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1. root causes of climate change and climate injustices, 2. climate justice: distributional, procedural, and recognitional dimensions, 3. injustices of climate responses, 4. the pursuit of climate justice, questions for classroom discussions, acknowledgments, competing interests, climate justice in the global north : an introduction.

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Prakash Kashwan; Climate Justice in the Global North : An Introduction . Case Studies in the Environment 5 February 2021; 5 (1): 1125003. doi:

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This essay provides a broad-based and jargon-free introduction to climate justice to foster critical thinking, engaged discussions, and profound reflections. It introduces the reader to three dimensions of justice—distributional, procedural, and recognitional justice—and shows how each relates to climate justice. A unique contribution of this essay is to identify and discuss the following three blind spots in the debates on climate justice: (1) the tendency to focus heavily on post hoc effects of climate change while ignoring the root causes of climate change that also contribute to injustices; (2) assuming incorrectly that all climate action contributes to climate justice, even though some types of climate responses can produce new climate injustices; and (3) although scholars have studied the causes of climate injustices extensively, the specific pathways to climate justice remain underdeveloped. This essay concludes by showcasing a few examples of the ongoing pursuits of climate justice, led by social justice groups, local governments, and some government agencies.

Climate change is an existential threat to human civilization. The increased frequency of climate-related disasters has been responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in different parts of the world. 1 Yet climate change does not affect everyone equally; its consequences are distributed unequally between world regions, countries, and social groups within countries.

Countries that make up the Global North, or the “developed countries” (For a useful discussion of the vocabulary of developing versus developed countries, see .), have benefited significantly from the energy-intensive industrial development responsible for warming the earth’s atmosphere. However, the poorest countries pay a steep price, especially highly vulnerable small island nations (e.g., Kiribati, the Solomon Islands, Papa New Guinea, Haiti, and Guinea-Bissau) contributing the least to the climate crisis. Therefore, global policy experts often describe climate justice as an international issue.

The rapidly increasing emissions from China, India, and other middle-income countries cause concern, especially for the poor, who must bear the worst consequences of deteriorating land, water, and air quality. However, the climate crisis unfolding now is a result of the accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the earth’s atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, to which middle-income countries have contributed very little. According to one estimate, the United States alone has contributed nearly 35% of the total cumulative global CO 2 emissions since 1750. 2 Irrespective of where one stands on this debate, nationality and international borders are only two of several factors contributing to various types of climate injustices. Differences in income and wealth, race, gender, ethnicity, age, and sexual identities within countries also contribute significantly to climate injustices.

This essay’s primary goal is to introduce readers to climate justice questions within the Global North. Debating these questions in our backyard is vital because a focus on the poor people in the Global South detracts from a deeper understanding of inequalities and injustice at home. Equally important, a focus on the Global North allows for a better understanding of the root causes and the here-and-now nature of the currently unfolding climate crisis. The socially discriminatory effects of climate change are evident from the reportage of climate-related disasters in the United States and elsewhere, especially beginning with Hurricane Katrina [ 1 ]. Therefore, it is useful to think of climate justice as a framework to recognize and redress the unequal distribution of costs and burdens of climate change and climate responses of various types. Moreover, climate justice also requires ensuring that those affected most severely by climate change participate in brainstorming, developing, and implementing climate responses.

Attaining a substantive and deep understanding first requires recognizing three blind spots in climate justice discussions. One, even though the leading cause of climate change is related to energy-intensive lifestyles, most climate change discussions, including those on climate justice, often focus on the effects of climate change. A comprehensive explanation of climate justice requires avoiding such post hoc tendencies and centering our discussions on climate change’s root causes. Two, very often “radical” climate response is equated with climate justice, which does not hold in all circumstances. As the discussions below show, some radical climate responses may contribute to new kinds of injustices. Three, even though understanding the sources and the effects of climate injustices is necessary, such understanding does not translate easily into the specific actions needed to realize climate justice in practice. Accordingly, this essay concludes with a brief discussion of several ongoing pursuits of climate justice.

An in-depth inquiry into the historical trajectory of climate change and climate denialism of the past half century shows that the concentration of political and economic power has been a significant cause of the current climate crisis. The distribution of power influences how environmental amenities (e.g., clean air) and problems (e.g., pollution) are valued and distributed within national boundaries. The current economic system and the patterns of consumption it promotes are responsible for environmental degradation and environmental injustices [ 2 ]. For example, a select few multinational corporations control nearly all the global food business and consume 75% of the entire food sector’s energy requirements—but feed a much smaller proportion of the world’s population[ 3 ]. More broadly, the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population produces almost as much GHG emissions as the bottom 90% combined [ 4 ]. The extent of income inequalities within the United States and the UK shows that these inequalities are not merely due to the differences in national economic growth, which advocates of the free market often present as a solution to poverty and underdevelopment. For instance, income growth over the last few decades has lowered the well-being of large parts of the U.S. population while supporting profligate consumption among the wealthiest [ 5 ]. Such a lopsided distribution of economic growth benefits is responsible for increased precariousness among large sections of the Global North population, the climate crisis, and the myriad climate injustices.

One manifestation of the imbalances in political and economic power is corporate climate denialism, which powerful corporations engineered to protect the status quo’s benefits. Fossil fuel multinational corporations based in the United States have known since the early 1970s that the burning of fossil fuels caused global warming and climate change. The documents made public during the ongoing lawsuits against Exxon Mobil show that instead of acting on their knowledge of global warming, major fossil fuel corporations orchestrated a campaign of climate denialism [ 6 ]. These campaigns sowed seeds of doubt among the public and allowed the federal and state governments to continue supporting the fossil fuel industry’s expansion.

Data from the Washington-based Environmental and Energy Study Institute suggest that as of the year 2019, the U.S. government awarded approximately US$20 billion per year in direct subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Eighty percent of these subsidies went to the natural gas and crude oil industries, while the coal industry received the remaining 20%. 3 Similarly, the European Union subsidizes the fossil fuel industry by an estimated 55 billion euros (or approximately US$65 billion) annually. These subsidies give fossil fuel corporations enormous power over governments in economically underdeveloped countries, such as Nigeria and Angola, where fossil fuel extraction occurs. Therefore, fossil fuel subsidies exacerbate international inequalities that date back to European colonization and continue to shape developmental disparities today [ 7 ].

The adverse environmental and public health impacts of fossil fuel subsidies cost the global community an estimated US$5.3 trillion in 2015 alone [ 8 ]. The costs of environmental toxicity burdens fall disproportionately on the poor and marginalized community groups who lack the political and economic power to hold the business and political actors to account. The situation is especially problematic in some of the poorest oil exporting countries, such as Angola and Nigeria. However, as the vast scholarship on environmental justice shows, the poor and racial minorities in the United States also suffer the worst consequences of environmental pollution from landfills, toxic waste dumps, and petrochemical facilities [ 9 ]. One particularly hard-hit area is a stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which hosts many highly polluting petrochemical facilities. Because of the pollution caused by the petrochemical industries, residents there have such high rates of cancer that the areas is known as the “Cancer Alley” [ 10 ]. Cancer Alley has been a focal point of the U.S. environmental justice movement for over three decades [ 11 ]. However, there has been no perceptible change in the extent of environmental injustices in the Cancer Alley and other Petrochemical hubs. These toxic hot spots create dangerous new hazards in the face of the calamities linked to the climate crisis.

Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana in August 2020 with a wind speed of 150 mph, which made it the strongest Category 4 hurricane on record since 1856. A Yale University report suggested that climate change may explain the rapid intensification of Atlantic hurricanes, such as Laura, which caught the forecasters and the public off guard. 4 That results in even more severe impacts on the poor because they are least well prepared to confront these crises. These calamities are especially dangerous for communities living in areas such as Cancer Alley. Well into the second day after the deadly winds from Laura had died down, the residents of Mossville were grappling with the effects of toxic gases released from a fire that erupted during the storm in a chlorine plant owned by BioLab in Westlake, Louisiana. 5 Mossville constitutes an archetypical case of the confluence of environmental and climate injustices. Still, it is also a testimony to the deeply entrenched and ongoing effects of the history of slavery in the United States.

Mossville was founded in 1790 by formerly enslaved and free people of color, who sought refuge in a swamp to escape the oppression of segregation. They made it into a community that practiced agriculture, fishing, and hunting for generations. However, successive rounds of zoning decisions by White elected officials transformed Mossville into the “ground zero of the chemical industry boom.” 6 Industry owners forced most residents to sell off their properties. At the same time, those who stayed had no choice but to suffer the consequences of prolonged exposure to industrial pollution and toxic contamination. 7 Mossville’s struggles are not just a domestic issue either. The Lake Charles Chemical Complex responsible for devastating effects on the local environment and the health and well-being of Mossville residents is under the management of the South African Synthetic Oil Limited (SASOL). The apartheid-era South African government, hamstrung by international sanctions, established SASOL in 1950 to transform coal into fuel and chemicals using a technology developed by engineers in the Nazi-era Germany. 8 This environmentally degrading technology is no longer in use, but SASOL’s record of social and environmental impacts remains appalling.

The fossil fuel industry is also tightly coupled with the defense industry, which aids the U.S. foreign policy goal of controlling the supply of oil, rare minerals, other extractive industries, and strategic shipping lanes crucial for transportation. 9 It is common knowledge that the Bush administration’s desire to control oil supply was one of the primary motivations for the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. The Department of Defense is the single largest consumer of energy in the United States and the world’s single largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels [ 12 ]. The so-called military-industrial complex 10 exists to influence political decisions to support state subsidies for the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries. In other words, political and administrative decisions, not some random mistakes or unavoidable trade-offs, are responsible for endangering the health of the planet and the lives of poor racial minorities in areas like Cancer Alley and communities like Mossville.

Tragically, the Black communities who suffer the most from these environmental injustices are also subject to myriad other injustices, such as the police brutalities that have catalyzed a global Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Social scientists Lindsey Dillon and Julie Sze argue that the phrase “I can’t breathe,” which became a rallying cry for the BLM, points to the environmental and social conditions through which “breath is constricted or denied” [ 13 ]. The military-industrial complex is responsible, in more than one ways, for producing the “embodied insecurity of Black lives” [ 13 ]. For example, a Department of Defense program called “1033” enables local police departments to purchase “surplus” war zone equipment, including the mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. 11 The Ferguson Police Department deployed some of this military-grade equipment on the streets of Ferguson to suppress public protests against the police shooting and killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. 12 Investigations by the Public Accountability Initiative, a nonprofit corporate and government accountability research institute, show that police foundations that support local police departments are partially funded by fossil fuel corporations such as Chevron, Shell and Wells Fargo. Their report concluded: “Many powerful companies that drive environmental injustice are also backers of the same police departments that tyrannize the very communities these corporate actors pollute” [ 14 , 15 ].

These complex links between social, environmental, and climate injustices are reminders that it may not always be useful to consider social, environmental, and climate injustices in isolation from one another. 13

“Climate justice” is commonly thought of as the unfair distribution of costs and burdens of climate change. However, two other dimensions of justice spelled out by justice theorists are equally important: procedural and recognitional justice. This section explains each of these three dimensions and their relation to pursuits of climate justice.

2.1. Distributional Effects of Climate Change

Distributional justice focuses on a fair distribution of costs and burdens of climate change and the societal responses to climate change. Vulnerability to climate change is a result of a lack of protection against risks linked to natural events. If everyone in society were equally protected, the costs and burdens related to a disaster would not fall disproportionately on some social groups. However, individuals and groups, such as racial minorities, homeless people, people with disabilities, single moms, and poor people, are more vulnerable to the effects of disasters. These vulnerabilities are a result of policies and programs that push racial minorities and other socially marginalized groups into poverty and destitution. Exclusionary zoning laws and redlining policies during the New Deal era illustrate this point well. The term “redlining” referred to the practice of drawing red lines on urban planning maps to identify African American neighborhoods as being “too risky to insure mortgages.” 14 These maps informed the actions of the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans Administration, and Home Owners Loan Corp., thereby depriving African American towns and neighborhoods of public investments. The members of minority communities could not buy properties in some areas because the administration “reserved” these neighborhoods for affluent White families [ 16 ].

This history of urban segregation and racially prejudiced urban and suburban developments is why inner-city neighborhoods lack basic civic amenities and infrastructure that middle-class neighborhoods take for granted. These historical legacies translate into increased vulnerabilities in the context of the climate crisis. For example, an estimated 400,000 New Yorkers who live in the New York City Housing Authority’s public housing developments bore the worst effects of Hurricane Sandy in October–November 2012. The floods that occurred because of Hurricane Sandy greatly exacerbated rampant mold problems in these projects, with far-reaching health impacts for residents with respiratory illnesses [ 14 ]. The quality and affordability of housing for minorities are also among the causes of “energy poverty” or high energy burden, which is the percentage of income a person or household spends on energy [ 17 , 18 ]. Energy poverty makes it difficult to cope with the impacts of storms and floods while also leaving the energy-poor families vulnerable to the shocks related to increased energy prices that could result from a transition to renewable energy.

The problem is equally or even more severe in the predominantly African American rural areas. For instance, a 2017 report in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found that among 55 adults surveyed in Lowndes County, Alabama, 34.5% tested positive for hookworms. The presence of this intestinal parasite is a sign of extreme poverty. Specifically, it results from an inadequate sewage system with cracked pipes of untreated waste that contaminate drinking water. In some places, this results in open pools of raw sewage, which flush human feces back into kitchen sinks and bathtubs during the rainy season [ 19 ]. Environmental and climate justice activist Catherine Flowers argues that the intensification of heavy rains and floods because of the ongoing climate crisis is overwhelming the broken sewer systems and undermining poor African Americans’ lives and livelihoods [ 20 ].

The distributive injustices of the economic system have become even more pronounced in the presence of large and increasing wealth and income inequalities. These distributional inequalities affect entire regions and local juridisctions, undermining their ability to provide civil amenities in the aftermath of a natural disaster and ensure human security. A stark reflection of these distributional consequences is that the poor and the marginalized experience the most devastating impacts of a climate disaster, that is, the loss of human lives.

2.2. Procedural Rights

Another important dimension of climate justice is procedural justice, which refers to whether and how the groups most affected by climate change have meaningful opportunities to participate in brainstorming, designing, and implementing climate responses. Historically, African Americans and other racial minorities have been under-represented in environmental and climate movements. The U.S. environmental justice movement has been calling attention to this issue for a quarter of a century, yet the problem of a lack of diversity persists. Research on 191 conservation and preservation organizations, 74 government environmental agencies, and 28 environmental grant-making foundations shows that racial minorities constitute 16% of staff and board members. Once recruited, members of minority communities tend to concentrate in lower ranks, trapped beneath a glass ceiling [ 21 ]. Although environmental institutions have made significant progress on gender diversity, such gains have mostly accrued to White women [ 21 ]. Such an under-representation in environmental movements leads to the exclusion of minorities from policy-making processes, which also creates the mistaken assumption that racial minorities are too poor to care about the environment or climate change. However, nationally representative surveys show that people of color, including Hispanics/Latinos, African Americans, and other non-White racial/ethnic groups, are more concerned than Whites about climate change [ 22 ]. Even so, higher levels of awareness are not sufficient to foster meaningful participation, which requires carefully designed processes that facilitate respectful engagement between members of marginalized groups and decision makers, such as city leaders [ 23 ].

The involvement of those affected most by climate change is essential for two key reasons. First, there are legal, statutory, political reasons for ensuring broad-based participation. Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development sets out three fundamental access rights: access to information, access to public participation, and access to justice as key pillars of sound environmental governance [ 24 ]. Agenda 21 has subsequently been integrated into various national, provincial, and local statutes and continues to be a source of learning for the ongoing debates about just transition [ 25 ]. The access rights are also in conformity with recognizing political and civil rights as the essence of universal rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A second reason for ensuring local participation has to do with the substantive effects of an inclusive process. Those most affected by the climate crisis are also likely to contribute the most insightful ideas about how best to address the vulnerabilities that produce climate injustices in the first place. For example, the Office of Sustainability in the city of Providence, RI, partnered with the city’s Racial and Environmental Justice Committee to make sure that the city’s climate action plan adhered to the Just Providence Framework developed previously by the city residents and leaders. 15 This process turned out to be so successful that the city’s Climate Action Plan metamorphosed into a Climate Justice Plan. Additionally, the city’s Office of Sustainability adopted a system of governance that is based on collaborating actively and routinely with community-based organizations. 16

2.3. “Recognitional” Justice

The promises of procedural justice remain unfulfilled in many cases because people from all social groups are not always recognized as legitimate actors, whose understanding of a problem and whose interests and priorities should inform the design and implementation of policies and programs [ 26 ]. On the other hand, marginalized groups are subject to mis recognition, which Nancy Fraser refers to as an institutionalized pattern of cultural values that “constitutes some social actors as less than full members of society and prevents them from participating as peers” [ 27 ]. Thus, the twin concepts of recognition and misrecognition are related to patterns of “privilege and oppression,” which manifest in the form of “cultural domination, being rendered invisible, and routine stereotyping or maligning in public representations” [ 26 ]. In a very profound way, recognition and misrecognition are the foundational questions of climate justice with wide-ranging consequences. As David Schlosberg has argued, a lack of respect and recognition often leads to a decline in a person’s or a group’s “membership and participation in the greater community, including the political and institutional order” [ 28 ]. Therefore, a lack of recognition presents a formidable barrier against addressing procedural and distributional concerns.

The following example illustrates how questions of recognition manifest in climate policy contexts. Harvey, a category 4 hurricane, struck Houston in August 2017. Maria, a category 5 hurricane, struck Puerto Rico in September. A review of public records from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and interviews with more than 50 people involved with disaster response revealed that the Trump administration’s response was far more swift in Houston than Puerto Rico, which experienced far greater destruction [ 29 ]. Many Puerto Ricans believed that this was more evidence that the president viewed them as “second-class American citizens” [ 30 ]. On numerous occasions, President Trump criticized Puerto Rico for being a “mess” and its leaders as “crazed and incompetent,” which constitutes an instance of misrecognition [ 31 ]. The Governor of Puerto Rico Tweeted, “Mr. President, once again, we are not your adversaries, we are your citizens” [ 31 ]. The Governor of Puerto Rico felt that the Trump administration did not recognize their rights as U.S. citizens, which influenced how the federal government responded to the most devastating climate-related disaster to date in the United States. Such lack of recognition or misrecognition is not new; it did not start with the Trump administration. Even though Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the national political process treats them as subordinates. They do not have voting representation in the U.S. Congress or the Presidential elections. Unfortunately, a more detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this essay. Still, other scholars show how the environmental and climate injustices experienced by the people of Puerto Rico result from a long history of colonialism, occupation of large parts of the island’s territory by the U.S. Navy, and the neoliberal policies imposed on the island [ 32 , 33 ].

African American citizens in the United States have had very similar experiences, even though the political process does not disadvantage them formally. The dominant narratives used in media and political discourse, which often describe African American men as aggressive, angry, and prone to criminal violence, reinforce longstanding prejudices against racial minorities. Such negative constructions of social identities lead some to perceive the presence of African American men in the wilderness, or even in parks, as suspicious or threatening. A May 2020 incident involving an African American birder in New York’s Central Park illustrates the point. The birder asked a White woman jogger to leash her dog, as the law required. However, instead of following the park rules, the woman called the cops on the birder. A video recorded by the birder and circulated widely on social media showed the woman repeatedly telling the cops on the phone that “there’s an African American man threatening my life” [ 34 ]. Afterward, several other African American birders and hikers shared similar racial profiling experiences on social media with hashtags like #BirdingWhileBlack and #HikingWhileBlack. A common theme evident in each of these experiences is that many White people in the United States do not perceive or recognize Black people as birders, nature photographers, or hikers [ 35 , 36 ].

Other social groups, such as indigenous people and Latinx, are also often subject to prejudices and profiling, which contribute to the negative construction of their identities and instances of misrecognition in society and politics [ 37 ]. As Nancy Fraser argues, misrecognition and negative stereotyping can contribute to the institutionalization of prejudiced norms within public policies and programs, for example, via the zoning and redlining practices that sacrifice the interests of negatively portrayed groups. Notwithstanding the racialized histories of urban development in the United States and elsewhere, some commentators argue that the considerations of social justice will muddle the efforts to decarbonize the economy “quickly and efficiently.” 17 This argument draws on the perspective that there are significant trade-offs between climate action and climate justice.

One relevant example is hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which many see as a boon for providing abundant natural gas supplies crucial to the “transition” away from the dirty fuel of coal. They argue that the relatively more climate-friendly energy available from natural gas, coupled with economic benefits that local communities gain in the short term, must be weighed against the risks of adverse public health and environmental consequences. 18 Yet, laws that protect the privacy of proprietary data hinder public access to information about the health and ecological consequences of the chemical cocktails used in fracking, even though such information is vital to the goals of public health and environmental protections. Overall, a broader systems approach suggests a significantly more extensive set of adverse consequences, including the “impacts from the decline in water quality on soil, land, and ecosystem productivity (crops/animal health); effects of fracking-related air pollution on pollinators; effects on the development of local, alternative food systems; and, fracking-related boom-bust dynamics” [ 38 ]. The range of these negative consequences raise questions about the narratives of trade-offs in fracking .

Some proponents of a speedy transition to renewable energy also cite the supposed tradeoff between efficiency and equity to argue for allowing competent energy companies to develop, install, and own industrial-scale renewable energy grids. However, this view ignores the many benefits of wide-ranging consultations and collaborations with local communities that could enhance the public acceptance and efficacy of renewable energy infrastructure [ 39 ]. Somewhat ironically, some of the most challenging trade-offs may be witnessed in communities most vulnerable to climate change, for example, indigenous communities that seek to secure their “sovereignty by the barrel” because the compulsions borne out of marginality constrain their choices for economic development. 19 Such a “take it or leave it” scenario of limited choices reflects longstanding disadvantages, which the ongoing climate crisis is likely to exacerbate. Overall, it is crucial to investigate the arguments about potential trade-offs in a nuanced way so that some parties do not weaponize these arguments [ 40 ].

Climate response has three components: mitigation, which refers to actions that help reduce emissions of GHGs; adaptation, which refers to measures that reduce vulnerability to the consequences of climate change; and resilience, which refers to the properties that enable a socioecological system to withstand the shocks of climate change. Although adaptation and resilience are closely intertwined, adaptation actions are generally thought of as responses to climate change impacts, while resilience actions are anticipatory. Each of these three types of “climate responses” has important implications for justice. Additionally, we briefly consider the importance of taking an intersectional approach to understanding climate action’s justice effects.

A central component of the efforts to mitigate climate change is to curtail carbon emissions linked to energy-intensive consumption. However, in democratic societies, one cannot merely ban or arbitrarily restrict energy-intensive activities, not least because many of these activities are a source of employment and other means of economic wellbeing for many lower-income families. The next best option is to put a price on carbon emissions, commonly referred to as “carbon tax,” which many scholars and practitioners see as one of the most effective means of climate mitigation. If we lived in a world of economic and wealth equality, a carbon tax would simply realign economic incentives without imposing excessive burdens on specific social groups. However, in the presence of massive economic and wealth inequalities, a carbon tax would affect poor and/or racial minority households very differently compared to others. Unless subsistence items, such as food, water, and energy were protected from the inflationary effects of carbon taxes, even a moderate level of the carbon tax could make these items too expensive for the poor in the United States.

In Paris, the Yellow Vest protestors cited economic inequalities and the unfairness of the gas tax that President Emmanuel Macron announced in 2019 as one of the main reasons for the protests. The protestors felt that it was unfair to ask low- and middle-income folks to “make sacrifices while rich people aren’t paying taxes anymore.” This feeling of unfairness contributed to “a sense of despair, as well as a sense of social injustice” [ 41 ]. The adverse effects of climate mitigation are not always contained within the national borders, though.

Carbon offsets projects, including some that may be funded by environmentally conscious consumers paying an airline a little extra to offset the emissions linked to their air travel, have been implicated in the dispossession and displacements of indigenous groups in different parts of the world. 20 Such projects may be less problematic when implemented within the Global North, characterized by the security of property rights and a robust rule of law. These conditions do not apply to most terrestrial carbon offset projects in Africa or Asia. Over 95% of forestlands are legally defined as public lands, even though most of these lands have been used customarily by indigenous peoples and other rural populations. Under those conditions, the financial returns linked to carbon offset projects incentivize powerful government agencies and private actors to set aside these lands for carbon offset projects, including in countries where customary land tenures are protected under the statute. The international community has developed social safeguards and other codes of conduct to regulate offset projects. However, research by the Center for International Forestry Research, the Oakland Institute, and the Rights & Resources Initiative shows that international offset projects contribute to widespread human rights violations [ 42 , 43 ].

Similarly, a large-scale switch to renewables, including electric or hybrid batteries, windmills, and solar panels, could lead to a sudden spike in demand for rare minerals, such as copper and cobalt. The mining of these minerals also often contributes to gross human rights abuses, including child labor and the degradation and depletion of natural resources, such as water, forests, and pastures crucial for local livelihoods in the Global South [ 44 ]. For these reasons, some scholars argue that industrial-scale renewable energy infrastructure can be as exploitative as the fossil fuel industry practices have been. Noticeably, this argument applies to industrial-scale renewable infrastructure. Renewable energy resources can also exist in the form of “energy commons,” which give local communities real stakes in making decisions about siting, pricing, and profit-sharing [ 45 ]. Such democratization of energy infrastructure is crucial for implementing a transition plan that suits the site-specific requirements.

Some consider climate adaptation, that is, the measures designed to deal with the climate crisis, to be synonymous with climate justice. The argument is that if the worst consequences of climate change fall on the poor and the marginalized, any interventions meant to adapt to climate change would necessarily help the poor. Yet not all climate adaptation measures are created equal. For example, coastal adaptation measures in response to sea-level rise should help sustain rather than disrupt subsistence and artisanal fishing, which are the mainstay of livelihood strategies for many coastal frontline communities. More broadly, as Dean Hardy and colleagues argue, “the land facing inundation is racialized land…that has been appropriated, settled, cultivated, and distributed through a long history of deeply racialized projects” [ 46 ]. They argue that sea-level rise adaptation planning must recognize the reality of such “racial coastal formations” and must commit to “resist the reproduction of and reinvestments in racial inequality in responses to climate change” [ 46 ].

The failure to address racial inequalities means that many urban climate adaptation interventions, such as public transit systems, public parks, and improved civic amenities, may increase property prices or rentals, which makes some areas unaffordable to their current residents. These changes lead to urban gentrification, which refers to the changes in a neighborhood’s composition because of changes in property values. It is called climate gentrification when such changes are related to climate change [ 47 ]. The framework of climate gentrification helps illuminate the social determinants of vulnerability. For example, as the rising sea levels and frequent flooding threaten expensive properties on Miami’s famed beaches, wealthy people invest in properties inland. The flux of new investments and new wealthy residents makes the previously low-income neighborhoods too costly to afford for low-income groups [ 48 ]. As human geographer Jesse Ribot has argued, “vulnerability does not fall from the sky” [ 49 ]. Considering that socioeconomic deprivations contribute to climate change-related vulnerabilities, any efforts to address climate injustice must address such disadvantages.

The discussions above demonstrate that climate injustices are not just about the “climate system” or “global warming” but are rooted firmly in the unequal patterns of vulnerabilities shaped by the distribution of social and political power and economic inequalities. Climate change’s social consequences manifest in outcomes related to urban development patterns, energy prices, urban transportation, food production, and food markets. By implication, the pursuit of climate justice also requires addressing these various sectors of the economy and society. The following are some examples of how local governments, civic groups, academic institutions, and social movements seek to pursue climate justice.

The fossil-fuel divestment movement popularized by has grown to secure commitments to divest more than US$14 trillion worth of investments made by more than 1,230 institutions, including religious institutions, pension funds, university endowments, and large charitable foundations. College students from several universities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have made significant contributions to the global fossil fuel divestment movement’s ongoing success [ 50 ]. The decline of the fossil fuel industry, including the state-owned oil corporations in some of the largest oil producing countries, will undoubtedly lower environmental pollution and contribute to environmental and climate justice. Another example from the energy sector is the 2019 Tennessee Valley Energy Democracy Tour, which focused on building a collective grassroots vision for an egalitarian energy future in the communities impacted by the New Deal era projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority. 21 This tour served as a good reminder of why we need to pay attention to the historical legacies of unequal development and socioeconomic marginalization. Transformative reforms in state-level energy policies and programs are other crucial elements necessary for fostering an inclusive clean energy action. The Washington-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance scores and ranks states on their energy policies, specifically their devolution and inclusiveness [ 51 ]. Such rankings create useful resources for grassroots actors and could help foster healthy competition among states.

Climate justice interventions related to urban areas include the Miami City Commission’s resolution directing the city managers to research urban gentrification and ways of stabilizing property tax rates in lower income areas located further inland [ 52 ]. City governments can act to institutionalize other means of fostering a healthy urban ecosystem. In 2019, the Boston City Council voted unanimously to enact a Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) for a more equitable food purchasing system at public institutions. Seven other cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, and Cincinnati, have also adopted GFPP policies [ 53 ]. These initiatives help urban populations cut down on their reliance on imported food items that leave a significant carbon footprint. In doing so, they also undercut the stronghold of industrial agriculture, which is a large consumer of fossil fuels and one of the major causes of global climate change [ 54 ]. Equally important, food ordinances can help improve the profitability of urban and peri-urban agro-ecological farming, which is associated with multiple social, economic, environmental, and climate-related benefits [ 55 ]. More broadly, instead of privatizing urban infrastructure or having monopolistic state control, reimagining the city as a “commons” gives urban residents a collective stake in a city’s resources [ 56 ]. Democratizing urban governance—that is, allowing urban residents a meaningful say in the conduct of the ongoing affairs in a city—is an important prerequisite for incorporating concerns of ecology and environment into our urban imaginations.

La Via Campesina , a transnational social movement, promotes agroecology and food sovereignty by engaging with all relevant actors, including the United Nations at the global level and peasant federations at the subnational level. They have been instrumental in the successful enactment of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. La Via Campesina engages with 182 organizations representing an estimated 200 million farmers from 81 countries throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Another example of a grassroots network that has made a global impact is the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), founded in 1990 in Bemidji, MN, to address environmental and economic justice issues. IEN has also been one of the key actors in the global climate justice movement, mainly via its participation in the annual United Nations Climate Change meetings. The IEN has recently launched a People’s Orientation to a Regenerative Economy: Protect, Repair, Invest and Transform to put indigenous sovereignty and values at the front and center of collective efforts toward a sustainable future [ 57 ].

These are some examples of interventions from various actors and agencies invested in the pursuits of climate justice. Each of the examples cited above addresses a specific policy and programmatic area relevant to the daily lives of the people at the frontlines of climate change. However, the energy-intensive luxury consumption in the Global North and in some sections of the Global South that contribute significantly to the climate crisis does not receive adequate attention from policy makers. Our collective efforts to address climate change are unlikely to succeed if we fail to reduce consumption, especially the consumption of goods and services linked to “luxury emissions,” such as privately owned planes. The average carbon footprint of the wealthiest 1% of people globally could be 175 times that of the poorest 10% [ 58 ]. On the other hand, large sections of populations in the global South are still grappling with the provision of necessities such as nutritious food, safe drinking water, and a reliable supply of clean energy. Hundreds of millions also lack access to amenities such as sanitation systems, schools, and hospitals, as reflected in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The emissions related to these activities are called “survival emissions” [ 59 ]. Some climate policy discussions tend to obfuscate these distinctions using the language of “human footprint” and “population problem” [ 60 ]. Such framings create a false equivalence between luxury consumption and survival emissions, while accounting for these distinctions provides policy guidance for climate policies that can be both just and efficient.

As the discussion on fossil fuel subsidies demonstrates, the patterns of consumption and deprivation are products of political and economic structures. National policies and the actions of powerful state and non-state corporate actors have severe consequences for what happens at the local level. Any high-level reforms would not necessarily translate into a realization of climate justice without social and political mobilization at the grassroots level. For over three decades, environmental and social justice movements have struggled to bring these issues to the public agenda both in the United States and globally. Advocates of climate justice would benefit from building on the insights and lessons from these movements [ 61 ]. Additionally, transformative reforms in the economy and society, executed via the federal or state-level agencies, are also equally important. We must seek to address the limits of liberal state, which are responsible for the entrenchment of racial capitalism and the climate crisis [ 62 ]. Climate justice calls for wide-ranging reforms and concerted actions in the cultural, social, economic, and political spheres.

