Term linking the climate crisis with environmental and social justice
Climate justice is a concept that addresses the just division, fair sharing, and equitable distribution of the burdens of climate change and its mitigation and responsibilities to deal with climate change. It has been described as encompassing "a set of rights and obligations, which corporations, individuals and governments have towards those vulnerable people who will be in a way significantly disproportionately affected by climate change." For example, a 2023 review article found that if there were a 2oC temperature rise by 2100, roughly 1 billion primarily poor people would die as a result of primarily wealthy people's greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate justice is understood in many ways, and the different meanings are sometimes contested. At its simplest, conceptions of climate justice can be grouped along the lines of procedural justice, which emphasizes fair, transparent and inclusive decision making, and distributive justice, which places the emphasis on who bears the costs of both climate change and the actions taken to address it.
A main factor in the increased popularity and consideration of climate justice was the rise of grassroots movements – such as Fridays for Future, Ende Gelände, and Extinction Rebellion. A special focus is placed on the role of Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA), i.e., groups overall disproportionately vulnerable to or affected by climate change, such as women, racial minorities, young, older and poorer people. Historically marginalized communities, such as low income, indigenous communities and communities of color often face the worst consequences of climate change: in effect the least responsible for climate change broadly suffer its gravest consequences. They might also be further disadvantaged by responses to climate change which might reproduce or exacerbate existing inequalities, which has been labeled the 'triple injustices' of climate change.
Some climate justice approaches promote transformative justice where advocates focus on how vulnerability to climate change reflects various structural injustices in society, such as the exclusion of marginalized groups from climate resilient livelihoods, and that climate action must explicitly address these structural power imbalances. For these advocates, at a minimum, priority is placed on ensuring that responses to climate change do not repeat or reinforce existing injustices, which has both distributive justice and procedural justice dimensions.
Other conceptions frame climate justice in terms of the need to curb climate change within certain limits, like the Paris Agreement targets of 1.5 °C, as otherwise the impacts of climate change on natural ecosystems will be so severe as to preclude the possibility of justice for many generations and populations. Other activists argue that failure to address social implications of climate change mitigation transitions could result in profound economic and social tensions and delay necessary changes while ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way – called a 'just transition' – are possible, preferable, in better agreement with contemporary human rights, fairer, more ethical as well as possibly more effective.
Climate justice and justice in terms of climate change mitigation is mainly concerned with the procedural and distributive ethical dimensions of and for climate change mitigation. A writer for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) described the concept of climate justice to "encompasses a set of rights and obligations, which corporations, individuals and governments have towards those vulnerable people who will be in a way significantly disproportionately affected by climate change."
Use and popularity of climate justice language has increased dramatically in recent years, yet climate justice is understood in many ways, and the different meanings are sometimes contested. At its simplest, conceptions of climate justice can be grouped along the lines of procedural justice, which emphasizes fair, transparent and inclusive decision making, and distributive justice, which places the emphasis on who bears the costs of both climate change and the actions taken to address it.
The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report adds as a third type of principles of climate justice “recognition which entails basic respect and robust engagement with and fair consideration of diverse cultures and perspectives”. Alternatively, recognition and respect can be understood as the underlying basis for distributive and procedural justice.
Causes of injustice
Existing economic systems as a root cause
Among major emitters, the U.S. has higher annual per capita emissions than China, which has more total annual emissions.
Cumulatively, U.S. and China emissions have caused the most greenhouse gas-related economic damage.
One contentious issue in debates about climate justice is whether fundamental differences in economic systems, such as capitalism versus socialism, are the, or a, root cause of climate injustice. In this context, fundamental disagreements arise between, on the one hand, liberal and conservative environmental groups and, on the other, leftist and radical organizations. While the former often tend to blame the excesses of neoliberalism for climate change and argue in favor of market-based reform within capitalism, the latter view capitalism with its exploitative traits as the underlying central issue. Other possible causal explanations include hierarchies based on the group differences and the nature of the fossil fuel regime itself.
It has been argued that the unwarranted rate of climate change, along with its inequality of burdens, is a structural injustice. There is political responsibility for the maintenance and support of historically constitutedstructural processes. This is despite assumed viable potential alternative models based on novel technologies and means. As a criterion for determining responsibility for climate change, individual causal contribution or capacity does not matter as much as the responsibility for the perpetuation of effectively carbon-intensive structures, practices, and institutions. These structures constitute the global politico-economic system, rather than enabling structural changes towards a system that does not naturally facilitate unsustainable exploitation of people and nature.
