Climate justice refers to the protection and achievement of individual rights in relation to climate change and can be exercised on various levels (individual, regional, and global) and communities including gender, race, and social status. However, the development and realisation of climate justice have been a slow and arduous process, especially for women and Indigenous people. 

Women have fewer chances of participating in climate change actions or in the negotiating platforms as reflected by the low proportion of women in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), therefore, achieving gender equality has been a crucial aspect of the performance of climate justice. Another group that is just as vulnerable to climate justice: the Indigenous peoples. According to the World Bank, there are an estimated 476 million Indigenous Peoples worldwide yet there are no official groups or representations for them on the international negotiation platform. The most well-known Indigenous groups are the Saami in the Arctic and those who are based in the Amazon rainforest. These groups are usually ruled by powers such as Canada and the United States, preventing Indigenous representation, particularly in regards to climate action. The understanding and achievement of Indigenous climate justice are just as important to demonstrate equality among races.

The term “climate justice” was first mentioned in the United Nations Charter signed in 1945, the founding document of the UN that formally recognises human rights and laid down the foundations for international laws including global environmental governance. Unfortunately, human rights in environmental governance have long been neglected. So, what is the current progress in achieving global climate justice? 

What is Climate Justice?

Climate justice acknowledges the disproportionate impacts of climate change and how it affects the rich and the poor very differently. It also means that everyone irregardless of their gender, race, or social status should have a fair chance to participate in any decision-making processes related to the climate crisis. 

Those who have been marginalised by the international community have historically been the ones with less power such as women, Indigenous groups, and people with lower social status. Climate unjust is a common phenomenon in regional or international negotiations ranging from a country’s legislation process to global summits including the UN Conference of the Parties (COP). The challenges of climate justice lie with those in power recognising the imbalance and potentially acting against national self interest in favour of those who are impacted most by global warming. So far, developed countries have been dictating and driving the direction of climate mitigation policies, often ones that leave developing nations behind.

Climate justice is therefore about a process of political awakening; climate action should not be only made by the marginalised groups and communities, but those in power should strive for it as well. 

There are two ways to approach climate justice: procedural justice and substantive justice. Procedural justice is about who and how participating stakeholders in the policy and decision-making process are decided. In other words, it is about the design, enforcement, and application of institutional rules. Those who can have access to the negotiation table are being treated in a “just” way; those who are excluded face an unjust situation. An example of procedural justice is the approval or denial of a UN membership, and who has the power to decide and authorise the membership into the UN for certain groups or countries. Those who are being denied are facing procedural injustice. 

Substantive justice, however, is used to describe the respect for human rights regarding climate change. It is about the importance of recognising the rights of individuals under the threats of climate change. An example of substantive justice is the protection of human rights as written in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the rights of individuals e.g., the right to life, liberty and security of person should be respected and protected. 

Despite growing international awareness and discourse, climate justice has made little progress at the UN. So, what has been done so far? 

Gender and Climate Justice at the UN

Today, achieving gender equality is a core Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) as well as in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Yet women remain marginalised from climate decisions-making and action. It took more than 25 years to recognise and formulate goals for achieving gender equality and empowering women within the UNFCCC since its establishment in the 1990s. Women were in the minority and rights to participation were not recognised until 2001.

However, not much has been done since the recognition. Though gender equality for women became an official goal for the UNFCCC as stated in the 2012 COP agenda, the opportunity and scope for women to contribute and generate ideas for climate mitigation is limited, and the power of women is not being well acknowledged by the UNFCCC. 

Procedural justice is therefore not attained; women marginalised at the UNFCCC have fewer chances to propose ideas on climate adaptation or solutions when compared to men. It was not until 2017, a Gender Action Plan was finally enforced. It realised the importance of gender-responsive climate action within the UNFCCC and the work of Parties. The UNFCCC recognised the importance of incorporating women among climate change actions, and good practices across different constituted bodies between 2017 and 2021 are observed according to its own report. Examples include: incorporating the participation of women in activities organised by the constituted bodies within the UNFCCC, using gender balance as a criterion while selecting speakers and events by the constituted body. Gender equality within the UNFCCC is evidently an ongoing process and requires the efforts of different bodies. However, the average female representation among UN bodies remains at 33%, meaning women are still largely underrepresented in the UNFCCC, and much more efforts are needed to achieve gender equality in the UNFCCC.

Evolution of Indigenous Climate Justice and Rights

The rights of Indigenous people were first recognised in 2007 through the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It took 62 years to confirm this despite the UN’s establishment in 1945. Here, substantive justice was achieved as the rights of the Indigenous people were being respected but what about procedural justice? Unfortunately, indigenous people are not a member state, thereby not represented at the international stage. Additionally, neither UNFCCC nor the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have included the participation of Indigenous people. They are being excluded from climate-related policymaking and action while being the most vulnerable to the risks brought by climate change. 

What’s more, the importance of Indigenous knowledge is being neglected. The practice of Indigenous knowledge is a crucial part of the response to climate change as their practices and insights have been shown to be effective in protecting the local population from the threats of climate change. Although there is a Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform (LCIPP) Facilitative Working Group that incorporates the participation of Indigenous people and allows the exchange of indigenous knowledge, the participation rate is low. This group consists of 14 people with only half of them being people from Indigenous peoples organisations (appointed by the Indigenous peoples). In addition, it is not effective in delivering the opinions of Indigenous people on international negotiation platforms including COP. The LCIPP is not involved in any decision-making processes regarding climate change but only acted as a platform to exchange Indigenous knowledge. 

But the COP26 climate summit became a milestone for the substantive justice of Indigenous people. At the conference, the “Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use” was agreed upon and signed by 141 out of 197 signatories. The declaration aims at protecting the land tenure rights of the Indigenous peoples and supports local communities in the forests, and at least USD$1.7bn is assigned to protect the rights of Indigenous people. 

Prior to that, the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate released in 2019 also highlighted the importance of Indigenous rights and their respective knowledge in tackling climate change. Indigenous groups in the Pacific regions are significantly more vulnerable to climate-induced sea-level rise. The report stated that Indigenous knowledge should be incorporated into the response to climate change, as the experience of the vulnerable is also important. Some Indigenous knowledge has already been put into practice. This included the adoption of traditional preservation and storage techniques in rural Pacific atolls to minimise disruptions to natural resource availability from climate change. It was a small but important step of Indigenous knowledge being valued and respected by the international community. 

What’s Next? 

Climate justice is an ongoing process and it requires the attention of the global powers. Recognition is crucial to justice, therefore, the willingness and determination of the powers to accept and incorporate the minorities and the disadvantaged are important. It is a mutual relationship – it cannot be done solely by the effort of the Indigenous people or women but by the mutual recognition of each other. Climate justice is important as the empowerment of individual knowledge can bring new stimulations towards climate change mitigation. Women are still clearly underrepresented in climate planning and action. Gender balance also varies across years which reflects inconsistency in the work and representation, hindering female empowerment. 

Likewise, the contributions of Indigenous people should also be valued. Although the Indigenous people only account for 5% of the global population, they looked after more than 80% of the nature and biodiversity on Earth. They are also the group that is most vulnerable to climate change as they are based in areas that are most exposed to it, like the Tropics (along the Equator) and in the Polar regions (Arctic circle). Due to the history of colonialism, Indigenous peoples still lack representation on international platforms due to the impacts of colonialism, and self-determination has not been achieved. 

Their presence and contributions to nature should be recognised by regional countries and global communities. Actions regarding climate justice for both women and Indigenous peoples must speed up; more attention should be drawn to them as combating climate change is a global effort and no one should be left out of this potentially existential issue.