What separates climate action advocacy from climate justice advocacy?

Is it too much to expect climate justice advocates to also address questions of social injustices of race, gender, and sexual identity, among others?

In your assessment, are links between the military-industrial complex, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the outcomes of environmental and climate justice that this essay suggest a bit “over the top”? Why or why not?

Do the simultaneous pursuits of climate response and climate justice necessarily entail trade-offs? What factors must be considered in assessing the extent of a trade-off in any given situation?

How does the consideration of a plurality of values to define human well-being affect our assessment of trade-offs in climate action/climate justice debates?

How could we reorient our food systems to promote socially just climate responses?

What role can municipal governments play in promoting climate justice?

Are the arguments about “city as a commons” or “energy commons” part of utopian thinking that cannot be translated into pragmatic policy reforms?

What roles do consumers and citizens play in advancing the goals of climate justice?

Could you think of examples of policies and programs not discussed above that might also contribute to climate justice? For each example, please explain the specific contribution to climate justice.

The author acknowledges the generous and insightful comments by Sikina Jinnah on the first two drafts and comments by Betty Hanson on the penultimate draft. The original impetus for this pedagogical note came from a new course I developed at the University of Connecticut, Storrs. I am thankful to the students who took the class in spring 2019, who engaged vigorously with the note and contributed to its expansion to its present form.

The author has declared that no competing interests exist.

The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

An additional 250,000 deaths a year are attributed to climate change, though that number continues to be contested by others who argue that the global death toll related to the ongoing climate crisis is likely to be much higher. . . . . . .

The author owes the knowledge of these international connections to the screening of the documentary Mossville: When Great Trees Fall as part of Scalawag’s “Breathing While Black” virtual event on June 25, 2020. See ; and . . . . . . . . .

Anon. 2019. The City of Providence’s Climate Justice Plan. . . . .

The tour was co-organized by Appalachian Voices, Science for the People, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), Working Films, and a group of community members and organizers in the greater Knoxville area. .

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The importance of storytelling in fighting climate change

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Yale Climate Connections

Yale Climate Connections

What is ‘climate justice’?

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Climate change, an inherently social issue, can upset anyone’s daily life in countless ways. But not all climate impacts are created equal, or distributed equally. From extreme weather to rising sea levels, the effects of climate change often have disproportionate effects on historically marginalized or underserved communities.

“Climate justice” is a term, and more than that a movement, that acknowledges climate change can have disproportionately harmful social, economic, and public health impacts on disinvested populations. Advocates for climate justice are striving to have these inequities addressed head-on through long-term mitigation and adaptation strategies.

The following are key factors to consider in thinking about climate justice:

1) Climate justice begins with recognizing key groups are differently affected by climate change.

From the United Nations and the IPCC to the NAACP , many organizations are connecting the dots between civil rights and climate change.

As a UN blog describes it: “The impacts of climate change will not be borne equally or fairly, between rich and poor, women and men, and older and younger generations.”

“Climate change is happening now and to all of us. No country or community is immune,” according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “And, as is always the case, the poor and vulnerable are the first to suffer and the worst hit.”

Generally, many victims of climate change also have disproportionately low responsibility for causing the emissions responsible for climate change in the first place – particularly youth or people of any age living in developing countries that produce fewer emissions per capita than is the case in the major polluting countries.

2) Climate impacts can exacerbate inequitable social conditions.

Low-income communities, people of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities, older or very young people, women – all can be more susceptible to risks posed by climate impacts like raging storms and floods, increasing wildfire, severe heat, poor air quality, access to food and water, and disappearing shorelines.

Here are a few examples of how some communities may be more affected by these impacts than others – and may have fewer resources to handle those impacts, too:

  • Communities of color are often more at risk from air pollution, according to both the NAACP , the American Lung Association, and countless research papers.
  • Seniors, people with disabilities , and people with chronic illnesses may have a harder time living through periods of severe heat, or being able to quickly and safely evacuate from major storms or fire.
  • People with limited income may live in subsidized housing, which too often is located in a flood plain . Their housing options may also have inadequate insulation, mold problems, or air conditioning to effectively combat severe heat or cope with strong storms. Economically challenged people may also be hard-pressed to afford flood or fire insurance, rebuild homes, or pay for steep medical bills after catastrophe strikes.
  • Language barriers can make it difficult for immigrant communities to get early information about incoming storms or weather disasters or wildfires, or to communicate effectively with first responders in the midst of an evacuation order.
  • Some indigenous communities are already seeing their homes and livelihoods lost to rising sea levels or drought. For example, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe has lost nearly all of its land and is relocating to higher ground.
  • Prolonged drought and flooding can affect food supply or distribution, making it harder for people to access affordable, healthy food.
  • Today’s youth and future generations will experience more profound impacts of climate change as it worsens over time, from direct adverse health impacts to the financial implications of needing to shore-up infrastructure and other adaptation and mitigation needs.

3) Momentum is building for climate justice solutions.

Organizations like the Climate Justice Alliance are working to bring race, gender, and class considerations to the center of the climate action discussion. The NAACP is also advocating for efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and advance clean energy while promoting food justice, transportation equity, and civil rights in emergency planning. And the UN and IPCC each continue to place greater emphasis on these issues.

In a June 29, 2020, Washington Post column headlined “ Climate Change is also a racial justice problem ,” reporter Sarah Kaplan wrote, “You can’t build a just and equitable society on a planet that’s been destabilized by human activities. Nor can you stop the world from warming without the experience and the expertise of those most affected by it.”

One indicator of the growing momentum of climate justice as a social issue is Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden’s campaign support for a “plan to secure environmental justice and equitable economic opportunity in a clean energy future…. Addressing environmental and climate justice is a core tenet.”

In the end, there is no single way to define, let alone champion, climate justice. But in combination with other current social justice movements – perhaps epitomized and including, but not limited to, the Black Lives Matter movement – many experts see climate justice becoming an increasingly significant component of overall concerns raised by climate change.

Also see: How inequality grows in the aftermath of hurricanes

Daisy Simmons

Daisy Simmons, assistant editor at Yale Climate Connections, is a creative, research-driven storyteller with 25 years of professional editorial experience. With a purposeful focus on covering solutions... More by Daisy Simmons

climate injustice essay

The case for climate reparations in the United States

In environmental and climate change policy, there is a blind spot when it comes to racism. The impacts of climate change are worsening and becoming more frequent : increasingly dangerous storm surges and floods; temperature extremes that raise household heating and cooling costs; and increased exposure to air pollution that causes avoidable deaths, to name just a few. Many believe such impacts to be “colorblind,” affecting all people equally. But they are not.

Enveloped in the term “environmental racism,” communities of color are overexposed to these climate-related harms despite bearing little responsibility for them. From the elevated risk of climate-related disasters that entrench poverty in formerly colonized nations to the disproportionate environmental health burdens in majority nonwhite U.S. neighborhoods , many of these communities are paying a higher price due to legacies of exploitation and devaluation. And because of these uneven distributions in impacts and responsibilities, there is a growing call for a more reparative approach to international climate change policy. The same discussions should also be happening domestically.

About the Authors

Manann donoghoe, senior research associate – brookings metro, andre m. perry, senior fellow – brookings metro.

Reparations means rectifying past and ongoing harms. As a policy mechanism, it has mostly involved compensatory measures such as one-off wealth or land transfers to individuals impacted by state-sanctioned violence or systematic injustices. Calls for “climate reparations” apply this logic to international disparities in climate change impacts and risks, which are the result of substantial differences in the responsibilities for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, stemming from colonial histories of resource extraction. A parallel logic applies to disparities within countries, particularly in the U.S., where the ongoing legacies of slavery have made many Black communities distinctly exposed or more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

However, the case for climate reparations is distinct from other forms of reparations because of the scale of the impacts and the complexity of determining accountability. Because the impacts of climate change are accelerating (meaning future generations will face more severe and costly risks), what’s needed is not just a wealth transfer to redress legacies of injustice, but a shift toward a more equitable and antiracist climate change policy. That means not just reparations , but a reparative stance .

Defining a ‘reparative stance’ for climate change policy

A reparative stance for climate change policy begins with granting reparations for Black Americans and advancing land reclamation for Native Americans—first as a moral responsibility, but also as an adaptation response to minimize climate change impacts for some of the most vulnerable. But it goes further, aiming to dismantle the structural determinants of inequity that affect Black Americans and other marginalized groups , and that are likely to be amplified in emissions mitigation and climate change adaptation policies without an equity and antiracist lens.

There are historical reasons to pursue climate change policy within a reparative stance rather than similar policy frameworks that are also premised on justice and equality, such as a “just transition,” “new eco-social contract,”  or a Green New Deal . For many years, the destruction of the environment has been synonymous with the oppression of people. Environmental destruction and racial injustice have always been interlinked—through colonialism, enslavement, and structurally racist policies such as segregation and single-family zoning . Such wealth-extracting systems have adversely impacted Black communities and increased their vulnerability to environmental burdens . For example, the enslavement of Black Americans transformed the U.S. into the world’s highest-emitting economy and cemented a highly uneven distribution of pollution in the process. As the nation’s most profitable industry at the time , enslavement brought vast wealth to the U.S. economy, which enabled rapid industrial growth and resource extraction. Similarly, the theft of over 99% of Native American land through colonization supplied a foundation for vast wealth accumulation.

As the systemic exploitation of Black and Native Americans fueled the economic development and prosperity of the U.S., it also spawned environmental destruction. In 1776, the U.S. was responsible for less than 1% of global GHG emissions, but by the time slavery was abolished in 1865 and the Industrial Revolution gained steam, it had grown into the world’s third-highest emitter and was on a rapid course to become the highest by the start of the 20th century.

Many modern policies that determine vulnerability to climate change risks have been shaped by this history with slavery. While some argue that the climate crisis is a universal experience that exposes us all to an increased risk regardless of race, nationality, class, or other characteristics, impacts vary locally. Place-based past and present-day racial discrimination concentrates vulnerability in poorer, nonwhite communities, which lack the wealth, opportunity, and access that contribute to resilience to climate change impacts. The adage “disasters don’t discriminate” may be true, but policy does discriminate— and it is policy that determines vulnerability to climate change impacts .

However, the dial is shifting. After decades of activism led by international Indigenous communities and Global South nations tied to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, historic systems of oppression are finally being talked about in major climate policy forums. At COP27 , the most recent international climate policy summit, a coalition of formerly colonized nations and China successfully pushed a breakthrough agreement for colonizing nations to provide loss and damage funding to developing countries affected by climate disasters. The agreement followed increasingly prominent conversations around climate reparations .

Though successive U.S. governments have refused to grant reparations to Black Americans for slavery and state-sanctioned racial discrimination, these shifts in international policy and the looming impacts of the climate crisis warrant revisiting the conversation, as well as what a reparative stance on climate change policy could mean for other historically disenfranchised groups in the U.S. There are not just costs here, but opportunities; structural racism is a wedge that hinders political action on climate change and other social issues. A reparative stance could address these barriers, helping to bridge the country’s racialized gaps as a practical, cost-effective, and—most importantly—just, climate change adaptation and mitigation policy.

As the globe’s largest cumulative emitter, the U.S. also has an obligation to provide moral leadership on climate action. Pursuing reparations domestically is an opportunity to advance the international case for more just—and thus more effective—adaptation and mitigation policies.

International conversations on climate reparations are gaining momentum

In 2022, Pakistan was hit by some of the worst flooding in the nation’s history. Close to 1,300 people lost their lives, and over one-third of the country was underwater. While the damage to lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure was assessed, Pakistan’s climate minister, Sherry Rehman, was clear on the historic injustice of the disaster: “There is so much loss and damage with so little reparations to countries that contributed so little to the world’s carbon footprint that obviously the bargain made between the Global North and Global South is not working.”

The argument isn’t unreasonable. Pakistan is currently responsible for less than 1% of global emissions, and since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, it has emitted less than 0.3% of cumulative global emissions —far lower than the highest cumulative emitters, the U.S. (25%) and the EU (22%). It is the historically wealthy, white, colonizing nations that benefitted (and continue to benefit) from a long history of unimpeded emissions. Despite being referred to as natural disasters, floods, droughts, wildfires, and other impacts of climate change have a structure to them, and that structure reflects wider patterns of injustice.

The magnitude and disparity of impacts like those in Pakistan are a threat to national stability and have motivated the mainstreaming of justice within climate policy. Establishment researchers, government actors, and representatives from nongovernmental organizations view tackling social and racial injustice as a crucial part of effective climate change policy. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), an organization of world-leading experts responsible for providing the scientific evidence base for policy action, made these links explicit in their 2022 report : “[Vulnerability is] driven by patterns of intersecting socioeconomic development, unsustainable ocean and land use, inequity, marginalization, historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, and governance.”

Informed by this science, international policy organizations are developing lending structures for climate investment that revolve around inclusivity and justice. For example, the World Bank’s Green, Resilient, and Inclusive Development model and the International Labour Organization-endorsed Just Transition model connect household-level insecurity—for example, in employment, housing, or wealth—to vulnerability to wider climate change impacts through a rubric premised on justice and inclusivity. Similarly, climate finance innovations such as Barbados’ Bridgetown Initiative advocate for new monetary mechanisms and instruments such as emergency liquidity, which can more effectively respond to intersecting climate, debt, and cost-of-living crises.

Global calls for climate reparations are not dissimilar. Though reparations are novel in environmental policy, they are not an unorthodox solution to inequity, and have been used historically to redress legacies of systematic discrimination internationally and within the U.S. The most straightforward form of reparations is a “settlement model,” which is based solely on financial or land compensation, and has included payments to victims of state abuse, such as Holocaust survivors and Japanese Americans who were forced into internment during World War II.

However, a reparative stance would be closer to an atonement model , which combines wealth transfers with forward-looking policy changes to operationalize equity. A model like this is more likely to prove capable in managing the complex web of social risks stemming from climate change impacts and providing a foundation for climate change policy that can meaningfully address legacies of racist structures. 

That’s because climate reparations are as much about moral leadership as they are about financial compensation. Scholars of reparations have focused on the power of a reparative stance —based on connections between slavery and colonialism —to create a lasting transformation for a more just world. Going beyond compensation, a reparative stance should make the complex connections between white supremacy, apartheid, and colonization within climate change policy more explicit—enabling solutions that can address the web of social and economic disadvantage that has left formerly colonized countries more vulnerable. A reparative stance is a process for building new and better policies as much as a solution to prior injustices , involving an iterative cycle that includes reckoning, acknowledgement, accountability, and redress. Ideally, a reparative stance should be about more than a financial transfer to bridge resilience gaps—it is also an opportunity to make amends for prior wrongs and dismantle the policy, health, and prosperity gaps that stem from legacies of injustice that continue today.

Though it is misleading to call the COP27 loss and damage fund discussed earlier “climate reparations” (as it encompasses only future financial impacts of climate-related disasters and does not account for historic injustices), it does take important steps toward a reparative stance. First, by recognizing the differences in responsibilities for the cost of climate change, the fund highlights the unfairness at the core of international efforts to address climate change impacts. Second, by covering slow-onset disasters like sea level rise in addition to rapid onset events like hurricanes, the fund is potentially flexible enough for more existential and cultural claims that explicitly link environmental racism to past injustices, like damages to sacred sites. However, it’s worth highlighting that in its current form, the fund lacks a successful mechanism to allocate accountability and ensure contributions meet needs ( multilateral funding is still substantially lower than what is required ), which is a crucial aspect of reparations that would need to be addressed in the future.

Nonetheless, the loss and damage fund is arguably the most important instance where these links have been acted upon to date. Despite the EU, U.K., Canada, and the U.S. arguing to avoid reparations language and the responsibility that it entails, the fund is one of the only examples within international policy in which the term “reparations” has been successfully invoked to argue for a policy change.

Tackling these legacies is smart climate policy, but it is also a unique opening to challenge racist structures that persist in policy and undermine climate and racial justice. As founders of environmental racism activism within the U.S., Robert D. Bullard and Beverly Wright are already making these connections between international and domestic racial injustice, ensuring that decisionmakers at COP27 heard the perspectives of fence-line communities of color . Other U.S. climate justice advocacy organizations are also leading a change, promoting racial equity as a crucial lens for successful climate change policy. As U.S. policymakers take on a more prominent leadership position in advancing climate finance and adaptation funds for vulnerable nations , they should be doing the same at home—leading on GHG mitigation and adaptation initiatives that address not only the uneven impacts for historically disenfranchised and marginalized groups, but also specifically the connections between vulnerability to climate change impacts and racism.

Why we should be talking about climate reparations in the US

In the U.S., the ongoing legacies of enslavement and colonization are not peripheral to the climate crisis, but central to it. Black Americans and other disenfranchised groups such as Native Americans suffered under and were restricted from profiting off the exploitative systems of resource extraction and development that propelled the U.S. to become the largest contributor to cumulative GHG emissions internationally.

In some cases, the links to enslavement are explicit. In Louisiana, for example, swaths of land along the Mississippi River were once cotton- or sugar-producing slave plantations; with the abolition of slavery, the petrochemical industry moved in to replace Louisiana’s lost wealth , using many of the same roadways, ports, and other physical infrastructure in addition to some of the same land. Today, the descendants of enslaved peoples there must contend with heavy toxicity and environmental pollution from that industry.

In areas like these, the well-being of communities of color is compromised so that development can happen elsewhere. Black Americans are disproportionately exposed to environmental health risks: They are roughly 75% more likely to live in communities proximate to high-emission or toxic industrial processes, and typically endure levels of air pollution at least 56% higher than what would be equitable. Native Americans have also been subject to processes of “waste-landing,” in which lax planning regulations on Native lands have enabled higher proportions of dangerous developments, including waste dumps and uranium mining.

This environmental racism is perhaps most visible in cities. For example, the legacies of racist infrastructure policies have marooned some Black-majority communities in low-lying areas at heightened risk of flooding or areas with less green space to help lower the temperature of concrete-heavy urban environments and reduce the impact of heat waves. (Because of the latter, Black people swelter through temperatures 2 degrees hotter on average , and 6 to 8 degrees hotter in more extreme cases.)

But it’s not only an unevenness in exposure to climate-related disasters that is driving differences in impacts along lines of race. Vulnerability—a combination of intersecting factors such as wealth and housing security that lower resilience to disasters—is also driving disparities. For example, some less-exposed Black-majority neighborhoods are facing climate gentrification , in which property price increases in higher-elevation areas are driving low-income residents out. Additionally, many Black communities have been blocked from building wealth and are navigating the impacts of the climate crisis without a safety net. On average, Black families have roughly 10 times less wealth than white families, and experience place-based disadvantages such as poor access to adequate health care that accentuate climate risks. For a low-income household that lacks a financial safety net, a climate impact like a heat wave can put them in an unenviable position of choosing between financial risks or health risks —i.e., spending money on cooling versus suffering through dangerous heat. Similarly, both sudden disasters and gradual climate changes can affect employment opportunities, earning potential, and household debt, which can widen preexisting wealth gaps.

Finally, climate funding without a strategy that considers racism is likely to replicate or even increase racial wealth and prosperity divides. This is tied to the valuation of properties and other assets, not just access to asset building in the first place. Take real property: After major climate-related disasters, majority-white communities tend to see wealth growth, including increased property values of up to $126,000 due to renewed investment. Yet Black-majority communities see wealth declines of up to $27,000 . The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the largest provider of disaster recovery funds, is rife with racial inequalities : Black households receive less compensation on average due to bias in housing appraisals, and a complicated review process means they are also less likely to mount an appeal . Indeed, Black-majority households are more likely to accept buyouts , meaning increased potential for post-disaster displacement and community collapse.

These stark, place-based, racialized disparities show that international and domestic contexts share more similarities than differences. At the international scale, entrenched poverty and structural inequalities drive differences in vulnerability and adaptive capacity between nations along lines of historic wealth extraction, creating a unique poverty-climate context which obstructs well-being and warrants a more just approach to climate change policy. Domestically, structural racism drives vulnerability, generates constraints to equitable climate change policy, and amplifies climate impacts and risks. Both scales underscore the importance of reckoning with racist legacies for ameliorating climate change impacts and advancing a more equitable approach. Figure 2 visualizes these connections, building off common international frameworks that visualize the chained impacts of climate change to think about how racism and climate vulnerability intersect.

Over the past 20 years, international governments’ failure to commit to funding targeted adaptation has widened climate impact disparities. And in the U.S., the federal government’s failure to redress the ongoing exploitation of Black communities makes our governing structures complicit in the uneven distribution of environmental harms. The Biden administration’s climate policies, such as the Inflation Reduction Act and the Justice40 Initiative , need to take a more active and targeted stance to remedy these disparities and offer moral action to kick-start more equitable policies.

Principles to guide a reparative stance for US climate policy

A reparative stance in climate change policy means pursuing racial justice and equity in mitigation and adaptation policy, both at the individual and community level. It starts with wealth transfers to redress the egregious injustices of slavery and colonialism, as these structures were instrumental in shaping the uneven distribution of climate change risks and vulnerabilities. It continues by scoring decarbonization and GHG mitigation policies for equity impacts before decisions are made, to guarantee that investments don’t just reduce aggregate emissions, but also spread wealth across historically disenfranchised communities. Finally, adaptation policy that is localized and prioritizes community wealth and health is also crucial to avoid “colorblind” approaches that can worsen inequality despite national-level improvements .

At least two questions complicate the case for domestic climate reparations and underscore the importance of considering the scale of impacts and policy solutions. The first concerns equity. What “equity” means differs across communities and the intended scale of outcomes. For example, the international loss and damage fund centers around accountability and fairness in access to funds, but a domestic stance should also consider more localized concerns, such as inclusion in decisionmaking and questions of ownership, which would help to ensure that gains in equity are not diminished over time. These are important questions that need to be addressed; differences in how equity is framed changes how it is measured, and thus how solutions are operationalized .

The second concern is determining accountability. Perspectives vary on whether national governments or high-emitting corporations should fund emissions reduction and adaptation, such as through windfall taxes . This is further complicated by the multiple levels of domestic governance—federal, state, county, city—that can sometimes obfuscate responsibilities to take action . But they have also proven successful at pushing for progressive climate policy and conversations on reparations where the federal government has failed.

However, questions like these and others concerning operationalization are perhaps premature. What’s more immediate is acknowledging this legacy of racial injustice in climate change impacts and taking steps to act on international momentum in climate justice. To that end, what follows are several principles to guide a reparative stance: 1) grant reparations and advance land reclamation; 2) score equity outcomes in climate change policy; 3) enhance the wealth and financial security of low-income households; 4) adopt a place-based approach; 5) integrate health as a climate change policy. Visualized in Figure 3 and discussed through examples below, we explore how these principles could work through adaptation and mitigation policy, situating reparations as an antiracist climate change policy that would help bridge wealth and prosperity divides while building household and community resilience.

Grant reparations to the descendants of enslaved peoples and advance land reclamations for Native Americans

Wealth transfers and policies to level the playing field in access to education, homeownership, lending, and ameliorating debt should be central to climate change policy. Racial wealth gaps largely determine the severity of climate-related disasters on households. By decreasing wealth inequality, reparations would reduce the risk burden of the most vulnerable communities. Likewise, the removal of financial barriers to access education, for example, would increase household resilience while creating an environment where climate change adaptation is more likely to be successful. Advancing land reclamation for Native Americans could also ameliorate climate impacts; around the world, Indigenous peoples  conserve 21% of the world’s land , protect  80% of its biodiversity , and  sequester a substantial amount  of carbon.

In addition to being an opportunity to show moral leadership on climate change policies, reparations are also smart, efficient adaptation policy. Contrary to opinions that question the value of reparations , mechanisms that bridge inequality also help to lower the cost of climate change impacts, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates have cost the U.S. $2.3 trillion in physical damages since 1980. The true cost—including increased health care burdens, lost wealth, and transitional impacts on households and communities from decarbonization and GHG mitigation policies—are likely to be much greater. Reparations are an investment in people and communities, and if implemented correctly, could be a relatively cost-effective mechanism to lower the total economic impacts of climate-related disasters, slow-onset events, and the impacts of climate change policies themselves.

Score equity outcomes to guide investments in mitigation and decarbonization

History shows that if racial equity is not part of the conversation, policies are more likely to have uneven outcomes that inadvertently or intentionally reproduce racial divisions. Climate spending on emissions reduction is also not guaranteed to deliver positive—let alone fair and equitable—outcomes for all communities. But the broader risk is not yet widely acknowledged: A failure to bring equity into the conversation before investments are made risks transitional policy becoming another vessel that widens rather than reduces racial disparities.

The Biden’s administration’s Justice40 Initiative (a commitment to ensure that at least 40% of the overall benefits of federal climate action flow to historically marginalized communities) and other targeted regional and metropolitan programs are making progress in this regard. But these initiatives only go so far; they fail to codify equity considerations into a broad climate policy response that would help drive, for example, massive investment of public funds for infrastructure. For instance, while the federal pathway to net-zero emissions will theoretically benefit communities of color, the proposal fails to deliver an overarching strategy to do so. This is at least partially why infrastructure investments such as the proposal to widen the Newark Bay Turnpike through Hudson County, N.J. are continuing to promote decisions that over-burden communities of color and are likely to lead to net increases in emissions . Moreover, early evidence from climate infrastructure spending targeted at low-income communities has demonstrated inequities between Black-majority and majority-white communities in the allocation of precious public resources.

Thus, it is imperative that emerging GHG mitigation policies create opportunities for the most affected communities and do not replicate regressive models. California’s cap-and-trade GHG emissions market —which aims to reinvest 35% of auction proceeds into building low-emission and affordable housing—is a good example of how this could be achieved (though they target only for income and not race or ethnicity). Climate change policies present not just an opportunity to redress inequities, but also to score projects for distributional impacts before decisions are taken. In 2021, the city of Chicago did just that, producing the country’s first racial equity impact assessment , which is helping to ensure that the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program delivers positive outcomes for marginalized populations and neighborhoods. Other policies that address housing security and safety, such as Pennsylvania’s Whole-Home Repairs program , are having reparative impacts without an explicit climate change framing, illustrating the ways that more holistic approaches can also contribute to ameliorating climate change impact disparities.

Enhance the wealth and financial security of low-income households as part of climate change adaptation

When it comes to climate action, reducing carbon emissions continues to garner most of the attention and resources. But we need to do much better at prevention: minimizing the tremendous costs of climate-related disasters and improving the supports that help people to adapt and become more resilient to climate shocks. This is especially importantly for Black people and communities because of their history of forced segregation, asset stripping, and imposed vulnerability.

U.S. adaptation policy has primarily focused on disaster response and preparedness. While crucial, this often fails to address the second- and third-order impacts of climate-related disasters, such as income loss, unemployment, and housing instability. Moreover, gradual changes such as sea level rise and increasing temperatures also threaten household stability by increasing power, transportation, and health care costs and reducing employment opportunities.

These secondary impacts amplify the direct costs of climate change both for households and the nation, and can undermine successes in reducing poverty and inequality. Thus, to ensure that reparations create lasting change, improving financial resilience through access to loss and damages funds and adaptation funds should be central to climate change policy.

Invest in localized adaptation, especially in Black-majority neighborhoods, to build community resilience

If we value Black people, we should also value Black places. When communities are valued and invested in, they can become safer, more livable, and more environmentally sustainable places. For example, the regions where Black people are performing far above average in terms of life expectancy are correlated with greater household and community wealth and better environmental conditions. It follows that policies bridging place-based wealth and prosperity disparities are crucial to addressing uneven climate impacts.

Disadvantaged communities are not just vulnerable—they can also drive climate action. Federal funding should empower local leaders and community members to spearhead adaptation efforts that directly respond to their needs. With only $1 of every $7 spent on climate change policy allocated toward resilience, we are treating the symptoms but not the causes of climate vulnerability. This is partially why counties that receive FEMA grants tend to need them again. A localized, preemptive approach that incorporates equity all the way down— through projects and the processes by which they are implemented —can ensure that climate impacts do not entrench inequalities in place, and thus along racial lines.

Integrate health policy as a pillar of climate change adaptation

Climate policy is health policy, affecting both the social and environmental determinants of health . Failing to take these connections seriously impacts everybody, but especially undermines well-being in Black communities, where the health impacts of the climate crisis are more severe and health policy gaps are already substantial .

Thus, ensuring equitable access to affordable health care should be thought of as part of well-rounded federal climate policy. This includes continued efforts to lower the cost of health care for vulnerable groups, expand insurance coverage, and improve the environmental conditions of neighborhoods—first to decrease risk factors such as exposure to heat waves and poor air quality, but second to remove barriers to healthy lifestyle choices (the behavioral dimension of health and wellness) such as limited access to parks and healthy food.

We need a reparative stance for climate change policy

The United States needs a reparative stance for climate change policy—one that not only addresses the uneven vulnerability to climate impacts that exist along lines of race, but that also reduces the discrepancies in racial wealth, health, and prosperity gaps; ensures equity in the opportunities that stem from climate adaptation; and protects investments in emissions reduction from becoming another vehicle for disenfranchisement. This starts with recognizing the role that exploitation has played and continues to play in climate change and its environmental impacts.

International policy is rapidly catching up, highlighting the relationship between inequality and climate change policy with mechanisms that link contemporary impacts to historic injustices. To ensure that climate policy is not undermined by racial injustice, America’s domestic policy should do the same.

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Climate justice, explained

Apr 20, 2020 | By: Olivia Giovetti

Communities across the Bay of Bengal region are increasingly facing the impacts of climate change which have brought devastating changes to water, agriculture, energy and biodiversity.

One of the solutions to the climate crisis requires high-income countries to take responsibility for their carbon footprints and support low-income countries bearing the brunt of those footprints.

We’ve all seen the impacts of the climate crisis, but chances are if you’re reading this, you haven’t seen the worst of it. Here’s what you need to know about climate justice.

What is climate justice?

As the UN writes: “The impacts of climate change will not be borne equally or fairly, between rich and poor, women and men, and older and younger generations.” Climate change is not only an issue of environmental conservation, but also an issue of justice and human rights. While those most responsible for climate change are relatively insulated from its impacts, it is those who have contributed least that are likely to feel the effects most significantly.

Climate vulnerability depends not only on the impacts of climate change on a country or community but on their ability to deal with these impacts. Communities experiencing extreme poverty have the fewest resources and little capacity to adapt and therefore are the most vulnerable.

Climate justice is more than a concept. It’s a movement to recognize that the effects of climate change are not felt equally. Activists from many of the countries hit hardest by climate change (countries largely in the Global South) are calling for environmental inequities to be addressed, both to make up for the historical injustices of our current crisis and to create a safer and more equitable world for all of us.

Take a stand for climate justice

Why is climate justice important.

“That is the greatest injustice of climate change: that those who bear the least responsibility for climate change are the ones who will suffer the most,” says Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and currently a professor of climate justice at Trinity College Dublin.

Many of the countries hit hardest by the climate crisis are also low-income countries with populations that are largely agrarian. In the latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published earlier this year, authors linked this for the first time to colonialism. As industrial ages grew across North America and Europe, natural resources in countries across Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean were stripped. That many of these countries are now on the frontlines of the climate crisis may not, as the IPCC suggests, be a coincidence.

Beyond international climate justice, however, there are also important national and community-level considerations. Systemic and structural inequalities — including those based on ability, race, gender, ethnicity, and age — mean that many people in our own neighborhoods are more susceptible to the risks posed by climate change.

In Sindh province, Pakistan, frequent droughts are turning farmland to dust.

What are some of the principles of climate justice?

Various organizations working towards climate — and environmental justice define different principles. However, many of the key climate justice issues and tenets boil down to the following:

1. Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA) are often the least responsible for climate change

Various reports on who’s causing climate change, including one 2020 report co-published by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, show that there is a gap between those who are most responsible for the climate crisis and those who are most burdened by it. According to the Oxfam/SEI study, between 1990 and 2015, the richest 1% of the global population caused twice as many carbon emissions as the poorest 50%. Critically, many people in that 50% group are part of MAPA, the most affected people and areas when it comes to global warming.

2.   Human activities cause climate change, and we participate in many of those activities

Humans are responsible for climate change largely due to our greenhouse gas emissions. Greenhouse gasses trap heat from the sun as it passes through Earth’s atmosphere. There are some natural greenhouse gasses, such as water vapor and carbon dioxide (CO2). But over time, humans have added more to the atmosphere, creating a massive heat trap. Obviously, most of us don’t set out to add more CO2 to the atmosphere, or create a heat island in our hometown. But these big changes have roots in smaller, everyday events and individual behaviors and lifestyles.

