Climate justice, as a term, seems to have fallen into more mainstream usage, but its not always evident that the meaning behind it has translated into mainstream understanding quite so well. That it is intended to evoke an understanding of climate change as a symptom of an unjust economic system, and the concept of the ecological debt that today’s rich nations owe poorer nations. Here’s my very short introduction to climate justice – not as a powerful and evocative sounding choice of words, but as the vital prerequisite for seeing climate change, and our response to it, for what it is.
The economic wealth of today’s ‘developed’ countries, the global North, has its roots in a history of colonialism, appropriation of natural resources and economically exploitative relations including slavery. This history enabled Western Europe to industrialize and greatly invest in its infrastructure, a process which has left it with continuing economic benefits, as well as kick-starting anthropogenic climate change, with massive historical and ongoing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).
The global North therefore has a responsibility, a duty of justice, to support the developing countries of the global South to mitigate and adapt to climate change, a problem which they historically did little to create but will suffer most from. It is because of climate change that the global South or – the ‘majority world’ -will not have the luxury to develop in the same way the global North did i.e. via unrestrained fossil-fueled industrialization. At least, not without triggering catastrophic climate change, which would be to the detriment of all the citizens of the world, now and in the future, and counter-productively harm the poorest most.
It is therefore imperative that the rich world helps the global South to develop in a clean and sustainable way, and reduces its own GHG emissions (much of which are for luxury use rather than meeting basic needs) much more steeply, to enable developing countries to emit GHGs that contribute to meeting basic needs, whilst a just and equitable transition is made towards clean, sustainable and fair development paths. Paths which are not uniform or imposed, but locally-owned and culturally appropriate.
A just response to climate change requires global change. We talk of climate justice to remind ourselves that climate change is a symptom of global economic injustice, past and present vast and violent inequities in the appropriation of wealth and the consumption of our planet’s finite natural resources. Climate justice requires rethinking economics based on reality rather than abstracts, and giving up the nonsense of infinite growth and consumption in a finite, closed system. It requires renewable and sustainable technology transfer, huge financial investment for mitigation and adaptation, and unconditional help given by the rich, minority world (not tied to free-market oriented policies) to the poorer, majority world.
The global North must support the global South, for “our” and “their” sake (whichever side of the economic divide you sit on), not with terms that are steeped in self-interest or gain, but for the sake of the climate debt that is owed, and because the only chance of successfully tackling climate change is by pursuing climate justice.