Climate justice is a concept that acknowledges the impacts of capitalist expansion and consumerism on the planet, and more importantly, how they affect the rich and the poor very differently.

How has the concept of climate justice evolved over the decade? As we trace the transformation of the concept of “climate justice”, two key questions permeate the analysis: how have we understood climate change and injustice, and how should we act in light of them? By understanding the intellectual metamorphosis of the term over time, the need to spell out an exact definition of climate justice becomes less important. Eventually, we realise that what climate justice is, in fact, an ever-expanding and ever-changing concept.

What is Climate Justice?

There are countless ways to understand climate change and climate justice. No single account or definition of climate justice will ever be able to profess depictive supremacy over others in terms of being able to describe our current climate moment. It is also impossible and foolish to believe that we can ever offer a stagnant picture of climate justice, as the concept will always be situated in a particular space and time.

But this does not mean there is nothing to be understood about “climate justice”. While we might not be able to identify a timeless conception of climate justice, we can still try to theorise the changes themselves over time. By understanding how people’s articulations of climate change and injustice have evolved over time, we discover new avenues for imagining justice and action as we move forward.

By understanding the intellectual metamorphosis of the term over time, the need to spell out an exact definition of climate justice becomes less important, as we realise that in fact, our concept of climate justice needs to be reflexive and responsive to suit the realities of our time.

Earliest Explanations for Climate Change

More than a century ago, in attempting to offer an explanation for the warming of the Earth, scientists declared that the Earth was in the Holocene: a geological epoch starting around twelve thousand years ago since the world experienced its last ever glacial period (a period characterised by colder global temperatures). Framed this way, scientists attributed climate change to a natural warming stage in the Earth’s history. Technically speaking, we are still in the Holocene epoch today.

However, it was apparent that such an understanding had problems. Around half a decade ago, there was growing dissatisfaction with the term “Holocene”, not because it was an incorrect description of the geological state of the planet, but because it was reductionist. The weakness of viewing the Earth’s climate moment through the lens of the Holocene was that effects of anthropic activity (human interactions with the environment) were assumed to be negligible and therefore could be taken away from the bigger picture.

The Human “Turn” in Climate History: the Anthropocene

To develop this articulation of the world’s current climate moment, scientists have attempted at expanding the concept of the Holocene to account for the human “turn”, the moment when human populations (and subsequently the intensity of human activities) increased exponentially around the globe. This shift was motivated by the fact that global levels of carbon dioxide were rising at unprecedented rates.

In the 1970s, a Dutch meteorologist and atmospheric chemist by the name of Paul Crutzer revolutionised our understanding of climate change. Against the dominant Holocenic discourse, he argued that we are instead in the “Anthropocene”.

Arguing that the warming of the Earth could not be attributed solely to natural geological developments but also human activity, the Anthropocenic description had important consequences. Generally, the extraordinary impacts of unprecedented scales of human activities over the centuries (agricultural and industrial) showed that temperature rises resulting from the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentrations were evidently human-inflicted.

In his book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, American journalist Charles Mann argues that the world we are in today is the result of the “Columbus Exchange”. Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas in the late 15th century created the largest exchange system of food, populations and ideas between the New World and the Old World. But it also meant that lands were degraded, resources were exploited and diseases spread, culminating in what Mann later describes as the “Homogenocene”: an epoch characterised by tremendous homogenisation due to human assaults on biodiversity and fertility. Mann’s argument is not to attribute climate change simply to the deeds and misdeeds of Columbus and the teams that preceded him; transcontinental exchanges in other parts of the world (such as between Asia and Europe) were also culpable.

climate debtFeatured image by: UN Women Asia Pacific/Flickr

Climate Change, Economic Inequality, and the Capitalocene

The Anthropocentric analysis of climate change, however, suffered from one crucial limitation: it “flattened” out politics. In other words, the dynamics of climate change were excluded from the analysis. 

It is here that we discover the earliest linkages between climate change and the notion of “justice”. An intellectual leader of this critique, Dipesh Chakrabarty from the University of Chicago argues that to trace the origins of climate injustice properly, we must examine what made anthropic activity possible on such large scales in the first place. He suggests looking at the specific ways in which humans have organised globally: it is not simply that people like Columbus were engaged in exchange, but the fact that these systems of exchange were legitimised and subsequently inscribed into not only state political structures but also the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. This, he argues, is what accelerated climate change.