3. There’s also an intergenerational inequity with the climate crisis

Climate change has accelerated, and younger generations will be shaped by our climate action — or inaction. The last 150 years of economic growth — and resulting growth in greenhouse gas emissions — are only beginning to reveal their consequences. It’s clear that younger generations will suffer these consequences more greatly than their parents and grandparents.

According to the World Bank, by the time Greta Thunberg and her generation are in their late 20s, climate change could force an additional 100 million people into extreme poverty. A report for the UNFCCC revealed that, even if all carbon dioxide emissions were stopped today, most of the current effects of climate change would persist for centuries.

4. Those on the frontlines of climate change are often unable ill-equipped to respond

Since the early 1990s, the number of extreme weather-related disasters has doubled according to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This has reduced the yields of major crops and contributed to food price hikes and income losses. In addition to climate change having a disproportionately large effect on the most vulnerable countries, these countries are also some of the least-equipped to deal with these impacts — including hurricanes, cyclones, and drought. In addition to disaster management, there is also a need to develop resilience against future events (which are likely to occur).

As Concern’s former senior policy officer Alexander Carnwath once put it, “Industrialized countries must give developing countries the financial and technological support they need to adapt to the effects of climate change.”

Joze Paulino and Gomez Dies push a bicycle loaded with charcoal across a flooded river near Nhamatanda, Mozambique.

5. Recognize climate leaders from the Global South and honoring indigenous practices to address the climate crisis

As noted above, many of the countries hit hardest by climate change have had little responsibility for the state of the current climate crisis. Overwhelmingly, these countries are located in the Global South, however traditionally climate conversations have been led by activists from the Global North. While fighting climate change will require an international effort, we must also center voices from the countries and communities most affected by climate change. Our solutions to the crisis should also be led by those local communities and indigenous knowledge of the areas on the frontlines.

In order for the Global South to both develop resilience against climate change and sustainably grow local economies, they need support from — and, more importantly, to be able to trust in — the Global North.

6. Recognize gender equity in climate justice

A community’s ability to mitigate climate-related disasters is heavily reliant on its women. However, in these communities, women often have fewer rights or resources available to them. Women are often the last to eat if climate change threatens food security. They may be left alone to care for multiple children while their spouse goes to another area to find work or food.

“There is a need for women’s leadership on climate justice,” says Mary Robinson. While women are at the forefront of new agriculture practices, emergency response, and making decisions at home, they’re also left out of the conversations and decisions that will have the greatest impact on their future. Which means their perspectives and needs are ignored. In order to create climate justice, gender equality must also be brought into the conversation.

Woman standing at Lake Turkana holding a small child

What's the difference between climate justice and environmental justice?

The  EPA  describes environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

While climate justice aims for equity with regards to the impacts of climate change, environmental justice works towards equity in how communities and lawmakers respond to climate change. Environmental justice and climate justice are different concepts on paper, but, in practice, they go hand-in-hand.

How can we achieve climate justice?

First, we have to accept the facts: Climate change is here to stay and will accelerate. The threat of global warming is an existential one for humankind. It cannot be ignored and we need to act right now, with a sense of urgency. The deepening climate crisis and related environmental destruction is contributing to land degradation and food insecurity and accentuating environmental risks.

We also have to accept that climate change is driven by human lifestyles and consumption. While our individual recycling habits may not have a direct correlation to meeting the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement, we still have a shared responsibility in addressing the crisis as individuals. Some of the key actions of climate justice, especially from a policy standpoint, touch on the following areas:

Investment and financial actions

  • Invest in vulnerable communities in the Global South to develop and carry out context-specific adaptation strategies
  • Increase investments in disaster risk reduction and prevention
  • Invest in resilience-building to prevent conflicts related to the use of natural resources in fragile contexts
  • Increase financial support to the most vulnerable people and regions, with equal importance for climate adaptation and mitigation (in addition to official development assistance)
  • Significantly increase investments in rural development, social protection, health services, and education
  • Make rapidly-dispersible and flexible funding available when disasters occur

Community actions

  • Facilitate community participation in climate-related decision making, integrating indigenous and traditional knowledge
  • Support frontline and MAPA communities with access to additional research, new technologies, and agricultural and meteorological data
  • Secure the land and water rights of indigenous peoples and rural communities

Global actions

  • Reduce poverty and inequalities to build resilience to the impacts of climate change among the most vulnerable people
  • Implement more ambitious measures to meet the commitments to Agenda 2030 and the Paris Climate Agreement

Lakhhi Munda searches the Sundarbans for fuel wood

Climate justice: What Concern is doing

Concern’s climate change response is built on the understanding that climate vulnerability depends not only on the impacts of climate change on a community, but also that community’s resilience to climate emergencies.

From start to finish, our projects fully involve communities in the planning and execution process. We also make a point of finding the most vulnerable groups within communities — such as women and the disabled — to ensure that our programs leave no one behind. Our projects don’t focus solely on dramatic headline-grabbing events such as cyclones or droughts, but also on the everyday climate risks; smaller, less dramatic events which combine to keep people in poverty.

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Why Climate Change is an Environmental Justice Issue

September 21-27 is Climate Week in New York City. Join us for a series of online events and blog posts covering the climate crisis and pointing us towards action.

people walking through flood waters

While COVID-19 has killed 200,000 Americans so far, communities of color have borne disproportionately greater impacts of the pandemic. Black, Indigenous and LatinX Americans are at least three times more likely to die of COVID than whites. In 23 states, there were 3.5 times more cases among American Indian and Alaskan Native communities than in white communities. Many of the reasons these communities of color are falling victim to the pandemic are the same reasons why they are hardest hit by the impacts of climate change.

How communities of color are affected by climate change

Climate change is a threat to everyone’s physical health, mental health, air, water, food and shelter, but some groups—socially and economically disadvantaged ones—face the greatest risks. This is because of where they live, their health, income, language barriers, and limited access to resources. In the U.S., these more vulnerable communities are largely the communities of color, immigrants, low-income communities and people for whom English is not their native language. As time goes on, they will suffer the worst impacts of climate change, unless we recognize that fighting climate change and environmental justice are inextricably linked.

The U.S. is facing warming temperatures and more intense and frequent heat waves as the climate changes. Higher temperatures lead to more deaths and illness, hospital and emergency room visits, and birth defects. Extreme heat can cause heat cramps, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, hyperthermia, and dehydration.

patient in hospital bed

Disadvantaged communities have higher rates of health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Heat stress can exacerbate heart disease and diabetes, and warming temperatures result in more pollen and smog, which can worsen asthma and COPD. Heat waves also affect birth outcomes. A study of the impact of California heat waves from 1999 to 2011 on infants found that mortality rates were highest for Black infants. Moreover, disadvantaged communities often lack access to good medical care and health insurance.

African Americans are three times more likely than whites to live in old, crowded or inferior housing; residents of homes with poor insulation and no air conditioning are particularly susceptible to the effects of increased heat. In addition, low-income areas in cities have been found to be five to 12 degrees hotter than higher income neighborhoods because they have fewer trees and parks, and more asphalt that retains heat.

Extreme weather events

While climate change cannot be definitively linked to any particular extreme weather event, incidents of heat waves, droughts, wildfires, heavy downpours, winter storms, floods and hurricanes have increased and climate change is expected to make them more frequent and intense.

Extreme weather events can cause injury, illness, and death. Changes in precipitation patterns and warming water temperatures enable bacteria, viruses, parasites and toxic algae to flourish; heavy rains and flooding can pollute drinking water and increase water contamination, potentially causing gastrointestinal illnesses like diarrhea and damaging livers and kidneys.

buildings destroyed by hurricane katrina

Extreme weather events also disrupt electrical power, water systems and transportation, as well as the communication networks needed to access emergency services and health care. Disadvantaged communities are particularly at risk because subpar housing with old infrastructure may be more vulnerable to power outages, water issues and damage. Residents of these communities may lack adequate health care, medicines, health insurance, and access to public health warnings in a language they can understand. In addition, they may not have access to transportation to escape the impacts of extreme weather, or home insurance and other resources to relocate or rebuild after a disaster. Communities of color are also less likely to receive adequate protection against disasters or a prompt response in case of emergencies. In addition to physical hardships, the stress and anxiety of dealing with these impacts of extreme weather can end up exacerbating mental health problems such as depression, post-traumatic stress and suicide.

Poor air quality

While climate change does not cause poor air quality , burning fossil fuels does; and climate change can worsen air quality. Heat waves cause air masses to remain stagnant and prevent air pollution from moving away. Warmer temperatures lead to the creation of more smog, particularly during summer. And wildfires, fueled by heat waves and drought, produce smoke that contains toxic pollutants.

Living with polluted air can lead to heart and lung diseases, aggravate allergies and asthma and cause premature death. People who live in urban areas with air pollution, or who have medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma or COPD, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of air pollution.

child in hospital bed

Black people are three times more likely to die from air pollution than white people. This is in part because they are 70 percent more likely to live in counties that are in violation of federal air pollution standards. A University of Minnesota study found that, on average, people of color are exposed to 38 percent higher levels of nitrogen dioxide outdoor air pollution than white people. One reason for the high COVID-19 death rate among African Americans is that cumulative exposure to air pollution leads to a significant increase in the COVID death rate, according to a new peer-reviewed study.

More people of color live in places that are polluted with toxic waste, which can lead to illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure and asthma. These pre-existing conditions put people at higher risk for the more severe effects of COVID-19.

The fact that disadvantaged communities are in some of the most polluted environments in the U.S. is no coincidence. Communities of color are often chosen as sites for landfills, chemical plants, bus terminals and other dirty businesses because corporations know it’s harder for these residents to object. They usually lack the connections to lawmakers who could protect them and can’t afford to hire technical or legal help to put up a fight. They may not understand how they will be impacted, perhaps because the information is not in their native language. A 1987 report showed that race was the single most important factor in determining where to locate a toxic waste facility in the U.S. It found that “Communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities had the highest composition of racial and ethnic residents.”

For example, while Blacks make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, 68 percent live within 30 miles of a coal plant. LatinX people are 17 percent of the population, but 39 percent of them live near coal plants. A new report found that about 2,000 official and potential highly contaminated Superfund sites are at risk of flooding due to sea level rise; the areas around these sites are mainly communities of color and low-income communities.

The link between climate change and environmental justice

Mary Annaïse Heglar , a climate justice essayist and former writer-in-residence at the Earth Institute, asserts that climate change is actually the product of racism. “It started with conquest, genocides, slavery, and colonialism,” she wrote . “That is the moment when White men’s relationship with living things became extractive and disharmonious. Everything was for the taking; everything was for sale. The fossil fuel industry was literally built on the backs and over the graves of Indigenous people around the globe, as they were forced off their land and either slaughtered or subjugated — from the Arab world to Africa, from Asia to the Americas. Again, it was no accident.”

redlining map

The harmful impacts of climate change are linked to historical neglect and racism. When Black people migrated North from the South in the early 20th century, many did not have jobs or money; consequently they were forced to live in substandard housing. Jim Crow laws in the South reinforced racial segregation, prohibiting Blacks from moving into white neighborhoods. In the 1930s through the 1960s, the federal government’s “redlining” policy denied federally backed mortgages and credit to minority neighborhoods. As a result, African Americans had limited access to better homes and all the advantages that went with them—a healthy environment, better schools and healthcare, and more food options.

Prime examples of environmental injustice

Poor sanitation in the U.S.

Catherine Flowers,  founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and a senior fellow for the Center for Earth Ethics , which is affiliated with the Earth Institute, is from Lowndes County, Alabama. As a child growing up in a poor, mostly Black rural area with less than 10,000 residents, she used an outhouse before her family installed indoor plumbing. After leaving to get an education, Flowers returned to Alabama in 2002 and still saw extreme disparities in rural wastewater treatment. She visited many homes with sewage backing up into their homes or pooling in their yards, as many residents couldn’t afford onsite wastewater treatment. She is still advocating for proper sanitation in Lowndes. As a result of her work, Baylor College’s National School of Tropical Medicine conducted a peer-reviewed study which showed that over 30 percent of Lowndes County residents had hookworm and other tropical parasites due to poor sanitation.

”We’re also seeing that there is a relationship between [wastewater and] COVID infections,” added Flowers. “We don’t know exactly what it is yet—but you can actually measure wastewater to determine the level of infections in the community before people start showing up with the illness.” In Lowndes, one of every 18 residents has COVID-19; it is one of the highest infection rates in the U.S.

Today, Flowers works at the intersection between climate change and wastewater throughout the U.S. “The more we see sea level rise, the more we’re going to have wastewater problems,” she said. Her new book, Waste, One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret , due out in November, shows how proper sanitation is essential as climate change will likely bring sewage to more backyards everywhere, not just in poor communities.

Cancer Alley

An 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana, hosts the densest concentration of petrochemical companies in the U.S. There have been so many cases of cancer and death in the area that it became known as “Cancer Alley.”

industries next to communities

Most of these petrochemical plants are situated near towns that are largely poor and Black. There are 30 large plants within 10 miles of mostly Black St. Gabriel, with 13 within three miles. St. James Parish, whose population is roughly half Black and half white, has over 30 petrochemical plants, but the majority are located in the district that is 80 percent Black.

These plants not only emit greenhouse gases that are exacerbating climate change, but the particulate matter they expel can contain hundreds of different chemicals. Chronic exposure to this air pollution can lead to heart and respiratory illnesses and diabetes. As such, it is no surprise that St. James Parish is among the 20 U.S. counties with the highest per-capita death rates from COVID-19.

Despite efforts of the residents to fight back, seven new petrochemical plants have been approved since 2015; five more are awaiting approval.

Hurricane Katrina

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a Category 3 storm, caused extensive destruction in New Orleans and its environs. More than half of the 1,200 people who died were Black and 80 percent of the homes that were destroyed belonged to Black residents. The mostly Black neighborhoods of New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward were hit hardest by Katrina because while the levees in white areas had been shored up after earlier hurricanes, these poorer neighborhoods had received less government funding for flood protection. After the hurricane, when initial plans for rebuilding were in process, white neighborhoods again got priority, even if they had experienced less flooding. Eventually federal funds were directed toward the rebuilding of parts of the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East and the strengthening of their levees.

In 2014, the city of Flint, MI, whose population is 56.6 percent Black, decided to draw its drinking water from the polluted Flint River in order to save money until a new pipeline from Lake Huron could be built. Previously the city had brought in treated drinking water from Detroit. Because the river had been used by industry as an illegal waste dump for many years, the water was corrosive, but officials failed to treat it. As a result, the water leached lead from the city’s aging pipelines. Officials claimed the water was safe, but more than 40 percent of the homes had elevated lead levels. As almost 100,000 residents — including 9,000 children — drank lead-laced water, lead levels in the children’s blood doubled and tripled in some neighborhoods, putting them at high risk for neurological damage.

mother and child with sign about water

In October, 2015, the city began importing water from Detroit again. An ongoing project to replace lead service pipes is expected to be complete by the end of November. And just recently, Flint victims were awarded a settlement of $600 million, with 80 percent of it designated for the affected children.

Steps to achieve environmental justice

As the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, Catherine Flowers works to implement the best practices to reduce environmental injustice. Here are some key strategies she prescribes.

  • Acknowledge the damage and try to repair it.
  • Clean up sites where environmental damage has been done.
  • Create an equitable system for decision-making so there is not an undue burden placed on disadvantaged communities. “Lobbyists that represent these [polluting] companies shouldn’t have more influence than the people who live in the area that are impacted by it,” said Flowers. “We need to make sure that the people that live in the community are sitting at the table when decisions are being made about what’s located in their community.”
  • Call out the officials who are making decisions that are not in the best interest of the people they represent.
  • Vote to put in place representatives that listen to their constituents rather than the people and companies that donate to them.
  • Provide climate training to help people become more engaged. For example, the Climate Reality Project (Flowers sits on its board of directors) trains everyday people to fight for solutions and change in their communities.
  • Partner with universities to conduct peer-reviewed studies of health impacts to help validate and draw attention to the experiences of disadvantaged communities.
  • Build cleaner and greener. “We cannot discount the impact this could have on communities around the world,” said Flowers. “If we don’t pollute and we have a Green New Deal to build better, cleaner, and greener, then we won’t have these environmental justice issues.”

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Injustice of any kind? It really does not matter. Unless people change their idea of materialism madness and understand the fact that they are threatened, we will get nowhere. When was the last time humans have done much of anything out of compassion if it would alter their own lifestyles?


I wonder if governments (particularly of modernized nations like America, the UK and China) have purposely chosen to ignore the issue of climate change? I agree that most of it falls on things like industrial shipping, transportation and processing, but governemnt incentivization is another issue with climate justice as a whole.

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Climate Justice

There is overwhelming evidence that human activities are changing the climate system. [ 1 ] The emission of greenhouse gases is resulting in increased temperatures, rising sea-levels, and severe weather events (such as storm surges). These climatic changes raise a number of issues of justice. These include (but are not limited to) the following

  • How do we assess the impacts of climate change?
  • What climate responsibilities do current generations have to future generations?
  • How should political actors take into account the risks and uncertainties involved in climate projections?
  • Who has what responsibilities to address climate change?
  • Given that there is a limited “greenhouse gas budget” how should it be distributed?
  • What constraints should regulate and constrain climate policies?
  • Given high levels of noncompliance with climate responsibilities how should we make trade-offs between competing principles of climate justice?

Before considering these normative issues, it is important to introduce some scientific terms. Climate scientists often refer to “mitigation” and “adaptation”. Mitigation involves either reducing the emission of greenhouse gases or creating greenhouse gas sinks (which absorb greenhouse gases), or both. Adaptation involves making changes to people’s context so that they can cope better with a world undergoing climatic changes. Examples of adaptation might be constructing buildings that can cope better with extreme heat, or building seawalls that can cope with storm surges. It is arguable that this typology is incomplete. Suppose that humans do not mitigate by enough so the climate system continues to change; and suppose that human societies also fail to implement the necessary adaptation policies and so people are unable to enjoy the kinds of lives to which they are entitled. Then, many would argue, they are entitled to compensation.

1. Isolationism and Integrationism

2. assessing climate impacts, 3.1 principles of intergenerational justice, 3.2 intertemporal discounting, 3.3 objections and concerns, 4. risk and uncertainty, 5.1 the climate action question, 5.2.1 the polluter pays principle, 5.2.2 the beneficiary pays principle, 5.2.3 the ability to pay principle, 5.3 the political action question and first-order and second-order responsibilities, 5.4 who are the duty bearers, 6.1 subsistence, 6.2 equality, 7.1 mitigation and alternative energy sources, 7.2 population, 7.3 geoengineering, 8. climate justice in a nonideal world, 9. concluding remarks, other internet resources, related entries.

It is helpful to draw attention to a distinction between two different ways in which one might approach issues of climate justice.

One approach—Isolationism—holds that it is best to treat the ethical issues posed by climate change in isolation from other issues (such as poverty, migration, trade and so forth). The isolationist seeks to bracket these other considerations and treat climate change on its own. A second approach—Integrationism—holds that it is best to treat the ethical issues posed by climate change in light of a general theory of justice and in conjunction with other issues (such as poverty, development and so on).

Some philosophers have adopted an isolationist approach. Some, for example, propose principles for allocating rights to emit greenhouse gases that treat greenhouse gases in isolation from other issues ( Section 6.2 ). Two related reasons are given for this approach. First, some argue that there is value in simplifying the issue, and since introducing these other concerns would complicate the question it is worth bracketing them out. Second, some make a related pragmatic argument about the implications of adopting an integrationist approach for reaching agreement in climate negotiations. They argue that insisting that climate justice be pursued in light of a general theory, and in conjunction with other issues, would be a recipe for deadlock because there is often deep disagreement about what theory of justice is correct. For this reason, they propose bracketing out other phenomena and treating climate change in isolation (Blomfield 2019: 24; Gosseries 2005: 283; L. Meyer & Roser 2006: 239).

In reply, those who favour an integrationist approach tend to offer the following considerations. First, they argue that in order to treat climate change in isolation there would need to be something special about it that warranted separate treatment. However, they argue, climate change is not special in this way. For example, it impacts on the same interests (people’s interests in food and water; their health; their access to land and so on) as other phenomena (such as the distribution of economic resources, poverty and poverty alleviation, migration, and trade). Furthermore, they claim that the same distributive principles seem to be salient for climate change as they are for other phenomena. If, for example, one thinks that individuals have human rights to meet their socio-economic needs then this should surely also bear on questions of climate justice too since it provides a reason to combat climate change and a reason to distribute responsibilities so that they do not burden the poor and vulnerable. Another way of putting this point is that when people engage in deliberation about, say, how the costs of tackling climate change should be distributed then—so Integrationists claim—they inescapably end up drawing on more general values (such as “people have a right to a decent standard of living” or “people should be accountable for their choices”) (Caney 2005: 763 & 765–766). If philosophers eschew Integrationism and they try to answer questions such as “who should bear the burdens of combating climate change?” in an isolationist fashion—bracketing out, for example, what economic rights persons have—then, so the argument runs, we end up with very counter-intuitive conclusions (Caney 2018b: 682–684).

Whether this is true or not cannot be fully resolved in advance. Rather it can only be decided by engaging in a normative analysis of climate change and seeing whether it is borne out.

A second point that those who favour an Integrationist approach might make is that climate change is causally interconnected with a wide variety of other phenomena—such as economic growth, poverty reduction, migration, health, trade, natural resource ownership, and cultural rights—such that it is artificial to treat it on its own. Climate change does not present itself to us as a discrete problem that can be treated separately. Rather it is part and parcel of a larger process. It is an upshot of people’s activity (primarily through the use of energy) and, as such, it is causally intertwined with economic growth, poverty alleviation, urban design, and land use. Furthermore, the effects of climatic change are often mediated through other factors such as poverty, existing infrastructures, and the responsiveness of political authorities. They interact with existing inequalities and vulnerability, producing what Leichenko and O’Brien (2008) term “double exposures”. In addition to this, the extraction of fossil fuels and the industry built around it often directly harm the same interests (such as health and access to land) that are harmed by the emission of greenhouse gases. So, from this point of view, it seems artificial to focus on the effect of the emissions rather than the whole phenomenon. Finally, the policies proposed to tackle climate change themselves affect a wide range of other phenomena (impacting on land use, access to food, health, poverty alleviation, biodiversity loss, individual liberty, and so on). Given this any attempt to cordon off climate change and apply principles of justice to it in isolation seems misguided and quixotic.

As we shall see—especially when we consider the distribution of responsibilities and the application of principles of distributive justice to the greenhouse gas budget—it matters a great deal whether one takes an Isolationist or Integrationist perspective.

With this point duly noted, we can turn to the substantive issues.

One question of justice that arises is “What account of persons” interests should be employed to evaluate the impacts of climate change?’ Such an account is needed for several reasons. First, we need it to design adaptation policies for we need to know what kind of protection people are entitled to and what interests ought to be protected. In addition to this, when we are considering proposed temperature targets we need to be able to evaluate them, and to do this we need to have some account of persons’ interests by which to compare the different possibilities. For many years the appropriate temperature target was assumed by many to be that of keeping the increase in global mean temperatures from pre-industrial times to below 2°C. However, some have campaigned for lower targets. This is reflected in the Paris Agreement (2015, Other Internet Resources ) which specified that the target should be

[h]olding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. (Article 2.1(a))

Others, by contrast, have argued that higher temperatures are permissible. For example, William Nordhaus, a leading climate economist, has argued that if we implement what he deems to be the “optimal” climate policy the temperature increase would be 3.5°C in 2100 (when compared to a 1900 baseline) (Nordhaus 2018: 348 Fig 4).

Theories of distributive justice concern the just distribution of burdens and benefits. We therefore need to know how we should conceive of “burdens” and “benefits”. Different theories of distributive justice have put forward different accounts of what it is that persons should have fair shares of (the distribuendum ) (see entries on distributive justice and egalitarianism ).

When we consider climate change, different accounts of the distribuendum are highly likely to converge in very many cases. Climate change results in many dying (because of severe weather events, such as extreme heatwaves, flooding, and storm surges). It leads to droughts and crop failure and thus threatens people’s interests in food and water. It leads to an increase in certain diseases. These impacts—threats to life, food and water, and to health—would be condemned by many, if not all, theories of distributive justice. (For a detailed discussion of the implications of different accounts of the distribuenda of distributive justice for the evaluation of climatic impacts see Page [2006: 50–77].)

Some, however, would argue that to limit our focus to these interests (in life, health, food and water) is too narrow. They hold that some persons have deep attachments to certain places, such as the land that they have traditionally inhabited, and that being rooted in a particular place is an integral part of what makes their life go well. On this view, forcible displacement results in a non-substitutable loss. This is highly pertinent in the case of climate change since many indigenous peoples will be forcibly displaced from traditional homelands. This is true both of those in small island states and coastal settlements, as well as of inland communities forced to move because of environmental degradation to their traditional lands. Many argue, on this basis, that climate change constitutes a form of cultural injustice (de Shalit 2011, Heyward 2014, Whyte 2016). An adequate theory of climate justice must then consider whether persons’ have such cultural rights.

This last example also helps to underscore another important point, namely that which account of persons’ interests is adopted can have considerable practical implications, affecting what temperature target to employ and what form adaptation should take.

The key issue here concerns the relationship between persons’ interests, on the one hand, and changes in the climate system, on the other. On some views people’s interests are such that a change in the climate system might—at least in principle—be made up for through adaptation and/or through the provision of other goods. If, for example, one thinks that distributive justice is concerned solely with persons’ wealth and income, then the loss of a good (such as one’s house) because of climatic changes can be compensated for by a transfer of wealth and/or income.

Other accounts of persons’ interests will not, however, sanction this kind of “compensation”. Those who think that some persons’ good is bound up with a certain place or territory will think that climate change inflicts on such people a loss that cannot be compensated for. Protecting their interests necessarily requires the environment to be a certain way (de Shalit 2011; Heyward 2014 esp. 156–157; Whyte 2016).

To put the point in other words, the key concern is about “substitutability” (Neumayer 2003: 37–40). The question is whether one can substitute the loss of nature with the provision of other goods. Different accounts of justice will yield different answers to this. This take us to a long-standing debate in ecological economics and ethics between proponents of what has been termed “weak sustainability” (which permits the substitution of capital for the loss of nature) and proponents of “strong sustainability” (which denies the possibility of such substitution) (Neumayer 2003).

Four further points are in order.

First, it would be a mistake simply to employ an account of the distribuendum and then apply that to evaluate climatic impacts without considering whether that account adequately reflects the values and ethical orientations of affected communities. See, in this context, Krushil Watene’s (2016) evaluation of the extent to which the “capability” approach can accommodate the insights of Maori philosophy concerning the value of nature. (See entry on capability approach for information on the capability approach and relevant sources.)

Second, it is worth noting that once one has an account of the relevant interests a further question is how one incorporates them into a theory of justice. For example, some have argued that many of the adverse impacts described above can accurately be described as threatening people’s human rights (Caney 2010b). This view maintains that persons have certain human rights—to life, health, water, food, not to be displaced—and that climate change is unjust because it violates these human rights. Others are sceptical of the applicability of human rights, arguing that they are too inflexible and are unable to provide guidance when trade-offs are necessary (Moellendorf 2014: 24–26 & 230–235).

Moellendorf suggests that we should instead adopt what he terms an “Antipoverty Principle”: this judges climate impacts (and climate policies) in terms of their impact on poverty (Moellendorf 2014: 22–24). This, however, will be vulnerable to the objection that it is unduly narrow in its focus, for climate change has harmful effects that cannot simply be reduced to its effect on poverty levels (such as its effects on political self-determination, people’s ability to practise their traditional ways of life, and their right not to be displaced) (Gardiner 2017: 441–443).

Another approach would be to follow the practice of many climate economists. They employ what they term the “social cost of carbon” where this calculates “a monetized value of the present and future damages caused by the emission of a ton of CO 2 ” (Fleurbaey et al. 2019: 84). What stance one adopts here will, then, depend on one’s more general theory of justice and normative public policy.

Third, the focus so far has been on the entitlements of individuals. However, some will argue that this is too restrictive and that a comprehensive account would include the rights of collective units to be self-determining. The clearest and starkest (but not, of course, the only) illustration of this is the destruction of small island states.

Fourth, the focus, so far, has been on the impacts on human beings. On some accounts, this is incomplete for it excludes nonhuman animals (Cripps 2013: chapter 4). Clearly, evaluating such claims raises questions that go beyond this entry. The point here is just that if the interests of other creatures are included then this will have implications for the evaluation of climatic impacts.

3. Intergenerational Justice

The question of what climate target to aim for will also depend on what responsibilities members of one generation have to future generations. The emission of some greenhouse gases can have an impact far into the future. For example, CO 2 lasts in the atmosphere for “hundreds of thousands of years” (Allen, Dube, & Solecki 2019: 64). So while climate change affects large numbers of people alive now, many of the impacts of climate change will fall on future generations. To know what temperature target is appropriate it is necessary, then, to have an account of our responsibilities to future generations and to know how much weight, if any, to attribute to their interests.

Such an account is also needed for two further reasons. First, the question of who should bear the burdens of climate change has an intergenerational dimension. Some, for example, have argued that it would be fair to impose some of the costs of mitigating (and adapting to) climate change on future generations (Rendall 2011).

Finally, there is a fixed quantity of greenhouse gases which can be emitted. [ 2 ] Considering how this should be shared also raises questions of intergenerational justice for if there is a fixed greenhouse gas budget we need to consider what claims, if any, future people have to emit greenhouse gases.

A number of different principles of intergenerational justice have been proposed. Many for example, adopt a sufficientarian position and hold that justice requires merely that all persons be above a certain specified threshold. (For sophisticated analyses see L. Meyer & Roser 2009 and Page 2006: 90–95; 2007.)

One challenge for this view will, of course, be determining how to specify this threshold. Many, however, will grant that a sufficiency condition is necessary even if it is hard to specify. Some may though query whether it is sufficient. For example, a sufficientarian view would allow members of one generation to leave future generations worse off than them just so long as they are above a certain threshold. This will strike many as too weak. Consider a case where one generation could leave future people much better off than the sufficientarian threshold at no (or little) cost. Here it would seem inadequate to say that current generations need only ensure that future people do not fall beneath the sufficientarian’s designated threshold.

Some adopt more demanding accounts of intertemporal justice which avoid these problems. For example, in their book Sustainability for a Warming Planet (2015) Humberto Llavador, John E. Roemer, and Joaquim Silvestre defend what they term “growth sustainability”. They explain it as follows:

Growth sustainability (say, at 25% per generation) means to find that path of economic activity that maximizes the welfare of the present generation, subject to guaranteeing that welfare grows at least at 25% per generation, forever after. (Llavador, Roemer & Silvestre 2015: 4)

The key idea is to maximise the standard of living of current generations but also commit to leaving future people better off by a certain proportion. Their argument comes in two steps. First, they think—along luck egalitarian lines—that there is a case for intergenerational equality. But then they add that current generations often desire to benefit the future and so there is a case for building in a commitment to bettering the condition of future people (Llavador, Roemer & Silvestre 2015: 4 & 35–36).

Others might query this second step, and, in particular, the claim that a “preference” to benefit others can ground an (enforceable) duty to do so. In general, whether people have a duty to others cannot be vindicated on the basis of a preference that some have to benefit others. This notwithstanding, some might still argue that where current generations can leave future generations better off than themselves at no cost, or at reasonable cost, then there is a duty to do so.

There is one other aspect that bears mentioning. So far the focus has been on what might term a vertical dimension (how well off the members of generations in the future [at, say, t 10 ] are when compared to earlier generations [at, say, t 1 ]). This does not, however, exhaust questions of intergenerational justice for one might think that members of one generation should also be concerned about the likely distribution within any future generation (so, what we might term a horizontal dimension). Those who adopt an egalitarian perspective, for example, might think that current generations have a duty to act in such a way that they do not create stark inequalities within future generations (Caney 2018a: 161–162 & 168; see also Fleurbaey et al. 2019: 93). This is relevant in this context because climate change tends to exacerbate existing inequalities (Hoegh-Guldberg, Jacob, & Taylor 2019: 244).

