Why Climate is a Justice Issue

This is a big year for climate justice. There was the People’s Climate March last September in response to the United Nations’ 2014 Climate Summit, which summoned 311,000 people to New York City’s streets and an estimated 259,000 more to 2,700 satellite events across the globe, making it the biggest climate march in history. In July, Toronto hosted the Climate Summit of the Americas, which drew 10,000 people who came out in response to march for Jobs, Justice and the Climate—the most diverse climate mobilization ever in Canada. And, over the past year, organizers all over the world have been ramping up actions and events leading up to the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) in December this year.

These events have been widely publicized, and their aim to pressure decision-makers to wean ourselves off fossil fuel based economies is clear. But ask laypeople to delve deeper and explain climate change advocates’ demands in detail, and you’ll probably elicit blank stares or apologetic smiles. It seems like climate activists suffer from a marketing problem, because understanding the crux of the issues and demands really only boils down to understanding a little jargon: what is “climate justice” and why exactly is climate a justice issue?

This term may be confusing to some who don’t immediately associate environmental issues to human rights or social justice. At any rate, if you are to remain plugged in to the climate change debate, it’s important to understand what climate justice actually is.

So what is climate justice exactly?

First off, a little history. If you haven’t been paying attention, you may have missed the emergence of “climate justice” as the term of preference among many climate activists today. Though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the term first emerged, some see its use in the first Climate Justice Summit that took place in the Hague in 2000 as the birth of the term. So even though it officially has been in use for fifteen years, it is relatively young considering the environmental movement’s history is at least centuries old.

Climate justice has many interpretations and definitions given it represents diverse groups with varying perspectives. That said, it is generally agreed that it is a form of environmental justice whose goal is finding fair and equitable solutions to climate change while dismantling the systems responsible and the inequalities that result.

Generally, they agree that while climate change impacts most people on earth, those who suffer from the impacts of climate change the most tend to be the poorest and most vulnerable—marginalized communities who also happen to have done the least in contributing to global warming. Climate justice advocates say that it is therefore up to the wealthiest countries and the individuals to cut carbon emissions since they are largely behind the industrialization that has driven global warming and have benefitted the most from fossil fuels.

What do climate justice advocates want?

Importantly, climate justice demands that solutions to climate change should be carried out in a way that is fair and equitable and places great emphasis on promoting democratic community-led solutions with the participation of marginalized groups like Indigenous Peoples. And, often but not always, climate justice advocates that market-based mitigation policies be replaced with human focused policies, because climate justice is thought to be unattainable by concentrating mitigation efforts around the institutions (corporations, industry and the economy) that got us into this predicament in the first place.

In short?

So the crux of it is that climate justice advocates say that climate is a justice issue largely due to the inequitable distribution of responsibility for climate change as well as the disproportionate distribution of its impacts. And advocates support solutions that are not only more participatory and inclusive in nature but that are also led by communities and involve marginalized groups who are most impacted by the problem others have been trying and often failing to solve.


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