For others, climate justice could be pursued through existing economic frameworks, global organizations and policy mechanisms. Therefore, for them the root-causes could be found in the causes that so far inhibited global implementation of measures like emissions trading schemes, specifically of forms that deliver the assumed mitigation results.
Disproportionality between causality and burden
Emissions of the richest 1% are more than twice that of the poorest 50%. Compliance with the Paris Agreement's 1.5°C goal would require the richest 1% to reduce emissions by at least 30 times, while per-person emissions of the poorest 50% could approximately triple.
Though total CO2 emissions (size of pie charts) differ substantially among high-emitting regions, the pattern of higher income classes emitting more than lower income classes is consistent across regions. The world’s top 1% of emitters emit over 1000 times more than the bottom 1%.
Scaling the effect of wealth to the national level: richer (developed) countries emit more CO2 per person than poorer (developing) countries. Emissions are roughly proportional to GDP per person, though the rate of increase diminishes with average GDP/pp of about $10,000.
The responsibility for anthropogenic climate change differs substantially among individuals and groups. Studies find that the most affluent citizens of the world are responsible for most environmental impacts, and robust action by them is necessary for prospects of moving towards safer environmental conditions.
According to a 2020 report by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, the richest 1% of the global population have caused twice as much carbon emissions as the poorest 50% over the 25 years from 1990 to 2015. This was, respectively, during that period, 15% of cumulative emissions compared to 7%.
The bottom half of the population is directly-responsible for less than 20% of energy footprints and consume less than the top 5% in terms of trade-corrected energy. High-income individuals usually have higher energy footprints as they disproportionally use their larger financial resources – which they can usually spend freely in their entirety for any purpose as long as the end user purchase is legal – for energy-intensive goods. In particular, the largest disproportionality was identified to be in the domain of transport, where e.g. the top 10% consume 56% of vehicle fuel and conduct 70% of vehicle purchases.
Many of the people and nations most affected by climate change are among the least responsible for it.
The current nation states and world population need to make changes, including sacrifices (like uncomfortable lifestyle-changes, alterations to public spending and changes to choice of work), today to enable climate justice for future generations.
Preventable severe effects are projected to likely occur during the lifetime of the present adult population. Under current climate policy pledges, children born in 2020 (e.g. "Generation Alpha") will experience over their lifetimes, 2–7 times as many heat waves, as well as more of other extreme weather events compared to people born in 1960. This, along with other projections, raises issues of intergenerational equity as it was these generations (specific groups and individuals and their collective governance and perpetuated economics) who have been mainly responsible for the burden of climate change.
This illustrates the general fact that emissions produced by any given generation can lock-in damage for one or more future generations, making climate change progressively more threatening for the generations affected than for the generation responsible for the threats. Crucially, the climate system contains tipping points, such as the amount of deforestation of the Amazon that will launch the forest’s irreversible decline. A generation whose continued emissions drive the climate system past such significant tipping points inflicts severe injustice on multiple future generations.
Disadvantaged groups will continue to be disproportionately impacted as climate change persists. These groups will be affected due to inequalities that are based on demographic characteristics such as differences in gender, race, ethnicity, age, and income.Inequality increases the exposure of disadvantaged groups to the harmful effects of climate change while also increasing their susceptibility to destruction caused by climate change. The damage is worsened because disadvantaged groups are the last to receive emergency relief and are rarely included in the planning process at local, national and international levels for coping with the impacts of climate change.
Communities of color, women, indigenous groups, and people of low-income all face a larger vulnerability to climate change. These groups will be disproportionately impacted due to heat waves, air quality, and extreme weather events.Women are also disadvantaged and will be affected by climate change differently than men. This may impact the ability of minority groups to adapt unless steps are taken to provide these groups with more access to universal resources. Indigenous groups are affected by the consequences of climate change even though they historically have contributed the least. In addition, indigenous peoples are unjustifiably impacted due to their low income, and they continue to have fewer resources to cope with climate change.
Responses to improve climate justice
Burden on future generations
One generation must not be allowed to consume large portions of the CO2 budget while bearing a relatively minor share of the reduction effort if this would involve leaving subsequent generations with a drastic reduction burden and expose their lives to comprehensive losses of freedom.
The rights of nature protect ecosystems and natural processes for their intrinsic value, thus complementing them with the human right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment. The rights of nature, like all constitutional rights, are justiciable and, consequently, judges are obliged to guarantee them.
