COP27 is currently underway in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Representatives of the world’s states came together to forge a global response to the climate emergency. That response should be based upon the principles of climate justice; the idea that nations that contribute heavily to climate change owe a moral duty to the rest of the world to not only cease their pwn emissions but also to protect other nations from the consequences of climate change. Whilst the last three decades have witnessed some progress in these areas, industrialised nations have remained reluctant to acknowledge the extent of their culpability for the climate-related losses suffered by developing nations, generally preferring to focus the debate on future solutions rather than compensation for past transgressions. Yet only by adopting the principles of climate justice can COP27 deliver a response to climate change that is fair and equitable.                

Earlier this year, in Pakistan, extreme flooding killed over 1,700 people, destroyed around 2 million homes, and swept away almost half the country’s cropland. There is no doubt among scientists that the flooding was made worse by climate change: as global warming makes air and sea temperatures rise, more evaporation takes place; because the warmer air can hold more moisture, the monsoon rainfall becomes more intense. The melting of glaciers in the country’s northern region, again due to the increase in global temperatures, compounded the problem by releasing even more water and debris into the floods.   

Pakistan contributes less than 1% of the global greenhouse gases that warm our planet, yet its geography renders it extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the wake of the catastrophe a sense of injustice prevailed. Why should Pakistan, and other vulnerable countries such as Haiti, Chad, and Bangladesh, suffer the consequences of environmental exploitation by other nations?

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The answer, of course, is that they shouldn’t. This contention underlies the concept of ‘climate justice’, which, according to Simon Caney, requires the “just distribution [of the] burdens and benefits” of climate change between nations. Among the key principles of climate justice is the recognition that some countries – mainly the large industrialised economies of Europe and the USA – have benefitted much more from the industries and technologies that cause climate change than have developing nations like Pakistan, which, due to an unfortunate admixture of economic and geographic vulnerability, continue to shoulder the brunt of the burdens of climate change despite their relative innocence in causing it. 

A climate justice perspective insists on redressing this imbalance, by imposing what is sometimes referred to as a ‘climate debt’ on those nations primarily responsible for causing climate change. This debt comprises several correlating duties: industrialised nations must not only cease their own emissions of greenhouse gases, but must also help vulnerable nations adapt so as to be better prepared for the destructive effects of climate change. Examples of adaptation might include constructing buildings that can cope better with extreme heat, or building seawalls that can cope with storm surges, and would require industrialised nations to share their wealth, technology, and expertise with the developing world. 

A further element of the duty is that industrialised nations should, again by sharing resources, help poorer nations to develop economically with non-pollutive technologies. The rationale for this obligation is that the burden of tackling climate change should not rest equally upon all nations, but should instead be proportional to the extent of a) a given nation’s culpability for causing climate change, and b) its ability to shoulder the burden of tackling it. To demand that all nations simply switch from pollutive to ‘green’ energy at the same rate would clearly fail these proportionality requirements.

Developing nations play only a relatively small role in causing climate change, and the transition from pollutive to clean energy would severely restrict their economic development. They, therefore, have a much smaller moral obligation to tackle climate change than industrialised nations do. Whilst this is not to say that developing nations should have a ‘free-pass’ to continue utilising pollutive technologies, it does suggest that what is called for is a strategy of differentiated responsibility that ensures that the cost of tackling climate change falls upon those countries which primarily cause it and which are able to bear those costs.

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The principles of climate justice also have an intra-national scope. The majority of the direct victims of the Pakistan floods earlier this year were poor people, living close to rivers where land is cheaper due to the risk of flooding. Many of them lived in insubstantial mud homes, making them even more vulnerable to the floods, whilst the areas least affected by the floods, such as large cities, tend to be inhabited by wealthier people. 

The same is true within wealthy nations such as the USA, where communities of colour and immigrant communities are often located in areas vulnerable to climate risk, such as flood zones or urban heat islands. Thus, the risks of climate change are borne unequally between different sectors of society as well as between different countries. The injustice of this is compounded by the fact that wealthy people contribute much more to climate change than poor people: from 1990 to 2015 the richest 1% of the global population caused twice as much carbon emission as the poorest 50%. 

Therefore, even at the individual level, those who are least responsible for causing climate change suffer the brunt of its consequences. To redress this imbalance, advocates of climate justice argue that more should be done by national governments to protect vulnerable communities from environmental degradation. This involves both short-term solutions, such as improving the infrastructural resilience of settlements in areas most at risk, and long-term solutions designed to enhance the wealth, and therefore the resilience to environmental damage, of vulnerable communities. Perhaps most importantly, climate justice insists that vulnerable people should be properly represented in decision-making processes which affect their livelihoods. 

The most powerful methods by which such demands are vocalised are through public demonstrations (such as the People’s Climate Marches of 2014 and 2017 or the Climate Strike of September 2019), and through litigation, wherein people can challenge their government’s climate policy and hold their government accountable for failures to adequately protect the human rights of its citizens. Litigation also carries with it the added incentive of compensation for those directly affected. In 2021, the UN Human Rights Council passed resolution 48/13, recognising that a healthy, safe and sustainable environment is a human right for all and should be protected as such by national governments, thus enshrining a key principle of climate justice. 

The final principle of climate justice is that the benefits and burdens of climate change should be shared equally between generations. Past generations have enjoyed the economic benefits and higher standard of living resulting from industrialisation, but will not suffer the environmental consequences arising from their actions. These will instead be borne by future generations, who are entirely innocent of causing them. To remedy this, climate justice insists that present generations work to stop greenhouse gas emissions now, so as to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change that future generations will experience, and to ensure that future generations will not have to clean up a mess that they did not cause. 

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons  

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