Faculty of Social & Historical Sciences


Research Spotlight: Professor Lisa Vanhala

31 October 2023

Meet Lisa Vanhala, Professor of Political Science at UCL’s Department of Political Science. Lisa's work in climate change loss and damage politics and governance sees her attending COP28 as one of UCL's climate experts. Find out more about her research.

Professor Lisa Vanhala

What is your role and what does it involve?

I am a Professor in the Department of Political Science and School of Public Policy. My role includes teaching on courses related to environmental politics and research methods and I am currently a deputy head of department supporting colleagues in their career development. My main work over the last 6 years has also involved leading a fantastic research team working on the politics of climate change loss and damage funded by an ERC Starting Grant.

What do you find most interesting or enjoyable about your work?

It is an enormous privilege to be able to work on climate change which I see as the most important political challenge of the century. To get to do that at a University like UCL where people are passionately committed to critically engaging and addressing the problem and bringing diverse perspectives, areas of expertise and skill sets is inspiring. I learn something new every day. Over the last decade I’ve done work on how social movements use legal tools to push for climate policy adoption and implementation; I’ve looked at the drivers and consequences of climate change litigation more generally; I’ve written on how climate change will impact human rights and what human rights based approaches to addressing climate change entails.

Tell us about your research

I am currently wrapping up a project on the politics and governance of climate change loss and damage. While we have a good understanding of what is required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the interventions available to adapt to the impacts of climate change, countries are only beginning to grapple with how to address the losses resulting from climate change impacts. I’m currently completing a book, Governing the End: The Making of Climate Change Loss and Damage, which follows the history and politics of this area of governance within the UN Climate Change regime. I’m also co-editing a book which is the first to trace how national level policy makers are navigating the politics of climate change loss in their own countries. We worked with collaborators and early career researchers in Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, Tuvalu, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru and Chile to begin to tease out the kinds of issues those on the frontlines of climate change are grappling with from a policy perspective.

What led you to pursue a research career in this field?

My work has always been underpinned by an interest in social justice and the ways in which politics can hamper or facilitate the achievement of a more just world. While I have been working and teaching on climate change politics since the beginning of my career my interest in loss and damage came from both an intellectual curiosity but also a more personal place. The UN first established the idea of climate change loss and damage in international law in 2013. This development came at a time in my life when I was experiencing several personal losses. Navigating loss intellectually, through my research and with a team of those committed to confronting loss, allowed me to grapple with my own sense of vulnerability and provided one way of processing those losses.  

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

Our research team was due to visit seven countries over the course of 2020 and 2021. The Covid-19 pandemic turned everything on its head. We had to find new ways of doing the outreach with policymakers across the developing countries we were wanting to study and to conduct research interviews. We began partnering with amazing collaborators across developing countries, like Dr Adelle Thomas in The Bahamas, who connected us with early career researchers interested in helping us understand their local contexts and priorities. The resilience and creativity of the team was absolutely amazing and I learned so much from the process both substantively in how countries are grappling with loss and damage but also about how strengthening collaborative work is on so many levels.   

What's next on the research horizon for you?

I’m asking myself this question a lot these days. I co-edited a special issue of Global Environmental Politics that was published in August and I am wrapping up two book projects! I’m interested in stepping back and scanning the horizon. I’m keen to learn about what others working across UCL on climate crisis are doing and to play a role in elevating the topic across the University. I’m certain I will find lots to inspire me!

Can you share some interesting work that you read about recently?

I’ve been reading work by my colleagues in the Faculty lately. My colleagues in the Department of Political Science, Dr Fergus Green and Dr Jared Finnegan, are rising stars and are leading the way in an emerging literature on the distributive politics of climate change at the national level. Jared’s work looks at political institutions and how they shape varieties of decarbonization and Fergus has really gotten me thinking about the potential of an anti-fossil fuel norms cascade. I also keep going back to Professor Hannah Knox’s (UCL Anthropology) book Thinking Like a Climate: Governing a City in Times of Environmental Change. It really broadened my horizons in terms of thinking about the materiality of climate change, the influence of non-human forces in climate politics and how all of this shapes the production of knowledge.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I’m learning to play the banjo.


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