The focus of the previous subsection was on principles of intergenerational justice. Much of the literature on intergenerational justice and climate change has, however, engaged with economic analyses of the impacts of climate change, and economic analyses tend to employ the concept of a social discount rate to specify how people should treat future generations. Given this a comprehensive treatment of climate justice and future generations needs to discuss the concept of discounting (see entry on Frank Ramsey and intergenerational welfare economics ).

Roughly stated, social discount rates specify the extent to which persons should “discount” the future and should allocate resources to the current time as opposed to the future. The social discount rate has several component parts.

Time Discounting . One important component is “time discounting”: this involves allocating less moral weight to a person’s well-being the further into the future it is. Many philosophers have been highly critical of this approach, arguing that it is objectionable to discriminate against people on the basis of when they are alive. That, it is argued, penalises people for a property that lacks any moral significance (Caney 2014b: 323–327; Parfit 1984: 480–486; Rawls 1999: 259–262). Others would demur, and some have offered communitarian defences of special obligations to those who are temporally near (de Shalit 1995).

Growth Discounting . A second important component is what Nordhaus calls “growth discounting” (1997: 317). The idea here is clearly stated by the economist Nicholas Stern, who writes that we

should discount the consumption of future generations on the basis that they are likely to be richer than ourselves. This reason for discounting is, and should be, part of most models. (Stern 2008: 14)

Clearly what position one takes on this will depend on whether one adopts a broadly egalitarian position on intergenerational justice or not. If one thinks that egalitarian commitments should inform our policies towards future generations, and, if one thinks that those alive in the future will be wealthier (a crucial assumption that one might at least query) then there is a case for growth discounting. So one’s verdict on growth discounting will depend on the nature of one’s principle of intergenerational justice (sufficiency, equality, priority, Llavador et al.’s formulation and so on) as well as empirical assumptions about future growth (and one’s attitude to risk and uncertainty).

The previous subsections proceeded on the basis that there are duties of justice to future generations. It is worth noting here then that some dispute that. The reasons they do so are not peculiar to the case of climate change, and are familiar from general debates about intergenerational justice (see entry on intergenerational justice ).

For example, some have invoked Derek Parfit’s Non Identity Problem (Parfit 1984: chapter 16) to call into question claims that there are duties of justice to (remote) future generations (Broome 2012: 61–64). They argue that since the decisions made now affect who gets born in the future they do not harm future generations for they do not make them worse off than they would otherwise be (Broome 2012: 61–64; Parfit 1984: chapter 16).

This is not the place to discuss the Non Identity Problem in depth (see entry on nonidentity problem ). It is, however, perhaps worth noting that many are not persuaded that this argument shows that current generations lack duties of (climate) justice to future people. The nub of the issue is whether theories of justice are committed to a “narrow person-affecting” point of view (Parfit 1984: 393–395). Broome appears to assume that they are. However, many others maintain that justice to future generations should not be conceived of in such narrow person-affecting terms (e.g., Reiman 2007: esp. 83–86 & 88–92). Consider, for example, sufficientarian accounts of our responsibilities to the future. They maintain that there is a duty of justice to act in such a way that the standard of living of those who live in the future is above a certain threshold. They are not committed to the thought that persons act unjustly only if they render someone (future or present) worse off than they would otherwise have been. Their claim is simply that persons of one generation act unjustly if, other things being equal, the outcome of their actions is that those who are alive in the future have a lower-than-sufficiency standard of living (see the entry on intergenerational justice , sections 3 & 4). The same point could be made about other accounts, whether egalitarian, prioritarian or Llavador et al.’s view.

Another set of normative issues arises from the fact that climate projections are characterised by risk and uncertainty. A comprehensive analysis of climate justice needs, then, to consider the just way to respond to risk and uncertainty. To underscore why this matters it is salutary to consider the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report. Suppose that we take the appropriate target to be avoiding an increase in global mean temperatures of more than 1.5°C when compared with pre-industrial times. The quantity of greenhouse gases that can be permissibly emitted varies enormously depending on how risk-averse we think that our approach should be. According to the IPCC a 33% probability of meeting the 1.5°C target results in a greenhouse gas budget of 840 GtCO 2 whereas a 66% probability of meeting the same target results in a greenhouse budget of 420 GtCO 2 (Rogelj, Shindell, & Jiang 2019: 108). If we opt for the more risk averse approach, then, the volume of greenhouse gases than can be permissibly emitted is half the size that the budget would be if we opt for the less risk averse approach. One question that arises then is: How risk-averse should we be? How should policy-makers treat risk and uncertainty?

Two approaches have been adopted.

First, some employ traditional cost-benefit analysis and seek to derive the “expected value” of different scenarios by combining the probability of each state of affairs and its value and then choosing that policy with the greatest expected value (Broome 2012: 120–132). Fleurbaey et al. (2019: 97–100) provide an excellent short analysis of this approach and variants of it. Some query the validity of the “expected value” approach on the basis that our understanding of the future is so imperfect that we lack reliable probabilities (Gardiner 2011: 261–263; though see Broome 2012: 127–129).

Second, some adopt a version of the “precautionary principle”. To introduce this principle it is helpful to turn to Neil Manson’s excellent analysis of the precautionary principle (Manson 2002). Manson argues that all formulations of the precautionary principle contain three elements. In particular they include what he terms “a damage condition” (this states what kinds of bad outcomes are relevant), a “knowledge condition” (this states what kind of epistemic conditions are required—is it uncertainty or a certain level of risk?) and a “remedy” (this states the right response) (Manson 2002: 265). The central idea is that when people are engaged in a certain kind of action in which there is a prospect of harms of the relevant kind, and when our understanding of whether the harms will materialise satisfies the knowledge condition, then it is appropriate to adopt a precautionary policy (Manson 2002: esp. 265). Clearly, however, a great deal of work is needed to specify the three core features—how much harm and what kind of harm is relevant?; what epistemic conditions must hold?; what course of action is required (Manson 2002: 267)?

In his illuminating analysis of the precautionary principle Gardiner also identifies three essential features. There is a “threat of harm”; there is “[u]ncertainty of impact and causality”; and third there is a “precautionary response” (Gardiner 2006: 36).

Now some interpretations of the basic idea will be unduly risk averse (Gardiner 2006: 37). Gardiner himself draws on Rawls’s use of maximin, and argues that we should prioritise avoiding very bad outcomes when the following conditions are all satisfied: (1) people face options with a variety of different outcomes (including some potentially dire ones) but cannot ascertain the probabilities of these outcomes so are in a state of uncertainty, (2) people do not care greatly about how much they are better off than “the minimum that can be guaranteed by the maximin approach”, and (3) people care greatly about not falling beneath that minimum (Gardiner 2006: 47 & more generally 45–49). Under such circumstances, Gardiner argues, it would not make sense to take the risk of a dire outcome.

A related (though not identical) approach is adopted by Shue, who draws on Gardiner and Manson. Shue, like Gardiner, invokes three conditions. These are as follows:

(1) massive loss : the magnitude of the possible losses is massive; (2) threshold likelihood : the likelihood of the losses is significant, even if no precise probability can be specified, because (a) the mechanism by which the losses would occur is well understood, and (b) the conditions for the functioning of the mechanism are accumulating; and (3) non-excessive costs : the costs of prevention are not excessive (a) in light of the magnitude of the possible losses and (b) even considering the other important demands on our resources. (Shue 2014: 265; footnote omitted)

Shue’s claim, then, is that

[w]here these three features are all present, one ought to try urgently to make the outcome progressively more unlikely until the marginal costs of further efforts become excessive, irrespective of the outcome’s precise prior probability, which may not be known in any case. (Shue 2014: 265) [ 3 ]

Note that the “expected value” and the “precautionary” approaches disagree, at a fundamental level, about the relevance of probabilities. The first one relies on them to derive expected values, whereas the second does not rely on precise probabilities. (Indeed, Gardiner’s approach is intended to apply to cases of “uncertainty” [which is when we cannot specify probabilities] Gardiner [2006: 50].) This said, it seems likely that in practice they will converge, at least to some extent, in calling for aggressive mitigation policies.

5. Responsibilities

Suppose that we have identified what kinds of interests should be included in a theory of justice, what responsibilities persons owe to future people, and how to treat risk and uncertainty. These can guide us in determining what goals we should aim for. The next question to ask is ‘ Who has what responsibilities to meet these goals?’ It is helpful to break this question down into several parts. We can identify four further questions, which together would enable us to answer this question and tell us what would be a just distribution of climate responsibilities.

First, it is important to be clear on the content of the responsibilities. As noted at the start, climate scientists and policy-makers focus primarily (though not exclusively) on two kinds of policies—mitigation and adaptation. The first question, then, is “Who should engage in mitigation and adaptation, and to what extent?” Let us call this the Climate Action Question.

A second question is “Who should bear the costs of mitigation and adaptation?” Mitigation will often involve economic (and other) types of cost. For example, if a carbon tax is levied on goods then purchasers of those goods will be financially worse off. Sometimes mitigation policies come with benefits (for example, regulations discouraging car use are likely to improve air quality; encouraging people to cycle rather than drive may improve physical fitness). In many cases, however, the policies come with a cost. Likewise adaptation policies (such as designing cities to cope better with heatwaves) will come at a cost. Who should pay for these? Let us call this the Burden-Sharing Question.

A third question is Who has the responsibility to ensure that (a) those designated to engage in mitigation and adaptation do so and (b) those designated to bear any financial burdens discharge their responsibilities? Let us call this the Political Action Question.

The fourth question is rather different in kind. It asks, for all of the previous questions, what kinds of entities are the duty-bearers? Many will assume that governments have such responsibilities, but what about other actors? Are individuals duty-bearers? For example, do individuals have duties to engage in mitigation? Or does that duty fall exclusively on other actors?

Consider the first two questions. Very often these are treated together, but they are not necessarily the same. One might think, for example, that one agent has a responsibility to mitigate (on the grounds that doing so would be an effective way of making a significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions) but that others have a duty to bear some, or all, of the costs. In such a case, then, our answer to the Climate Action Question might be that X should mitigate, but our answer to the Burden-Sharing Question might be that Y should bear the cost involved in X ’s mitigating. To illustrate: one might think that developing countries should mitigate and should use clean technology instead of fossil fuels, but one might also think that the cost of the clean technology should be shouldered by others.

To give another illustration: one might think that current generations should mitigate climate change aggressively but that they can pass on some of the costs of doing so to future generations (Rendall 2011). (A version of this position is defended by Broome [2012: 47–48], and is introduced below— Section 8 .)

Of course, even though the questions are distinct this does not entail that they should be treated wholly separately. One might think, for example, that X should mitigate but only if others pay at least some (or even all) of the costs, and that if sufficient financial support is not forthcoming then X is not obligated. With this in mind, it is appropriate to turn to the Burden-Sharing Question. A considerable literature has developed around the question of who should bear the costs of combating climate change.

5.2 The Burden-Sharing Question

Three principles, in particular, have emerged.

One principle commonly referred to as the Polluter Pays Principle holds that burdens should be borne in proportion to how much an agent has emitted (Shue 2014: 182–186). This is an intuitively plausible approach. It reflects a widely held principle about responsibility, namely that we can, subject to certain conditions, hold agents responsible for their actions.

This noted, there are several complications. First, some argue that it is unfair to hold agents responsible for the harms resulting from their emission of greenhouse gases if they were excusably ignorant of the impact of their actions. They then argue that many of those who have emitted greenhouse gases in the past were excusably ignorant and so cannot be held liable.

Several replies have been given to this line of argument. First, on an empirical note, we can respond that for several decades now people could not plausibly claim to be excusably ignorant about the effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Of course, specifying precisely when one could no longer claim to be excusably ignorant will be hard, but the salient point is that there are limits to the extent to which one can plead excusable ignorance (Singer 2002: 34). [ 4 ] Second, some argue that it can be fair to ascribe burdens to those who were excusably ignorant of the harms of their emissions if those who emitted benefited sufficiently from the emissions. The rough thought here is that while someone might reasonably complain that it is unfair to penalise them for non-culpably contributing to harm, their case is considerably weakened if it is also the case that the harmful activity also created benefits for them. If they have benefited then making them pay would not be so onerous and might even leave them no worse off than if they had they not emitted. (For discussion of the “excusable ignorance” objection and responses to it see Gosseries [2004: 39–41].)

A second challenge draws attention to the fact that many emitters are no longer alive. Why, the objection goes, should those alive now foot the bill for the acts of previous generations? Again responses have been forthcoming. Some may adopt a collectivist approach and hold that the relevant agents are collective bodies like states, and so they hold that since country X emitted in the past country X should pay now. Some, by contrast, respond by appealing again to the idea of benefiting. They hold that individuals alive today (and in the future) enjoy benefits that result from previous emissions-generating activities and so have a duty to pay at least some of the costs incurred in their production. (For discussion see Neumayer [2000: 189], Shue [2014: 186] and Gosseries [2004: 41–55].)

There is a third challenge. What if persons need to engage in activities which emit greenhouse gases in order to enjoy a decent minimum standard of living? Many hold that it is unfair to make extremely poor people pay the cost of emitting greenhouse gases where doing so would push them beneath a decent standard of living. More generally, one might argue that if people are entitled to a certain standard of living (which need not be specified according to sufficientarian criteria, but could also be specified according to egalitarian or prioritarian or some other criteria) then it would be wrong to make them pay if doing so entails that they cannot enjoy that standard of living.

It is worth noting here that if one does think that the existing global poor should not be required to bear the costs of their emissions then this might also be relevant for one’s assessment of rich countries’ past emissions. For if developing countries now should not be financially penalised for the emissions that they incur when seeking to develop then should not the same be said of the emissions incurred by (now affluent) countries when they were also poor?

In light of these kinds of challenges many hold that the Polluter Pays Principle should be supplemented by other principles. As we have seen in the previous subsection some appeal to what has been termed the Beneficiary Pays Principle. This holds that agents should pay because, and to the extent that, they have benefited from the activities that involve the emission of greenhouse gases (Page 2012).

This approach faces a number of questions. One concerns which emissions come under its remit. Does it just cover cases that the Polluter Pays Principle cannot deal with (e.g., the emissions of the previous generations) (Duus-Otterström 2014)? Or does it have wider applicability?

Second, one might query whether benefiting is always sufficient to render someone liable to pay. Someone may, for example, benefit from emissions and yet remain very poor. If one thinks that the Polluter Pays Principle should not be applied in cases where it would push someone beneath a decent standard of living then one might, for the same reason, think that the Beneficiary Pays Principle is similarly constrained.

Note that if this reasoning is correct it supports the Integrationist approach outlined in Section 1 , for it suggests that when answering who should pay one should not bracket out more general considerations such as what rights, if any, persons have to enjoy a certain standard of living (such as an “equal standard of living” or a “minimum standard of living”).

This takes us to a third proposed principle. Some have argued that any burdens incurred by mitigation and adaptation should be distributed according to agents’ ability to pay. This principle is widely interpreted to mean that the greater an agent’s ability to pay the greater the proportion of the cost that they should be expected to pay (Shue 2014: 186–189; Moellendorf 2014: esp. 173–180).

One criticism of this principle is that it wholly divorces the question of who pays from questions about who caused the problem or who benefited from causing the problem. In addition to this, some argue that it relies on controversial moral assumptions, namely that the wealthy have a positive duty of assistance (Duus-Otterström 2014: 451–452).

Where one stands on the Ability to Pay Principle is likely to depend on one’s overall account of (global) distributive justice. For example, those who think that global justice requires a more equal world will, other things being equal, endorse a proposal that the costs should be borne primarily by the most advantaged and not by the world’s poorest.

(For further discussion of these three principles and the above objections to them, see Caney 2005, 2010a.)

Although much of the literature has focused on who should pay, there is another set of questions concerning responsibilities. To approach it, it is useful to distinguish between first-order and second-order responsibilities, where a first-order responsibility in this context is a responsibility either (a) to mitigate climate change or facilitate adaptation or (b) to bear the costs of mitigation or adaptation or both. A second-order responsibility, in this context, is a responsibility to take action that ensures that others comply with their first-order (climate) responsibilities. (The distinction between first- and second-order responsibilities is made by Onora O’Neill [2005: 428 & 433–436] and is applied to the case of climate change by Caney [2014a: 134–147].) Second-order responsibilities are responsibilities to change the social, economic and political environment so that agents comply with their first-order responsibilities. They can include, for example, disincentivising carbon-intensive options (through, say, carbon taxes or quotas or mandatory regulations) thereby inducing agents to comply with a first-order responsibility to mitigate. Or they can involve incentivising others to discharge their mitigation responsibilities by, for example, subsidising clean sources of energy or by designing the urban environment so that people are more likely to walk or cycle or use public transport rather than drive.

A similar idea is advanced by Elizabeth Cripps who refers to what she terms “promotional duties” (2013: 116 & chapter 6 [esp. 140–150]). These are “[d]uties to attempt to bring about the necessary collective action” (2013: 116). What actions might these involve? Cripps considers the promotional duties of individuals and suggests that these involve campaigning, running for election, signing petitions, sending letters to politicians, giving money to environmental organisations, and going on marches (2013: 143). Walter Sinnott-Armstrong also suggests that citizens have a duty to campaign for their governments to implement climate legislation (2010: 344). One might also add to this list of second-order responsibilities, duties to engage in civil disobedience and resistance against laws that result in unjustified emissions or inadequate levels of adaptation.

Two further points are worth noting. First, much of the focus has been on what we might term “positive” second-order responsibilities. They are “positive” because they require agents to take action. Given the arguments above, however, we also have good reason to think that there are “negative” second-order responsibilities as well. Whereas a positive second-order duty is a duty to take steps to ensure that others comply with their first-order responsibilities, a negative second-order duty would be a duty not to thwart or undermine initiatives to tackle climate change. This is relevant given the argument that some organisations—most notably fossil fuel companies and electric utilities companies, as well as some labour organisations—have gone to considerable lengths to undermine attempts to combat climate change (Mildenberger 2020; Oreskes & Conway 2010: chapter 6; Stokes 2020).

Second, the focus of many of those philosophers mentioned above has been on political institutions. While institutions are necessary they are likely to be insufficient. To arrive at a systematic and comprehensive account of agents’ second-order responsibilities it is worth starting with a political, social and economic analysis of why agents are not discharging responsibilities to mitigate and adapt. If we start with this we can then work back from it and identify what needs to be done by whom to bring about the necessary change. This is highly likely to involve changing ideologies (for example, those that foster fossil-fuel-driven growth), cultural practices, and social norms, as well as institutions.

We can turn now to the fourth question. What kind of agent is the duty-bearer?

It is helpful here to focus on responsibilities to mitigate since there has been considerable debate among philosophers as to whether individuals have responsibilities to limit their own personal emissions or not. Some, like Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, are sceptical of the proposition that individuals have duties to limit their own emissions. He considers a large number of separate commonsense moral principles and argues that none of these can be marshalled to show that individuals have a duty to limit their own emissions. One central theme in his argument is that individuals’ personal emissions make no difference (Sinnott-Armstrong 2010).

Two kinds of response have been made to these kinds of arguments. The first disputes the claim that individuals make no difference. Avram Hiller argues that

it is prima facie wrong to perform an act which has an expected amount of harm greater than another easily available alternative (Hiller 2011: 352)

and argues that individual emissions, while small, violate this principle. Similarly, Broome argues that individuals’ emissions create “expected harm” and they have a duty not to do so (Broome 2019). John Nolt argues in the same vein, and calculates the impact of a North Americans’ emissions over their lifetime (Nolt 2011).

A second response would be to appeal to a different kind of principle. For example, one might argue that we have a duty not to participate in collective processes which generate unjust outcomes. To do so would be stand in the wrong kind of relationship to such collective processes. Such a reply might seek to build on the work on “complicity” by Christopher Kutz (2000). In addition to a negative duty not to participate in such destructive processes one might also argue, as Tracy Isaacs has done, for a duty of individuals in “collective contexts” to form associations and create social forces for change (Isaacs 2011: chapter 5 esp. 144–155).

One further comment is in order. As noted above, while Sinnott-Armstrong believes that individuals do not have a moral responsibility to limit their emissions he does believe that individuals have political responsibilities to vote and to pressurise their representatives to pass climate legislation. As Hiller notes, this position may be unstable. The reasons Sinnott-Armstrong gives as to why individuals do not have mitigation responsibilities (their actions are inconsequential) would, if correct , also seem to establish that they do not have political responsibilities either. For one person’s vote is also almost certainly inconsequential (Hiller 2011: 364–365).

To sum up, then, if we consider who has what responsibilities to address climate change, it is helpful to distinguish between four questions. First, who should engage in mitigation and adaptation? Second, who should bear any cost involved in mitigation and adaptation? Third, who has the responsibility to ensure that the relevant duty bearers for questions 1 and 2 discharge their responsibilities? Finally, for each of the above we need to know “what kind of agent is being ascribed duties?”

6. Justice and the Greenhouse Gas Budget

One critical responsibility is to limit the emission of greenhouse gases. Many hold that, at the moment, some greenhouse gases can nonetheless be permissibly emitted. There is, then, a question about how the use of the remaining “greenhouse gas budget” can be distributed and among whom. As we have seen the size of the budget depends in part on what temperature target is selected and how risk averse we think we should be. To illustrate: the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC reported that if we want to have a probability of at least 67% of avoiding a more than 1.5°C increase in global mean temperatures then there is a budget of approximately 420 GtCO 2 (Rogelj, Shindell, & Jiang 2019: 108). (If we operate with a less ambitious target then the budget is quite different. See table 2.2 in Rogelj, Shindell, & Jiang [2019: 108].)

One key question then is, “How should this budget be shared?” What principles of distributive justice should be applied to this “good”?

One approach put forward by Henry Shue argues that rights to emit greenhouse gases should be distributed so as to meet peoples’ “subsistence” needs, and that such emissions should take priority over “luxury” emissions (Shue 2014: chapter 2). The focus on meeting basic needs here seems hard to dispute. Many philosophers and environmental campaigners have, however, argued that equality should be the guiding principle—and not subsistence (or not merely subsistence).

Many, that is, have endorsed what we might call the “equal per capita ” view. This holds that rights to emit greenhouse gases should be distributed equally. An important and influential statement of this position was affirmed by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain in Global Warming in an Unequal World (1991). They start from the premise that the atmosphere is part of the “global commons” (see also Shiva 2016). They infer from this that it should be divided equally among all human beings. As they put it:

The question is how should this global common—the global carbon dioxide and methane sinks—be shared amongst the people of the world? … [I]n a world that aspires to such lofty ideals like global justice, equity and sustainability, this vital global common should be shared equally on a per capita basis. (Agarwal & Narain 1991: 9)

Similar positions have been taken by Dale Jamieson (2010: 272–273), and Steve Vanderheiden (2008: 107–109 & chapter 7 [esp. 226–227]). Peter Singer (2002: 43–44) has also argued for it for partly moral and partly pragmatic reasons.

Before noting objections, it is worth observing that that the “equal per capita view” encompasses a family of views and that one might distinguish between many different versions of this view. For example, one version holds that countries should be ascribed rights to emit greenhouse gases and that the size of their quota should vary in line with the number of people in their society (Agarwal & Narain 1991: 9–10). However, one might interpret it in a more individualistic way, and ascribe equal rights to emit to each individual.

In addition to this, there are different ways of treating past (and current) emissions. Some, for example, hold that countries have emission rights and that a country’s past emissions should be debited from its quota (Neumayer 2000: esp. 186). Others suggest disregarding past emissions and favour applying the equal per capita emissions approach to the remaining budget (Singer 2002: 43–44; Vanderheiden 2008: 229–230). Still others argue that we should phase in the equal per capita view gradually over time, and hence high emitters now will have more-than-equal emission rights at the start of the transition period, with their share decreasing until it reaches equality (A. Meyer 2000).

A number of different objections might be levelled against the equal per capita view (in all versions). First, some query why it is appropriate to treat this good in isolation. The equal per capita view is a paradigm case of an isolationist position. However, theories of distributive justice tend to focus on the fair distribution of a total package of goods (Bell 2008: esp. 250; Caney 2012: 265–271; Miller 2008: 142–143). Of course, sometimes, in special cases, we do treat goods (e.g., rights to vote) in isolation, but it is not at all clear why that reasoning should apply to this case and it is arguable that in these other cases they are grounded in a more general integrationist theory.

Second, it is worth asking why we should care about emissions at all. In themselves they do not matter to the people who generate them or who enjoy the goods and services whose production involves greenhouse gas emissions. They matter because they are a by-product of activities that people engage in to serve important human interests. More specifically they largely arise because of energy use (for building, heating, cooling, transporting, manufacturing, lighting and so on) and because of agriculture and land use change. Given this it makes sense to focus on protecting and promoting these interests (bearing in mind, of course, limits to emissions) not the distribution of emissions in themselves . Suppose, for example, that we compare two people, and let us suppose that both enjoy whatever one takes to be the fair distribution of goods overall. Suppose, for simplicity’s sake, that that is an equal standard of living. Suppose, however, that one meets her interests through fossil fuels and the other through solar energy, it is hard to see why that is necessarily unfair to the second person. True they emit less. But that is irrelevant given that they enjoy what is, ex hypothesi , the fair standard of living (Hayward 2007: 432–433 & 440–444; Caney 2012: 285–291). In short: to care about emissions is not to care about what really matters from the point of view of justice.

It is worth noting that this objection tells not only against the equal per capita view. It has force against all theories of distributive justice that treat the right to emit as a distribuendum . It would, for example, be an objection to the “subsistence emissions” approach originally pioneered by Shue (Hayward 2007).

There is a third problem with treating emissions as an appropriate distribuendum . The problem is that a dilemma arises when we consider our responsibilities to future generations. There seem to be several options. Option 1 would be to deny that there are duties of justice to future generations to ensure that they too have rights to emit greenhouse gases. Perhaps someone might hold that there are no duties of justice at all to them (1a). Or they might hold that there are but that they do not include leaving them rights to emit (1b). (1a) seems implausible in light of the points made in Section 3 ; and (1b) adopts a discriminatory attitude to future people that stands in need of moral justification.

A second option is to think that future people have rights and hence that, on the view under consideration, they too have an equal right to emit greenhouse gases. If, however, one thinks that all current and future persons are entitled to equal per capita emissions then we face two severe problems. (i) It will be exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to calculate how much everyone is entitled to. Furthermore, (ii), given the number of future and present people included the equal per capita share would surely be close to zero.

In light of these problems a better way forward would be not to focus on emissions per se , but rather to focus on meeting people’s interests in food and energy and so on, and to draw on other safe sources to meet these needs. What is imperative is to transition away from a carbon-based economy towards one not dependent on fossil fuels. Only in this way we can avoid the dilemma set out above.

7. Justice and Climate Policies

A further set of normative questions arises when we turn to consider what policies might be adopted to mitigate (and adapt to) climate change. Many policies that have been recommended or adopted themselves raise questions of justice. We can see this by considering three policy areas.

The first concerns other energy sources. In practice these can raise questions of justice. For example, the construction of hydroelectric plants can lead to the displacement of peoples from their homes and indigenous peoples from their traditional homelands. The use of biofuels can lead to increased food prices as crops are devoted to producing fuel. The use of nuclear energy can lead to health risks. The salient point here is that mitigation (and adaptation) policies may raise ethical questions.

How should one address these? One suggestion would be that we should draw on the same principles and values that one employs to evaluate climate impacts. So, if, for example, one thinks that climate change is unjust in part because it undermines the. enjoyment of individual human rights then it would seem to follow that one should seek to implement mitigation (and adaptation) policies that honour these individual human rights. And, if one thinks climate change is unjust, in part, because it undermines the cultural rights of indigenous peoples then, again, it would seem to follow one should seek to implement mitigation (and adaptation) policies that honour these. One’s answer to the challenges posed by the harmful side-effects of some mitigation policies would then be part of one’s overall theory.

Some philosophers have argued that a commitment to preventing dangerous climate change requires adopting policies designed to limit or reduce world population size (Cafaro 2012; Cripps 2015). Their argument is that population growth is one of the main factors contributing to climate change. Other things being equal, more people result in more emissions, so, given the direness of the situation policies need to be implemented which will sufficiently lower world population size. Some—like Sarah Conly—argue, on this basis, each couple has a right to no more than one child (Conly 2016).

Assessing such arguments requires a combination of empirical, normative and political analysis. A first step would be to consider all the determinants of climatic harms and to have a quantitative analysis of their effects and the extent to which their ecological footprint could be reduced. Such an analysis would include not simply the number of people, but also (1) the levels of consumption, (2) the extent of waste, (3) the nature of the energy system (does it use renewables or not?), (4) the distribution of access to clean technology, (5) the extent to which energy efficiency programmes are in place, (6) the extent to which fossil fuels are being subsidised, (7) the nature of the public transport system, (8) the urban infrastructure and the spatial organisation of cities, (9) building design, (10) the extent to which deforestation is reversed, and programmes of afforestation and reforestation are pursued, and so on (Caney 2020). To make a case for a Conly-style conclusion one would then have to show that either:

  • the above are insufficient, or
  • the above are (singly or in combination) sufficient but constitute a less desirable kind of response than limiting procreative choice, or, perhaps
  • the above may be sufficient and more desirable than Conly’s response but they are less politically feasible.

Another challenge facing Conly’s conclusion is that it needs to show that the optimal response turns out to be 1 child per couple and that the same constraint applies equally to all irrespective of the size of their ecological footprint.

Ethical concerns about attempts to limit world population have long been expressed. For example, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva argued in Ecofeminism (1993 [2014]) that programmes to limit world population reinforce control of women’s bodies. Furthermore, they object to proposals to curb world population growth that do not call into question the high consumption lifestyles of affluent countries, and instead convey the morally misleading message that responsibility for the environmental crisis lies with low-emitting developing countries (Mies & Vandana 1993 [2014: chapter 19]).

One additional climate policy needs also be mentioned, namely “geoengineering” the climate system, either by extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (Carbon Dioxide Removal) or by seeking to block the sun’s rays (Solar Radiation Management). These raise a host of ethical issues.

One concern is that some forms of geoengineering can have harmful side-effects, ones that can harm already vulnerable people (a point which takes us back to Section 7.1 ). For example, some forms of solar radiation management may affect the monsoon season in India (Jamieson 2014: 220).

A second challenge is that while they may constitute a response to climate change in some sense, some geoengineering policies (like Solar Radiation Management), do not tackle other greenhouse-gas related problems like ocean acidification, whereas mitigation policies would (Jamieson 2014: 220).

A related concern is that geoengineering policies are unnecessary because other less risky policies (like mitigation) should be adopted.

A fourth problem concerns the political legitimacy of decisions to go ahead with geoengineering. Geoengineering policies can have wide-ranging impacts on many countries and so it would be problematic for some to engage in it unilaterally (Jamieson 2014: 222–224). If they are to be legitimate such world-shaping policies would stand in need of an inclusive decision-making process that is global in scope.

(For rich discussions of the ethical issues surrounding geoengineering see further Gardiner [2010; 2011: chapter 10], Jamieson [2014: 219–227] and, from a Confucian perspective, Wong [2015].)

The preceding sections have discussed different questions of justice that arise when considering how to respond to climate change, and they have explored different answers that can be given. One persistent feature of global and domestic climate policies is that there has been a high level of noncompliance with principles of climate justice. Given this, it is appropriate to ask: “What principles of justice should apply in the context of noncompliance?”

Different responses have been given. To locate them it may be helpful to set out the possibilities (Caney 2016).

  • One response might be “duty-reallocation”. That is, one might propose a solution in which some bear some of the responsibilities that should, ideally, be borne by others.
  • A second response might be to relax the moral constraints on mitigation policies, the aim being to make it more likely that non-complying agents will discharge their duties to mitigate.
  • A third (related) response might be to adopt other extreme responses that one might think are normally unacceptable but permissible in an emergency.
  • A fourth response might be to take a more proactive stance and seek to tackle the underlying structures which lead to noncompliance (for example, by designing institutions which reduce such noncompliance and undermining organisations which are thwarting successful climate action).
  • A fifth response might be “target modification”. That is, one might lower one’s ambition, so whereas one might think that justice ideally requires a 1.5°C target one might accept a less ambitious target.

