Let's Talk About Climate Justice

Updated: Dec 30, 2019



How do we understand the problems caused by climate change while keeping a firm focus on justice for those who will be most severely affected by the climate crisis? Some take the view that countries in the global south should be granted a free pass to pollute to enable convergence with the north, while others take a deep ecology or even eco-fascist approach overlooking the lives of some of the planets most vulnerable citizens. Meanwhile, the right may no longer be able to deny climate change so vehemently but still prioritise 'business as usual' approaches viewing green economy alongside technological tinkering to be the solution to the climate crisis. In between these vertices of approaches lies a myriad of stances on the climate justice issue offering their take on who or what needs to be sacrificed.


Despite differences, what remains is that a focus on justice is fundamental to preventing a colossal loss of life, particularly affecting people of colour and poor people around the world relegated to positions of vulnerability in the wake of climate collapse. The need to focus on justice for poor people globally, going beyond simple North/South paradigms is vital for understanding the problems generated by the climate crisis as many workers in the global north will too find themselves in impoverished positions if viable employment opportunities are not created during the energy transition.


People of colour, victim of centuries of institutional racism, are one group likely to suffer the most from the climate crisis. It is, therefore, essential that the needs of this group do not go overlooked as to lessen the suffering that will afflict Afro, Latino, South Asian and East Asian communities. Ford argues that "the struggle against toxic waste is not a discrete issue, but one that is fundamentally embedded in the global political economy and one that emphasises unequal social relations of power throwing up questions of race, class and gender"(Ford, 2005, p. 314). For example. the Flint water crisis where predominately black children live their lives with unprecedented levels of lead in their blood due to polluted water supplies puts the intersection between structural racism and environmental devastation under the spotlight. Meanwhile, proposals to expand "site polluting and toxic facilities in predominantly poor and black communities in the U.S" continue, demonstrating that environmental injustice goes beyond North/South dynamics, but in fact, has a racialised element afflicting those living in the most prosperous nations in the world (Walker and Bulkeley, 2006, p. 655).


Yet the North/South dichotomy must too continue to be an area of focus as it is clear that people of colour in the global south are and will increasingly be severely afflicted by the problems created by climate change. The Global Commons Institute even admits there is an "assumption that the lives of people in developing countries are valued at 1/15 of those of people in the North" (Newell, 2005, pp. 78). It is, therefore, imperative that we bring the notion of justice into the debate when trying to understand the problems generated by climate change to prevent ecocide brought on by neo-colonial arrogance. With the IPCC report stating that we have less than 12 years to mitigate catastrophic climate change by staying below the 1.5-degree threshold, we must ensure a just transition by prioritising the livelihoods and communities of those most marginalised by dominant political-economic structures, notably capitalism, imperialism and the legacy of colonialism (United Nations, 2018, p. 127).


Furthermore, we must be highly critical of eco-fascist or deep-ecology approaches that prioritise environmental preservation over human life. David Foreman, one of the founders of Earth First! notoriously said in reference to the famine in Ethiopia that "the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve" suggesting a disturbing reality if notions of justice are left out of the climate conversation and ecocide is seen as a solution to the climate crisis rather than what it is- a form of mass murder (cited in Hopwood et al., 2005, p. 22).


While green capitalism approaches provide much less daunting outcomes for poor people and people of colour than eco-fascist or deep ecology approaches, they do, however, fail to account for the redistribution of wealth or increased state support that will be required to ensure a just transition. Critiques of this ilk arose during the recent Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which did not address the greed of the brands on stage or the fact that no amount of circularity can address the irony of sustainable growth. The Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion, for instance, address the summit questioning "circular fashion systems as they exist today [which] do nothing to tackle consumption – the elephant in the room" making clear that no amount of recycling, up-cycling and down-cycling will address climate breakdown if consumer capitalism persists (Union of Concerned Researchers in Fashion, 2019).