There are three common principles of justice in burden-sharing that can be used in decision-making related to who bears the larger burdens of climate change globally and domestically: a) those who most caused the problem, b) those who have the most burden-carrying ability and c) those who have benefited most from the activities that cause climate change. Observing calls for climate reparations in scientific literature, among climate movements, and in policy debates, a 2023 study published in One Earth estimated that the top 21 fossil fuel companies would owe cumulative climate reparations of $5.4 trillion over the period 2025–2050.
Another method of deciding starts from the objective of preventing climate change e.g. beyond 1.5 °C and from there reason back to who should do what. This makes use of the principles of justice in burden-sharing to maintain fairness.
Court cases and litigation
By December 2022, the number of climate change-related lawsuits had grown to 2,180, including 1,522 in the U.S. Already in the present and based on existing laws, some relevant parties can be forced into action (to the degree of accountability, monitoring and law enforcement capacities and assessments of feasibility) by means of courts.
... acknowledging that climate change is a common concern of humankind, Parties should, when taking action to address climate change, respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities and people in vulnerable situations and the right to development, as well as gender equality, empowerment of women and intergenerational equity, ...
Climate justice may often conflict with social stability whereby e.g. interventions that establish a more just pricing of products could facilitate social unrest and interventions of socioeconomic decarbonization could lead to, not only decreased e.g. material possessions, number of freely choosable options, comfort, maintained habits and salaries,[additional citation(s) needed] but also at least temporary increased unemployment rates which may be problematic with contemporary psychology (possibly including norms, expectations, conscience, pressures, feedbacks, bias, plasticity and awareness) and socioeconomic structures (possibly including structural facilitation mechanisms for economic activities, enforceable policies, media systems and education apparatuses) even though multiple studies estimate that if a rapid transitions were to be implemented in certain ways the number of full-time jobs formally recognized in the economy could increase overall – albeit not addressing topics such as retraining – at least temporarily due to the increased demand for labor to e.g. build public infrastructure and other "green jobs" to build the renewable energy system. Even though accumulating evidence suggests that people who are living more environmentally friendly lifestyles are happier, according to a study "current strategies for encouraging lifestyle change aren't working". Many of the measures that could decrease social stability could also decrease public political support and political stability or make such more difficult to maintain.
Public political support
Due to mechanisms of politics and possibly partly due to an earlier neglection of enacting required policies and relevant education of citizens via education systems and media, the urgency for and extent of policies, especially when seeking to facilitate lifestyle-changes and shifts on the scale of entire industries, could not only lead to social tension but also decrease levels of public support for political parties in power. For instance, in contemporary socioeconomic structures keeping gas prices low is often "really good for the poor and the middle class". This may make it more difficult or less rational for political parties to enact such decisions across the world in cases where the national, rather than international, level is adequate. Citizens often form their opinions based on peer opinions and media as well as according to their personal near-term interests. Endorsements of policies – which historically have often been highly suboptimal – that come from an untrusted source may lower citizens' policy support and competing political campaigns and outreach, a key mechanism of politics, as well as online misinformation may further exploit early public discontent with policies, especially when combined ubiquitously with other grave imperfections and ignorance of relevant political parties. The dilemma that links this problem to the concept of climate justice is that interests – in particular extrapolated interests based on scientific data and projections – of hypothetical yet-unborn generations are not suitably represented and considered in today's climate policy-making, which is further complicated in that the already living young generations that will suffer most from climate change receive a politically equal voice and that large shares of voters generally do not have a good quality understanding of the projected likely effects of climate change and other relevant conditions. Public support could also be decreased by decisions for large financial transfers for the purpose of achieving climate justice, making this a challenging task including in cases where this money largely comes from taxing the general population rather than more select subgroups.
Some may see climate justice arguments for compensation by rich countries for disasters and similar problems in developing countries (as well as for domestic disasters) as a way for "limitless liability" by which at least high levels of compensations could drain a society's resources, efforts, focus and financial funds away from efficient preventive climate change mitigation towards e.g. immediate climate change relief compensations or climate-unrelated expenses of the receiving country or people.