A number of philosophers have argued for a type (1)-like response . One version maintains that some (the advantaged) should take on more than their fair share of responsibilities. A second version is defended by Broome. He argues that current generations ought to reduce their emissions to tackle climate change and that they ought to absorb the costs of doing so. However, he also thinks that implementing an effective climate treaty is of paramount significance and that parties will not agree to one if they have to pay. In light of this he suggests that they should mitigate but pass on the costs to future generations (Broome 2012: 47–48). Broome thinks this involves an unjust distribution of costs but that it is nonetheless, all things considered, justified because it helps prevent dangerous climate change. Broome’s solution involves some (current people) making others (future people) bear an unjust burden. A third related position is defended by Eric Posner and David Weisbach (2010). They argue that a climate treaty is imperative but will not be feasible unless it leaves signatories to the climate treaty no worse off. They assume that the benefits from such a treaty will be such that there is a “surplus” and so no one need be worse off. However, if this assumption does not hold then their commitment to leaving high emitters no worse off might also entail that others bear an unjust burden (making it a type (1) response ). As they recognise, even if there is a surplus some powerful states may agree to a treaty only if they receive such extensive compensation that it leaves others with more than their fair share of responsibilities or burdens (Posner and Weisbach 2010: 181).

Consider now (2) : some might think that normally one should not convert a place of great natural beauty into giant fields of solar panels, but they might also think that, in dire circumstances, this prohibition can be overturned. If we now consider (3) : many would see geoengineering as a version of this kind of response. And if we turn to (4) : This is a corollary of some of the views discussed in Section 5.3 , which generally held that agents have political responsibilities to create just and effective institutions and responsibilities to combat ongoing campaigns to thwart effective climate action.

What response (or combination of responses) one thinks to be the least bad here will depend on one’s overall theory of justice. Sufficientarians, for example, may think that the affluent—those above the specified sufficiency threshold—should take on more than their fair share of burdens, but will reject the idea that any of the world’s poorest should be required to adopt response (1) (unless perhaps it is absolutely necessary for very large numbers of future people to enjoy what they are entitled to).

It is time to conclude. This entry has provided an overview of eight questions of justice that arise in the context of climate change. It is salutary to end by noting two points

First, it is worth noting that the focus has been on climate justice and that justice is not the only relevant value. When confronting the challenges of climate change (and the Anthropocene more generally) justice clearly plays a large role, but many would argue for the relevance of other kinds of moral consideration, including a recognition of the intrinsic value of the natural world. Climate ethics, one might say, includes more than justice.

Second, it is also worth noting that taking climate justice seriously may have major implications for existing economic institutions and ideologies (such as the valorisation of economic growth), as well as for political institutions (Gardiner 2011; Jamieson 2014). Some critics of the status quo believe that capitalism cannot cope with climate change. Some doubt the ability of our contemporary institutional architecture to address the current challenges facing humanity. Evaluating such claims clearly requires extensive empirical analysis. Only with the help of climate science, history, politics, economics, anthropology, political economy, sociology, science and technology studies, and law can we begin to address such claims. But philosophical analysis has its part to play and without an understanding of climate justice we lack a compass to guide us.

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How to cite this entry . Preview the PDF version of this entry at the Friends of the SEP Society . Look up topics and thinkers related to this entry at the Internet Philosophy Ontology Project (InPhO). Enhanced bibliography for this entry at PhilPapers , with links to its database.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ; see in particular the IPCC reports
  • The Paris Agreement (2015)

capability approach | climate science | egalitarianism | ethics: environmental | justice | justice: distributive | justice: global | justice: intergenerational | justice: international distributive | nonidentity problem | Ramsey, Frank: and intergenerational welfare economics | rights: human

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New to climate change?

Climate justice.

Some countries and populations have benefited more than others from the industries and technologies that are causing climate change. And at the same time, the countries that have benefited the least are more likely to be suffering first and worst because of climate change.

Climate justice is the principle that the benefits reaped from activities that cause climate change and the burdens of climate change impacts should be distributed fairly. Climate justice means that countries that became wealthy through unrestricted climate pollution have the greatest responsibility to not only stop warming the planet, but also to help other countries adapt to climate change and develop economically with nonpolluting technologies.

Climate justice also calls for fairness in environmental decision-making. The principle supports centering populations that are least responsible for, and most vulnerable to, the climate crisis as decision makers in global and regional plans to address the crisis. It also means acknowledging that climate change threatens basic human rights principles, which hold that all people are born with equal dignity and rights, including to food , water , and other resources needed to support health. Calling for climate justice, rather than climate action, has implications for policymaking, diplomacy, academic study and activism, by bringing attention to how different responses to climate change distribute harms and benefits, and who gets a role in forming those responses.

The unequal causes and effects of climate change

Wealthy, industrialized nations have released most of the greenhouse gas pollution to date — meaning they’ve played an outsized role in causing climate change. 4 Climate justice calls for these countries, along with multinational corporations that have become wealthy through polluting industries, to pay their “climate debt” to the rest of the world. In this view, stopping their greenhouse gas emissions, while hugely important, is not enough to fully pay the debt from over a century of pollution; these actors also have a responsibility to share wealth, technology, and other benefits of industrialization with the countries least responsible for the climate crisis, to help them cope with the effects of climate change and build clean energy systems and industries.

A climate justice perspective also brings attention to inequalities within countries. Within high and low income countries, wealthier people are more likely to enjoy energy-intensive homes, private cars, leisure travel, and other comforts that both exacerbate climate change and buffer them from impacts like extreme heat . Climate change also worsens pre-existing social inequalities stemming from structural racism, socioeconomic marginalization, and other forms of social exclusion. In the U.S., for example, communities of color and immigrant communities are more likely to be located in places where climate risks are more severe, such as in flood zones or urban heat islands . 5

The unequal impacts of taking action on climate change

Reducing climate pollution greatly benefits everyone. Yet the way we achieve these reductions could either improve or worsen current patterns of inequity for marginalized groups. For example, a carbon tax that makes it expensive to emit greenhouse gases is a part of many climate proposals; climate justice would additionally demand that these taxes be structured in a way that protects low-income people who are already struggling to pay for gasoline, home heating and cooling , and other basic energy needs. 6  

Additionally, the principle of a “just transition” considers the economic and labor impacts of a transition to a nonpolluting economy. This incorporates the needs of workers employed in—and the communities supported by—the fossil fuel industry and other industries that contribute to climate change. 7 For example, the U.S. federal government offers over $180 billion in funding to assist coal field and power plant communities in economic diversification, infrastructure and workforce development as the coal industry declines. 8

Climate justice as a movement

Calls for climate justice grew out of a larger “environmental justice” movement, which is concerned with the ways pollution, land degradation, and other environmental problems harm already vulnerable people and communities who have contributed the least to, but suffer the most from, environmental problems. Global South nations, Black, Indigenous, and other people of the global majority and women—who have been historically excluded from decision making—have led the push for climate justice, arguing that climate change endangers their health and livelihoods. In recent years, younger people have also been leading the call for just climate action, observing that they will bear the heaviest burden from the climate change that past generations have contributed to, and demanding immediate action from those in positions of power.

Published March 14, 2022.

1  King, Andrew D., and Luke J. Harrington. “The Inequality of Climate Change From 1.5 to 2°C of Global Warming.” Geophysical Research Letters, vol. 45, no. 10, 28 May 2018, doi:10.1029/2018GL078430. 

2  Martin, Richard. “ Climate Change: Why the Tropical Poor Will Suffer Most. ” MIT Technology Review, 17 June 2015. 

3 Diffenbaugh, Noah S., and Marshall Burke. “ Global Warming Has Increased Global Economic Inequality .” PNAS, vol. 116, no. 20, 14 May 2019, doi:10.1073/pnas.1816020116.

4  Ritchie, Hannah. “ Who Has Contributed Most to Global CO2 Emissions? ” Our World in Data, 1 Oct. 2019. 

5  Gamble, J.L., et al. “ Ch. 9: Populations of Concern. ” The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment, U.S. Global Change Research Program, 4 Apr. 2016. 

6  Fremstad, Anders, and Mark Paul. “ The Impact of a Carbon Tax on Inequality .” Ecological Economics, vol. 163, 29 May 2019, doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.04.016.

7  Smith, Samantha. Just Transition Centre, 2017, Just Transition: A Report for the OECD . 

8   Interagency Working Group on Coal & Power Plant Communities & Economic Revitalization , 25 Feb 2022.

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Climate Justice as Climate Reparations

Climate justice activists want countries of the Global North to make up for centuries of uneven industrialization, deforestation, extraction, and consumption.

Young protesters demanding climate reparations payment from rich countries to poor countries impacted by climate loss and damage, November 11, 2022

As global leaders gather at COP28, the UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai, there are growing calls for a reparative mechanism to compensate the world’s most vulnerable communities, the members of which are bearing the burden of anthropogenic climate change. Known by various names—“climate reparations,” “loss and damage,” or “climate justice”—these calls seek to redress the climate imbalance that threatens us all.

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As Jaron Browne and Tom Goldtooth explain , the wealthiest and most powerful nations have opposed the idea of formally legislating this responsibility in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, as it would require a firm commitment to the redistribution of resources from colonial and imperial states to colonized communities around the world. Audrey R. Chapman and A. Karim Ahmed make further make the case : These colonial and imperial states (geographically situated in the Global North) have benefited from historical and current carbon emissions for their development, taking up more than their fair share of the “atmospheric budget.” This logic is supported by the best available science, as last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explicitly acknowledged the inextricable link between anthropogenic climate change and colonial development . As COP28 progresses, is it possible to work towards climate justice through a politics of repair?

First and foremost, it’s difficult to compensate for harm when the harm is ongoing. The US is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s cumulative carbon emissions and is still the highest emitter per capita today. While the US seeks to address planetary consumption internally, it must not rely on “carbon leakage,” the dirty secret of the Global North’s carbon and natural resource consumption. As defined by Onno Kuik and Reyer Gerlagh , carbon leakage occurs when the Global North, seeking to reduce emissions within its own borders, relies on natural resources and production occurring in the Global South to satisfy an ever-in surmounting demand. To genuinely reduce planetary impact, the US must holistically decarbonize and reduce resource consumption—a concept sustainability scholar Sonja Klinsky aptly terms “ non-repetition reparations .”

Furthermore, material climate reparations in the form of monetary compensation, land and natural resource allocation, and debt cancellation would support the mitigation and adaptation efforts of vulnerable communities. As low-income communities develop, they need resources to transition to a decarbonized global economy. However, these policies must respect the sovereignty and agency of the communities they aim to support, free from imposed climate targets. Monetary compensation or debt cancellation shouldn’t have climate targets attached—there must be a trust-based approach to redistributing resources. In fact, as Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda, a theological ethicist, argues , if low-income communities decide to develop their own reservoirs of fossilized resources or to expand deforestation efforts, it will be their right to claim their fair share of the “carbon budget.” Developing states are emitting carbon now as they ramp up deforestation for agriculture and development, both critical pillars of industrialization that they shouldn’t be punished for or dissuaded from doing. This is where the internalization of climate responsibility , or the attribution of the effects of anthropogenic climate change, becomes crucial for Global North countries, as it must be their imperative to “make room” in the carbon budget for communities who haven’t had the opportunity to industrialize.

It’s difficult to determine a concrete dollar amount for the historical and current destruction caused by anthropogenic climate change. How does one monetarily value one’s ancestral home or the loss of community cohesion? But, as Daniel A. Farber notes in “ Basic Compensation for Victims of Climate Change ,” just because it’s impossible ever fully to pay for something priceless doesn’t mean one shouldn’t attempt to do so.

Yet, reparative efforts must go above and beyond pure material reparation. The evaluation of family, community, and nature in monetary terms for climate reparations purely “economizes” the anthropogenic climate crisis, which can obscure the need for a holistic approach to the redistribution of power. Moe-Lobeda emphasizes that Global North countries must consider their positionality and privilege within the crisis and allow vulnerable communities to create mechanisms of accountability for those with the responsibility of reparative justice.

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The call for climate reparations is a complex and contentious issue. It’s become a battleground, a concept weaponized and used to delay tangible action . It’s even become an opportunity for Global North nations to don the cloak of saviorism, promising solutions while ignoring their historical role in creating the crisis. But the weight behind the call is gaining momentum and importance as the global community grapples with the ongoing climate crisis. It calls for climate justice, equity, and responsibility, recognizing the historical and ongoing imbalances in carbon emissions and their impacts on vulnerable communities.

At the 2022 COP27 in Egypt, there was an agreement to establish a new, broad loss and damage fund, with a transitional committee arranged to draft a blueprint for funding arrangements over the course of the year. While the outlook for formalizing a loss and damage fund at COP28 seems promising, there’s skepticism as to how impactful the fund will be , if it’s even adopted. But there are expectations for review of the recommendations developed by the transitional committee , which include the amount the fund should hold, whether it should be housed within the World Bank, and determining where funding should be prioritized. This pivotal moment will determine the fund’s potential efficacy, from its structure and size to its operational framework.

All eyes will be on the deliberations at the COP28 Summit, awaiting the decisions that will shape the future of global climate justice action.

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  • Published: 26 July 2023

Assessing climate justice awareness among climate neutral-to-be cities

  • Nives Della Valle   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Giulia Ulpiani 1 &
  • Nadja Vetters 2  

Humanities and Social Sciences Communications volume  10 , Article number:  440 ( 2023 ) Cite this article

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  • Social policy

This paper sheds light on the importance of evaluating climate justice concerns when forging climate-neutral strategies at the city level. Climate justice can be a useful policy lever to develop measures that promote simultaneously greenhouse gas emissions reductions and their social justice dimension, thus reducing the risk of adverse impacts. As a result, evaluating policymakers’ awareness of (i) recognition (ii) distributive (iii) procedural, and (iv) intergenerational issues about the transition to climate neutrality might help identify where to intervene to ensure that decisions towards more sustainable urban futures are born justly and equitably. This study uses data from the European Mission on 100 Climate Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030 and a principal component analysis to build an index of climate justice awareness. It then identifies control factors behind different levels of climate justice awareness. The empirical analysis suggests that the more cities are engaged in climate efforts, the more they implement these efforts considering also the social justice dimension. It also reveals that the geographical location and the relationship with higher levels of governance contribute to shape the heterogeneity in a just-considerate climate action by virtue of different governance structures, historical legacies, and economic, cultural, and political characteristics. Overall, the analysis unveils that the availability of governmental support in capacity building and financial advisory services, and the breadth of the city’s legal powers across different fields of action are positively related to justice awareness. Conversely, the perception of favourable geo-climatic conditions is negatively correlated. These relationships can be read as assistance needs that cities perceive in their pathway to just climate neutrality and highlight where future efforts in research and policy-making should focus in the following years to pave the way to a just transition.

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Since before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established in 1992, climate change discussions have included justice concerns. However, it is only in recent years that the concept of climate justice has become prominent in climate academic and policy debates. We can now clearly understand climate justice as justice in relation to (i) the responsibility for climate change and its impacts, or (ii) the effects of responses to climate change (Newell et al., 2021 ). We can also link it to the ‘triple injustices’ of climate change (i.e., uneven distribution of impacts, uneven responsibility for climate change, and uneven costs associated with mitigation and adaptation (Roberts & Parks, 2015 ), wherein those who are the least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions are also those who are most vulnerable to their impacts and most disadvantaged by responses to climate change (Krause, 2021 ). In this study, we understand climate justice in relation to the effects of responses to climate change.

Despite the academic interest in climate justice has increasingly gained momentum, several scholars have debated on its operational value, as it might remain only normative and theoretical (Hughes & Hoffmann, 2020 ; Schlosberg & Collins, 2014 ). As an example, Brisley et al. ( 2012 ) emphasise that there are no specific metrics available to assess the inclusion of justice dimensions in climate policies. In this study, we aim to uncover the operational value of climate justice by evaluating justice concerns in climate decision-making processes. In particular, we build on the proposal advanced by Sovacool et al. ( 2017 ) that justice frameworks can serve as decision-making tools that can assist planners in making policy choices capable to address both the climate change and the social justice goals. In this case, planners and regulators are “justice aware”. However, assessing justice concerns is a challenging task, as there might be heterogeneity in how these are conceived and addressed, depending on the context and the governance level (Chu & Cannon, 2021 ). Indeed, embedded in the very definition of climate justice are the pillars of territorial cohesion and multi-level governance, with national, regional, and local actors all called upon.

In this study, we focus on the local, notably urban, level. Cities are locations where developing measures against climate change is highly urgent (Nevens & Roorda, 2014 ) and where opportunities for co-creation with the civil society are abundant. In particular, urban areas in the developed world account for more than 70% of energy-related global greenhouse gases from the supply side (Bellucci et al., 2012 ), and the share would be even higher in terms of consumption (Hoornweg et al., 2011 ). Additionally, the majority of the global population lives in cities (United Nations, 2019 ). At the same time, there is an increasing consensus on the key role that cities can play as agents of change in addressing global climate change (van der Heijden et al., 2019 ). During the late 2000s, cities began to emerge as alternative hubs for political leadership, technological advancement, and financial support in advancing climate action (Bulkeley, 2010 ). They are exposed to activities, processes, or patterns, which make them the perfect loci to implement mitigation and adaptation efforts (Diana Reckien et al., 2015 ). In fact, cities can be seen as “natural” sites for innovative and experimental climate action in a progressive direction (Evans et al., 2016 ). Municipalities themselves recognised their key role in global climate mitigation and adaption, and committed to take concrete steps to combat the climate crisis, as announced by over 100 cities at the end of the UN’s Climate Action Summit in 2019 (Salvia et al., 2021 ). Further, a number of city-dedicated initiatives to deliver on the European Green Deal have been promoted to catalyse a capillary reaction to climate change at the sub-national level, including the Covenant of Mayors—that gathers 10,000+ signatories committed to climate change mitigation and adaptation—and the European Mission on 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities (hereinafter, the Cities Mission), through which cities will pursue climate neutrality by 2030 and will thereby design and implement ambitious climate mitigation plans while elaborating on the green, digital, and just attributes of the transition.

Although these ambitious cities are ideal contexts where both environmental and social justice goals can be achieved, due to the relatively short distance between municipalities and citizens, compared to other governance levels (Evans, 2011 ), they can be hot spots of injustices, which manifest in multiple ways, including displacement, destructive redevelopments or uneven investments that may exacerbate inequalities (Phillips et al., 2022 ). That is why, to express their full potential as agents of change in addressing global climate change (Bouzarovski & Haarstad, 2019 ), cities need to be able to recognise the link between the planned climate efforts and their multiple implications to avoid generating or exacerbating forms of injustice (Hughes & Hoffmann, 2020 ). In short, cities need to be justice-aware when developing climate action and the degree of awareness should become an indicator and a lever to guide and course-correct climate policy so that truly resilient and future-proof urban decisions can be taken.

This study aims to uncover the operational value of climate justice by providing a quantitative, ex-ante assessment of climate justice considerations in urban climate action planning. The proposed methodology overcomes the uncertainties in terms of robustness, comparability, and interpretability of results that come with the conceptual approaches and/or limited city samples that characterise the existing literature on the topic. Instead of qualitatively analysing a set of climate plans, we leverage the newly collected Cities Mission dataset as an unprecedented portray of where hundreds of European cities stand in terms of climate mitigation against the background of a common and well-defined framework and climate ambition. The dataset connects scientific and technological aspects to policy-making, risk anticipation and cross-sectoral integration to social equity, as co-ingredients of a robust and just climate neutrality strategy, across multiple dimensions and highly diverse urban contexts. Relying on data that are elicited through a homogenous procedure (i.e., survey), descriptive of a significant sample of respondents, and related to a well-defined climate action programme, enables us to develop a scientifically sturdy European index of climate justice awareness. The index and its analysis are instrumental not just to compare cities and determine a Europe-wide baseline, but also to identify predictors and to delineate the opportunity space for enhanced justice awareness.

Indeed, even among the most ambitious cities in climate mitigation and adaptation, there might be considerable heterogeneity in climate action, due to city-specific factors (Diana Reckien et al., 2015 ). As an example, when cities are prosperous (high GDP per capita) and populous, or when they have the financial capacity and the know-how to implement climate action, they may engage more in climate action (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2015 ; Diana Reckien et al., 2015 ). In contrast, when they are constrained in their powers and boundaries, due to, e.g., regulatory limitations, cities may not express their full potential in exerting climate efforts (van der Heijden et al., 2019 ). At the same time, city-specific factors might limit climate justice considerations. For instance, when cities are limited in an operational capacity, they might concentrate their efforts towards “profitable” climate initiatives for which quantifiable emissions reductions can be demonstrated and investors can be lured, at the expenses of more socially attentive initiatives whose benefits are less conventionally tangible (Castán Broto & Westman, 2020 ).

In this study, we investigate these potential mechanisms and empirically address how climate engagement, as measured by a combination of metrics of engagement, preparedness, and ambition in climate action, is related to climate justice awareness in policy-making across the procedural, distributive, recognition, and intergenerational pillars, and which city-specific factors (such as climate, population, GDP) may serve as predictors of climate justice considerations. To this aim, through principal component analysis (PCA), we create an index for climate action that reflects cities’ efforts in climate mitigation and adaptation strategies and initiatives, as well as their GHG emissions reduction targets. The index is then used as an explanatory variable for a second index aimed at quantifying the level of climate justice awareness that equally accounts for the consideration of the four justice pillars. Finally, by adopting a regression approach, we study the relationship between climate justice awareness and climate engagement, including a set of control variables to account for local specificities and influential factors that could contribute to the different manifestations of just climate action across European cities.

Theoretical framework

Cities are ideal contexts where both environmental and social justice goals can be achieved, due to the relatively short distance between municipalities and citizens, compared to other governance levels (Evans, 2011 ). Despite this potential, there is evidence that, so far, city climate plans have commonly failed in embedding social justice, resulting in an increased social divide and in disproportionate vulnerabilities to weather extremes, air pollution, and social marginalisation (Reckien et al., 2023 ; Wachsmuth et al., 2016 ). There is a general lack of accountability for the various adverse impacts that may be triggered by climate action, notably (i) beyond wealthy districts, (ii) at the periurban or rural fringes, and (iii) at the metropolitan/regional level (e.g., in functional urban areas). This suggests not only that the climate action at the city level needs to be attentive to more global processes to avoid a mere displacement of injustices and unsustainable practices (Angelo & Wachsmuth, 2015 , 2020 ), but also that cities should adopt a more holistic approach than that based only on technical perspectives (Chu & Cannon, 2021 ).

Against this backdrop, a body of academic work has emerged to criticise technocratic approaches, which often prioritise regulatory, financial, and engineered interventions, while neglecting the social, cultural, and economic inequities (Meerow & Newell, 2019 ; Shi et al., 2016 ). These critiques are particularly relevant within urban environments that are already marked by high levels of inequality, characterised by contentious issues like the marginalisation of the vulnerable (Chu & Cannon, 2021 ). In this regard, scholars have observed that public policies and plans have played a key role in reinforcing systemic injustices, both directly and indirectly (Brand and Miller, 2020 ). As an example, some cities that initiated measures to promote adaptation started safeguarding economically significant land from anticipated risks, implementing exclusionary zoning and land use policies to preserve property values, and prioritising the enhancement of infrastructure and public services in affluent neighbourhoods (Long & Rice, 2019 ). Consequently, scholars began to raise concerns about how these plans were contributing to displacement, perpetuating poverty, and, in certain instances, exacerbating vulnerability to climate effects in historically marginalised communities (Anguelovski et al., 2016 ).

A stream of research has thus emerged, to address these critiques by looking at operationalising justice frameworks to enable climate action policy choices to address both the climate change and the social justice goals (Sovacool et al., 2017 ). This stream of literature posits that when planners and regulators take into account justice dimensions from the very start of the decision-making process, then also the implementation of strategies and plans is more likely to be able to address both the climate change and the social justice goals (Juhola et al., 2022 ). Practically, this calls for a need to evaluate the degree of justice awareness in climate action planning.

Despite the conceptual advancement in climate justice, however, there continues to be limited empirical evidence on how justice dimensions are actually integrated into urban climate planning. The few exceptions, like the studies by Chu and Cannon ( 2021 ) and Juhola et al. ( 2022 ), assess the inclusion of justice dimensions in climate action plans of a limited sample of cities by deriving interpretative justice indicators. However, this methodology and the availability of limited city samples can make it hard to extract comparable results for large regions, like those that characterise Europe, and to derive quantitative relationships to inform decision-making.

This study enriches this stream of research aiming to uncover the operational value of climate justice by evaluating how justice concerns are taken on board in urban climate action planning. To this aim, we refer to the framework of climate justice, which is based on environmental justice (Schlosberg & Collins, 2014 ). Over time, the framework of environmental justice has undergone a gradual transformation, leading to the recognition that an inequitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits is not inherently predetermined, but rather has underlying causes. Consequently, four dimensions crucial to achieving justice in the context of mitigating and adapting to climate change have been commonly identified and recognised as interconnected: recognitional, distributive, procedural, and intergenerational (Newell et al., 2021 ).

Recognitional justice manifests in understanding differences while guaranteeing equal rights for all (Newell et al., 2021 ). It translates into acknowledging the diverse needs of different societal groups in order to minimise social costs associated with climate action. This is because vulnerabilities to climate risks are situation-dependent (Fitzgibbons & Mitchell, 2019 ). Understanding the significance of underlying social structures is essential for identifying the factors that contribute to social injustices within societies, as these contribute to determine the way the most vulnerable will experience the impacts of climate change and climate action (Schlosberg, 2004 ). Therefore, including recognitional justice in climate action means not only to assess whether climate action recognises and addresses varying needs across different segments of society, but also whether it acknowledges the influence of societal structures on disadvantaged communities (Juhola et al., 2022 ).

Equity is often understood as coterminous with distributive justice. It refers to a state where resources, opportunities, and protection from climate hazards or risks are distributed in an equal and fair manner, regardless of the background or identity of individuals or groups (Chu & Cannon, 2021 ). Climate action itself might be associated with an unequal distribution costs and benefits, and this inequality might occur both locally and nationally (Colenbrander et al., 2018 ). As an example, developing a flood defence in one area may increase flood risk in downstream populations (Eriksen et al., 2021 ). This implies that addressing distributive justice in climate action translates not only in estimating the climate hazards and risks, but also how these are distributed across the different social groups (Fiack et al., 2021 ). Additionally, it translates in assessing which costs and benefits climate action will generate, and how these will be distributed across the social groups (Juhola et al., 2022 ).

Procedural justice refers to fair, accountable, and transparent processes that aim to engage all stakeholders in a non-discriminatory way (Sovacool & Dworkin, 2014 ). Notably, transparent, accountable, and inclusive decision-making processes and procedures become just when they incorporate a variety of voices, values, and perspectives (Mundaca et al., 2018 ). This implies that cities address procedural justice in climate action when they strive to make a variety of groups represented in as many different phases of planning process as possible, and take on board different ideas even when this implies substantial changes (Juhola et al., 2022 ).

Finally, climate change and climate action present a significant challenge to account for considerations of notions of intergenerational justice. If left unchecked, it would result in an unjust burden caused by climate change (or failed climate action) placed upon future generations by those in the present (Gonzalez-Ricoy & Rey, 2019 ). Intergenerational justice has renewed traction owing to the Fridays for Future movement, yet it dates back—at least—to the report Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987 ). This report conceived sustainable development as the ability of current generations to meet their needs without compromising that same ability of future generations (Newell et al., 2021 ). Therefore, urban climate action accounts for intergenerational justice concerns when future interests are explicitly represented and taken on board (Lawrence & Köhler, 2017 ).

Data and methods

Against this theoretical framework, this study focuses on a group of particularly ambitious cities in climate action; those that expressed interest in the Cities Mission. The Cities Mission aims to promote the transition to climate neutrality in 100+ cities by 2030. The definition of climate neutrality standing within the Cities Mission framework requires reaching (net) zero emissions across i) all highest emitting sectors (e.g., energy, transport, waste, industry, agriculture), ii) all emissions scopes (direct and indirect emissions within the city boundary and out-of-boundary emissions related to the disposal and treatment of waste/wastewater generated within the city boundary), and iii) seven greenhouse gases (CO 2 , CH 4 , N 2 O, HFCs, PFCs, SF 6 , and NF 3 ). In total, 112 cities were selected for this ambitious programme from the 362 that participated in the call for Expression of Interest (EOI) closed on 31 January 2022. The EOI took the form of an all-encompassing questionnaire of 374 questions designed to provide:

a systematic and complete assessment of the city’s starting point (preparedness) and demonstrated engagement in climate action (engagement);

an evaluation of the consistency, plausibility, and credibility of the commitment and capacity to reach climate neutrality by 2030 (ambition);

and a preliminary assessment of the familiarity with integrated approaches and holistic thinking in climate action through co-benefits analysis, barriers identification, and risk anticipation.

The EOI questionnaire and the data collection were entirely designed and managed by the European Commission. Cities were given a link to access the online questionnaire. The link could be shared by the city administration to anybody in the (best) position to answer the questions to ensure a compelling candidature.

The analysis is based on data from all the 362 cities that answered the EOI questionnaire and thus expressed the ambition to go emission-free in less than a decade (see Fig. 1 ). The sample includes cities from 35 countries encompassing all EU Member States with varied sizes, from large and medium cities (above 50,000 inhabitants, up to 15 million inhabitants) to smaller ones (down to around 10,000 inhabitants). The starting point in climate action is also significantly diverse across cities, with different baseline emissions, trends, and familiarity with dedicated policies and strategies (Ulpiani et al., 2023 ).

figure 1

The colour code in the map is used to distinguish different groups by population density (population divided).

To enable the evaluation of climate justice awareness (CJA) and climate engagement (CE), we relied on a set of selected EOI questions (see Table 1 and for more details on the questions’ description in Table A.1 in the Supplementary Appendix), including both multiple and single choice questions.

The questions that were used to develop the climate justice awareness index were designed and selected based on the four main pillars of climate justice (Newell et al., 2021 ).

As procedural justice concerns the various processes and elements of climate decision-making that might involve the regulation of the distribution of goods (Walker & Day, 2012 ), it translates in providing access to relevant information, or legal procedures to enable to claim participation rights, recognising and acting upon unjust procedures, and striving to address biases on the side of project proponents and/or decision-makers (Mundaca et al., 2018 ). Therefore, the selected questions tried to capture whether the various key groups are usually engaged in climate planning and how.

Distributive justice concerns the inequalities in access to social goods and ills, like energy, water, pollution, or food (McCauley et al., 2013 ; Sovacool & Dworkin, 2015 ; Walker & Day, 2012 ). In particular, one of the key aspects of distributive justice is the identification of how goods and ills are distributed across the society (Newell et al., 2021 ). Hence, the selected questions capture whether cities estimate costs and benefits associated with climate action and climate change, and whether social redistribution is considered to mitigate costs.

Recognitional justice is closely linked to procedural and distributive justice, being concerned with the capacity to acknowledge the existence of different needs (energy, water, health, etc.) across the society (Walker & Day, 2012 ), notably the needs of the socially and politically marginalised, including the energy poor (Della Valle & Czako, 2022 ). Therefore, the selected questions tried to capture whether cities acknowledge the existence of different (structurally shaped) needs (energy, water, health, etc.) across the society.

Finally, as intergenerational justice concerns protecting future generations from harm, providing them with the same resources current generations are enjoying, and with means to express their voice in climate change discussions (Sanson & Burke, 2020 ), the selected questions tried to capture whether future generations’ interests are considered or represented by younger generations.

Following the selection of the questions developed to reflect each of the four pillars, as many indexes were created: (i) recognition (RJ) (ii) distributive (DJ) (iii) procedural (PJ), and (iv) intergenerational justice (IJ). Notably, the replies to the sets of questions (as shown in Table 1 ) were used individually to develop each of the RJ, DJ, PJ, and IJ indexes through the PCA. The answers are transformed, according to the following rules:

in case of multiple-choice questions, a value is assigned that is equal to the total number of selected answer options. However, if the interest is in a specific answer option, 1 or 0 are assigned when the option is or is not ticked by the city (i.e., dummy variable);

in case of single-choice questions, each answer option is weighted according to its value in terms of climate mitigation or justice awareness (i.e., it is transformed into a numeric categorical variable). However, when only one answer option is relevant to the formulation of the corresponding index, 1 or 0 are assigned when the option is or is not ticked by the city (i.e., dummy variable). Finally, when the answer is a number (e.g., the number of climate mitigation plans), no transformation is applied.

Table A.1 recalls the rules on a question-by-question basis and provides the original EOI questions.