Such a view is also echoed by prominent environmental historian and geographer Jason Moore who, in place of the term “Anthropocene”, uses the term “Capitalocene” instead. He argues that it was precisely the unequal exchanges arising from the capitalist system that allowed certain countries to rise and dominate in wealth and power. Lands in poor countries were treated as “factories” for churning out cheap raw materials; pollution was regarded as an inevitable but a sacrifice necessary for capital accumulation.

Moreover, the economic inequality that capitalism perpetuates leads not only to varied effects on global populations but also varied abilities to fortify against risks borne from climate change. In effect, a “climate apartheid” is established, as wealthy communities and corporations are more able to “pay their way out” of climate change.

In these framings of climate change, we see the makings of a concept of climate justice that acknowledges the impacts of capitalist expansion and consumerism on the planet, and more importantly, how they affect the rich and the poor very differently. It is no surprise, then, that notions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) standards have been on the rise. They encourage companies to adopt less exploitative and more sustainable practises and investors to be more environmentally-minded in their decisions respectively.

In fact, activists have actually called for the de-concentration of corporate power, that is, to put in measures that prevent big transnational corporations (TNCs) from monopolising global resources as well as promote greater corporate accountability, e.g. to stop “greenwashing”. Building on this, Moore argues that we should envision a world where the basics of human life are de-commodified and de-privatised: things like housing, transportation, care and education should be distributed equally, and acknowledge that these not luxuries.

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Climate Justice and Racial Justice

The Capitalocene narrative evidently offers a more sensitive view of climate change by paying greater attention to the economic systems that sanction processes that deplete our resources, contaminate the atmosphere, acidify our oceans and heat up our planet. But it has its own shortcomings, too: climate change is not simply a class issue; in reality, climate inequalities occur along other lines of stratification.

Hence, a more critical concept of climate justice has been the notion of inclusivity. On a structural level, there has been greater recognition among policymakers to recognise racial dynamics of climate change.

The move from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were implemented in 2016, represents a key paradigmatic shift: that the relatively “poor” performances of developing countries in the realm of climate action should not be seen merely as a matter of individual incompetence, but a product of complex historical processes of inequality that have prevented countries from developing in ways that will allow them to reduce reliance on fossil fuel-intensive industries in the near future. As such, climate justice is no longer framed as an individual matter, but a globalised issue in which all countries, “developed” or not, should share collective responsibility.

But there is still a lack of inclusivity in the overall global discourse on climate change, as voices from the Global South continue to be muted. This theme was also brought up at the more recent Glasgow COP26 summit.

During the talks, delegates and activists of developing countries expressed dissatisfaction about the “lip service” paid by developed countries – in critical response to their pushbacks in funding, which developing countries saw as compensation for the climate damages caused by richer countries (which have historically been in the Global North). As director of Climate Action Network South Asia, Sanjay Vashist lamented, “Instead of building trust, the global south has been cheated once again. … What we have is yet another greenwash that will ensure genocide by extreme weather events in developing countries.” From these reflections, it is apparent that climate justice as inclusivity remains a priority on the agenda.climate justice

Climate Change and Gender Equality

Climate injustice is, however, not only racial; it is also very much gendered. As the COP26 protesters pointed out, there is a clear gender gap at the talks. But it is not a simple matter of gender equality in attendance and decision-making at the summit that activists are demanding. It’s a matter of making sure the voices of women are considered when decisions are made for a simple reason: when it comes to climate change, women are the most impacted – but are unfortunately also the least represented.

In the thought-provoking book This Changes Everything written by prominent Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, we are alerted to how cultures around the world, developed and developing countries alike, have historically paid very little attention to the particular vulnerabilities of women. As Klein shows in an example of rural Colorado (USA), mothers living in areas with intensive natural gas development were 30% more likely to have babies born with cardiac defects, as chemical plants release hormone-disrupting chemicals that interfere with women’s reproductive systems.

Beyond reproduction, women are in many countries the first to feel the effects of climate change on their day-to-day activities. As the primary interactor with natural resources and ecosystems in the family, many have experienced increasing difficulty in finding what they need to feed their families as a result of climate change.

