What is climate justice?
Climate justice refers to the recognising that climate change isn’t just a scientific or environmental issue, but a social and political one too. It rests on three main pillars:
- Climate change is more likely to adversely affect marginalised communities, both nationally and internationally.
- The countries, communities and individuals who are likely to be most adversely affected by climate change are least likely to have contributed to the causes of climate change. This is the case both because wealthy people and countries have contributed more to climate change while poorer people and countries feel the effects more, and because future generations are more likely to suffer from climate change while having done less to cause it.
- The movement to mitigate against climate change must ensure that nobody is left behind. Climate justice includes the principle that communities which rely on industries like fossil fuels for survival should not suffer as we move towards a more sustainable future. This is where movements like Just Transition are vital.
“Rich countries cause climate change but they’ve created so much wealth for themselves that if there is a flood, or a hurricane or a landslide they have the capacity to mobilise resources and protect their communities against it. Poor countries did not cause climate change and if there is a landslide or a flood they cannot mobilise those resources because they are poorer as compared to the rich countries” – Dr Jessica Omukuti
The phrase ‘climate justice’ is often used interchangeably with the phrase ‘environmental justice’. The two are closely linked, however, climate justice refers specifically to the effects of climate change, while environmental justice refers to environmental issues more widely.
Why is climate justice important in relation to environmental governance?
Climate justice should be central to any negotiations and outcomes relating to climate change adaptation and mitigation. An outcome which doesn’t recognise unequal contributions to climate change, and the unequal distribution of impacts of climate change, would not be just, or fair.
“A climate justice approach would make sure that those who are least responsible but more affected receive the support they need to protect themselves against climate change […] Parallel to that, climate justice also advocates for action to make sure that the causes of climate change are limited” – Dr Jessica Omukuti
To what extent is climate justice considered within COP negotiations?
Sometimes climate justice is explicitly mentioned during negotiations and discussion at a COP, sometimes it is more subtly incorporated, and sometimes climate justice considerations are not included when they should be.
Find out more from Dr Jessica Omukuti on the role of climate justice at COPs.
Participatory justice is also important to consider when it comes to environmental governance. This is the recognition that for a negotiation or outcome to be just and fair, there should be fair representation and participation from different groups (including young people!), nations and communities. Participatory and climate justice are linked in a number of ways, including the fact that, without fair participation and representation, outcomes are unlikely to fully recognise the centrality of climate justice.
So what does participatory justice look like in practice? Listen to Pauline Owiti, the Conference of Youth (COY) Kenya Representative, on participatory justice.
How do negotiations at COPs take into account differing levels of responsibility for climate change?
As we heard earlier, recognising that different communities and countries have very different levels of responsibility for climate change is a key part of climate justice. To put this in context, in 2019 the United State’s per capita emissions (see glossary) were 16.06 tonnes, while the Democratic Republic of Congo’s were 0.03 tonnes (source: Our World in Data).
To learn about how COPs have tried to address different levels of responsibility for climate change, listen to Dr Jessica Omukuti.
What role do unequal power relations between countries have in negotiations at COPs?
Unequal power relations are a key part of participatory and climate justice at COPs. When powerful nations are able to have more representatives at a COP, and more power over the outcomes of negotiations, it creates further inequalities in terms of participation and makes it less likely that principles of climate justice will be incorporated.
For information on how power disparities manifest at COPs listen to Professor Elizabeth Bomberg.
Where can I learn more?
The best place to learn about climate justice is from marginalised communities and communities on the frontlines of climate change. These are just a few of the organisations and individuals with further resources on climate justice and how to take action:
Climate in Colour’s courses and educational resources on climate justice, environmental racism, the colonial history of climate and more!