What is climate justice?

Climate justice has become a popular term at protests and strikes. But what does it mean, how is it a "green" issue and why are we focusing on it now? Read our explainer and make sure you're embedding climate justice into campaigning and activism in your local area.

26 Jul 2021

In November 2021, the UK will host the UN Climate Talks. It's a golden opportunity to prioritise international climate issues and seek strong commitments from world leaders. And it's also a chance to reflect on the historic responsibility of former colonial nations who've exploited global resources, and right the injustice heaped upon poorer nations as a result. As we seek to embed racial justice and anti-racist organising into our work, there's no better time to gain a strong understanding of climate justice.

Climate justice: a brief explanation

Climate justice recognises the climate crisis as a social and political problem, as well as an environmental one. It acknowledges that different communities feel the effects of the climate crisis differently, and that the responsibility for the crisis rests with some countries and companies more than others. And it understands that the lives of those already facing injustice and oppression – like the LGBTQI+ community in Jamaica, for example – are made harder by the impacts of the climate crisis.

Climate justice is about recognising the interconnectedness of struggles and, in doing so, fighting for solutions to the climate crisis that not only reduce emissions but create a fairer and more just world in the process.

To borrow the words of Indian activist Disha Ravi:

"Climate justice is about intersectional equity. It is about being radically inclusive of all groups of people, so that everyone has access to clean air, food and water. As a dear friend always says 'climate justice isn’t just for the rich and white.' It is a fight alongside those who are displaced; whose rivers have been poisoned; whose lands were stolen; who watch their houses get washed away every other season; and who fight tirelessly for what are basic human rights."

How does climate impact people differently?

"We’re not saying that climate change affects only Black people. However, it is communities in the Global South that bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change, whether physical – floods, desertification, increased water scarcity and tornadoes – or political: conflict and racist borders." Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert – Black Lives Matter UK.

Central to climate justice is an understanding that those who've done the least to cause climate breakdown are the ones who suffer the worst of its effects, like flooding, drought, rising sea levels and heatwaves.

Climate breakdown disproportionality impacts people of colour, women, LBGTQI+ people, disabled people, working class and poor people. For example, according to the United Nations Development Programme, 80% of people displaced by climate change are women, and women are more likely to die or be harmed because of extreme weather or natural disasters.

Countries in the Global South and low-income communities in the industrialised north bear the burden of choices made by the elite classes in richer countries to overexploit and consume the world's resources.

This is arguably the greatest injustice of the climate crisis.

The perfect storm

"Climate change takes any problem you already had, any threat you were already under, and multiplies it. Climate change is not the great equaliser, it is the great multiplier," Mary Annaise Heglar.

Oppressive systems like colonialism and the systematic dehumanisation of people of colour and indigenous peoples helped facilitate extractivism over the centuries and allowed for the continued destruction of the environment.

Just as former colonial powers still reap the financial rewards of having exploited the resources and people of other regions, those that were colonised still suffer the economic consequences, meaning they're not sufficiently equipped to deal with the devastating impact of climate breakdown.

Unjust systems that continue to drive climate breakdown, like economic growth at any cost, also worsen existing oppression and further marginalise poorer and more vulnerable communities. This means many people face multiple crises, making it harder to deal with the impacts of climate breakdown, let alone get a seat at the table when it comes to designing the solutions.

Historic responsibility and climate debt

Between 1850 and 2011, the US and EU countries were responsible for 79% of climate changing emissions. While the UK is no longer one of the biggest emitters, it has a significant case to answer for being one of the worst emitters during the 19th and 20th centuries. What's more, we currently export a lot of our emissions by moving manufacturing abroad and importing goods.

Countries like France, the UK and Belgium must live up to their historical, moral and legal responsibilities. This means accounting for emissions since they started burning fossil fuels, and not just their current levels. To help make up for their historical emissions, rich countries should also provide financial and technical support to the Global South to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate breakdown.

Climate finance isn't just a moral obligation, but a legal one. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) states that wealthy countries who have a historic responsibility for causing the crisis must provide financial support to help poorer countries reduce emissions and adapt to impacts. This principle was reaffirmed in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

COP26 and climate justice

The Glasgow climate talks in November 2021 are a unique opportunity to embed principles of climate justice into our work – ensuring a fair, equitable and rapid transition away from fossil fuels. Specifically, this means:

  • Holding the government to account when it claims to be leading the way on emissions reductions without taking into account its historical contribution.
  • Making sure that solutions to the climate crisis do not amplify existing injustices, but benefit the hardest hit first.
  • Providing international finance to support other countries emissions reductions and adaptation to climate impacts.
  • Supporting a just transition away from coal, oil and gas so that workers who depend on dirty industries aren’t left behind.
  • And crucially, actively listening to voices of people from the Global South, Indigenous people and front-line communities, and amplifying their voices.

Justice-based solutions

Climate justice means finding solutions to the climate crisis that not only reduce emissions or protect the natural world, but that do so in a way which creates a fairer, more just and more equal world in the process. As injustice is a root cause of the climate crisis, so fighting for justice must be at the heart of the solutions.

Taking a justice-based approach to emissions reductions means leaving no one behind in the transition to a low carbon economy. This includes a transition where everyone’s essential needs to housing, transport, energy use and fair work is met. For example, a just transition for workers in high-carbon sectors means supporting workers into low carbon good jobs with high labour standards and fair wages.

So, when you're next working on climate-friendly solutions for your area ask yourself, "will these solutions be good for both people and planet?"

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