the response or insurance is a useful mechanism for dealing with loss and damage, which I generally think about as a risk management approach. But what they then say is: But we need a lot more. We need something that looks more like reparations and compensations, and insurance needs to be kind of delivered in a way that is going to be useful for the poorest people in society as well. And if that's not possible, then we need to find other ways of looking after those kinds of communities. 


What I have noticed in the ethnographic work, and one of the things I love about the ethnography, is, you know, political behaviour isn't just about text. It's not just about what people say. It's not just about what's written. And so when we kind of analyse minutes, we have to understand that, you know, the decision about what's included or isn't is already a political decision. But watching these meetings, it's been really interesting. 


So your question makes me think of that, because one of the members from a developed country, in one of the first meetings he attended, said something that really kind of fit along the script – to the kind of developing countries' script – more. And, you know, he said something along these lines of like, you know: While we need to be fair, and the way that we do this, or maybe this needs to be thought about through a justice lens. 


And, you know, I just saw the kind of heads of other developed country members of this committee kind of snap up and like look at him and glare. And you know nothing was said in that moment, but the body language said everything, and he very quickly kind of fell into line. 


And that’s difficult to kind of capture and write up, but it gives me a kind of useful accountability check on kind of how I'm interpreting some of the things that people do say – the things that they say and the things that they do. And ethnography really lets you get at that in a different way. 


Emily McTernan  24:34

So you have the norms of the group coming into the story there.


Lisa Vanhala  24:36

Yeah, absolutely.


Emily McTernan  24:37

-The kind of line that the participants of this kind have to take and [inaudible] deviate from.


Lisa Vanhala  24:40

Yeah, very much a kind of logic of appropriateness, which again has always underpinned my work of, you know, this isn't just about kind of interest. This is about kind of how are you living up to the identity that you're kind of assigned in this space. 


Emily McTernan  24:54

And in the loss and damage case, this is one of those cases where the two different framings they come to an agreement.


Lisa Vanhala  24:59



Emily McTernan  25:00

So is this a case... Are you then thinking, Oh, this is very optimistic things are going well? Or are you worried about these differences of framing making a difference when it comes to implementation? What's the story?


Lisa Vanhala  25:10

Yeah. Yeah, it's a great question. And that's very much been the learning over the last five or six years as we've been doing this project. 


So when I first wrote that paper with Cecilie Hestbaek in 2016, I think we were coming from a place of optimism, in some sense, of like, you know, this is one of the issues most important to the very poorest countries in the world. And this is a good thing. 


We, of course, had the agreement, the Paris Agreement, agreed to in 2015. And so since then, the discussion has changed somewhat.


But what we have seen is kind of, you know, years of frustration on trying to get this work on loss and damage going. The committee that was assigned to do this – I think what I do in one chapter of the book is look at the real nitty gritty of kind of how that's played out: who's appointed to that committee? What kinds of expertise do they have? How do they talk about these issues? How do they decide what's going to be on the agenda?


So I look at all these bureaucratic practices. And this is where Bourdieu's work comes in, where I'm trying to really understand how the kind of mundane and everyday practices of the implementation of global policy agreements is actually deeply political. And we see these power dynamics that are played out in really kind of obvious high politics kinds of ways at the COPs, they really continue through the kind of micro level practices later on down the line. And so even when you get a step forward at the COP, often those are unravelled later on down the line. And that's what the book is trying to trace through the work of the executive committee on loss and damage. And I think we're already starting to see that on some of the discussions around a loss and damage fund. 


So while I would have been optimistic kind of 6, 7, 8 years ago, now I think I'm a little bit more aware of how power plays out at every level within this UN regime, and that we need to be watching it very closely and calling it out when we see these assertions of power, which often kind of appear to be very innocuous, but when understood in their context, actually can be really deeply debilitating in terms of progress on this issue. 


I think in a broader sense, I mean, the very fact that developed countries are now talking about a loss and damage fund and putting money into that – in some ways, you know, we can also understand that as a failure of this whole space. 


You know, 30 years ago, we knew about climate change. We knew what we needed to do. The kind of scientific case is there. The case for economic efficiency is there. We have the technology; we have the technical know-how. You know, it's really the politics and the sociology of climate change where we've gotten a bit stuck. So I think it's really important to kind of understand the politics of these issues across all these different levels of policymaking. 


