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Opinion

COP26: Time to reframe climate and environmental justice

Published on 1 November 2021

Image of Amber Huff

Amber Huff

Research Fellow

Image of Lars Otto Naess

Lars Otto Naess

Research Fellow

The language of justice relates to nearly everything on the agenda at COP26, whether on the inequality and injustices of the impacts of climate change, the injustice in the distribution of climate funds, or the injustices from policies to reduce emissions. Yet beyond the broad statements of the need to take action on the climate in a just and equitable way, we are nowhere near achieving the actions that are needed to avoid unjust outcomes and harmful climate change, let alone tangible and substantial sustainable development.

We need to reframe climate justice

This is why an upcoming IDS Bulletin calls for a reframing of climate – and broader environmental – justice debates. We argue that achieving meaningful action on the climate crisis requires moving beyond existing political approaches requires radical change to transform thinking about the drivers, nature and distribution of ostensibly ‘global’ challenges and the relationships that exist among science, technology, society and nature across multiple scales.

This means recognising that the climate crisis is a crisis of justice as much as it is a crisis related to the geophysical environment. It requires challenging our assumptions about authority and power, and opening up debates to plural knowledge and experiences. It means understanding why many proposed ‘solutions’ are resisted by communities on the ground. It means asking how so-called ‘alternative’ practices and approaches, applied collaboratively at different scales, can create opportunities for learning and uncover pathways that could disrupt harmful trajectories and move us toward desirable futures.

We need to get to the roots of the problem

Related global challenges of climate disruption, biodiversity loss and ecological degradation and their harmful consequences for people and nature are well-established. Likewise, the need for action is near universally recognized by natural and social scientists, politicians, members of international social movements, as well as through international agreements related to climate (UNFCCC), biodiversity (CBD), environmental degradation (UNCCD) and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Yet despite advances in environmental science and environmental and development policy, these challenges remain what have been called ‘super wicked problems’. This means that they are urgent yet seem to evade attempts to apply common sense ‘solutions’ and can thus seem impossible to resolve. As with climate change, the same actors and industries who are responsible for causing the problem are expected to provide solutions, while at the same time, due to the contestation and politics around them, appeals to science and evidence are often unable to generate policy resolution or point a clear path toward definitive action.

As a result, despite clear awareness, ample evidence, plenty of money and nearly thirty years of high-level climate summits since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, international targets for reducing emissions, stemming habitat loss, mitigating landscape degradation, and for achieving sustainable development remain unmet year after year, and the structural and systemic drivers of harmful changes for people and nature remain unaddressed.

We are not simply dealing with scientific or technical problems amenable to what Mike Hulme calls ‘solutionism’: They are inherently social and political problems, involving intrinsic multi-dimensional justice dilemmas. Conflicts around courses of action are largely value-based and shaped by power and a variety of contested assumptions.

A growing wealth of research on science and policy indicates that addressing such wicked socio-environmental problems can’t be done from the high-level board room or within the confines of traditional academic disciplines. To identify just pathways, a democratization of knowledge production is needed, drawing on strengths of both inter- and transdisciplinary approaches.  Interdisciplinary approaches seek to break down disciplinary boundaries and improve the flow of knowledge and debate within and across sciences and humanities, while transdisciplinary approaches ask questions like ‘Whose knowledge counts?’ ‘Who is the expert?’ and ‘Who can speak for whom?’ Such approaches create spaces for substantial public participation and seek to facilitate dialogue across plural forms of knowledge and experience, amplifying voices of people who are often excluded from high level decision-making.

Contested priorities

Claims related to climate justice that affect who gets what (distributional justice); whose knowledge counts (epistemic justice), who gets to decide (procedural justice) and who gets left behind (recognitional justice) are increasingly contested. Research from across the social sciences and environmental humanities shows that in high level policy debates dominant discourses around framing and responding to climate change can be depoliticized, making proposed ‘fixes’ appear straightforward and non-controversial, therefore agreed by consensus.

For example, attributing causes of climate change to ‘human activities’ may be technically accurate, but through omission and generalization this narrative obscures historical inequities, uneven power relations and disproportionate contributions to harm. This often shifts blame and the greatest costs of mitigation to those with the least political power and culpability, creating and perpetuating and sometimes intensifying environmental injustices whilst silencing those who are engaged in active struggles to defend their rights, livelihoods, homes, ecologies and even lives.

Dominant approaches to address climate and other processes of environmental change share a tendency to place growth, not ecology, nor climate, and certainly not justice, at the heart of the international policy agenda. Responses to uncertainty and the unruliness of climate problems tend to seek ever-greater degrees of control and management of nature and society ‘from above’, guided by a (fantastical) belief that perpetual growth can somehow be ‘transformed’ and made ‘green’ or sustainable as if by magic. In doing so, the well-documented but untouchable structural and systemic drivers of harmful change for people and nature are left unaddressed. The consequence is that crises continue to escalate, challenges expand and diversify, particularly for the most vulnerable people and ecologies around the world.

The disaster of ‘top down’ recovery

COP26 takes place against a backdrop of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. The crisis has intensified a forceful policy discourse of ‘global recovery’ through strengthening the post-pandemic ‘growth economy of repair’ across sectors. This has been pitched in terms of scaled-up, top-down, market-driven and control-oriented ‘big bang’ schemes like the World Economic Forum’s ‘great reset’; ‘build back better’ campaigns in the UK and US; the Sustainable Markets Initiative’s 10-point pandemic recovery plan; the ‘Global Safety Net’ campaign; and the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People’s pledge that aims to place 30% of terrestrial and marine territory under strict protection by 2030, among others.

For the reasons outlined above, however, these approaches could have disastrous effects. As long as we are on this trajectory, the best we can hope for is that crises are prolonged, delayed and outsourced to the margins, shifted in space and time. All they do is hide, for a time, mounting harmful consequences for people, biodiversity, our lived cultural landscapes and built environments and wild spaces. It points us toward a future of expanding sacrifice zones, deepening inequalities, and in which the ever-growing hunger for growth at all costs will continue to generate, intensify and spread the cascading effects of ecological crises. Inequities seem inevitable with injustice able to be treated as a ‘trade-off’, or dismissed as simply ‘bad apples’, a necessary ‘trade-off’, sacrificing the lives of some as the cost of progress.

Messages of crisis, urgency and emergency can cause fear and lead to civic space being shut down for the appearance of quick action. Depoliticization hides contestation, silences dissenting viewpoints, obscures alternative pathways, and draws attention from ways in which different policy choices about responding to climate change can intersect with people’s ongoing struggles for social and environmental justice.

Crucially, dominant approaches to understanding and responding to crises can direct attention away from other, possibly more promising, approaches to response. ‘Solutions’ based in control and scaling-up technical interventions can obscure latent possibilities and alternative pathways, hiding contestation and power relations. This can close down spaces for debate and ‘lock in’ a single pathway as if it were the only possible course of action.

While focussing on a single pathway may look like decisive action, it leads to major blind spots and a tendency to treat the underlying drivers of crises as sources of solutions themselves. We address some of these blindspots in the IDS Bulletin and in a series of four blogs coinciding with COP26: challenging mainstream narratives of livestock as a climate change ‘villain’; the role of restricting fossil fuel production to reduce injustices; the need for more emphasis on recognition justice as an overlooked concern compared to their more famous ‘siblings’ distributive and procedural justice; and finally, addressing the biases in policing of environmental justice movements. Together, we hope to bring attention to plural knowledge and experiences that are essential in uncovering pathways to a sustainable future.

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