If the roots of the climate crisis lie in economic and social injustices that are often racial, gendered, and class-based in origin, what are the prospects for climate justice? This column argues for a transformative approach, noting that addressing justice issues is complex, messy, contested, and time-consuming. The authors conclude that the pursuit of climate justice should not be isolated from the necessary pursuit of food, energy, and water justice – for example, in relation to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
For more than 20 years, the term ‘climate justice’ has been used to account for and contest uneven exposure to the effects of climate change, differential responsibility for causing it, and exclusions from the key arenas acting on the issue.
Climate justice is understood in a multitude of ways and reflects the fact that the causes and effects of climate change, as well as efforts to tackle it, raise ethical, equity, and rights issues. These differences in the understanding of climate justice matter because they have serious implications for those countries, regions, and communities on the front line of the impacts of climate change. They are also increasingly apparent in efforts to accelerate decarbonization.
In a recent study reviewing different approaches to climate justice, we argue for a transformative approach that addresses the roots of the climate crisis in economic and social injustices, which are often racial, gendered, and class-based in origin and operate at various scales.
Why transformative climate justice?
Transformative climate justice focuses on the need to disrupt dominant power relations and shift decision-making processes that lock-in and reproduce injustices. It helps to provide a stronger integration of social justice in relation to the causes of climate change, as well as responses to it in the form of mitigation (just transitions) and adaptation (just responses to disasters and structural drivers behind vulnerability) – moving beyond the ‘silos’ of mitigation and adaptation.
Transformative versions of climate justice not only engage with the roots of the climate crisis in economic and social injustices, but also seek to understand how they are affected and enacted at various scales and domains.
Addressing structural causes means dealing with historical injustices through loss and damage, and protecting resource rights of indigenous and marginalized communities, as well as the human rights of environmental defenders fighting at the frontiers of fossil fuel expansion.
Entry points for transformative justice
In our study, we identify three key entry points for facilitating more transformative approaches in climate justice research: deepening governance; making climate justice inclusive; and deepening climate justice.
This should be done through citizen engagement and moving beyond state actors. Meaningful political participation and more deliberative forms of governance, such as citizens’ climate assemblies (as have taken place in the UK and France), can help to hold powerful institutions to account and explore alternatives.
But we also need to challenge vested interests through the regulation of lobbying and party funding, as well as restrictions on the revolving door that operates between governments and fossil fuel companies, for example.
Climate justice also needs to move beyond the state to the private sector and global institutions. This is crucial to deal with the governance blind spots around climate change in trade and other economic institutions that have been reluctant to address climate change to date. Without this, economic policies will continue to undo progress made in climate negotiations.
Making climate justice inclusive
Despite the attention given to equity and other justice issues, the central role attributed to particular scientific disciplines raises concerns about the privileging of some ways of knowing over others in knowledge production about the Anthropocene (the period of significant human impact on the planet). Asymmetries in the generation of environmental knowledge are also observed in local spaces.
One way of overcoming this is to engage with diverse systems of knowledge and value to improve modeling and open up ways to communicate more effectively with communities on the front line of climate injustices. To facilitate bottom-up methods of climate assessment and adaptation, participatory and visual methodologies such as photovoice and storytelling can also be used to bridge the different forms of expert and lay knowledge.
In terms of attending to justice for communities traditionally excluded from climate policy debates, a nuanced gendered analysis can help to understand the uneven distribution of costs and benefits of different low carbon pathways by looking at intra-household carbon footprints, energy poverty burdens, or analysis of global supply chains.
Deepening climate justice
To ensure that low-carbon transitions are attentive to justice issues, we need participatory scenario-building exercises about climate futures. Work with the modeling community on different energy, transport, and food futures could develop tools that are more participatory, including the deliberative development of scenarios for change.
These should be driven by citizens’ own values, concerns, and priorities to integrate climate justice concerns into planning for different climate futures. But we also need to consider justice for nature, building on innovative attempts to articulate rights for nature when building the foundations for climate justice.
Moving beyond technical fixes
Where these issues are not attended to, there is a very real danger of locking-in or deepening existing inequalities as the preferred solutions of powerful institutions (such as carbon trading, nature-based solutions, or geo-engineering) are pushed through at the expense of poorer groups.
Addressing justice issues is complex, messy, contested, and time consuming – and time is not on our side. But it is also the case that the pursuit of climate justice should not be isolated from the necessary pursuit of food, energy, and water justice, for example, in relation to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Peter Newell is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. He is a social scientist with more than 25 years’ experience of working on climate change. He has authored and co-authored four books on the topic of climate change and edited several others.
Shilpi Srivastava is a Research Fellow at IDS. Her research focuses on examining crosssectoral relationships and impacts around water, health and climate; political economy of climate change adaptation and resource justice; and decision-making under conditions of climatic uncertainty.
Lars Otto Naess is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). His current research centres on the social and institutional dimensions of adaptation to climate change, policy processes on climate change and agriculture at national and sub-national levels.
Gerardo A. Torres Contreras is a final-year doctoral researcher at IDS. In his work, he explores land struggles, resistance, and processes of agrarian change resulting from renewable energy projects in Mexico. He previously obtained degrees in Political Science at UNAM, Mexico and an MPhil in Development Studies at the University of Oxford.
Roz Price is a researcher at IDS. She has more than six years of work experience in the field of international climate policy, climate finance, and climate-related risks and vulnerability.