Climate Justice: Is there Justice in Climate Change?

By Marcella M.

Climate Change is quickly becoming the most talked about phenomenon of our time. In the last few years, a string of reports delivered dire news and warnings about melting icecaps, extreme weather patterns, tsunamis, and dying coral reefs. Politicians, scientists and the media call Climate Change the no.1 danger to Planet Earth. Whilst talking about the environmental impacts is mandatory, we believe that there is not enough focus on the disastrous effects on its inhabitants. This article is to introduce a people-centred approach to climate change.

Global leaders gathered last December in Poland, for the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP24). Despite the COP 24’s outcome included tougher targets, questions remain as to whether these commitments will be enough to truly curb the phenomenon.

The latest UN climate report warned that without “unprecedented” action, catastrophic conditions could arrive as early as 2040. Nevertheless, most people in the developed world seem not to obsess too much on the consequences of climate change. We keep on consuming, extracting, and emitting as always. Arguably, this is because most of us are not – yet – overly affected by it.

So here comes the question, who is most affected and will have to pay the most for Climate Change? The ability of populations to mitigate and adapt to the negative consequences of climate change are shaped by numerous factors e.g. income, race, class, gender, capital and political representation. To give some examples, minorities and people with disabilities, regardless of the country they live in, are particularly exposed to natural disasters. Minorities tend to live in the more marginal areas that are more susceptible to climate impacts. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, black neighborhoods were located in the low-lying, less protected areas of the city, and many lacked the resources to evacuate safely. After the storm cleared, black-owned homes were three times more likely than their white counterparts to be in the flooded parts of the city and to this day the city’s black population has not rebounded to pre-Katrina population levels.

Persons with disabilities are hugely impacted by disasters and their aftermath too. They sustain disproportionately higher rates of morbidity and mortality and are among those least able to access emergency support. When the emergency hits they may have difficulty reaching safe areas, become separated from family and friends, which is a key to survival and coping, have trouble accessing vital emergency information, or lose assistive devices.

Thus, climate change affects us all, even in developed countries, but those most affected seem to be the least privileged part of the population. What if we were all in such danger? Would we begin to act differently towards climate change? Unfortunately, there is no need to imagine what that would be like, as many communities are already witnessing their right to health, food security, water supply, human security, as well as their economic growth, all in jeopardy. Indeed, climate change is already disproportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable people and communities in all countries, with Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States amongst the countries most at risk.

From this issue, the complex concept of Climate Justice was born. Although there is a plethora of definitions for it, independent Irish Politician Mary Robinson explains it like this: ‘climate justice is a transformative concept compelling a shift from a purely environmental discourse into a civil rights movement with the people and communities most vulnerable to climate impacts at its heart. It aims at safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts equitably and fairly.’ Robinson also established her own Foundation on Climate Justice to secure global justice and give a voice to the many victims of climate change who are usually forgotten.

One of the underlying injustices is that climate change impacts are felt first and hardest by those who benefited least from fossil fuel development, like poorer countries and indigenous peoples. For instance, Bangladesh is one of the most exposed nations to the impacts of climate change. The people of Bangladesh are already feeling the consequences. The rising sea levels combined with increased temperatures create unpredictable weather phenomena and sometimes make existing patterns more extreme. By 2050, 20 million people are at risk of becoming “climate change refugees” due to the effects of climate change, like soil erosion, rising temperatures and water pollution.

Small Island States are also calling for stronger action as their lands are being threatened by imminent rising sea levels. At COP24, Kiribati President Taneti Mamau said: ‘The prosperity enjoyed by a few developed countries has become the tragedy and misery of the masses in the developing countries and particularly those most vulnerable to climate change”. The small island of Kiribati has been struggling so much that it has already bought land on a Fijian island to allow its people to “migrate with dignity” when the time comes that rising sea levels would make life on their low-lying atoll home no longer viable.

Indigenous peoples living in symbiosis with nature are seeing their way of life and existence under threat. In Nepal, Indigenous communities see their crops destroyed due to landslides resulting from melting glaciers and changing monsoonal rains. The Inuits in Greenland and Alaska are contending with vanishing historical sites, food shortages and relocation.  When Indigenous people lose their only means of sustenance and land, they have few survival options. With none of the benefits of economic development or globalization and none of the responsibility for climate change, Indigenous people everywhere have every right to question the selfishness of the international community.

In the poorest communities, there is also an element of gender disparity on the impacts of climate change. Culture in many places puts the role of caring for families on women, therefore tasks such as collecting firewood, fetching water, and growing food are all women’s tasks.  When disaster strikes, it is girls who are being pulled out of school to help struggling families make ends meet. It is women who have to adapt and find new ways to fetch water and feed their families. It is women who would feed their families rather than themselves when there is not enough food to go around. Women have fewer assets to fall back on and are largely absent from decision-making.

Thus, vulnerable states, Indigenous peoples, and women in societies at risk, are some of the voices the climate justice movement wants to include in the climate change discourse. Furthermore, it advocates for them to benefit as the world transitions to a cleaner future. Climate justice will not be achieved without ensuring that all people benefit from renewable energy.

A few steps have been taken in this direction. For instance, the UNFCCC established a dedicated agenda item under the Convention addressing issues of gender and climate change. Moreover, Indigenous peoples have representatives co-chairing a committee. Despite these improvements, the recent COP24 has been criticized for not putting people and their rights at the center of efforts to guide how countries act on climate.

Real change can only be achieved if we, the people, push for it. Indeed, one of climate justice’s goals is to mobilize people living in developed nations by putting a face on climate change. Vulnerable states and people’s stories deserve to be heard, and their needs met. It is important to show that the phenomenon does not only concern country leaders, scientists and lobbyists. It involves us all, and we all have the responsibility to act and make sure action includes everyone, not simply the minority who can afford it. Only then, there will be justice in climate change.