The PCA was deemed as an appropriate method as it enables to (i) condense multiple variables that measure similar constructs into a smaller set of uncorrelated composite indexes, (ii) provide us with a concise set of indexes that allow for a more straightforward explanation of the relationships between the predictors (e.g., CE) and the outcome variable (i.e., CJA) while minimising information losses, and (iii) to handle multicollinearity, which can pose challenges in regression analysis (Shrestha, 2021 ). Therefore, the PCA fits well our study as we can derive indexes from multiple survey items and investigate the relationships between these indexes and other factors, while accounting for the potential challenges that might be encountered when condensing information (i.e., loss of information) and interpreting results (i.e., multicollinearity). This approach has also been used in previous similar studies that developed indexes related to engagement and awareness of energy issues (Martins et al., 2020 ).

Once derived the four justice indexes, we calculated the CJA index as a simple average of the four indexes, as we assumed that awareness of each of the four justice pillars has an equal weight in terms of contribution to the overall climate justice awareness. Therefore,

The sixth index—the climate engagement (CE) index—was developed via PCA to capture cities’ efforts in climate action. The selected questions to develop this index tried to capture the effort in sector-specific climate mitigation strategies and initiatives, as well as in their GHG emissions reduction targets.

After creating all the indexes, a simple ordinary least squares (OLS) regression was conducted to measure the explanatory power of the CE index and city-specific factors (population density, GDP per capita, favourable conditions, legal powers, barriers identified, and government support) on CJA (for more details on the city-specific factors, see Table A.2 in the Supplementary Appendix). As we are analysing survey data and aim to investigate quantitative relationships, the OLS regression model was deemed as the appropriate method, since it allows for the examination of the magnitude and direction of the relationships between the CJA (dependent variable) and the predictor variables (CE and city-specific factors). Additionally, by enabling quantitative estimates of these relationships, it allows for numerical comparisons and for policy recommendations (Wooldridge, 2015 ).

All analyses were performed using Stata 15.

As described in the methods, the four justice pillar indexes and the CE index were developed via PCA (see Table A.3 in the Supplementary Appendix for details on the PCA output, such as communalities, total variance explained, and component matrix). The quality of the produced indexes is inferred by applying two well-established tests (Shrestha, 2021 ): the Kaiser–Meyer–Olkin (KMO) Measure of Sampling Adequacy and the Bartlett’s test. The first test returns the proportion of variance in the variables that might be caused by underlying factors. When KMO values are higher than 0.5, the sample is deemed acceptable (Martins et al., 2020 ). The second test checks the hypothesis that the correlation matrix is an identity matrix, and indicates whether the variables are unrelated and not suitable for structure detection. When the output is less than 0.05, the available data is deemed suitable to apply the factor analysis.

The Bartlett’s test reveals that the indexes are adequate, as all output values are below 0.05. The KMO corroborates the result, with all values higher than 0.5 (see Table 2 ). These results confirm that the developed indexes are suitable for the analysis.

Overall, across the 362 cities, the RJ index ranges within (−1.59, 6.17) with mean −1.96 (s.d. 2.17); the PJ index ranges within (−5.98, 5.27) with mean 2.36 (s.d. 2.32); the DJ ranges within (−2.41–8.78) with mean −2.54 (s.d. 2.99); and the IJ index ranges within (−1.20, 2.82) with mean 2.38 (s.d. 1.23). The CJA index across the 362 cities ranges within (−2.79, 5.76) with mean −6.02 (s.d. 1.88). The distribution can be visualised in Fig. 2 . As shown in Fig. 2 , this index seems to vary significantly across countries, on average.

figure 2

Mean CJA index by country and statistical distribution of CJA and all its compositional indexes.

To exclude issues of multicollinearity between the independent variables and the developed CJA index that we will use in the regression analysis, we assess the Pearson’ correlation.

Table 3 shows that the values are not high enough to be concerned with multicollinearity, as all independent variables have an absolute value of Pearson correlation coefficient that is less than 0.5 (Young, 2018 ). This result is further corroborated by a second test for multicollinearity using the variance inflation factor , developed post-regression.

Table 3 also suggests the existence of a significant and strong correlation between CJA and:

Log GDP per capita Footnote 1 (+),

financial government support (+),

reporting government support (+),

coordination government support (+),

technical government support (+),

tools and skills access government support (+),

dissemination government support (+),

capacity government support (+),

regulation government support (+),

financial advisory government support (+),

perceived favourable economy (+),

perceived favourable authorisation process (+),

perceived favourable financing (+),

perceived favourable communication (+),

number of fields with legal power (+),

and number of identified barriers (+).

CJA is also mildly correlated with population density (+). The regression analysis is used to confirm the strength of such relationships.

Figure 3 shows the positive relationship suggested by the Pearson’s correlation between climate engagement and climate awareness. It also shows that the average of the two indexes differs quite substantially across countries. Therefore, we first conduct the analysis using the whole dataset.

figure 3

Some country names have been replaced with their official codes (Eurostat, 2023 ) for better visibility.

To ensure that we consider the relationships between cities within a country and take into account the shared characteristics among cities, we used cluster-robust standard errors. This method allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the correlation structure among cities within the same country and, thus, a more valid and robust approach than standard errors that assume independence among observations (in traditional statistical models that do not consider clustering, standard errors are assumed to be independent across all observations). However, in the context of cities within a country, this assumption may not hold true due to similarities arising from various factors such as geographical proximity, cultural influences, or policy interventions. Hence, we treat countries as clusters, recognising that cities within a country may have similar unobservable factors (Angrist & Pischke, 2008 ).

Second, to absorb any country effect and allow the estimates of the coefficients on city-level characteristics to differ across countries, we would ideally run a separate regression model for each country (Bryan & Jenkins, 2021 ). However, given that countries are unevenly represented in the pool of 362 Mission cities, we resort to the category-based approach in which regressions are computed separately on three country categories based on geographical attributes:

Eastern : Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Croatia, Slovenia, Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

North-Western Footnote 2 : Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, France, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Ireland, and the UK.

Southern : Spain, Portugal, Malta, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, and Israel.

Table 4 and Fig. 4 show the general model considering the whole sample of cities and a category-based approach in which regressions are conducted based on countries’ categories. Results confirm a positive correlation between climate engagement and climate justice awareness.

figure 4

Coefficients estimates and confidence intervals from regression models analysing i) all cities (blue) ii) North-Western cities (red), iii) Southern cities (green), and iv) Eastern cities (yellow).

Across all models, we find that high climate engagement seems to have a positive influence on the potential that climate decisions are made in a justice-aware way, as the two indexes result correlated regardless of the country group.

When looking at the general model, we also find that the justice-awareness potential is positively influenced by the availability of governmental support in capacity building and in financial advisory services, and by the breadth of the fields over which the city has legal power to act/make policy decisions. Conversely, it is negatively influenced by the perception that the city geo-climatic conditions are favourable (e.g., proximity to water bodies, moderate occurrence of climate extremes).

In North-western cities, justice awareness is positively influenced by the availability of government support in coordination and by the density of population, whereas in Southern cities, by the extent of the city legal powers and by the availability of governmental support in financial advisory services, resource mobilisation and reporting. In Eastern cities, higher justice awareness comes with the availability of governmental support in capacity building and in financial support, and project development/implementation. Conversely, it is negatively influenced by the perception of a favourable climate and financial situation.

Overall, all models seem to be satisfactory in explaining variability, as all R 2 are above 0.5, and in avoiding multicollinearity, as the mean VIF is always between 1 and 5, indicating moderate correlation between the other explanatory variables in the model, but not severe enough to require attention.

Correlation analysis was conducted to examine the associations between CJA and potential drivers and barriers affecting just climate action development in a large sample of European cities. At this stage, the focus was on identifying general influences. Out of the 18 factors tested, 17 were found to be significantly related to both climate engagement and city-specific factors.

CE exhibits a strong positive correlation ( p  < 0.01). This result suggests that the more cities exert efforts in addressing climate change goals, the more they are likely to take climate justice concerns on board when designing and implementing climate efforts. The following city-specific institutional and socio-economic factors were identified as the most influential drivers of justice-awareness potential, exhibiting strong positive correlations ( p  < 0.01):

GDP per capita and degree of city legal powers;

government (i) financial support, (ii) reporting support, (iii) coordination support, (iv) technical assistance, (v) skill support, (vi) dissemination assistance, (vii) capacity building assistance, (viii) policy regulation assistance, (ix) financial advisory services;

perceptions of a favourable (i) economy, (ii) financial situation, (iii) communication, and

identified barriers to climate action.

These results suggest that wealthier cities could more likely attain social justice goals when planning and implementing climate action. Cities that consider their economic, financing, and communication strategies as favourable city-specific features are also more likely to be climate justice aware. Results also suggest that cities that receive cross-sectoral support from higher governance levels are more likely to take into account justice dimensions. Two key drivers of CJA are also the breadth of cities legal power and the ability to identify more barriers to climate action. Population size exhibits only a mild positive correlation ( p  < 0.10). This suggests that being a populous city might not necessarily lead to more justice considerations when developing climate action. Finally, perceiving climate as a favourable city-specific feature does not seem to be a motivating factor for cities to take into account justice dimensions in climate efforts.

The above correlation results are only partially confirmed by the regression analysis conducted on the whole sample of cities. Using all factors analysed in the correlation matrix yields a model of moderate good fit. In particular, the R 2 of 0.529 indicates that the model explains a substantial portion of the variability in the CJA index. For CJA, CE and receiving government financial support are important factors with a strongly significant ( p  < 0.01) contribution to the model. Notably, the coefficient of 0.420 suggests a positive and statistically significant relationship between CE and CJA, wherein a one-unit increase in CE is associated with an estimated increase of 0.420 units in CJA, assuming all other variables in the model are held constant. This implies that cities that are more engaged in climate action tend to show higher levels of CJA. The coefficient of 0.405 suggests a positive and statistically significant relationship between CJA and government financial support, wherein a one-unit increase in government financial support is associated with an estimated increase of 0.405 units in CJA, ceteris paribus. This implies that cities that receive more financial support from higher governance levels tend to show higher levels of CJA. The breadth of legal power and perceiving climate as a city-specific favourable condition are also important influencing factors of CJA, but with a lesser significance extent ( p  < 0.05). The coefficient of 0.0541 suggests a positive and statistically significant relationship between number of fields with legal power and CJA, wherein a one-unit increase in the number of fields with legal power is associated with an estimated increase of 0.0541 units in CJA, ceteris paribus. This implies that cities that have the power to take decisions on a breadth of climate-related fields tend to show higher levels of CJA. The coefficient of −0.164 suggests a negative and statistically significant relationship between favourable climate perceptions and CJA, wherein a one-unit increase in favourable climate perceptions is associated with an estimated decrease of 0.164 units in CJA, ceteris paribus. This implies that cities that do not perceive the urgency to act on their local climate tend to show lower levels of CJA. Finally, receiving financial advisory services from the government only mildly explains CJA. The coefficient of 0.297 suggests a positive and statistically significant ( p  < 0.10) relationship between financial advisory services and CJA, wherein a one-unit increase in available financial advisory services is associated with an estimated increase of 0.297 units in CJA, assuming all other variables in the model are held constant. This implies that cities that are equipped with more government financial advisory services tend to show higher levels of CJA.

Overall, results from the general regression model suggest that CE has a positive impact on cities' climate justice awareness, irrespective of their geographical classification. They also suggest that the availability of governmental support in capacity building and financial advisory services, and the extent of the city legal powers across different fields of action are positively related to justice awareness. This suggests that when cities have the means and freedom to decide how to plan and implement climate efforts, they can also pursue objectives that are not immediately related to emission reduction, but embrace a broader dimension sensitive to social justice. At the same time, results suggest that the perception of favourable geo-climatic conditions is negatively related to climate justice awareness. This insight further echoes the positive relationship between CE and CJA, as a favourable climate might reduce the perceived urgency of climate action and the consideration of the social issues associated with it.

The results from the regression analyses run on specific geographic groups highlight that when country effects are taken into account, the relationships with CJA estimated with the general model are not always confirmed. Additionally, they unveil relationships with new dimensions. This suggests that aggregating data can make certain relationships only apparently strong (Wooldridge, 2015 ), and that the fact that cities within the same geographic region might share similar governance structures, historical legacies, and economic, cultural, and political characteristics (Breil et al., 2018 ) needs to be accounted in the analysis.

For all geographical groups, the regression model yields a moderate good fit since the R 2 (0.524 for North-Western cities, 0.537 for Southern cities, and 0.609 for Eastern cities) indicates that the model explains a substantial portion of the variability in the CJA index. As observed in the general model, we find that for CJA, CE is a key factor with a strongly significant ( p  < 0.01) contribution to the model, with the following territorial nuances. The coefficients (0.526, 0.350, and 0.413 for the three groups respectively) suggest a positive and statistically significant relationship between CE and CJA, wherein a one-unit increase in CE is associated with an estimated increase of 0.526, 0.350, and 0.413 units in CJA (and thus 0.106 more or 0.07 and 0.007 units less than estimated in the general model, respectively).

When it comes to North-Western cities in particular, differently from the general model we find that population density and receiving coordination support from the government moderately ( p  < 0.05) explain CJA. Notably, the coefficient of 0.0000880 suggests a positive and statistically significant relationship between population density and CJA, wherein a one-unit increase in population density is associated with an estimated increase of 0.0000880 units in CJA. This implies that densely populated North-Western cities tend to show higher levels of CJA. Further, the coefficient of 0.662 suggests a positive and statistically significant relationship between receiving coordination support from the government and CJA, wherein a one-unit increase in government coordination support is associated with an estimated increase of 0.662 units in CJA. This entails that North-Western cities that receive higher coordination support from the government tend to show higher levels of CJA. Overall, the regression analysis for North-western cities reveals that CJA is positively influenced by the availability of governmental support in coordination and by population density. This suggests that the provision of support in coordination can be a key way to address the potential high structural complexity (level of alignment and interaction across different governance and low population density) undermining the attention North-western cities can devote to social objectives when planning and implementing climate action. This finding aligns with existing evidence on the higher emissions mitigation ambition demonstrated by Northern and Western Europe cities (Reckien et al., 2018 ; Reckien et al., 2015 ; Salvia et al., 2021 ) and with the significant correlation between such ambition and national incentives, characteristics, and climate policies (Hsu et al., 2020 ; Salvia et al., 2021 ).

Similar to the general model, among Southern cities, receiving financial advisory services from the government and the breadth of legal power explain CJA, and these relationships are stronger ( p  < 0.01) than for the general model. The coefficient of 0.642 suggests that a one-unit increase in available financial advisory services is associated with an estimated increase of 0.642 units in CJA, ceteris paribus. This implies that Southern cities that are equipped with more government financial advisory services tend to show higher levels of CJA. The coefficient of 0.112 suggests that a one-unit increase in the number of fields with legal power is associated with an estimated increase of 0.112 units in CJA, ceteris paribus. This implies that the more Southern cities have the power to decide where to exert their climate effort, the more they tend to show higher levels of CJA. Finally, differently from the general model, we find that receiving government support on reporting moderately ( p  < 0.10) explains CJA. Notably, the coefficient of 0.521 suggests a positive and statistically significant relationship between government support on reporting and CJA, wherein a one-unit increase in government support on reporting is associated with an estimated increase of 0.521 units in CJA. This entails that Southern cities that are equipped with tools that ease coordination tend to show higher levels of CJA. Overall, for Southern cities, results highlight that CJA is positively influenced by the breadth of the city legal powers and by the availability of governmental support in financial advice and resource mobilisation, and mildly in reporting. This suggests that providing more legitimacy and advice on how to get resources for climate action by higher-level governments can be a key way to make Southern cities more considerate of social objectives in their climate efforts.

Finally, for Eastern cities and in agreement with the general model, we find that perceiving own climate as a favourable local feature explains CJA, and this relationship is stronger ( p  < 0.05) than for the general model. The coefficient of −0.183 suggests that a one-unit increase in perceptions of a favourable climate is associated with an estimated decrease of 0.183 units in CJA, ceteris paribus. This implies that Eastern cities that perceive a lesser urgency to act on their local climate tend to show lower levels of CJA. Further, differently from the general model, we find that receiving government financial support strongly ( p  < 0.01) explains CJA, and perceiving financial conditions as favourable local features moderately ( p  < 0.10) does so. The coefficient of 0.637 suggests that a one-unit increase in government financial support is associated with an estimated increase of 0.637 units in CJA, ceteris paribus. This entails that Eastern cities that receive financial support are more prone to consider justice dimensions. The coefficient of −0.340 suggests that a one-unit increase in perceptions of favourable financial conditions is associated with an estimated decrease of 0.340 units in CJA, ceteris paribus. This complements the previous result, suggesting that cities that are eligible for financial support are more prone to consider justice dimensions. Overall, the regression analysis on Eastern cities reveals that climate justice awareness is positively influenced by the availability of governmental support in capacity building, financial support, and project development/implementation, while it is negatively influenced by the perception of a favourable climate and mildly, financial situation. This suggests that equipping Eastern cities with additional means and resources can be a key way to ease the consideration of justice dimensions. Conversely, the result that cities get socially detached when feeling secure (in terms of climate and financial risks) points to a need to address security misperceptions and empowerment. Indeed, there is evidence that Southern and Eastern cities—particularly those ranking low in terms of capacity/GDP—tend to be less ambitious in climate mitigation and to rely on exogenous systems (international climate networks, national government) to steer their climate action (Salvia et al., 2021 ). This may entail that for these cities, external forces define their capacity to co-tackle climate justice.

With respect to policy implications, in Northern cities, where economic development and low population density might increase the complexity of decision-making, support in coordination might ease the consideration of social objectives in climate action. Being more advanced in their adaptation policies, and having a longer tradition of citizen engagement (Breil et al., 2018 ), most North-western cities are focused on abating the hardest emissions (i.e., the last percentage points), hence a high degree of coordination needs to be in place to remove residual barriers (e.g., complex jurisdictions, unfavourable regulations). Southern cities, which are at higher risks from negative social and environmental consequences of climate change (Mavromatidi et al., 2018 ), reveal a good potential to implement a social just climate action, but this needs to be unlocked through empowerment measures. In Eastern cities, where paths defined by institutional and historical legacies might still dictate an infrastructural and economic divide (Ürge-Vorsatz et al., 2018 ), more immediate objectives might take over the consideration of social objectives, unless cities receive dedicated external support.


Cities can be key agents of change in addressing global climate change, being “natural” sites for innovative and experimental climate action in a progressive direction. Cities themselves acknowledged this role in Europe, as testified by the European Mission on 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities, where 100+ cities committed to pursue climate neutrality by 2030. However, even among the most ambitious cities in climate mitigation, there might be considerable heterogeneity in the scope of climate action. In particular, cities can be loci of injustices, if they are not able to recognise how planned climate efforts might generate or exacerbate forms of injustice in their specific contexts. That is why, cities need to be justice-aware when developing climate action.

Climate justice has increasingly gained momentum in the academic and policy debates on climate change; however, many have also debated its operational value. The few investigations on the topic are based on a limited number of cities and interpretative indicators. The main contribution of this study lies in empirically uncovering the operational value of climate justice in urban climate action, by evaluating climate justice concerns in urban climate decision-making processes and by identifying key areas that could lead to better consideration of justice dimensions across European cities. We demonstrate, via econometric analysis, a way to homogenously evaluate the degree of justice awareness in climate action planning, and to use this measure as a lever to guide and course-correct city-level climate policy to simultaneously pursue the climate change and social justice goals.

Drawing from the climate justice framework and a unique dataset comprising responses homogenously elicited through a survey, we created an indicator for climate justice awareness and assessed how this can be predicted by climate engagement and a set of city-specific factors. In particular, we used the data from 362 cities who expressed interest in the Cities Mission, and used a PCA approach to develop a climate justice awareness index inclusive of the procedural, distributive, recognition, and intergenerational justice pillars.

Correlation and regression results reveal that, regardless of the geographical categorisation, cities’ climate justice awareness is positively influenced by climate engagement. This empirical evidence, new to the current literature, provides some implications for practice, as it shows that cities that are more engaged in addressing climate change goals tend to design and implement their efforts by co-targeting social justice goals. Moreover, our results offer additional novel insights into how some city-specific factors might act as drivers and barriers to justice-considerate climate action.

Overall and for the first time to the best of the authors’ knowledge, this study sheds light on the positive relationship that exists between engagement in climate action at the city level and awareness of its social justice aspects, evaluated across its recognitional, distributive, procedural, and intergenerational dimensions. Embedding justice considerations into climate action planning implies additional challenges and a higher degree of integration and holism in urban planning and policy-making. This is mirrored in the predictors for higher justice awareness levels and is nuanced according to specific national characteristics. The insights gathered through this analysis constitute a solid baseline to improve our understanding of the drivers and barriers to a just climate transition. They can legitimate and inform ongoing climate mitigation frameworks at an international and European scale, such as the UN-backed Race to Zero campaign, that rally non-State actors to take rigorous and immediate action to reduce global emissions and deliver a healthier, fairer zero-carbon world in time. As engagement in climate efforts tends to co-stimulate social justice goals, ongoing and future climate agendas could capitalise on the results here presented to maximise the synergistic effect and to leverage the territorial, economic, and socio-political predictors.

However, it is important to note that correlation and regression analysis alone cannot establish causal relationships. Therefore, an avenue for future research is to undertake comprehensive analyses to delve deeper into the associations uncovered in this study. Future research could also involve exploring how each of the four climate justice pillars are understood by urban decision-makers and citizens by engaging in interviews with them. Such efforts would contribute to the development of comprehensive climate justice awareness indices that incorporate better the characteristics of cities. Finally, we analysed a particular subgroup of ambitious cities in climate action, at the stage of formulating a vision to climate neutrality in the short haul. Future studies should investigate the planned and implemented efforts of the 100+ selected cities, by assessing how climate justice is factually integrated in their actions. Furthermore, as the Cities Mission proceeds in its implementation phase, new knowledge and experience will be generated on how to deliver just transformations within and beyond the city boundary. A fully fledged just transition builds on values of territorial cohesion and multi-level governance to legitimise the target and multiply the benefits. Hence, best practices in multi-scale action and in tackling Scope 3/consumption-based emissions will be collected and guidelines will be disseminated through the Mission in the attempt to eradicate “low-carbon illusions” and establish a paradigm of full climate responsibility. As cities acknowledged in the EOI that non-compliance with the principle of equal opportunities on all levels throughout the transition will undermine its achievement, it is expected that the Mission will catalyse the conceptualisation, testing, and spread of new transition models to expand the frontiers of climate justice across local-to-global networks of production, consumption, and distribution.

Data availability

The datasets generated and analysed during the current study are not publicly available due to confidentiality agreements.

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The views expressed here are purely those of the authors and may not, under any circumstances, be regarded as an official position of the European Commission. The authors warmly than Pietro Florio (Joint Research Centre, European Commission) for extracting georeferenced GDP data used to characterise the cities.

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climate injustice essay

climate injustice essay

Freshman Isaiah Swilley from Bourbonnais, Illinois, takes a practice dive at the Burr Gymnasium Pool. Howard is the only HBCU with a Division I swimming and diving team.

The Injustice of Climate Change

How extreme weather disproportionately affects communities of color.

Graphic of a neighborhood being stranded due to flood

Climate change is a global phenomenon that affects everyone on the planet – but it does not affect everyone equally. The consequences of climate change are as devastating as they are wide-ranging. From extreme heat to severe cold, from droughts to flooding, from wildfires to hurricanes and tornadoes, the fingerprint of climate change can be detected on an abundance of extreme weather events and environmental changes that disproportionately impact communities of color.

In the United States, the bulk of carbon emissions come from more affluent areas; but it is the poorer, under-resourced, oftentimes Black and minority communities that are bearing the brunt of a rapidly changing global climate – without benefiting from the consumption of resources that overwhelmingly contribute to it. When disaster strikes, it is those same communities that suffer the most and the longest; after others have rebuilt and moved on, Black communities are often still left reeling from the crisis. “Climate change is the issue of our time,” says Terri Adams, PhD, a professor of criminology in the Department of Sociology and Criminology. “And Howard needs to be a leader in the fields of climate change and environmental justice because of the disproportionate impacts on communities of color.”

Not-So-Natural Disasters

In Howard’s environmental inequality class during the Fall 2021 semester, visiting assistant professor Michelle Dovil, PhD, Department of Sociology and Criminology, mentions to her undergraduate students over Zoom that she prefers to use the term “natural hazards” rather than “natural disasters.”

“When we say, ‘natural disaster,’ it lacks accountability for those who should be accountable, like government officials,” she says. Dovil’s issue with this language has less to do with its descriptiveness and more to do with what it seems to imply or omit.

The implication of nature-based language like “natural disaster” is that Black individuals living in communities that are hit by storms or other phenomena are either the victims of poor luck or their own bad choices. The term suggests that the resulting “disaster” is not a social construct, but a product of nature.

“But it’s not coincidence; it’s intentional,” she says. “We also have to acknowledge the social, economic, political, and geological vulnerabilities these communities might be facing prior to a disaster. It is ultimately the natural hazard coming into contact with a potentially vulnerable social condition that creates the disaster.”

Stuck or Displaced 

Dovil’s passion for environmental justice began, like many other professionals who work in this field, with Hurricane Katrina. She remembers watching TV coverage of the hurricane as a teenager and seeing images of people wading through chest-high water crying out for help – the vast majority of them African American. “I knew something was wrong,” she says. “In a lot of ways, [Katrina] uncovered the social fabric of our society.”

There are numerous reasons why the Black communities and residents of New Orleans were more vulnerable to the effects of a powerful hurricane and, as a result, represented a disproportionate share of the storm’s victims.

In the context of Katrina and other similar natural hazards, Dovil has studied a phenomenon she refers to as “place attachment,” an idea that captures why individuals might not evacuate in the face of an incoming natural hazard as well as why they might return to or continue to live in high-risk areas.

In a lot of ways, [Katrina] uncovered the social fabric of our society."

She explains that the act of evacuating requires resources – a car, money, someplace to go. Simply put, many low-income Americans do not have the ability to evacuate, even if they believe it would be in their own best interest to do so. Whether to stay or leave is less of a personal choice and more of a decision that was made for them by factors beyond their control.

But even if they have the means to leave, evacuation still presents a risk that might be just as ominous as the incoming storm. For those who face job insecurity or the regular threat of job loss, they cannot afford to misjudge the severity or impact of the crisis. If they were to evacuate and the hurricane did not prove to be as powerful or devastating as predicted, they would likely be fired for missing work. During the spate of devastating tornadoes in December 2021, employees of a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky , were told they would be fired if they left to seek shelter at home. Eight employees were killed when the factory was struck by a tornado.

“[Place attachment] has a lot to do with dependency,” says Dovil. So much of their lives and livelihoods are directly tied to the place they live that, to leave it behind, even temporarily, would be to risk losing it permanently.

For many Black individuals facing a potential disaster, their strongest means of insurance is themselves. Black families lag behind in homeownership rates at 44 percent, compared to nearly 74 percent of white families. Black homeowners have reported more difficulty getting insurance claims paid. Some whose homes were passed from generation to generation may not have home insurance. The only way to safeguard their familial wealth is to do whatever they personally can to physically protect the home from the ravages of the storm.

In addition to their social circumstances, Black communities are also disproportionately affected by virtue of their geographical location and environmental characteristics as well as the state of their local infrastructure. Prior to and after an extreme weather event, they are often displaced. The places they end up are more often lower-income, poorly resourced – and well positioned for devastation from the next nature-induced crisis.

Studies have shown that underserved populations are far more vulnerable in such events. A wildfire vulnerability index created by researchers at the University of Washington and the Nature Conservancy revealed that Native Americans are more susceptible to devastation from wildfires. African Americans were also among the list of those who would face harsher recovery. Other factors, such as housing, income, and health, were used to determine that these communities are more likely to struggle in the recovery from these natural events. And the poor air quality that arises as a result of wildfires has the potential to do long-term damage to residents in these communities who don’t have the ability to move elsewhere.

Gentrification has relegated Black communities to dense urban environments that are more exposed to the ravages of extreme heat and severe flooding. The heat becomes intensified when it is reflected off the concrete and the asphalt. As many in these poorer communities don’t have air conditioning or have to work outside, they are more susceptible to heat stroke.

According to Nea Maloo, M.Arch, lecturer in the College of Engineering and Architecture, introducing green spaces into urban landscapes could help offset some of the rising heat seen in cities. In addition to increasing gentrification, Black communities also have to contest with what Bradford Grant, M.Arch, professor in the Department of Architecture, describes as a type of “reverse gentrification.” Many inland Black communities are being displaced to live in areas closer to the coastal waterfronts that are more vulnerable to flooding and rising water levels, situations that are becoming more common and chronic with rising global temperatures.

Black communities are often situated in low-lying floodplains with poorer drainage systems. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Matthew in South Carolina in 2011, Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas in 2017, and many more, Black residents were more likely to be in harm’s way and to experience property damage.

“Segregation has been an instrument to divide this country, not only socially, but physically,” Grant says. “The built environment is really about where people live and where they work in segregated systems.”

Overlooked and Underserved

A 2018 study entitled “ As Disaster Costs Rise, So Does Inequality ” revealed that for white, affluent communities, natural hazards are actually profitable. To be sure, these events cause significant hardship and loss. But when looking at the total financial resources in these communities before an extreme weather event and after, they actually see an influx of wealth because of federal emergency funding and insurance payouts.

Many Black communities, on the other hand, see wealth decline after a crisis. The New York Times has reported that funding from the Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) disproportionately goes to white survivors. Even when Black survivors encounter almost identical hardship, they still do not get equal amounts of funding. In addition, Black residents are more likely to rent than to own and are less likely to have either renter’s or homeowner’s insurance. So when their property is destroyed, they are less likely to receive the financial compensation needed to recover.

Resilience in the Face of Vulnerability

“Environmental justice is social justice,” Dovil says. “It is a slow violence, but it is still violence against poor Black and brown people that have to deal with these [issues] every single day.” Part of the ability to resist further devastation done to the Black community as a result of climate change and natural hazards begins with recognizing that fact. When Rubin Patterson, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, first became passionate about environmental justice, he says there wasn’t as much attention given to the field by other Black studies scholars and leaders.

“So many leaders in the Black community were focusing on other issues, and understandably so,” Patterson says, mentioning criminal justice reform, education outcomes, and health equity. There was a misconception that environmentalism was focused merely on conservation and not on social justice.

But now, Patterson says, there is more attention given to the subject and broad recognition that environmental justice and climate change have wide-ranging consequences that require urgent responses to safeguard African American communities in particular.

It is a slow violence, but it is still violence against poor Black and Brown people." 

However, Black Americans are still largely underrepresented in industries, like clean technology, that are important for mitigating the effects of climate change.

“A lack of pipelines of entry into these industries can leave the historically marginalized communities of color once again looking in from the outside,” Patterson says. Without these pipelines, climate change mitigation efforts could simply recreate and reinforce existing social and racial inequalities.

There is an endless list of careers for which Howard is responsible for producing a disproportionate share of Black individuals in those professional ranks – doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, scientists, and more. However, Patterson wants to add more to the list – he wants Howard to produce a substantial share of Black environmental leaders and climate scientists, too.

“Preparing members of these communities to shape, implement, and manage the emerging clean tech industries is also a form of environmental justice,” Patterson says. “That is what I want to contribute to at Howard University.”

Developing Future Leaders

Howard’s environmental studies program is only five years old. But “our program has included equity in its curriculum from its inception [and] it’s been interdisciplinary,” says Janelle Burke, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Biology and director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies Program.

The program was conceived and created by a collection of faculty, of which Rubin Patterson, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was one of the leaders. When Patterson arrived at Howard in 2014 as a professor in sociology, creating an environmental studies program was one of his top priorities. “I was trying to advance environmental studies amongst members of the Black community,” Patterson says. “Black people are disproportionately adversely affected by pollution and climate matters and the like, but less likely to be at the forefront of institutions addressing those concerns.”

Patterson believed that if he could combine the subjects of Africana studies and environmental studies together, he could convey how important climate change is to students who have made social justice their personal mission and focus of their academic pursuits.

Faculty members who participate in the program represent a range of disciplines, including African American studies, biology, chemistry, English, history, mathematics, sociology, political science, psychology, and physics. In the environmental inequality course, one of the program’s core classes that was created and first taught by Patterson and is currently being taught by visiting assistant professor Michelle Dovil, PhD, Department of Sociology and Criminology, it’s sometimes possible to forget the focus is on the environment.