Conflicting interest-driven interpretations as barriers to agreements
Substantially different interpretations and perspectives, arising from different interests, needs, circumstances, expectations, considerations and histories, can lead to substantially varying conceptions of what is "fair". Such may lead to countries effectively making it more difficult to reach an agreement, similar to the prisoner's dilemma. Developing effective, legitimate, enforceable agreements could thereby be substantially complicated, especially if traditional ways or tools of policy-making are used, in-sum trusted third party expert authorities are absent and the scientific research base relevant for the decision-making – such as studies and data about the problem, potential mitigation measures and capacities – is not robust. Fundamental fairness principles include or could be:
for which country characteristics can predict relative support.[additional citation(s) needed] The shared problem-characteristics of climate change could incentivize developing countries to act in concert to deter developed countries from "passing their climate costs onto them" and thereby improve the global mitigation effectiveness to 1.5 °C.
Fossil fuel phase out are projected to affect states – and their citizens – with large or central industries of fossil-fuels extraction – including OPEC states – differently than other nations. It was found that they have obstructed climate negotiations and it was argued that many of them have large amounts of wealth due to which they should not need to receive financial support from other countries but could implement adequate transitions on their own in terms of financial resources. A study found that governments of nations which have historically benefited from extraction should take the lead, with countries that have a high dependency on fossil fuels but low capacity for transition needing some support to follow. In particular, transitional impacts of a rapid phase out of extraction is thought to be better absorbed in diversified, wealthier economies which should bear discrepancies in costs needed for a "just transition" as they are most able to bear it and may have better capacities for enacting absorptive socioeconomic policies.
The US, China and Russia have cumulatively contributed the greatest amounts of CO2 since 1850.
Many of the heaviest users of fossil fuels rely on them for a high percentage of their electricity.
There are concerns that climate justice could be used as an excuse or moral justification by developing, undeveloped or later-developed nations for less ambitious climate change mitigation goals as they have emitted less greenhouse gases in the past.
Developed countries, as the main cause of climate change, in assuming their historical responsibility, must recognize and honor their climate debt in all of its dimensions as the basis for a just, effective, and scientific solution to climate change. (...) The focus must not be only on financial compensation, but also on restorative justice, understood as the restitution of integrity to our Mother Earth and all its beings.
World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, People's Agreement, April 2010, Cochabamba, Bolivia
The concept of climate justice was deeply influential on climate negotiations years before the term "climate justice" was regularly applied to the concept. In December 1990 the United Nations appointed an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) to draft what became the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), adopted at the UN Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992. As the name “Environment and Development” indicated, the fundamental goal was to coordinate action on climate change with action on sustainable development. It was impossible to draft the text of the FCCC without confronting central questions of climate justice concerning how to share the responsibilities of slowing climate change fairly between developed nations and developing nations.
The issue of the fair terms for sharing responsibility was raised forcefully for the INC by statements about climate justice from developing countries. In response, the FCCC adopted the now-famous (and still-contentious) principles of climate justice embodied in Article 3.1:"The Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. Accordingly, the developed country Parties should take the lead in combating climate change and the adverse effects thereof." The first principle of climate justice embedded in Article 3.1 is that calculations of benefits (and burdens) must include not only those for the present generation but also those for future generations. The second is that responsibilities are "common but differentiated", that is, every country has some responsibilities, but equitable responsibilities are different for different types of countries. The third is that a crucial instance of different responsibilities is that in fairness developed countries' responsibilities must be greater. How much greater continues to be debated politically.
In 2000, at the same time as the Sixth Conference of the Parties (COP 6), the first Climate Justice Summit took place in The Hague. This summit aimed to "affirm that climate change is a rights issue" and to "build alliances across states and borders" against climate change and in favor of sustainable development.
Subsequently, in August–September 2002, international environmental groups met in Johannesburg for the Earth Summit. At this summit, also known as Rio+10, as it took place ten years after the 1992 Earth Summit, the Bali Principles of Climate Justice were adopted.
Climate Justice affirms the rights of communities dependent on natural resources for their livelihood and cultures to own and manage the same in a sustainable manner, and is opposed to the commodification of nature and its resources.
Bali Principles of Climate Justice, article 18, August 29, 2002
In 2004, the Durban Group for Climate Justice was formed at an international meeting in Durban, South Africa. Here representatives from NGOs and peoples' movements discussed realistic policies for addressing climate change.
In September 2013 the Climate Justice Dialogue convened by the Mary Robinson Foundation and the World Resources Institute released their Declaration on Climate Justice in an appeal to those drafting the proposed agreement to be negotiated at COP-21 in Paris in 2015.
In December 2018, the People's Demands for Climate Justice, signed by 292,000 individuals and 366 organizations, called upon government delegates at COP24 to comply with a list of six climate justice demands. One of the demands was to "Ensure developed countries honor their “Fair Shares” for largely fueling this crisis."