Emily McTernan  28:13

Not just in the negotiation agreement, but the aftermath. 


Lisa Vanhala  28:16



Emily McTernan  28:16

The implementation side of things seems particularly interesting. 


In your inaugural lecture, that was a fascinating observation about the politics of chairs. 


Lisa Vanhala  28:23



Emily McTernan  28:23

I wonder if you could talk us through that – a very concrete case of these power dynamics?


Lisa Vanhala  28:27

I know, yeah. And it's actually one of my PhD students, Frances Butler, who made me aware of this. We wrote with another PhD student, Angelica Johansson, a piece on using an ethnographic sensibility to study climate governance. 


And Frances is doing fantastic work in coastal Louisiana, and trying to understand how state authorities understand responsibility there. But she came back from her fieldwork and told me a story, and has since written it up, about going to a meeting between kind of local communities and state leaders on what to do about coastal erosion caused by sea level rise in Louisiana, which is kind of fascinating context. And so when her work comes out on that I encourage everyone to read it. 


But she noticed that the chairs in the room had all been stacked on the side. And she asked someone about this, and someone said, Well, at a previous meeting, participants had gotten so upset that they started throwing the chairs. And so in that context, the absence of chairs and her kind of ethnographically driven question about this really revealed something kind of about that particular moment and about the history leading up to that moment, which I thought was fantastic. 


And I started thinking about this in the context of the COP negotiations. So I've been to six COPs. And in the, you know, the first couple that I went to, the rooms where loss and damage was being discussed tended to be pretty packed. And I would often be sitting on the floor. So I have lots of pictures of kind of members of my team sitting on the floor of these very crowded rooms like trying to listen to the negotiations. 


But what we found at the COP in Glasgow – COP26 – and last year in Sharm el Sheikh is that the number of observers being led into the room was far less, even though these were very large rooms and there would be lots of room for people to kind of come in and sit on the floor. But what we were told is you can only come into the room if there's a chair available for observers. 


And so in this case, the chair kind of stands in or sits in, I guess, as kind of a totem for what kinds of access and transparency do we have in these global climate politics. And, you know, through the 90s and 2000s, there was a lot of talk about kind of the opening up of these international forums to, you know, non-state actors and observers and civil society participants and people from business organisations. But I think, you know, in some ways, that formal story of an opening up of global climate governance is a little bit undermined when you start to understand how, again, these kinds of technologies as simple as chairs are deployed in order to exclude people from being in the room. 


So in some ways, the chairs there are really trying to be, you know, part of a story of kind of what's happening in some of these trends in global governance more generally.


Emily McTernan  31:34

And as we move into these questions about implementation, and what happens after the agreement, you're beginning to look around I understand to national level actors, as well as thinking about what's going on at the UN in this high level, very international context. What are you expecting to find here? Do you think it will be very different when thinking about loss and damage to the UN space? 


Lisa Vanhala  31:53

Yeah, yeah, it's fascinating. And what we've done is we have a book manuscript at the moment with seven case studies from different global south countries, trying to understand how policy makers in those contexts understand this concept of loss and damage, which is really kind of a peculiar one when you move from that global level down to the national level. 


And of course, you know, the idea of loss and damage in some ways it comes from insurance, right. If you sign any insurance policy, it will have the words 'loss' and 'damage' littered throughout it. 


But this isn't a concept that has emerged from the kind of bottom-up level. When we go to small island developing states – so we've done research in Antigua and Barbuda, and the Bahamas, and Tuvalu – people there don't talk about the kinds of problems that I talked about when I talk about loss and damage as 'loss and damage'. They will be seeing it through their lens of environmental problems or sustainable development. They'll be thinking about populations having to migrate because communities are kind of falling into the sea, and so they'll have a migration lens. 


So what we do in that project is really try and understand how policymakers coming from different like disciplinary silos, if you will, understand this problem of loss and damage, and try and kind of grapple with its implications at the national level. 


And I think the thing that's really exciting about this project is we're really seeing an uptick in research in political science on the domestic politics of climate change. 


And we have fantastic scholars in our department here: Jared Finnegan, who works on kind of questions of the political economy of climate change and the kind of transition to better energy sources and the use of industrial policy to try and manage these issues. We have Fergus Green, who covers just transitioning issues as well, and generally is thinking about the kind of climate change problem and the mitigation problems specifically from a number of different lenses. 