While ecological collapse is atypical of other global crises, it remains that marginalised communities will be afflicted more severely than others if we do not diverge from dominant political-economic structures. Chakrabarty argues that "unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged", which while true overlooks the fact that the rich and the poor will be affected in drastically different ways with much more uncertainty and fear consuming the latter group as even mild temperature increases or policies that raise the cost of energy consumption will reap devastation among the poor (Chakrabarty, 2009, pp. 221). An eco-socialist or green Keynesian approach with a "much more central role for state planning, public deliberation, and re-regulation of the private sector" may, therefore, help ensure a just transition for poor and black communities alike (Paterson & P-Laberge, 2018, p. 8).


A worrying issue manifested in the green capitalism is that the 'green needs' of the global north crystalised in mechanisms such as the law of supply and demand are being prioritised over the right to food for some of the world's poorest citizens. For example, Tetreault argues that "[land grabbing] is paradoxically being carried out for environmental ends, for example, biodiversity conservation, bio-carbon sequestration, and the creation of parks and nature reserves" illustrating that the desire to satiate our environmental consciousness must not come at the expense of food security or displacement " (Tetreault, 2017, p. 347).


An equally important debate is that of the right to emit carbon emissions. Okereke raises the crucial question, "should not the less developed and more populous countries have a greater right to pollute, while the developed nations take on more responsibility to make deep cuts in their emissions?" ?" (Okereke, 2007, p. 10). Such assumptions underlying this question, justifiable in their stance, pose massive departures from the current distribution of power within the international political-economic system and will not come without huge upheaval, counter-resistance and violence. Therefore, while the focus on justice in understanding the issues generated by climate change remains tantamount to preserving life in nations with high levels of poverty, the question of how to achieve a just transition stands.


One further group whose concerns are often overlooked are those of fossil fuel workers. Typically occupying blue collar jobs and lower incomes, when met with the threat of losing their livelihoods' resistance, anger and legitimate fear are bound to arise. We have seen this resistance take to the street in France with the 'Gilet Jaunes' making their contempt to discriminatory climate policies such as rising fuel costs created by a liberal green capital government known. Similarly, in the U.S. context, Trump can be seen to have capitalised on these fears of the working class American in his quest to revitalise "the clean coal" industry.


However, simply moving workers from the fossil fuel to renewables sector, which, while fundamental, cannot provide all the answers. Miller argues that "job creation is clearly a poor proxy for a just transition-what matters more is the kinds of jobs, how secure they are, how long they last" illustrating that climate justice will require much more well-thought out responses than merely shuffling workers around (Miller et al., 2015, p. 35). Underpinning the demand for well-considered responses Healy and Barry argue that "a just energy transition is intensely political-not simply a technological or indeed a sociotechnical matter" bringing to the forefront the necessity of overcoming the economic perils that a green capitalism will cause in its failure to provide financial support beyond mere job creation (Healy & Barry, 2017,p. 452).


Healy and Barry further criticise environmental movements that fail to focus on notions of redistributive justice arguing that, "it is not enough to simply advocate for divesting from fossil fuels without also having thought through the non-climate, non-environmental social and economic impacts of that divestment strategy", highlighting that the fight for justice for the working class is an enduring process fraught with complexities, but a process that should be focused on intently precisely because of these reasons (Healy & Barry, 2017, p. 455). However, while it is easy to talk about the failures of capitalism in ensuring climate justice, what is needed is a captivating vision that people can mobilise around.


While the fight for climate justice may feel like a lost cause in light of the miniscule timescale we have to prevent irreversible devastation, it is imperative that we persevere in bringing notions of justice into the climate conversation to ensure a future for those most marginalised by the current political-economic system. With Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez bringing the Green New Deal into Congress and Extinction Rebellion taking to the streets, a wind of change is clearly underway. What remains is whether this change can be implemented with the speed and scale necessary to provide a just transition.


Hope and radical action are fundamental in this late hour and while the solutions to climate collapse may not be apparent what is essential is that we strive towards ensuring a safe future where none of the world's citizens are left behind. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr "If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward. Only in the darkness can you see the stars".


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Love and Solidarity,

Ella x


(This post contains excerpts of a paper I wrote for SOAS, University of London)


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