Some advance was achieved at the Paris climate finance summit at June 2023. The World Bank allowed to low income countries temporarily stop paying debts if they are hit by climate disaster. Most of financial help to climate vulnerable countries is coming in the form of debts, what often worsens the situation as those countries are overburdened with debts. Around 300 billion dollars was pledged as financial help in the next years, but trillions are needed to really solve the problem. More than 100 leading economists signed a letter calling for an extreme wealth tax as a solution (2% tax can generate around 2.5 trillion). It can serve as a Loss and damage mechanism as the 1% of richest people is responsible for twice as many emissions as the poorest 50%.
Subsistence farmers in Latin America
Several studies that investigated the impacts of climate change on agriculture in Latin America suggest that in the poorer countries of Latin America, agriculture composes the most important economic sector and the primary form of sustenance for small farmers.Maize is the only grain still produced as a sustenance crop on small farms in Latin American nations. The projected decrease of this grain and other crops can threaten the welfare and the economic development of subsistence communities in Latin America. Food security is of particular concern to rural areas that have weak or non-existent food markets to rely on in the case food shortages. In August 2019, Honduras declared a state of emergency when a drought caused the southern part of the country to lose 72% of its corn and 75% of its beans. Food security issues are expected to worsen across Central America due to climate change. It is predicted that by 2070, corn yields in Central America may fall by 10%, beans by 29%, and rice by 14%. With Central American crop consumption dominated by corn (70%), beans (25%), and rice (6%), the expected drop in staple crop yields could have devastating consequences.
The expected impacts of climate change on subsistence farmers in Latin America and other developing regions are unjust for two reasons. First, subsistence farmers in developing countries, including those in Latin America are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change Second, these nations were the least responsible for causing the problem of anthropogenic induced climate.[better source needed]
Disproportionate vulnerability to climate disasters is socially determined. For example, socioeconomic and policy trends affecting smallholder and subsistence farmers limit their capacity to adapt to change. A history of policies and economic dynamics has negatively impacted rural farmers. During the 1950s and through the 1980s, high inflation and appreciated real exchange rates reduced the value of agricultural exports. As a result, farmers in Latin America received lower prices for their products compared to world market prices. Following these outcomes, Latin American policies and national crop programs aimed to stimulate agricultural intensification. These national crop programs benefitted larger commercial farmers more. In the 1980s and 1990s low world market prices for cereals and livestock resulted in decreased agricultural growth and increased rural poverty.
Perceived vulnerability to climate change differs even within communities, as in the example of subsistence farmers in Calakmul, Mexico.
Adaptive planning is challenged by the difficulty of predicting local scale climate change impacts. A crucial component to adaptation should include government efforts to lessen the effects of food shortages and famines. Planning for equitable adaptation and agricultural sustainability will require the engagement of farmers in decision making processes.
Because of climate change, tropical cyclones are expected to increase in intensity and have increased rainfall, and have larger storm surges, but there might be fewer of them globally. These changes are driven by rising sea temperatures and increased maximum water vapour content of the atmosphere as the air heats up.Hurricane Katrina in 2005 provided insights into how climate change disasters affect different people individually, as it had a disproportionate effect on low-income and minority groups. A study on the race and class dimensions of Hurricane Katrina suggests that those most vulnerable include poor, black, brown, elderly, sick, and homeless people. Low-income and black communities had little resources and limited mobility to evacuate before the storm. Also, after the hurricane, low-income communities were most affected by contamination, and this was made worse by the fact that government relief measures failed to adequately assist those most at risk.
^Climate Change and LandAn IPCC Special Report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems. Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. 2019. p. 17.
^"Africa Speaks up on Climate Change". Archived from the original on 19 December 2018. In wealthy countries, the looming climate crisis is a matter of concern, as it will affect the wellbeing of the economy. But in Africa, which is hardly contributing to climate change in the first place, it will be a matter of life and death.
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^Caney, Simon (2021). "Climate Justice". In Zalta, Edward N. (ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2021 ed.). Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Archived from the original on 18 March 2022. Retrieved 18 March 2022.
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^Timmons Roberts, J. (December 2009). "The International Dimension of Climate Justice and the Need for International Adaptation Funding". Environmental Justice. 2 (4): 185–190. doi:10.1089/env.2009.0029.
^Elliott, James R.; Pais, Jeremy (2006). "Race, class, and Hurricane Katrina: Social differences in human responses to disaster". Social Science Research. 35 (2): 295–321. doi:10.1016/j.ssresearch.2006.02.003.
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