“Part of the environmental justice conversation is labor exploitation, right. And so, we have to also deal with people going out and putting themselves at risk [of pollution or exposure to natural hazards], just so they can pay rent, just so they can survive,” Dovil says. “We also have to talk about affordable housing [and] the issue with the eviction moratorium.” The curriculum also includes the digital divide, food insecurity, health care disparities, and more.

Patterson and the other faculty members are currently working to expand the environmental studies program. They want it to be more than just a concentration; they would like it to be a freestanding major housed within a brand-new department – the Department of Earth, Environment, and Equity. The proposal is currently under consideration.

Part of the need and justification for expanding the program is to be able to bring in even more students and conduct more research so as to help scale adaptation and mitigation efforts in vulnerable communities.

“If we can organically integrate Black studies and environmental studies, then that’d be a kind of a clever way of getting Black students to enter that space,” Patterson says. “They’re going to see how richly rewarding it is intellectually and otherwise. And then we’ll have these new Black environmental and climate leaders.”

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climate injustice essay

Carbon Brief Staff

The term “ climate justice ” captures the various ways in which global warming impacts people differently and the approaches that can be taken to address this problem “fairly”.

  • Analysis: In-depth Q&A: What is ‘climate justice’?
  • Analysis: Which countries are historically responsible for climate change?
  • Analysis: The lack of diversity in climate-science research
  • Climate justice: The challenge of achieving a ‘just transition’ in agriculture
  • Researchers: The barriers to climate science in the global south
  • Guest post: An Indigenous peoples’ approach to climate justice

Climate-justice language has been used to describe everything from retrofitting the UK’s poorly insulated homes to supporting cyclone-struck communities in Mozambique. 

As part of a week-long series on climate justice, Carbon Brief has asked a range of scientists, policy experts and campaigners from around the world what the term means to them and why they think it is important.

These are their responses, first as sample quotes, then, below, in full:

  • Prof Kyle Whyte : “The climate justice movement…should not just be a movement that seeks to lower carbon footprints so that the world of privileged people is preserved.”
  • Dr Adrienne Hollis : “Climate justice matters because we are in an era of racial and social reckoning.”
  • Dr Jalonne White-Newsome : “I long for the day when low-income, black, Indigenous and people of colour do not suffer disproportionately from the irresponsible stewardship that we all contribute to.”
  • Yeb Saño : “The climate crisis is a manifestation of the pervasive injustice that has brought us economic inequality, oppression, subjugation and exploitation.”
  • Dr Kaveh Madani : “The people of the global south deserve the same quality of life as the people in the global north, but this remains unachievable for them unless there is a transfer of knowledge, technology and wealth.”
  • Dr Mary Keogh and Gordon Rattray : “[People with disabilities] are…among those most impacted by climate change, whose human rights are most at risk of violation by inappropriate climate action and for whom true climate justice is essential.”
  • Prof Henry Shue : “Justice obligates us to assist with development, and climate requires us to do so in ways that avoid increasing emissions.”
  • Prof Chris Hilson : “Without attention to [climate justice], government policy on climate change may face backlash from groups in society that can ill afford the changes.”
  • Sakshi Aravind : “[Climate justice is] our biggest opportunity to rebuild a world led by Indigenous knowledge forms, worldviews and ways of living.” 
  • Dr Adelle Thomas : “Climate justice underscores the unfairness of countries and groups that have contributed the least to climate change being most at risk.”
  • Dr Saleemul Huq : “The climate change issue can be characterised as pollution by rich people and rich countries adversely impacting poor people…This is morally wrong and every religion teaches that it is wrong.” 
  • Adrián Martinez : “We call for justice because the current crisis is no longer fuelled by ignorance but by wilful greed.”
  • Brandon Wu : “In global terms, [climate justice] means that wealthy countries like the US must lead by example when it comes to climate action.”
  • Prof Kimberly Nicholas : “A key element of climate justice is for high emitters to rapidly reduce our own emissions. By doing so, we leave more space for people who need their emissions to survive, and we lessen their burden in facing increasing impacts of climate change they haven’t caused.”
  • Osprey Orielle Lake : “Climate justice…requires us to invest in systemic change that centres care for land, women, frontline communities and community-led solutions.”

Prof Kyle Whyte

Systems of power, such as racial capitalism and colonialism, have typically inflicted harmful environmental and climatic change. The harms are inflicted by actions, such as land dispossession, forced relocation, deforestation, intensive agriculture, industrial development, and fossil fuel and extractive infrastructure. 

The compounded ecological impacts of capitalism and colonialism have rendered many communities and peoples – including Indigenous peoples and people of colour in North America – in situations where they are more vulnerable to climate change. 

The climate-justice movement has the opportunity to be a movement that is intersectional , connecting layers of sedimented injustices to current risks and threats. It should not just be a movement that seeks to lower carbon footprints so that the world of privileged people is preserved. Climate justice has to begin with the assumption that there is nothing normal about the environmental conditions of today, which were shaped largely by capitalism and colonialism. 

Climate-justice advocacy must involve being extremely appalled by the last several centuries of inaction to lower carbon emissions, which is not a new or unprecedented form of inaction. It is connected to generations of ecological violence that have not yet been reconciled, and are rarely acknowledged. 

Climate justice means calling out “false” solutions to mitigating climate change that seek to ease the energy transition for the fossil industry and privileged populations. Many of these false solutions involve mining, new infrastructure and exploitative profit and labour schemes that will generate further environmental and climate injustice.

Dr Adrienne Hollis

I think of climate justice as an important part of a larger issue, environmental justice, which I envision as a huge umbrella with many spokes. Each spoke is an interrelated issue – climate justice, racial justice, immigration justice, criminal justice, gender justice, etc. 

These issues matter – climate justice matters – because our environment is not just where we live, pray, play, work and learn, it is also who we are, how we are treated and why. People are not affected by these issues equally, whether through intent or indifference.

Climate justice matters because we are in an era of racial and social reckoning and ensuring that justice and equity are incorporated into our actions. Climate justice focuses on correcting decades of structural racism which affect communities of colour, poor communities, rural communities and non-English speaking communities more than any other. Remember, long before our brothers and sisters of colour screamed that they could not breathe at the hands of the justice system, they (we) were choking on environmental pollution resulting from racist practices.

Climate justice matters because it forces people to work with and protect communities bearing the brunt of devastating hurricanes and accompanying flooding, disproportionate exposures to toxic substances, chronic flooding, premature deaths, chronic illnesses and more. Through it, we can begin to address a multitude of issues such as infrastructure (including housing quality and affordability, transportation, roads), economic apartheid, food apartheid, mental and physical health, climate gentrification and others. You cannot address climate justice without addressing these issues. That is why it matters.

Dr Jalonne White-Newsome

In 2014, my five and seven-year-old daughters and I marched through the streets of New York with thousands of passionate people during the Peoples Climate March . The hope was that raising the consciousness of decision makers would move us closer to policy that would begin to address the root causes of climate change. Most importantly, the goal was to create systems that would actually protect black and brown folks in environments that were hazardous to their health and the wellbeing of their future generations. 

Why climate justice or environmental justice matters is not the question we should be asking. The question that has fuelled my work, my research, my advocacy and my ministry for the last 20-plus years has been simply this: Why do some people matter and other people do not? To answer that question, we must start with understanding what climate justice really is. 

Climate justice is an aspiration, a movement and a human right. It is not being afraid that every time it rains your home will flood, and being able to stay cool on extremely hot days. It is being able to afford “real” clean energy to power your households, public transportation, schools and senior living facilities. It is stopping the expansion of extractive industries, re-imagining solutions that benefit everyone and learning to value traditional scientific prediction models and mechanisms. 

It is preparing communities for the worst and ensuring easy, barrier-free access to relief and support to aid in the recovery after a climate disaster. It is realising that the toll on mental health is just as damaging as the levelling of a home in a storm, and accounting for that in the costs and solutions necessary to repair people’s lives.

It is acknowledging the destruction we have caused and showing our forgiveness to Mother Earth with our actions. It is sharing an understanding that black and brown people have suffered disproportionately from historic, systemic/institutional racism and environmental injustices that have made certain communities more vulnerable than others by no fault of their own. I long for the day when low-income, black, Indigenous and people of colour do not suffer disproportionately from the irresponsible stewardship that we all contribute to. 

I truly believe that each of us – in whatever role we play – has the power to achieve climate and environmental justice by ADAPT-ing: 

  • Acknowledging the harm
  • Demanding accountability
  • Addressing racism, power and privilege
  • Prioritising equity
  • Transforming systems.

And seven years after the climate march, climate justice still matters to me because I want to be able to say to my two young, beautiful brown-skinned daughters that there will be a Mother Earth for you and your children to enjoy. 

All people deserve to live free of fear, full of confidence that the infrastructure won’t fail and the places and people that have suffered multiple environmental insults for decades will be equitably resourced and prepared to live in our new climate reality.

Yeb Saño

Climate justice is an issue that should sit at the core of our societies. Since the dawn of the climate crisis, brought about by the industrialisation of the world, it has been the people least responsible who bear the brunt of its worst impacts.  

In the Philippines, it has been the poorest sectors – our farming and fishing communities – who have been struggling the hardest since climate change has altered the patterns that previously have been relied on for generations to take advantage of timings for planting, harvesting, sailing out to sea and other such folk knowledge. They are also the first to experience extreme weather events that are super-fuelled by climate change and they experience it the worst. Ironically, they also contribute the least to carbon emissions and are additionally at a disadvantage to commercial fishers and agro-industrial corporations that make large contributions to carbon emissions.

The climate crisis is a manifestation of the pervasive injustice that has brought us economic inequality, oppression, subjugation and exploitation. Pursuing climate justice therefore allows us to get to the fundamental root and truth of the human condition. The climate crisis profoundly threatens real lives and livelihoods. It is a real, clear and present danger to the realisation of basic human rights. 

How then do we pursue climate justice? We stand up against every kind of injustice. We must hold those responsible to account, make them stop the damage they willfully cause, and rally the whole world to end the fossil fuel era. 

This is the spirit behind the Philippines’ Climate Justice and Human Rights Petition against the top corporate carbon polluters called the “ carbon majors ”, which include the world’s biggest oil, gas, coal and cement companies, such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, BHP Billiton, Glencore, Suncor and ConocoPhillips, among many others. 

The complaint was filed by a range of climate-justice advocates and, as a result of the petition, the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights launched the National Inquiry on Climate Change (NICC). This probe looked into whether the world’s largest carbon producers are violating or threatening to violate the human rights of all Filipinos by their significant contribution to climate change and failing to reduce emissions, despite having the capacity to do so. 

Kaveh Madani

Climate justice matters because the scope of the climate change problem is not only limited to nature. This problem has a human dimension and when humans are involved, justice matters.

Obviously, we will not bear the climate change impacts fairly and equally. The marginalised, low income, Indigenous, minority and disadvantaged communities will be disproportionately impacted by global warming. They also have a much more limited capacity to mitigate climate change and cope with its consequences, compared to the wealthier groups. This means that climate change is going to increase the already significant inequalities around the world.

The discussions about climate justice are mostly focused on the disproportionate human “impacts” of climate change. But we must also worry about important inequalities in the levels of contribution to the “causes” of climate change. Justice principles call for taking historical responsibility for causing the problem into account. 

The wealthy nations’ resource-exhaustive, un-green economies together with their unsustainable and consumptive lifestyles created this problem. They have the ethical responsibility as well as the required capacity to take immediate climate action and help the poor nations. The people of the global south deserve the same quality of life as the people in the global north, but this remains unachievable for them unless there is a transfer of knowledge, technology and wealth from the advanced economies.

We must also care about the temporal and spatial dimensions of climate justice. Its temporal dimension necessitates paying attention to intergenerational climate justice and underlines the need for protecting the environmental rights of our children by taking climate action. The spatial dimension of climate justice reminds us about the heterogenous climate change impacts across space and geographic coordinates, calling for different levels of mitigation and adaptation efforts around the globe.

We have “unequal” responsibilities and levels of access to the necessary resources to secure an “equal” world under climate change.

Dr Niklas Höhne

People with disabilities have long been recognised as one of the groups living at the greatest risk of poverty, exposed to discrimination and continually facing attitudinal and accessibility barriers which prevent their participation in decision-making. They are, therefore, among those most impacted by climate change, whose human rights are most at risk of violation by inappropriate climate action and for whom true climate justice is essential. All of this is especially pertinent for people with disabilities living in low-income countries.

Achieving climate justice for all people with disabilities, so that efforts to adapt and mitigate its impact are achieved in a just, inclusive and egalitarian way, requires a transformation of economies and social systems. The necessary steps towards this transformation include ensuring meaningful participation of representative organisations of people with disabilities in climate policy forums and the development of climate adaptation and mitigation plans. This means ensuring that these processes – at all levels from global to national to local – are fully accessible. 

What is often forgotten is that people with disabilities are often natural problem solvers, used to finding solutions to overcome the barriers they face on an everyday basis. Taking a disability-inclusive approach means that these skills could bring innovative solutions to climate adaptation plans. 

As well as being a human right and a legal obligation, climate justice is an approach that will benefit everyone in society.

Prof Henry Shue

Climate justice means not allowing might (and wealth) to make right, but instead using power to protect the powerless. It has two dimensions: spatial, which is international justice, and temporal, which is intergenerational justice. In both dimensions climate justice is important because it grounds even greater urgency for ambitious mitigation than self-interest alone already does.

International climate justice means urgent ambitious mitigation in the form of investment in non-carbon energy infrastructure in less developed nations. This would allow them to develop even while climate change is slowed, by leap-frogging fossil-fuel infrastructure. Justice obligates us to assist with development and climate requires us to do so in ways that avoid increasing emissions. The wealthy developed nations have the resources to do this and the less developed do not. We control what they can do.

Intergenerational climate justice means urgent, ambitious mitigation in the form of non-carbon energy infrastructure in developed nations so that we do not trap future generations into a corner. If the global energy regime remains as unsustainable as it is, they will face choices between experimentation with untried, expensive and possibly inadequate technologies for carbon extraction and changes in lifestyle that generate social conflict and mass migration. Future generations will have to negotiate the global energy system we leave behind. We control what they must face.

Prof Chris Hilson

Climate justice matters both for its own sake because it is morally right, but also instrumentally. Without attention to it, government policy on climate change may face backlash from groups in society that can ill afford the changes. There is a risk that the costs of decarbonising, particularly home heating and transport, may fall disproportionately on the poor.

When thinking about climate justice, though, there is often a temptation to consider only this “poor” side of the equation. Important as this is, there is a danger that it draws attention away from the other side of the climate justice equation, which is the rich. Climate justice is also a matter of ensuring that the rich do not take up more than their fair share of the remaining, finite carbon budget. Superyachts, private jets and space travel by the super-rich certainly fit the unfair share category, but so too do the SUVs, frequent flights and excessive consumerism of many of the merely rich.

Climate justice also matters too much to be hijacked by those who use it for their own nefarious purposes. Sadly, we have started to see that in the UK in recent months. Some on the right of the Conservative party have been using climate justice as a convenient cloak to argue against important policy changes needed for the country to deliver on its net-zero promises. Suddenly, a wing of the party that was silent on the injustice of the politics of austerity after the financial crisis is supposedly concerned about how poorer households will afford to move away from gas boilers for home heating. This is a valid concern, but the “just” answer is government subsidy and support for those households – climate justice should not be used as a Trojan horse excuse for climate delayism.

Sakshi Aravind

For better or worse, climate justice is a largely undefined phrase. However, a phrase does not lose its significance or relevance because it is not articulated through a specific set of terms. Those of us working on the notions of climate justice or Indigenous environmental justice have used the “undefined” nature of climate justice to articulate it as a phrase that embraces social and economic justice and the emancipatory struggle of black, Indigenous and people of colour. 

I work on encounters between law and indigeneity within settler courts. For me, climate justice is our opportunity to rethink and reframe knowledge about what constitutes justice and how it must be a necessary corollary of antiracist, anticapitalist, and anticolonial struggle. It is also our biggest opportunity to rebuild a world led by Indigenous knowledge forms, worldviews and ways of living.

Climate justice starts with the return of Indigenous land and the recognition of Indigenous sovereignty. If we are to avert a planetary crisis, we will have to dismantle settler colonialism and imperialism. What we are missing from a meaningful climate justice discourse is the diversity of voices, especially those who have struggled against extractive, imperialist and colonial forces for their survival. 

While we understand environmental justice as a concept, it is doubtful if we have understood how environmental inequalities replicate in climate change, how racial injustices are aggravated in experiencing the full force of climate catastrophes. Climate justice is a point of re-education and relearning for most of the world, especially the global north.

There has been some conversation around Indigenous knowledge as the way out of current climate crises, particularly after the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report . Indigenous knowledge is not free of Indigenous politics or sovereignty claims. Indigenous knowledge is not an apparatus one can put in place to save the western nations from an apocalypse and then conveniently discard without ever addressing the primary reasons which led us to this predicament in the first place. Climate justice aims to understand Indigenous knowledge as emerging from Indigenous connection to the land and re-establishing plural Indigenous sovereignties that were never ceded. 

Dr Adelle Thomas

Climate change has no borders – emissions contributed by one country or group have global consequences. Climate justice underscores the unfairness of countries and groups that have contributed the least to climate change being most at risk.

For example, small island developing states collectively contribute less than 1% of emissions that drive climate change but are already suffering significant impacts and face existential risks as global temperatures rise. 

Climate justice helps us to put into context the significant impacts of climate change that we are already experiencing today. We can better recognise that impacts of climate change are experienced much differently by a middle-income family in a developed country than they are by a poor migrant in the developing world. Recognising these differential impacts must lead to just and equitable climate action that addresses the needs of those that are unfairly put at risk.

Dr Saleemul Huq

My view is that the question should be “why does climate injustice matter?” Climate justice is an abstract notion that is not easy to explain or understand, but climate injustice is clear and visible and needs to be rectified. 

In this reframing, the climate change issue can be characterised as pollution by rich people and rich countries adversely impacting poor people, in both rich and poor countries. This is morally wrong and every religion teaches that it is wrong. 

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Therefore, if we accept this premise, then it is incumbent on each and every person on the planet to take requisite actions to tackle climate change. For those of us whose personal carbon footprint is higher than the global average we must try to reduce wherever we can. But that is not enough, so we also need to mobilise with allies to push our respective political leaders to take the actions they have already agreed to do in the Paris Agreement but are not doing in practice.

Finally, we should also reach out to the victims of human-induced climate change in the most vulnerable communities in developing countries to express solidarity and support, and to help them adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and also deal with the loss and damage that is now a reality. 

Adrián Martinez

Justice is about acknowledging the rights of others. It is about respect and responsibility towards our community. Justice stands on the idea that we are accountable for our actions because we require peace and prosperity in our society. These values have been broken due to climate change.

Climate justice is a political movement born out of the unjust causes of climate change and the wilful irresponsibility of big carbon emitters. As our climate changes and its adverse effects destroy our communities across the globe, the unresolved questions of who is responsible and why there are no consequences for the harm caused inhibits peace and kills people. We call for justice because the current crisis is no longer fuelled by ignorance but by wilful greed and the immoral desire to provide no reparations for unjust harm.

Climate justice is about our right to have a community, live with dignity and see those who have harmed and profited be held accountable now.

Brandon Wu

Climate justice is the simple idea that those who have done the most to cause the climate crisis – and who have the most resources – must also do the most to fix it. In global terms, this means that wealthy countries like the US must lead by example when it comes to climate action by undertaking urgent emissions reductions at home and providing hugely ramped-up financial support for action in poorer countries.

The US obligation is enormous due to our historical pollution and national wealth. To even begin to approach our fair share , we must reduce emissions by 70% by 2030 and provide at least $800bn in international climate finance by 2030. To hold climate justice at the centre, these actions must be undertaken with the input and leadership of frontline communities, at home and abroad, to ensure no one is left behind.

A climate-just future is, thankfully, easy to imagine. Because of the nature of politics and power it may be hard to achieve, but given what is at stake, we have no choice but to fight for it.

Prof Kimberly Nicholas

We who have driven the most warming must drive the transformation to stop it. At the national level, this puts special responsibility on the US and Europe, where about 12% of the global population have spewed half the world’s fossil pollution. At the company level, it’s the 100 companies behind 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions. At the individual level, the super-rich “ polluter elite ” are clear offenders, but we can’t ignore those of us in the global richest 10%, earning $38,000 and up, who account for about half of household carbon pollution. 

A key element of climate justice is for high emitters to rapidly reduce our own emissions. By doing so, we leave more space for people who need their emissions to survive and we lessen their burden in facing increasing impacts of climate change they haven’t caused. Governments need to enact policies that stop allowing or incentivising climate destruction. Industries need a business plan that eliminates most of their climate pollution within the next 100 months and entirely stops adding carbon to the atmosphere soon after. 

Finally, high-emitting individuals also need to cut their own fossil energy overconsumption, most of which comes from frequent and long-distance plane and car travel . Meanwhile, the 3.6 billion poorest have room to triple their emissions to meet their needs. 

In a new perspective in Nature Energy led by Dr Kristian Steensen Nielsen , my colleagues and I argue for the transformative potential of the global elite – known as the middle class in many industrialised countries – taking five kinds of climate action. We can catalyse meaningful emissions reductions by reducing our own consumption; divesting our savings, pensions and investments from fossil fuels; through our personal and professional networks where we have influence; at work, and in community and civic life through our role in organisations; and as citizens, from voting to to participating in social movements. 

Osprey Orielle Lake

False solutions, white supremacy, colonisation and patriarchy have no place in any climate action plan. To confront this crisis, we need coherence across policy sectors, from trade to military spending to development, to confront these interconnections globally. It is imperative that governments and financial institutions adopt a just transition, care economies and feminist policies and frameworks. 

Climate justice requires us to not only address the climate crisis but to entirely dismantle the structures that brought us to this moment. Climate justice also requires us to invest in systemic change that centres care for land, women, frontline communities and community-led solutions. 

From food sovereignty to forest protection, fossil-fuel resistance to feminist climate policies, Indigenous rights to the rights of nature, women and frontline communities have been demonstrating climate-just solutions for decades. We need rights-based solutions grounded in justice and ecological integrity, while simultaneously building a new economy predicated on gender and racial justice, Indigenous rights, rights of nature and rights of future generations. 

There is a path forward for mitigating the worst impacts of the climate crisis and securing our collective future – however we must act rapidly. Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International has organised a call to action for governments and financial institutions in the lead-up to COP26 demanding immediate climate action, signed by over 120 organizations representing millions of people. We can act now and we must act now!

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Climate change is a matter of justice – here’s why

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Climate justice visual

What is climate justice and why does it matter?

Climate justice means putting equity and human rights at the core of decision-making and action on climate change.

The concept has been widely used to refer to the unequal historical responsibility that countries and communities bear in relation to the climate crisis. It suggests that the countries, industries, businesses, and people that have become wealthy from emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases have a responsibility to help those affected by climate change, particularly the most vulnerable countries and communities, who often are the ones that have contributed the least to the crisis.

There are many facets to climate justice. Below, we provide an overview of a few of them.

  • Structural inequalities : Even within the same country, the impacts of climate change may be felt unevenly due to structural inequalities based on race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status.  Women are more severely affected by climate change impacts , because they have access to fewer resources to adapt and cope with abrupt changes. People with disabilities are at increased risk of the adverse impacts of climate change, including threats to their health, food security, access to water energy, and sanitation, and livelihoods, particularly in developing countries. Indigenous Peoples , who protect 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, are facing increasing threats and risks to their lives, livelihoods, and traditional knowledge.   
  • Socioeconomic inequalities : The impacts of climate change and the resources needed to address climate change impacts are distributed unequally around the world. Low-income countries, and vulnerable populations within those countries, are more susceptible to climate-induced loss and damage. Globally, the 10 percent of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute 34–45 percent of global household greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50 percent contribute 13–15 percent.  
  • Intergenerational inequity : Children and young people today have not contributed to the climate crisis in a significant way but will bear the full force of climate change impacts as they advance through life . Because their human rights are threatened by the decisions of previous generations, their rights must be centred in all climate decision-making and action.

Why is climate justice important?

Climate change is a human rights issue. All people should have the agency to live life with dignity. However, the climate crisis is causing loss of lives, livelihoods, language, and culture, putting many at risk of food and water shortages, and triggering displacement and conflict.

The climate crisis impedes the right to good health as well. Rising temperatures, increased frequency of extreme weather events, polluted air and water contribute to significant health impacts, including heat stress, disease outbreaks, malnutrition, and trauma from having lived through disasters.

The impacts are more severe for vulnerable populations who have limited means to adapt to climate change impacts. Between 2010 and 2020, human mortality from floods, droughts, and storms was 15 times higher in highly vulnerable regions , compared to regions with very low vulnerability.

The climate crisis also has impacts on a country’s education system. When temperatures are too high or extreme weather events hit, for example, it can damage infrastructure and damage educational institutions, threaten the ability of parents to send their children to school, impacting the futures of young generations.

Climate justice is also an important aspect of just transition toward a sustainable future. Local communities, especially informal workers and other vulnerable and marginalized populations can be harmed in this transition if not protected and consulted. For example, there are increasing concerns around human rights violations related to mining for minerals needed to produce batteries for electric vehicles.

Currently, those who have least contributed to the climate crisis are being disproportionately affected by it. Climate justice suggests that the responsibilities in addressing climate change should be divided according to who is contributing most to the problem , while addressing systemic, socioeconomic, and intergenerational inequalities.

Photo: Markus Spiske/Pexels

Photo credit: Markus Spiske/Pexels

Tuvalu Ministry of Justice

Photo credit: Tuvalu Ministry of Justice/Facebook

What are the obstacles to achieving climate justice?

There are many challenges that countries and communities face on the road to achieving climate justice.

One obstacle is lack of transparency and inclusion in climate negotiations and plans . The voices of women, youth, Indigenous Peoples, and marginalized groups are integral to the future of our planet, and it is essential that they have access to platforms where they can participate in decision-making and implementation of policies and plans. However, underrepresented voices may also be victims of ‘tokenism,’ meaning that they are sometimes included with the intention of appearing inclusive but having only marginal roles or lacking empowerment.

Another obstacle is lack of access to education and resources on the environment, climate change, and human rights . This prevents people, often those most affected by the problem, from making the necessary connections and participating in the relevant policy discussions. Language barriers can often pose a challenge as well, especially for local communities and Indigenous Peoples participating in decision-making and negotiations.

In many countries, environmental activists and defenders face dangerous consequences for demanding environmental rights and justice . They may be jailed, threatened, or subjected to violence, forced disappearances, or even murder. This creates an unsafe environment for defenders to come forward and demand justice .

At the global level, more vulnerable countries have been advocating for more financial and technical support from rich countries for decades. While there has been some recent progress on potential finance for loss and damage, many estimates have concluded that rich countries have yet to reach the $100 billion annual climate finance political commitment , which was agreed in 2009 and expected to start in 2020. Countries are already working on coming up with a new negotiated annual goal as the existing target is not adequate or science-based and more finance is needed annually to address increasing global warming.

How is UNDP supporting countries to tackle climate justice issues?

UNDP has a long history of working with countries on rule of law, human rights and access to justice, including issues of environmental and climate justice , such as constitutional reform, the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, and other environment-related human rights. UNDP has also supported the development and implementation of environmental and climate change laws and policies; and the access to information, public participation, and justice on environmental matters.

More and more countries are recognizing human rights in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) . Through the Climate Promise initiative, UNDP works to make the revision of the NDCs under the Paris Agreement a more inclusive and rights-based process. This includes guidance to work with youth in a meaningful way and advance gender equality in climate action plans . UNDP is working to also ensure Indigenous Peoples are also included in the NDC process.

Many countries are taking action to bring justice to the centre of environmental and climate issues.

Here are some examples of progress around the world:

Viet Nam is working with the business sector to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, Panama and Argentina are working on access to information and justice and public participation in the public and policy dialogue on the environment, including their engagement with the Escazú Agreement –the world’s first binding treaty to address environmental human rights– which recently entered into force.

UNDP in Lebanon is strengthening the capacity of the Ministry of Environment on environmental policy development in terms of laws, regulations and other policy mechanisms.

Türkiye is providing training to young lawyers on climate justice to educate them on how to protect the rights of individuals and communities that are threatened by climate change and how to induce governments and companies to adopt more climate-friendly policies and practices.

Climate justice visual

What is the future of climate justice?

The voices and demands of vulnerable communities and groups are being increasingly acknowledged on the international agenda. Activists are taking to the streets around the world to demand change. Young climate leaders have been a powerful force in driving attention to issues of intergenerational climate justice.

In 2022, the UN General Assembly declared that access to a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment is a universal human right . The declaration recognizes that the impact of climate change, the unsustainable management and use of natural resources, the pollution of air, land and water, the unsound management of chemicals and waste, and the resulting loss in biodiversity interfere with the effective enjoyment of all human rights. It is expected to be a catalyst for action and to empower ordinary people to hold their governments accountable.

Acknowledging the call of children and young people around the world, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child emphasized children’s right to a healthy environment with a special focus on climate change. Over 16,000 children were consulted in the drafting process, and the final document clarified the obligations of countries and the business sector.

Small Island Developing States have also been at the forefront of climate justice advocacy in negotiations. In March 2023, the UN General Assembly adopted a historical resolution requesting the International Court of Justice to provide an advisory opinion on countries’ obligations towards climate change . Stemming from an idea of students in the Pacific, the resolution was put forward by the Pacific Island state of Vanuatu, and supported by a core group of 17 countries. It asks the Court to give an opinion on the obligations of countries under international law to ensure the protection of the “planet’s climate system”. The resolution also requests an opinion on the legal consequences of causing significant harm to the climate system, in particular for small island states and people of present and future generations.

Climate litigation more broadly is also on the rise . Citizens, youth, and communities are increasingly taking governments and companies to court to address the climate and environment-related harms and injustices they are facing.

At COP27, an  historic decision for new funding arrangements, including a new fund, was established to help particularly vulnerable countries and communities respond to climate-induced loss and damage. This will help to provide new and additional finance specifically for addressing loss and damage for those most impacted.

It is clear the push for climate justice will only gain momentum as time goes on and the impacts of climate change become more pronounced.

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It’s time to address the devastating injustice of loss and damage.

A month after Cyclone Pam struck Tuvalu in 2015, the main square of Nui Island was still under water. Photo: Silke von Brockhausen/UNDP

A month after Cyclone Pam struck Tuvalu in 2015, the main square of Nui Island was still under water. Photo: Silke von Brockhausen/UNDP

In pictures: How climate change is causing loss and damage around the world

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Environmental justice and climate change policies

Climate change is an environmental justice issue because it is likely to cause disproportionate harm to low-income countries and low-income populations in higher-income countries. While climate change mitigation and adaptation policies may be able to minimize these harms, they could make them worse unless they are developed and implemented with an eye toward promoting justice and fairness. Those who view climate change as an environmental justice issue should be wary of endorsing policies that sound like they promote the cause of social and economic justice, but in fact do not. While climate change policies may help to mitigate the effects of climate change on poor people, there is no guarantee that they will be just at the local, national, or global level. Those who care about global climate justice must remain actively engaged in policy formation and implementation to ensure that justice does not get shortchanged in the response to global warming.


