Know your ‘justices’ because climate change is the great injustice

Climate Justice Diagram

“Climate injustice is caused by inequalities: the most politically, cultur­ally, and economically marginalized communities and nations use vastly less fossil fuel–based energy and bear far less responsibility for creating environmental problems than do wealthier nations and people, who use far more than is needed for a decent quality of life”

 (Harlan et al., 2015, 127).

Climate change exacerbates existing vulnerabilities and inequalities. While both the poor and the rich can lie in the path of the same hurricane or heatwave it is the poor and the marginalised that have much less at their disposal for fending off the impact and dealing with the consequences (granted many developing countries particularly in Africa have been designated as most likely to suffer severest impacts). Furthermore, while carbon footprints expand the more people consume and own – which is what the wealthier populations do best – the seats at the negotiation tables of international summits and national committees are most often occupied by wealthy and powerful political elites.

This list of concerns all fall under the umbrella of climate justice. Some dominant framings of climate change as a scientific and technocratic concept as well as the narrow pigeon-holing of public participation in responding to climate change to that of passive recipient of the science and as mere consumer, leave little room for considering climate justice.

At the outset of the climate change debate society’s presence, particularly in regard to how people respond to new lower-energy technologies or policy interventions, was mostly assumed or ignored. Many of the public campaign initiatives that emerged out of ‘climate change’ becoming an issue – the turn the light off and do your bit campaigns – are significant in that they targeted individuals and completely ignored the role of industry, community, culture, politics, civil society, the systems of supply and service provision, the high-carbon lock-in of existing infrastructure, the distribution of economic wealth, the energy content of the work-life tempos and rhythms etc, etc, etc…. Basically, the stuff of society and its history.

With the stuff of society being absent the public as citizens, communities or activists required to negotiate the relationship between mitigation and adaptation and society were absent too. As part of the narrowness of the discourse the public’s role was to accept this limited asocial framing that they had no part in constructing and no avenues for discussing in relation to their own concerns.

When you are reducing the public to individuals, ignoring how they relate to each other and to the objects and social structures of daily life it becomes difficult to see the broad array of social differences that underlie climate injustices. Injustices are based on unequal distributions of power, be it economic, social, bureaucratic, political or and/or cultural power, which latch on to social differences, legitimating and/or normalising (even naturalising) the elevated existence of certain sides of a difference over others – developed/developing, rich/poor, male/female, Western/Eastern, non-native/indigenous, White/Black, professional management/manual labourer.

In recent years with the setting up of academic and political institutions on climate justice, big name advocacy on its behalf by the likes of the Pope, Naomi Klein, and Mary Robinson, developing countries and small Island nations (The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS)) more engaged and prepared to combine their weight, climate justice is becoming that bit more mainstream.

So what is climate justice? Although an increasingly complex topic, particularly the more one enters into legal and ethical discussions, there is a diverse and pluralistic conceptualisation of climate justice which is important to know. As a bit of a starter-pack for climate justice here is a list of relevant types of climate justice all of which can overlap:

Intergenerational Justice in its simplest form marks the need to balance the rights of current generations with future generations.

Cosmopolitan Justice places the rights, duties and ethical considerations of persons above that of states. In terms of emissions, the most affluent have the highest obligations towards combating climate change regardless of whether they hail from developed or developing countries. So while developed countries may have the highest historical national emissions and the highest per capita emissions the millionaires and billionaires in both developed and developing countries are likely those who benefit from and contribute the most to emissions.

Distributive Justice incorporates the notion of equity in how the burdens and benefits of climate change, and responding to it, are shared in communities and between nations. In the US for example socioeconomic, gender and racial inequalities were prime contributors to vulnerability to disasters in the 20th Century. Socioeconomic and racial inequality also applies to people more likely to be living in high-polluting zones caused by fossil-fuel extraction and coal-fueled power plants.

Restorative justice focuses on the principle of re-establishing the victims in their way of life prior to any calumnious changes by addressing the harm suffered. This is not always possible with some irreversible consequences of climate change but compensation for the harm done – for example to displaced people and lost livelihoods – requires the transfer of resources from those responsible to those most vulnerable to it.

This is mainly viewed as developed countries with a high carbon history – the US in particular roughly responsible for nearly a third of global historical emissions since the industrial revolution – needing to compensate developing countries that are most (likely to be) affected by the climate change impacts of rising greenhouse gases to which they have contributed little (e.g. climate debt). Restorative climate justice can extend too into the rights of indigenous populations that have suffered under colonization and now continue to suffer due to extractive fossil-fuel industries and climate change.

There is a large Participatory or Procedural Justice aspect to restorative justice too with the developing countries and the communities most affected having the right to see how compensatory and indeed preventive or protective resource transfers are done – particularly at the local level where the suffering has or will occur. However, involvement in the climate change process has been narrowed from the start. There are serious inequities in engagement in the social and political processes of climate change.

The failure to include the concerns of small island nations in early discussions allowed for an arbitrary threshold of 2oC rise which would likely allow for many small islands to be submerged. It was only with the 2015 Paris Agreement and the greater participation of small island nations that the notion to pursue efforts towards a 1.5oC limit was included.

The discourse of climate change has also been exclusionary. It has been highly technical, and even less technical mentions are still tainted by association. People are wary of its complexities and see little in it that addresses them directly. This is especially the case with people who lack access to information, participatory opportunities, and power to shape debate and government decision-making. The media too can favour ‘official sources’ and more expert savvy, or economic growth-friendly climate change framings and communication.

Participatory justice must be supplemented by Recognition Justice which sets about correcting the social and political processes that misrecognize, hide or devalue the existence and rightful inclusion of marginalised groups. The rights of inclusion for indigenous groups in the governance and management of climate change are often referred to under this category.

Participation is also supported by the participants in climate change having a sufficient degree of Capabilities. Capabilities are the resources, opportunities, freedoms, and institutions – e.g. living wages, clean air, affordable and accessible public transit, health care, housing, food – required by all in order to exist as full members of society.

Ecocentric justice considers that the rights should be extended to non-human life and to Earth itself even including the rights afforded under citizenship.


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