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Climate Change

Justice moves to centre stage as climate action ramps up


Adrian Di Giovanni

Senior program specialist, IDRC

Georgina Cundill-Kemp

Senior Program Officer, IDRC

The growing recognition of climate change as an issue of justice appears to have gone mainstream. The 2021 UN climate conference, COP 26, heralded an unprecedented focus on climate justice that was reflected in the media coverage. A headline in the journal Nature read “COP architects furious at lack of climate justice at pivotal summit,” while the New York Times ran with “This year, demands for redress have sharpened as climate justice has become a rallying cry,” and the BBC posted the article “The world’s fight for ‘climate justice.’”

In 2019, the recent surge in interest spurred IDRC to initiate an exploratory process to identify the potential for a Southern-led research agenda on climate justice. For more details, read the report published by the Institute for Development Studies, in collaboration with University of Sussex — one of the first outputs of our exploration.

Much of the focus on climate justice surrounding COP 26 was on loss and damage in the Global South. It highlighted several injustices: that countries and people who will suffer the greatest impacts of climate change, despite contributing the least to it, also face the steepest challenges in adjusting their economies to a low-carbon world. During our learning journey that continues to this day, we’ve come to understand that this aspect of climate justice is critical and urgent, but not the whole story.

The calls for climate justice rarely point to the anticipated push for ambitious climate actions in the coming years and their potential negative impacts on vulnerable and marginalized populations, especially in the Global South. In the decade ahead, societies around the world will initiate and feel the impacts of multiple societal responses to climate change (see diagram). These responses will take place locally, nationally, and on a global scale; they will occur simultaneously and likely interact with one another in unpredictable ways. Together, these responses — or the failure to respond — will bring with them societal transitions that could exacerbate existing inequalities and injustices or create new ones. With efforts in the right places, however, they could also transform society, enabling it to overcome existing inequalities and injustices and build a more resilient and equitable future.

What forms of justice matter in climate action?

Many dimensions of justice are relevant to climate change efforts; chief among these are the following three.

  • Procedural justice emphasizes decision-making processes about climate impacts and action that are inclusive, fair, accountable, and transparent, especially for groups that are most directly vulnerable to these impacts and action.
  • Distributive justice, essential to the loss and damage debates happening right now, is concerned with the outcomes and impacts of climate change and efforts to address it. Priority is placed on highlighting how different groups at local, national or global levels benefit or suffer from the impacts of climate change and climate action, as well as who bears the responsibility for them.
  • Transformative justice is based on the notion that vulnerability to climate change reflects various structural injustices in society, such as the exclusion of marginalized groups from decision-making and from alternative livelihood options that might build their resilience to climate change. From that standpoint, responses to climate change must take aim at these structural inequalities, reinforce democratic governance at all scales, and propel the realization of gender equality and social inclusion. This journal article in WIREs Climate Change explains the concept.

Transformative justice comes into sight when procedural and distributional justice are achieved. It requires a systems approach, which recognizes (i) the multiple and often overlapping societal responses to climate change that will occur at different places, times, and scales, but also (ii) the existing challenges of structural inequality and exclusions that will interact with climate responses.

Infographic: From climate change responses to transformative climate justice

Climate responses will play out through various institutions and governance processes and raise questions of procedural justice: who is in and who is out when decisions are made about climate action? Moreover, those governance processes hold the potential to level power imbalances and mediate the trade-offs in distributional climate justice debates — who benefits and who suffers. However, large-scale development and infrastructure projects are riddled with painful examples of causing harm to vulnerable groups, resulting in negative unintended consequences and creating or exacerbating injustice and inequalities. In an article in Nature Climate Change, authors Mary Robinson and Tara Shine have already drawn attention to the risks to human rights posed by well intentioned, large-scale climate action interventions, like solar and wind farms or biofuel plantations.

IDRC joins the climate justice conversation and prioritizes Southern perspectives

Addressing climate change as an issue of justice is not business as usual. Applying a justice lens will require everyone to work differently. The challenge for the justice community will be to work simultaneously and more effectively across multiple scales of stakeholders and climate policy spaces, including national adaptation plans and nationally determined contributions. For the climate change community, it will be important to complement the customary focus on technical solutions with more attention on the meanings, applications, and pursuit of equality, fairness, and justice.

A woman and two boys stand in flood water with a cycle rickshaw in Bangladesh.
G.M.B. Akash/Panos Pictures
Standing in floodwaters in Bangladesh.

In that spirit, IDRC supports new research to begin generating some answers to the big questions about how to achieve transformative justice in a changing climate. We see research playing an important transformative role in tackling the root causes of inequality, especially when built around partnerships with non-academic partners, with a clear commitment to the co-production of knowledge (see diagram above). Watch for developments from this research, testing approaches to promote climate justice in Africa, Asia, and Latin America:

  • Justice-informed adaption through Indigenous peoples’ knowledge systems in Chile and Peru, to connect with indigenous peoples’ groups and integrate their perspectives on climate justice into national adaptation plans and related measures in Peru and Chile.
    For more information, contact Maritza Paredes at PUCP.
  • Just and resilient planned relocation from climate change in Bangladesh, to integrate questions of inclusion and rights into Bangladesh’s National Strategy on Planned Relocation from Climate Change.
    For more information, contact Dr Ricardo Safra de Campos at the University of Exeter.
  • Brokering justice in a changing climate, to support local groups and communities to effectively advocate for just and inclusive climate actions at the global level.
    For more information, contact Michelle Du Toit at SouthSouthNorth.

Given the increasing ambitions to act on the climate crisis, now is the time to mobilize research around climate justice. The challenge lies in forging new partnerships between those most affected by climate change and climate action, the justice community, and climate change researchers.

This text was adapted from a guest article published on the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies blog on June 30, 2022.