Today, people are increasingly cognisant of the need for a more gender-inclusive concept of climate justice. There is a stronger emphasis on listening to women: how can we unlearn and challenge patriarchal “[cultures] and models of production and extraction that have wreaked havoc on people and the planet” for centuries?

Democratising Climate Justice

As we have seen, more recent refinements of the concept of climate justice centre on its interconnectedness with broader issues of social justice. Political problems often stem from competition arising from issues of resource scarcity and security; when not properly addressed, they often lead to environmental destruction in the form of wars and armed conflicts; they are often products of climate change, and they always occur at the expense of the environment.

Given their inseparable connection, people have turned to concepts in social justice for inspiring action. It is argued that to fight climate change, political systems need to be democratic and procedurally just. They should give people the right and opportunity to decide how climate change should be fought, and specifically, to select representatives with the courage, wisdom and responsibility to propose policies that may contribute to climate justice. How can governments adopt a more horizontal approach to environmental problems, so that local communities – the very “insiders” and stakeholders of society – can have greater influence over matters that their livelihoods depend on directly?

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Which Comes First in Climate Justice: Systemic or Individual change?

It is popular wisdom today that without a complete transformation of the existing global capitalist model we can never achieve climate justice meaningfully. If climate responsibility is only framed as an individual matter, climate justice becomes an “option” only, thereby stripping it of its moral and ethical significance.

While there is no doubt that systemic change is central to climate justice, political structures, however progressive and good-willed, will always inevitably leave somebody or something out. Hence, rather than try to wait for these systems to “achieve perfection”, climate scientists and psychologists have argued that we should also understand climate justice as something beginning with our mundane acts of demonstrating care to our planet. Indeed, the effects of individual actions may appear insignificant, but when we go beyond static perceptions of value, we discover their importance in the long run.

In restoring the justification for focusing on individual actions as well as systemic change, climate justice has evolved to exhibit a participatory character: how can communities mobilise local resources effectively (albeit informally) to advance climate justice? While grassroots mobilisations are no recent phenomenon and can be found in virtually every corner of the world, it is only in recent years that governments are finally recognising their contributions and hence, the need to consider them as legitimate partners against climate change.

Moving Forward by Reflecting on the Past

The above discussion offers not an ultimate story of climate justice, as there will always be more stories and angles to approaching the concept (such as indigenous justice, animal justice and the prominence of youth participation). Instead, it gives us useful clues to understanding how the concept has changed throughout history. In particular, it has shown us that climate justice is “dynamic” in two senses.

In the first sense, climate justice is an ever-expanding concept. As discussed, the earliest explanations for climate change left humans out of the picture of global warming; but it was clear that the Anthropocene narrative lacked the specificity to recognise how certain modes of human exchange exacerbated climate change; while a global system of capitalism predicated on inequality gave way to depletive and exploitative environmental practices, we realised how climate injustice can occur along racial and gendered lines; while it is now clear that systemic change is a priority, we are reminded of the role that local and grassroots forms of mobilisation play in promoting climate justice. Moving forward we may ask, in formulating a concept of climate justice, whose voices might we have forgotten? What else do we need?

In the second sense, climate justice is an ever-changing concept. As we follow the historical development of the concept, it is important we do not dismiss an account simply because of its limitations. All of them express a valuable perspective at a particular time to understanding climate change and the injustices that stem from it. It is foolish to even think that we could ever formulate a timeless blueprint of climate justice: without a conceptual predecessor, later articulations of climate justice would not be possible; and in denying the possibility for evolution, climate justice would only find itself constantly failing the people. The COVID-19 pandemic proves this point: new environmental challenges will require new perspectives and new solutions. For the same reason, at times we may even find ourselves drawing on older concepts to imagine new avenues for coming together and creating change.

So what is next for climate justice? We will never know for certain. But as we continue to explore the links between climate change and global political issues, we learn to include more voices and perspectives and discover new concepts of justice. As we learn to reflect on the past, we may be encouraged to carry on the legacies of those who have strived and persevered diligently to keep our hopes of a better world alive.

Featured image by: Joe Brusky/Climate Justice for All