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Photo of Professor Catriona McKinnon

Professor Catriona McKinnon

Professor of Political Theory

 BA (Hons) Philosophy (UCL), MA Philosophy (UCL), PhD Philosophy (UCL)

I am a political theorist working on climate justice and climate ethics. My research in these areas adopts a broadly liberal approach which reflects my other research interests in contemporary liberal political philosophy (especially Rawls), and the theory and practice of toleration. In my work, I take seriously what we owe to future people in the face of the climate crisis. Although most of my work has been in 'pure' political philosophy, I am increasingly engaged in transdisciplinary work on climate justice in order to better inform climate policy. Before coming to Exeter I was the Director of the Leverhulme Doctoral Programme in Climate Justice, and Director of the Centre for Climate and Justice, both at the University of Reading. 


Research group links

Research interests

My current research is in environmental ethics, with a particular focus on its intergenerational dimensions. My live projects include work (with Stephen Gardiner) on the ethics, justice and legitimacy of geoengineering; the articulation and defence of a new international crime ('postericide') committed by conduct that puts humanity at risk of extinction; and explorations of important, but overlooked, barriers to biodiversity renewal and action on climate change. My research lies in the domain of normative political theory, and has been clustered around three interconnected themes: liberal justice and justification; the theory and practice of toleration; and climate justice. 

My books include Liberalism and the Defence of Political Constructivism (2002), Toleration: A Critical Introduction (2006), Climate Change and Future Justice (2011), and the textbook Issues in Political Theory (now in its fourth edition).

I have held seventeen research grants from (inter alia) the Leverhulme Trust, AHRC, and the British Academy.

My introductory book on Climate Change and Political Theory (Polity Press) is in press (for 2022) and I am writing a monograph titled Endangering Humanity: An International Crime (MIT Press), as well as working on projects related to the ethics of geoengineering, and new domains of intergenerational injustice, with Steve Gardiner (University of Washington).


Research supervision

 I welcome proposals from political theorists, philosophers, and ethicists on topics related to climate change, the theory and practice of toleration, liberal political philosophy, and geoengineering. 

External impact and engagement

Political theorists are vital to improve policymaking and quality of public debate about it. This demands more than simply defending principles and values in themselves, notwithstanding the difficulty and importance of these tasks. It also demands taking second (third, fourth) best policy proposals seriously and evaluating them with the help of other disciplines, without losing sight of the principles and values that anchor the evaluations.

Alongside my purely academic research, for the last two years I have been a member of a multidisciplinary, international academic working group (convened by the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment) to write a report on the international governance of solar radiation management, which is a type of geoengineering that proposes to mask global warming by spraying reflectiuve particles into the stratosphere. This report has now been published, and is being taken forward by the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance Initiative in its work to stimulate global policymakers (especially in the UN system) to start addressing the SRM governance vacuum. 

Another recent policy-facing initiative I have been involved in concerns support for communities facing displacement by climate impacts. As part of a small group at the University of Reading I have developed a new analytical framework for thinking about claims-making by such communities. We are seeking funding to undertake fieldwork as part of this project. We discussed our work at a high level roundtable at Lambeth Palace in January 2019.


Modules taught


I was educated in the Philosophy department at University College London. Under the supervision of Professor Jo Wolff and Professor Veronique Munoz-Darde, my PhD explored the importance of self-respect and its social bases in the political philosophy of John Rawls. Before completing my PhD I took up a Lectureship in the Politics department at Exeter in 1997. At that time, the department numbered only fifteen staff and my colleague Dr Bice Maiguashca and I were two of only three women in the department. In 2000 I moved to the Politics department at the University of York, and then to the Politics department at the University of Reading in 2004. I became a Reader in Political Theory at Reading in 2008 and was promoted to Professor in 2010. Coming full circle, I joined the department of Politics at Exeter in 2019.

My present work explores the questions of justice and ethics raised by climate change. It is relentlessly hard to face the realities of the global climate crisis. That said, the other academics and students with whom I engage in thinking about these things are extraordinarily interesting, solidaristic, and cheerful. I think we all keep each other going.

When I am switched off from work I like being silly with my kids, drinking wine with friends, walking my two dogs, riding my horse, and listening to my husband's gorgeous music.

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