Questions of justice are relevant to all aspects of climate and environmental change, from how and where the impacts are felt the most, the allocation and prioritisation of funding, the type of responses that are considered to adapt to changes, to how negative impacts can arise from mitigation policies. Yet, beyond broad statements, substantial issues of justice and equity were largely missing from the high-level dialogues at COP26 and previous COP meetings.
As international leaders meet this week for the Stockholm +50 conference, we unpack what climate justice really means, and question whether such high-level forums can implement the profound paradigm shift needed to achieve it.
Climate and environmental justice
The UN Stockholm +50 conference, taking place in Sweden this week, marks 50 years of multilateral environmental and climate action. It will bring together international leaders over two days to re-emphasize the importance of multilateralism in tackling the Earth’s intersecting planetary crises.
Whilst there was some recognition of the need for climate justice at COP26 in November, and there may be again in Sweden this week, high-level negotiations remain firmly rooted in worldviews that put economic growth at the centre. This allows ‘justice’ to be too easily sidelined, treated as a buzzword for branding policy frameworks that have little to do with justice, or treated like a ‘trade-off’. Little consideration has been given to what climate justice truly looks like for people and nature, or possible pathways to achieving it.
Centering justice in the way we respond to climate change and biodiversity loss carries the implication that those actors most responsible for creating and accelerating climate change and biodiversity loss on a global scale don’t just pay more, but are no longer permitted to have the final say in which pathway is most ‘feasible’. By putting justice for those carrying the greatest burden first rather than last, a justice-centered approach can reduce the need for inequitable ‘trade-offs’ between overall societal needs and the needs of the most vulnerable people and regions, and can foster an environment in which proposals for response that have legitimacy and traction are a better match to real-world needs and changes.
An integrated approach
Despite dominant discourses of the ‘planetary’ and ‘global’ nature of climate challenges, the world is highly stratified and vast inequalities and power imbalances exist, even in ‘multilateral’ forums. Yet inequalities have also shaped politics within countries, affecting communities and social groups within communities who have often engaged in long struggles to have their rights recognised and to defend access to territory, resources, livelihoods and even identity against exclusion and expropriation in the name of ‘development’ and ‘sustainability’.
Integrated approaches to climate and environmental justice must actively seek to accommodate plural pathways. This means recognising that there will be variation – across sites and social groups – in the needs, aspirations, and meaningful notions of justice for those who experience the greatest vulnerabilities in the face of change.
An integrated approach must confront the institutional structures and policy processes that produce and maintain inequalities between countries and regions, but also recognise that national level priorities and policy processes can exacerbate inequities and vulnerabilities within countries. This is particularly so when national priorities reflect the interests of a narrow elite, special interest groups or international lobbyists and consultants. These groups can silence or suppress the voices and interests of people who have been made vulnerable through long and varied processes of socio-political and economic exclusion
Climate justice and international forums
The current process of high-level dialogues that promote the scaling up of one-size-fits-all ‘solutions’ to climate disruption and biodiversity loss is incongruent with our approach to climate justice. This is because, despite a discourse of ‘win-win-wins’, the framings and responses that come out of high-level processes are driven primarily by politics. Instead of the most vulnerable, the interests of a narrow set of globally elite political and economic actors are privileged.
Privileging the already privileged creates barriers to achieving just and equitable outcomes in the current system of agenda setting and response. It reinforces flawed assumptions about people’s needs in the face of change and creates ‘trade-offs’ in responding to environmental change. Large-scale ‘top-down’ solutions arise, despite little consultation with affected communities, consideration of their needs or the possible impacts. This is particularly important for places and peoples that experience exceptional vulnerability due to historic and ongoing processes related to uneven development, colonisation and environmental racism. These historic and on-going processes result in huge inequalities in power and capabilities to respond and adapt at different scales, and in the ability to contribute to policy processes and agenda setting.
The failure of ‘top-down’ solutions
Evidence from IDS research shows that existing large-scale initiatives with ‘top-down’ one size fits all technical ‘solutions’ are not working, and often result in a mis-match between place-based ecological dynamics and locally desired development needs and aspirations. For example, mass tree planting initiatives such as the UN funded ‘Great Green Wall’, promoted as a solution for people living in ostensibly ‘degraded’ land who are suffering at the ‘frontline of climate change’. In reality the plan will push pastoralists from their land and dispossess them of crucial rangelands that they depend on for livelihoods.
Responding to climate change and protecting biodiversity in a just way means respecting people’s knowledge, dignity and rights to livelihoods and wellbeing. For high-level policy processes to succeed in enabling sustainable and just environments, there must be multilateral recognition that a paradigm shift is necessary. They must prioritise listening to local voices, strengthening rights over land and water and ensuring accountability. We must move away from ‘top-down’ and large scale ‘solutions’, to ‘bottom-up’, democratic and context-driven policy making processes that involve the full participation and recognition of people who have been marginalised or made vulnerable.
Six recommendations for climate and environmental policy makers
Here are six ways forward to ensure issues of justice, and fair and inclusive participation of people worst affected are central to climate and environmental policy processes:
- Recognise that a fundamental change of approach is essential to understand and address multidimensional justice dilemmas associated with climate and other forms of environmental change.
- Be aware that harmful impacts of environmental change are not only caused by changes in the biophysical environment but also by policies meant to address environmental problems and by historical exploitation and marginalisation.
- Identify opportunities to foster inclusive deliberative spaces at national and sub-national levels for members of affected communities to fully participate in identifying and responding to environmental changes and challenges and shaping fit-to-purpose national and sub-national policy processes.
- Through engaged research ensure that climate finance and policy changes made at international and national levels support these processes and reach and benefit people at the local level living on the margins and most in
- Resist the large scale, big fix ‘solutions’ that have been developed by powerful political and industry groups at a great social, economic and empirical distance from real-world challenges and implementation settings.
- Boldly promote stories of policy successes, challenges and lessons learned in international forums to generate debate and learning across the international community.