The quest for environmental justice has its roots in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. 1 At the outset, environmental justice advocates and researchers focused on local environmental disparities related to race, ethnicity, and income. A defining moment for environmental justice occurred in 1982, when thousands of residents of Shocco Township, a low-income community of color in Warren County, North Carolina, protested against the state's decision to locate a disposal site in their vicinity for dirt that a private company had contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl. 2 Although the residents did not stop the state from locating the waste site in their neighborhood, their efforts helped launch a national, grassroots social and economic justice movement. 3 In the ensuing decades, hundreds of scientific studies have described disproportionate exposures to environmental hazards and conditions that can create health risks, including air and water pollution, hazardous and municipal waste, industrial chemicals, pesticides, lead, noise, unsafe housing, and automobile traffic. 4 Environmental justice discourse and scholarship has expanded beyond a focus on race, ethnicity, and income to address environmental health inequalities related to age, occupation, and infirmity, as well as inequalities at the national and international level. 5 Today, the environmental justice movement is a powerful social and political force and environmental justice considerations have been incorporated into US government laws and policies at the federal and state level. 6

Since the early 2000s, climate change has emerged as an important environmental justice issue because (a) it is caused, in part, by human activities that produce greenhouse gas emissions (such as combustion of fossil fuels) or reduce the biosphere's capacity to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (such as deforestation); and (b) it disproportionally burdens low-income populations and countries, which tend to produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than high-income populations and countries. 7 Unless drastic measures are taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global average surface temperatures are expected to rise between 2.1 and 3.5 °C by 2100. Climate change has numerous environmental and public health impacts, including increased flooding, droughts, heat waves, forest fires, tropical storms, and infectious diseases; and decreased biodiversity, food security, and safe drinking water supplies. 8

In 2004, Hurricane Katrina brought climate justice issues to the forefront of public policy discussions, when it decimated the US Gulf Coast, killing 986 people and causing billions of dollars in property damage. 9 The hurricane did most of its damage by causing massive flooding, which disproportionally impacted low-income communities and communities of color because they were living in flood-prone areas and lacked the social and economic resources to protect themselves from harm or recover from it. 10 The mortality rate due to the hurricane for African Americans was 1.7 to 4 times higher than for Caucasians and 51% of the deceased were African American. 11 Scientists hypothesized that abnormally-high water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, due, in part to global warming, contributed to the size and force of the hurricane, which intensified from a Category 3 to a Category 5 while moving across the Gulf. 12 Scholars and advocates argued that Hurricane Katrina exposed injustices related to race, ethnicity, and income and that mitigating and adapting to climate change should be a key objective in the struggle for social and economic justice. 13

Other devasting natural disasters around the globe have also illuminated the connection between climate change and environmental justice. 14 In 2010, for example, flooding caused by heavy monsoon rains covered 20% of Pakistan's land area, displaced 20 million people, and killed over 5,000 people. An analysis of atmospheric conditions indicated that the flooding in 2010 was part of a trend toward heavier monsoon rains caused by climate change. 15 Pakistan is the 34th poorest country in the world; 24.3% of the population is below the poverty level. 16

While there is little doubt that climate change raises issues of environmental justice, policy proposals designed to address climate change may impede the goals of the environmental justice movement if they are not developed and implemented with an eye toward reducing socioeconomic inequalities. 17 According to Schlosberg and Collins:

In any climate policy debate, environmental justice activists are suspicious of corporate or consumerist responses to climate change; they see such approaches as catering to those with wealth, rather than the already vulnerable. More specifically, there has been tension around the key policy suggested by mainstream environmental organizations—to raise the price and/or limit the supply of carbon-based energy. The concern is that any policy to reduce carbon emissions…will inevitably raise the price of energy. That, of course, hurts the poor most. 18

In the early 1990s, tensions between the environmental justice movement and global environmental organizations emerged when environmental justice advocates asserted that international environmental organizations were racist and elitist and more concerned with protecting endangered species, the wilderness, and the climate than with promoting social and economic justice. 19 Leaders of the Gulf Coast Tenant Leadership Development Project and the Southwest Organizing Project sent letters to 10 environmental organizations accusing them of not representing their interests and supporting policies that disrupt their communities. The letters advocated for opening a dialogue that could lead to the advancement of overlapping environmental agendas. 20 Although climate change policy was not the only issue that created friction between environmental justice groups and international environmental organizations, it was a key concern. 21

In this article, I will examine potential conflicts between climate change policies and environmental justice. While environmental justice groups and environmental organizations have been working together toward common goals for at least a decade now, 22 environmental justice advocacy groups were right to be concerned that international environmental organizations might not protect their interests, because promoting environmental justice requires assiduous attention to the development and implementation of policies that reduce—or at least do not increase—socioeconomic and health-related inequalities. To ensure that climate policies promote environmental justice, environmental justice advocates and leaders should be engaged in the policy-making process so their concerns are addressed, and they should be wary of signing on to policies that sound good in theory but do not, in the end, promote social and economic justice.


Before beginning this analysis, we need to say a few words about the concept of environmental justice. Justice is about fairness concerning the distribution of benefits and burdens or fairness with respect to the procedures (or processes) that distribute benefits and burdens. 23 Benefits include things that most people would want in order to have a fulfilling life, such as nutrition, shelter, health, income, opportunities, safety, and fundamental rights; burdens include things that undermine benefits, such as malnutrition, disease, poverty, crime, discrimination, and so on. 24 Environmental justice can therefore be understood as fairness concerning the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens or fairness concerning the procedures or processes that distribute environmental benefits and burdens. 25 Environmental burdens could encompass many things that can adversely impact health and well-being, including air and water pollution, pesticides, industrial chemicals, infectious diseases, flooding, noise pollution, racial or ethnic discrimination, and crime. Environmental benefits could include access to greenspaces, safe housing, nutrition food, or health care. 26

Given this conceptual framework, environmental injustice could arise because a community, population, or entire nation is unfairly impacted by environmental burdens or has little meaningful input into decisions related to those burdens, both of which happened in the Shocco case. Another well-known example of environmental injustice is Louisiana's infamous “cancer alley,” an 85-mile-long strip of land stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that contains 150 petrochemical companies. People who live in this area are exposed to above average levels of toxic air pollutants from the petrochemical industry, including formaldehyde, benzene, and ethyl oxide. Most of the residents of this area are people of color with an income near the poverty line or below. 27 The area became known as cancer alley because studies have shown that incidences of some types of cancer among people living in the area are significantly above the national average. Also, the region contains numerous cancer clusters in smaller areas. 28 However, some studies have shown that cancer rates in the region are not above average rates in Louisiana or the United States, and that other factors, including poverty and lifestyle, may explain observed differences in the rates of some types of cancer. 29 Even if adverse health outcomes cannot be conclusively proven, residents of cancer alley are clearly victims of procedural injustice, because they have not had significant input into land use decisions that can affect their health, due to their lack of political and economic power. 30


As discussed above, climate change is environmental justice issue because it is likely to disproportionally and adversely impact poor people throughout the world. 31 It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that policies that aim to mitigate climate change or help people adapt to it are likely to promote social and economic justice, which is what many scholars initially thought was the case. 32 However, as economists, social scientists, and political theorists began to examine climate change policy proposals more closely, they realized that these policies might not promote social and economic justice and might even have the opposite effect.

Consider, for example, proposals that seek to reduce the use of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel emissions, chiefly carbon dioxide, contribute to global warming by means of the greenhouse effect. 33 Other products of fossil fuel extraction and use, such as methane, are also potent greenhouse gases. 34 Most climate change policy experts agree that to mitigate climate change the world must shift away from an economy the depends on fossil fuels toward one that relies on alternative sources of energy, such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, or nuclear power, that is, a “green economy.” 35 To achieve this transition, it will be necessary to adopt policies that drastically reduce the use of fossil fuels through such strategies as imposing high taxes on fossil fuels, or implementing carbon emission cap and trade system for larger emitters (such as electric utilities and factories). 36 However, these strategies are likely to substantially increase the costs of energy and decrease economic growth, both of which disproportionally harm poor people. 37 Because poor people spend a larger percentage of their income on energy than rich people, policies that increase the costs of energy are inherently regressive. 38 Lack of affordable energy is a significant factor in poverty, malnutrition, and disease. 39 Climate change mitigation experts also argue for phasing out fossil fuel production, which could put millions of low-income, low-skill people out of work and devastate local economies. 40 Another proposal for mitigating climate change is to increase the use of biofuels derived from corn, soybeans, sugarcane, and other crops. However, using agricultural commodities to produce fuel can drive up the cost of food, which also has a regressive impact. 41

It is worth noting that some economists and policy analysts argue that climate change mitigation policies will not disproportionately impact low-income populations in the long run because the environmental, public health, and economic benefits of climate change mitigation will far outweigh short-term economic harms. However, most researchers who have studied the issue have concluded that climate change mitigation policies will disproportionally harm low-income populations unless measures are taken to shield them from the disruptive and inequitable impacts of these policies. 42

Because climate change adaptation does not involve major transformations of the economy, it will probably have less of an impact on socioeconomic inequalities than climate change mitigation. 43 Nevertheless, climate change adaptation policies also raise issues concerning justice because adaptation projects—and their effects—may be distributed unequally. 44 For example, erecting levees to control flooding may protect high-property value areas but exacerbate flooding in low-property value areas, as has happened in Louisiana since it was first settled by Europeans. 45 Building codes designed to protect people from natural disasters related to climate change can drive up the cost of housing, which disproportionally impacts poor people. 46 Greenspaces built to combat urban heating could benefit-rich neighborhoods more than poor ones, unless they are planned with an eye toward equity. 47

By calling attention to the possible unjust effects of climate change policies, I do not mean to imply that there are not good reasons for addressing climate change, since injustice within and among nations is likely to get much worse if we do not take effective action to deal with climate change. Also, climate change is likely to have adverse impacts on the entire human population and biosphere, irrespective of justice concerns. 48 To promote justice at the local, national, and international level, climate change policies must be developed and implemented in a manner that protects the interests of low-income nations and low-income people in higher income nations. 49 Is this likely to occur? Let's consider this question from the perspective of international and national justice.


To understand the relationship between climate change policies and international justice, it is important to discuss two opposing views of international justice, cosmopolitanism and nationalism. While it may seem obvious to most readers of this article that climate change is unjust at the global level, not everyone shares this viewpoint. Those who believe that we should take steps to mitigate climate change, as a matter of international justice, assume a particular view of justice known as cosmopolitanism, i.e., the view that justice is relationship among people, regardless of where they happen to live in the world. 50 Nationalism, by contrast, is the view that justice is relationship among people living within an autonomous nation or state. 51 Nationalism has a long history dating back to ancient Greek philosophy, and has been defended by social contract theorists, including Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, and as well as contemporary theorists, such as Rawls and Nagel. 52 Cosmopolitanism, which is a more recent development, has been defended by Beitz, Nussbaum, Pogge, Singer, and others. 53

I will not take a stance on the dispute between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. I would like to point out, however, that this is not merely an academic debate because it has implications for how political leaders and engaged citizens think about questions of international justice. 54 While nations are free to act on their own to address climate change, and many have, climate change mitigation requires a high degree of international cooperation, because it is a global phenomenon. Nationalist political leaders tend to evaluate climate change policies in terms of the interests of their nation. For most countries, mitigating climate change coincides with the national interest. However, some nations at northern latitudes, such as Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden, may benefit from global warming. 55 Even nations that do not benefit from climate change may put their national interests far above the interests of other nations when it comes to climate change policy, as has happened during climate change treaty negotiations. 56 Widespread acceptance of the nationalist approach could therefore make it difficult to achieve international cooperation on climate change issues. The cosmopolitan approach, by contrast, has very different implications for international relations because political leaders who adopt this approach may be willing to take actions that promote international justice at the expense of their own nation's interests. It should come as little surprise, therefore, that scholars, scientists, and activists who view climate change as a matter of global justice lean toward a cosmopolitan view of justice. 57

One of the main critiques of cosmopolitanism is that it is an ideal theory that is out of step with geopolitical realities, such as the problems with achieving international cooperation and the influence of nationalism. 58 For cosmopolitanism to be an effective approach to international justice, a strong form of global governance is needed to enforce treaties and basic human rights, deter warfare, and transfer wealth from rich to poor countries. 59 However, the world currently does not have a global governance system that is capable of promoting cosmopolitan ideals, and none is likely to emerge in the foreseeable future, because nationalism remains an important political movement and is on the rise in many parts of the world. 60

Because cosmopolitanism is not uniformly accepted as an approach to international justice, it may be difficult to develop and implement climate change agreements that promote global justice. Political and economic rivalries that have influenced the formation and implementation of agreements designed to minimize global warming may interfere with efforts to ensure that climate change mitigation agreements are just at a global level. For example, the Kyoto Protocol required developed nations to meet greenhouse gas emission targets but exempted developing nations to allow these countries to burn fossil fuels at current levels to support their economies. 61 The rationale for including this provision in the treaty was to protect developing nations from the adverse economic effects of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. However, this provision proved to be controversial, and many countries argued that all nations, not just developed nations, should do their part to mitigate climate change. 62 India, for example, was exempted from the Kyoto Protocol, but India is a highly industrialized developing nation that produces huge amounts of greenhouse gases. 63 While China was not exempted from the Kyoto Protocol, political leaders in the United States and other countries were concerned that China would not live up to the requirements of the treaty and would use it to gain an economic advantage over countries that abide by the treaty. 64

Political and economic tensions impacted the drafting of the Paris Agreement in 2015, which does not exempt any signatory countries. The Paris Agreement is more flexible than the Kyoto Protocol because it does not require signatory countries to accept specific greenhouse gas emissions targets. The Paris Agreement sets a goal of preventing the global climate from warming more than 1.5 °C above by 2100 and calls upon signatory countries to abide by their own, nationally defined contributions toward this goal. 65 During the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, high-income countries pledged to provide $100 billion to low- and middle-income countries to help them adapt to climate change. However, this pledge has not been met. Although high-income countries reaffirmed their pledge at the recent Glasgow Climate Conference, the prospects for meeting this financial commitment are not good, especially given the global economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 66


Climate change policies also pose challenges for promoting justice within nations. As noted earlier, policies that attempt to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels are likely to disproportionally impact the poor by increasing energy prices, which will have wide-ranging impacts on the costs of transportation, electricity, heating, food, and consumer goods. Also, reducing the use of coal and other fossil fuels will lead to job losses for millions of low-skilled, low-income people, the erosion of taxes bases, and the devastation of local economies built around fossil fuel extraction.

Environmentalists, economists, and policy analysts have become increasingly aware of these uneven effects of climate change mitigation policies and have argued that there needs to be a just transition to a green economy. While there is no universally accepted notion of what constitute a “just transition,” policies that seek to promote this goal include funding to retrain or reeducate displaced workers to prepare them for green energy jobs or other types of employment; funding for social services for displaced workers and their families; and income subsidies or tax credits for poor people to offset rising energy costs. 67

A just transition to a green economy may be difficult to achieve due to lack of knowledge about the social, psychological, and economic impacts of the transition, unintended consequences of well-meaning policies (such as fraud, abuse, and corruption), and lack of political will to adopt policies that shield the poor from the impacts of the transition. Also, powerful economic and political forces, such as oil, coal, and electric companies, as well as leaders from states or regions likely to be harmed by the phasing out of fossil fuels, are likely to oppose just transition policies every step of the way. Environmental groups that make public pronouncements about supporting a just transition to a green economy may ultimately be more concerned about lowering carbon emissions than protecting the poor.

There is widespread agreement that a transition away from dependence on fossil fuels to alternative forms of energy is inevitable, since supplies of oil, coal, and natural gas will not last forever. The main areas of ethical/policy disagreement are how fast this transition should occur and how much it should be driven by social and economic policies, as opposed to market forces and the natural course of scientific discovery and technical innovation. To take effective action to mitigate climate change, the transition must occur in the next 20 years or so. 68 However, there is a trade-off between speed and equity, and the faster the transition occurs the more likely it is to have inequitable impacts. The unavoidable reality is that major transformations in the economy, such as the industrial revolution and the globalization of manufacturing, are extremely disruptive and often have outcomes that many would view as unfair or unjust. This is likely to occur when the world transitions toward a green economy, despite the adoption of well-meaning policies aimed at softening the blow.

Before concluding this section, it is also important to mention that there may also be some difficulties with developing and implementing equitable climate adaptation policies, because wealthy and powerful groups may seek to protect their interests at the expense of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. As mentioned previously, the construction of levees in Louisiana protected properties with high values at the expense of lower-value properties and contributed to the environmental injustice brought about by Hurricane Katrina. The same type of power dynamic is likely to play out repeatedly, as towns, cities, counties, and states make decisions about efforts adapt to climate change, such as building structures to prevent erosion and flooding, such as seawalls, dams, dikes, jetties, canals; locating populations away from areas prone to flooding, mudslides, or wildfires; preserving and restoring forests and wetlands; protecting fisheries; and building greenspaces. 69 To promote justice in climate change adaptation, it is important to protect the interests of marginalized groups and to curb the influence of powerful groups on these decisions. 70


Climate change is an environmental justice issue because it is likely to cause disproportionate harm to low-income countries and low-income populations in higher-income countries. While climate change mitigation and adaptation policies may be able to minimize these harms, they could make them worse unless they are developed and implemented with an eye toward promoting justice and equity. The quest for environmental justice is part of the larger struggle for social, political, and economic justice. 71 Those who view climate change as an environmental justice issue should be wary of endorsing policies that sound like they promote the cause of social and economic justice, but in fact do not. While climate change policies may help to mitigate the effects of climate change on poor people, there is no guarantee that they will be just at the local, national, or global level. Those who care about global climate justice must remain actively engaged in policy formation and implementation to ensure that justice does not get shortchanged in the response to global warming.

Because climate change policies are likely to have various economic, social, environmental, and public health effects that have differential impacts on communities, populations, and nations, public discourse and scholarly inquiry should identify and describe these effects and consider the fairness of different distributions of benefits and burdens and trade-offs among competing values. Representatives from socioeconomically disadvantaged and vulnerable groups need to have a prominent place in these discussions so that their concerns will be addressed, otherwise climate change policies may not advance the cause of environmental justice.


This research was supported by the Intramural Program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), National Institutes of Health (NIH). It does not represent the view of the NIEHS, NIH, or US government.

David B. Resnik is a Bioethicist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health. Dr. Resnik has published over 300 articles and 10 books on various topics on ethical, philosophical, and legal issues in science, technology, and medicine and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He serves on several editorial boards and is an Associate Editor of the journal Accountability in Research .


The author declares no conflict of interest.

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Science News

‘on the move’ examines how climate change will alter where people live.

Abrahm Lustgarten zooms in on how global warming will affect the United States

A photograph of flames near houses in Chino Hills, Calif., during the 2020 Blue Ridge Fire

As the risk of wildfires grows in the American West (the 2020 Blue Ridge Fire in California, shown), some residents may look for other places to live.

David McNew/Getty Images

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By Saima Sidik

April 3, 2024 at 10:30 am

climate injustice essay

On the Move Abrahm Lustgarten Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30

Ellen Herdell’s nerves were nearing a breaking point. The fortysomething, lifelong Californian had noticed her home was increasingly threatened by wildfires. After relatives lost their house to a blaze and the constant threat traumatized her 9-year-old daughter, Herdell found herself up at 3 a.m. one night in 2020 searching Zillow for homes in Vermont.

She’s not alone. Across the United States, people facing extreme fires, storms, floods and heat are looking for the escape hatch. In On the Move , Abrahm Lustgarten examines who these people are, where they live, where climate change may cause them to move and how this reshuffling will impact the country ( SN: 5/12/20 ).

At about 300 pages, the book is a relatively quick read, but Lustgarten’s reporting is deep. Leaning on interviews with such high-profile sources as former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and on published research, Lustgarten explains the scientific and political sides of climate migration. Anecdotes from people across the socioeconomic spectrum reveal the mind-sets of people at the front lines of the climate crisis. And the author’s decades of experience as a climate journalist result in a particularly accessible analysis of the insurance landscape, which has long lent a false sense of economic safety to people living in places vulnerable to climate change.

Where will climate migrants end up? Lustgarten looks to scientists and economists for answers. Ecologist Marten Scheffer, for example, has repurposed tools for predicting where plants will thrive to identify zones that humans will find most habitable in the future.

But the book offers no list of the best places to live, as “safe” climate is only one consideration. Other necessities and comforts will also be factors, and some people won’t have the resources to move to an optimal spot. Like Herdell, Lustgarten is a Californian who has watched his state burn. Will he or Herdell leave? To find out, you’ll have to read the book.

Buy On the Move from Science News is a affiliate and will earn a commission on purchases made from links in this article.

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Why Having Children Made Me More, Not Less, Hopeful That We Can Fight the Climate Crisis

By Megan Hunter

Image may contain Photography Adult Person Head and Face

When I had my first child at the age of 25, I was, like many new parents, overwhelmed by the strength of my love for him, and by his vulnerability. I would push his buggy down the polluted local high street, unable to quite process the fragility of his tiny head poking above the blankets, surrounded by dust and fumes from passing cars.

I had grown up with a sense of doom about the environment, and in my 20s this only deepened, the anxiety broadening to include my children and their future. I remember an apocalyptic climate-themed front page of the newspaper beside the hospital bed where I lay with my second baby shortly after her birth. There was guilt, in bringing children into this world, alongside the inevitable fears, both large and small. When you have a child you see their death over and over, in the accidents that could happen, all the ways you could fail them. And in the climate crisis, this existential fear—and remorse—was rendered so much larger, planetary in scale. By the time I was writing my first novel in 2016, it seemed inevitable that the book, set in the near future as a woman gives birth to her first child, would take place in a world of climate disaster and upheaval: an imagined time when London is completely under water.

But as I wrote I found, in amongst despair and destruction, chaos and loss, there remained a thread of hope. This came from the protagonist’s baby, of course—from his first smiles, his crawling, his discovery of first foods amongst scarcity—but also from all the other loves in the book, for family and friends, even for strangers, bonds formed in extremity. In my own life, my children would constantly inspire me with their passionate delight in the world, but I was also struck by the relationships I formed with other women, and by the kindness of people who didn’t even know me. Once, when my toddler was having a tantrum, and my newborn baby was screaming in her buggy, a woman in a park knelt down beside me as I tried to pick my son off the ground. “You are not alone,” she said. I didn’t see her again, but I never forgot that moment.

Now, nearly nine years later, the book I wrote— The End We Start From —has become a film with the same name, adapted by Alice Birch, directed by Mahalia Belo, and starring Jodie Comer . Alongside my joy in the film itself, in how moving it is to see my book come to life in such a beautiful way, there is a sadness in how it has become all the more relevant to our climate-threatened world. As the narrator of my novel states: “This is what you don’t want, we realize. What no one ever wanted: for the news to be relevant.”

It does feel, in many ways, that there are now even fewer reasons to be hopeful, with the film’s setting now seeming less a dystopian future and more a contemporary story about the times we live in, with the UK once again ravaged by flooding , the climate emergency becoming more urgent while political solutions are inadequate and compromised by a profit-driven economy. I have often felt that the time since my children were born can only be characterised by an increasing sense of despair in relation to the climate, cumulative disappointments that seem to point solely to catastrophe.

But as I watched the film, I found myself drawn again to the love it depicts, how this love emerges from the flood waters, damaged as the city is, but still alive, still forceful. One of the most hopeful images in the film is of two mothers supporting and protecting each other, stronger through their friendship, singing as they walk through a sodden landscape. I was struck again by the thought that hope is not the same as optimism; it isn’t based on facts, or predictions. It comes from the refusal to give up, just as the unnamed heroine of the book and film can never give up, must always fight to survive, for herself, her son, for all those she loves.

It doesn’t seem to me that this is a passive kind of hope, a wishing for the best while sitting back and doing nothing. It’s a hope based on love itself, of what love drives us to. Whether for our children, our parents, our friends, love compels us to want a better future. And, crucially, this future relies on our care extending beyond those we are related to: it needs to go beyond self-interest, beyond even our personal ties—like that stranger who showed me kindness in the park—to a habitable, more equal world for everyone. I’ve long held the belief that hope can broaden our outlook. Though my hope may, in one sense, have started in my child, in his freshness in the world as I pushed his buggy along the street, it has gained strength in its expansion, in a wider view that encompasses a better, fairer world for all.

With my children now both at secondary school, I see how motherhood—and the hope it inspires—has propelled me to take action; to help create that better world. Now, they have their own fears and speculations; there are difficult questions about how we should live, and what their future will be like. As parents, all you want to do is reassure, and sometimes that doesn’t feel possible. But hope encourages me to keep going, to push beyond the limits of my own home, my own family, and—just as books and films do—to broaden the horizons of my life. When I wrote The End We Start From —and when I watched the film—this felt like something the story can offer, now: some small, steadfast image of a new beginning, even in the midst of disaster.

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‘The End We Start From’ by Megan Hunter is published by Picador. The film is out now.

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March 24, 2024

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School's out: How climate change is already badly affecting children's education

by Caitlin M Prentice, Francis Vergunst, Helen Louise Berry and Kelton Minor, The Conversation

School's out: how climate change is already badly affecting children's education

Schools across South Sudan have been ordered to close as a heat wave of 45°C sweeps across the country. In recent years, severe flooding has already caused major disruptions to schooling in South Sudan where, on average, children complete less than five years of formal education across their lives .

As researchers interested in both climate change and learning, we've been surprised that most public debate in this area concerns how best to teach children about climate change as part of the curriculum. Recently, we examined a less discussed, but arguably much more consequential, question: How is climate change impacting children's education worldwide?

In a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change , we reviewed studies linking climate change-related events or "climate stressors" to education outcomes. One of the clearest connections was between heat exposure and reduced academic performance.

A study in the US found that adolescents' math scores decreased significantly on days above 26°C. In China , hotter day-of-test temperatures were associated with a drop in exam performance equal to losing a quarter of a year—or several months—of schooling.

But it's not just test days that matter. Studies show that raised temperatures also affect learning over longer time periods. For example, pupils' test scores suffered when there were more hot days across the school year and even when the hotter weather occurred three to four years before exam day.

Our review also highlights how climate-related regional disasters like wildfires, storms, droughts and floods are keeping many children out of school entirely. Floods can prevent children from traveling to school and cause damage to school buildings and materials, which disrupts learning and lowers test scores.

In developing countries, storms and droughts commonly cause children to leave school permanently to join the workforce and support their families. Children in higher-income countries are not immune. They miss school days due to hurricanes and wildfires and these absences have measurable effects on education outcomes.

The impacts of climate disasters can also affect children before they are born with consequences that reverberate across their lives. For example, children whose mothers were pregnant during Hurricane Sandy were more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that can make schooling more challenging.

In India , researchers found that raised temperatures lead to lower test scores due to crop failure and malnutrition, highlighting the importance of indirect links between climate stressors and subsequent school participation and learning.

Educational injustice

Our analysis suggests that climate change will exacerbate existing inequalities in global education access and attainment, with already disadvantaged groups facing the largest learning setbacks. In the US, heat had worse effects on exam scores for racial and ethnic minorities and children living in lower-income school districts.

Following a super typhoon in the Philippines, children whose families had fewer financial resources and smaller social networks were more likely to drop out of school than their better-resourced neighbors. In contexts where girls' education is less prioritized than boys', their school attendance and exam scores have suffered more following climate change stressors such as droughts and storms .

Globally, regions where people are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change—in terms of risk of harmful stressors occurring and resources available to adapt—are also regions where children already receive fewer years of schooling.

The impacts of climate change on education are already widely visible. While the scale of the problem is daunting, there are many ways to take action. Most critically, global heating urgently needs to be limited by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

At the same time, children's education must be protected from climate change stressors that are already occurring. Possible measures include installing cooling technologies, effective disaster response planning, building stressor-resilient schools and addressing systemic global inequalities related to socioeconomic, gender and racial discrimination.

Preventing harm to children's education is a worthy goal in itself. But improving education can also contribute to greater awareness and climate literacy , while mitigating climate change and making children more resilient in the face of climate stressors.

Education can help fight climate change. But we must also fight climate change to prevent harm to education. Without action, the future of young people around the world hangs in the balance.

Journal information: Nature Climate Change

Provided by The Conversation

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Guest Essay

I Never Found Closure After My Son’s Death. I Found Something Else.

An illustration of a person standing on rocks looking out over water. In the sky a single bird is flying as light comes down at an angle.

By Liz Jensen

Ms. Jensen is a novelist in Copenhagen and the author of “Your Wild and Precious Life: On Grief, Hope and Rebellion.”

Four years ago, I got the news that every parent dreads.

Without warning, my healthy 25-year-old son, Raphaël — a wildlife biologist and an environmental activist — had collapsed and died, likely from a rare heart disorder nobody knew he had. The trauma catapulted me into a place of almost hallucinatory madness: a territory so tormenting, debilitating and bleak that I couldn’t imagine how I’d survive it, let alone find joy in the life that remained.

Catastrophes are radicalizing and transformative. You no longer see your life in the same way afterward. But must grief diminish you, or can it do the opposite?

The question was vital because my devastation as a newly bereaved mother felt mirrored by the pain and anxiety of millions of people struggling to process the consequences of global heating and the obliteration of precious ecosystems.

Both forms of grief were rooted in love. Both required courage, resilience and compassion. And the emotional arc of both, I came to believe, could create the strength and purpose needed to navigate an increasingly unstable future.

In the field of death and dying, one of the most enduring and influential figures is the Swiss American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who in the 1960s came up with the five stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She’d been studying the emotional arcs of terminally ill patients, but later she and her colleague David Kessler repurposed the stages to apply to the grief of the bereaved, and the five-stage model became deeply embedded in Western culture.

In a 2007 paper , the Nobel Prize-winning climate scientist Steven Running applied those stages to the climate crisis, characterizing denial as the belief that the climate emergency isn’t happening or that humans aren’t the root cause. The anger stage kicks in when you realize your worldview or lifestyle will have to change substantially. Then you bargain by downplaying the scale of the crisis, or by putting all your faith in technological fixes. The depression stage manifests when you feel overwhelmed by the extent of the crisis and realize that governments and corporations are not only spinning their wheels but also often actively exacerbating the damage. Acceptance entails recognizing that the scale of the challenge is irrefutable, and then looking actively for solutions, because “doing nothing given our present knowledge is unconscionable.”

After tragedy struck Mr. Kessler, he altered his own analysis of bereavement. As an author and public speaker who had spent his career supporting the bereaved, Mr. Kessler felt he knew grief well. But the unexpected death of his 21-year-old son changed everything. Suddenly, like countless other bereaved parents, he faced the existential question raised in the adage that the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. And he came to believe that acceptance isn’t the end of the grieving process; it’s only the beginning of a new, sixth stage of grief, defined not by finding closure but by finding meaning.

This stage made a lot more sense to me than any of the others did. There was no meaning in Raphaël’s death. But I could find purpose, meaning and fulfillment in what I did and made happen in its wake.

The year before Raphaël died, I’d co-founded the literary activist group Writers Rebel to put literature in the service of life on Earth. But when we lost him, I stepped back: I couldn’t face the video calls. Then, in those early months of grieving, I began to meet other bereaved parents, take daily swims in the freezing Danish winter sea, reconnect with the natural world and read books about consciousness which led me to abandon my rational, secular view of it. And one day, I remembered what Raphaël said when I belittled my ability to affect change: “Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got.”

What, I began to wonder, could be more meaningful than honoring my son’s memory and the world I love by being active rather than crying on the couch?

Seven months after Raphaël’s death, I stood on a podium in the freezing Copenhagen wind with a group of writers and made a speech about why literature must address the climate crisis with the urgency it deserves. I was raw and nervous, but I sensed his presence. When I quoted him — “I won’t stand aside and watch the world burn” — a huge cheer went up, and I felt an inner shift.

Yes, my son was dead. And yes, the planet’s life support systems were weakening. But it wasn’t too late for one of them.

I rejoined my weekly Zooms and helped organize a tribute to the planet’s most critically endangered species. Later, the notes I’d been writing to myself as therapy began morphing into a memoir. And yes, it all felt meaningful.

Mine was just one of many paths from grief to fulfillment. For those feeling paralyzed by climate grief, just doing something new, or doing something familiar more mindfully, can germinate what the eco-philosopher Joanna Macy calls active hope: not the amorphous hope of wishing on a star but the practical hope of rolling up your sleeves and getting to it. Intentions are fine, but the meaning lies in the doing — be it cheering up a friend, energizing voters, transforming a patch of urban scrub into a garden, joining a citizen’s movement, switching to a plant-based diet, ditching a bad habit or taking time to observe a creature in the wild.

Just a few months before the electrical signals in Raphaël’s heart were catastrophically disrupted, I found a passage in his notebook that showed he had a premonition that he would die young, but that his sense of purpose would stay vividly alive.

“I’ll not be dead until my dream is, I’ll not fade away until my vision does, I’ll not be gone until all my hopes are,” he wrote.

It took his death for me to understand why I was born. It can’t take a civilizational collapse for humanity to understand why we belong here.

And it needn’t.

Liz Jensen is the author of eight novels, including the ecological thrillers “The Rapture” and “The Uninvited.” Her most recent book is “Your Wild and Precious Life: On Grief, Hope and Rebellion.”

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips . And here’s our email: [email protected] .

Follow the New York Times Opinion section on Facebook , Instagram , TikTok , WhatsApp , X and Threads .


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