And so what we're trying to do in this book is really develop a comparative politics of climate change loss and damage and be the first ones to be thinking about that in a kind of comparative, systematic way. And so we develop a kind of fairly straightforward comparative politics framework where we look at interests and institutions and ideas and identities, as well as international influences, to try and explain why some states have kind of leaned in, if you will, to the loss and damage agenda more than others. 


And what we find is actually kind of objective vulnerability to climate change isn't necessarily going to explain those countries that are that are kind of most advanced in terms of thinking about developing loss and damage policies at the national level. 


And yeah, there's a lot of kind of-


Emily McTernan  34:54

That is surprising.


Lisa Vanhala  34:54

 -Emergent finds. Yeah, yeah. And part of it is that kind of how it's translated from the global to the national level and what each country's priority issues are. But we also think funding - kind of international funding – influences, and the politics of kind of donor relations will also really shape the way that countries talk about this. So we know that some countries have been discouraged from trying to advance their needs in a way that fits under this loss and damage umbrella, which is deeply problematic.


Emily McTernan  35:26

And other events of these power relations that we've been talking about throughout. 


I believe that you'll soon be jetting off to Dubai for COP28. What will you be doing there, and should we be hopeful in terms of loss and damage? 


Lisa Vanhala  35:37

Yeah, yeah, it's going to be great. And you know the UCL presence at COP – it just gets better and better. And Professor Mark Maslin in geography has been leading the delegation there since I've been going and is a huge kind of champion. 


And so increasingly the kinds of things I do are talking to journalists and trying to help them make sense of what's happening on the loss and damage issue and make that accessible to a wider audience. And to be very clear about kind of what kinds of evidence we have and don't have to make certain types of claims. And so there's really that kind of partnership, I think, with the media that I have found really fascinating and useful. 


I've also been a part of the UN Environment Program [which] every year produces what they call an 'Adaptation Gap Report', where we look at kind of why is adaptation to climate change moving more slowly than it should be. And this year, there was a special chapter on loss and damage. I was very privileged to be a part of the team writing that under the leadership of Professor Emily Boyd at Lund University. And so I'll be taking part in some events and panels talking about some of the findings there. And that's really about trying to bring the kind of latest evidence and science on loss and damage to bear on some of these issues and influence, I suppose, kind of the way policymakers and negotiators are thinking about that. 


So it's an exciting time to be working on loss and damage. 


Your question about optimism is a really difficult one. And I suppose I'm kind of constantly thinking back to Viktor Frankl's idea of tragic optimism: there's something about being real about the challenges that the world faces and the losses that are already playing out, because the risk with optimism is kind of denial of kind of where we are at at this moment. 


And you know, the FT had a headline this morning saying at the moment the world is on track for a 2.9 degree warming world. So I think optimism at this particular moment today for me would be, you know, kind of to be sitting in a state of denial. And I don't want to do that. 


I want to be real about where we are but use that understanding and the agency that comes with that knowledge to try and do something about it. 


So that's where I sit today on this and UCL, of course, is leading on this. We have the new Grand Challenge on the climate crisis, which is really about kind of bringing together everyone across UCL who's trying to do work on climate change and really elevate that theme within UCL. So I think there are really exciting opportunities coming up. So within the UCL context, I'm really optimistic about what this university can do on this particular problem.


Emily McTernan  38:35

Thank you, Lisa.


We've been exploring the career and research of Lisa Vanhala, and especially her research into the politics of climate change loss and damage. 


Lisa's upcoming book on the UN, Governing the End: The Making of Climate Change Loss and Damage, is currently under contract with the University of Chicago Press' Law and Society series. 


Next week, we'll be examining history and archival research in political science. 


Remember to make sure you don't miss out on that or the future episodes of UCL Uncovering Politics, all you need to do is subscribe. You can do so on Apple, Google Podcasts or whatever podcast provides it you use. And while you're there, we'd love it if you could take a moment of time to rate or review us too. 


I'm Emily McTernan. This episode was researched by Alice Hart and produced by Eleanor Kingwell-Banham. Our theme music is written and performed by John Mann. 


This has been UCL Uncovering Politics. Thank you for listening.