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Climate change is a matter of justice.

By Beatriz Ruiz Domingo

Source of the picture: Google images

As we all know, climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time since it affects everyone in one way or another. The international community, including states, international institutions, the private sector, and civil society, have engaged with the climate crisis for years, yet the problem keeps getting worse. What is more, climate change and mitigation mesures do not affect everyone in the same way. Preexisting vulnerabilities and new ones created by the climate crisis leave certain people unprotected and at risk. Therefore, what should be changed in global governance in order to better address the climate crisis and give a response that leaves no one behind and protects the most vulnerable? An answer to this question is climate justice. This article will mainly focus on the work of Sultana (2021).

Although climate change affects everyone in the world, its effects and burdens are uneven and unequal (Sultana, 2021). It is well known how countries that have contributed the least are the most affected and harmed. Historical and geographical differences, added to the effects of colonialism, capitalism and globalization have exacerbate climate injustices in the global south and for vulnerable people (Sultana, 2021). It is important to highlight that the unequal distribution of consequences is not only cross-countries, but also within-countries (Islam & Winkel, 2017). For these reasons, the response to climate change must be sensitive to this differences. The climate justice theory focuses on demonstrating “how climate change impacts people differently, unevenly, and disproportionately, as well as redressing the resultant injustices in fair and equitable ways” (Sultana, 2021). In addition, it conceives climate change as a moral and justice issue, not just a scientific, technical, or economic problem (ibid). This is a very relevant aspect of this theoretical framework, as it puts the focus on the ethical responsibility of the international community towards the dignity of every person.

The main goals of climate justice are to reduce marginalization, exploitation, and oppression, and to ensure equity and justice when dealing with the climate crisis (Sultana, 2021). In this regard, applying a climate justice approach involves examining who is excluded from public policies and from decision-making processes (ibid). The aim of this approach is to leave no one behind, putting the focus on the people most affected by the unequal effects of climate change. In practical terms, this approach translates into calling for systemic changes to tackle structural inequalities and break power relations that create climate injustices (Sultana, 2021). It remarks the existence of different levels of exposure, vulnerability, and risk to climate change, and links it to accountability, ethics, and human rights obligations (ibid). This implies examinig with an intersectional lens how and why the consequences of climate change unequally affect some social groups. This includes feminist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, post-colonialist and decolonial theories, as well as grassroots movements’ contributions (Sultana, 2021).

There are plenty of examples that demonstrate the need for climate justice. At the cross-country level, for instance, small island states, like Tuvalu or the Marshall Islands, face much more threats due to the rise of sea levels (Klinsky, 2021). Injustice and inequality are also perceived within countries. The heat waves experienced in the last years in werstern countries, like the United States, for example, have specially affected the most vulnerable groups, including the communities of colour, immigrants, low-income communities, and people whose native language is not English (Cho, 2020). This is also true in the global south. In the case of Ecuador, climate injustice was recently experienced, when extreme rains caused a mudflow that resulted in 28 victims, 48 injured and 12 missing people (Petley, 2022). The event occurred in January 2022 shows how the indigenous community of "La Comuna", an informal settlement that has existed since before colonization, was affected by the flood that dragged mud and all kinds of objects from the top of the "La Gasca" neighbourhood (El Universo, 2022). The latter, a middle-class residential neighbourhood, had created a large avenue, the construction of which destroyed the natural barrier of trees that would have stopped the mudflow that affected "La Comuna" (ibid). These examples also illustrate how some groups are not naturally vulnerable, but are determined by socio-economic, environmental, and cultural factors, and the role of governments (Preston, et al., 2014).

Flood in Quito, Ecuador. January, 2022. Source: Google images

In conclusion, climate change does not affect everyone and every country in the same way. Therefore, for climnate global governance to be effective and inclusive, it must address the inequality and social injutice caused by the climate crisis. This is where climate justice comes in to expose the root causes of climate change, put an end to these structural inequalities and propose public policies that do not burden affected communities with more damages and losses (Sultana, 2021).

Written by Beatriz Ruiz Domingo

Edited by Andrea Tovar

Beatriz Ruiz Domingo is a second year student of the MA in human rights and multi-level governance. Currently, she is doing an Erasmus semester in Lille, France. She has always been aware of climate change and she has tried to reduce waste, recycle, buy less clothes, eat less meat etc. But it was not until this semester that she realized the link between climate change and human rights.

After taking a course on Climate Politics at Sciences Po Lille, sha had not realized the importance of safeguarding fundamental rights while attempting to minimize the effects of climate change. During this class, she read an article about climate justice which was illuminating and inspired her to approach climate change in a new way.

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Cho, R. (22 de September de 2020). Why Climate Change is an Environmental Justice Issue. Columbia Climate School, 22 September 2020.

El Universo. (2022). El aluvión fundió a La Comuna y a La Gasca, dos barrios de Quito con realidades y orígenes distintos. El Universo, 6 February 2022.

Islam, N., & Winkel, J. (2017). Climate Change and Social Inequality. DESA Working Paper (152), October 2017.

Klinsky, S. (2021). Climate change is a justice issue – these 6 charts show why. The Conversation, 3 November 2021.

Petley, D. (2022). The disastrous 31 January 2022 mudflow in the La Gasca suburb of Quito, Ecuador. AGU, 2 February 2022.

Preston, I., Banks, N., Hargreaves, K., Kazmierczak, A., Lucas, K., Mayne, R., Street, R. (2014). Climate Change and social justice: an evidence review. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Centre for Sustainable Energy and Universities of Oxford and Manchester.

Sultana, F. (2021). Critical climate justice. The Geogr J. , 188, 118–124, 2 February 2021

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