A placard saying "Climate Justice Now!"

How Climate Justice is Reshaping Environmental Policies

Steve Russell - February 29, 2024

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Climate justice is a movement and concept that seeks fairness in addressing climate change. It acknowledges that these events disproportionately affect different communities, especially those economically disadvantaged or historically marginalized.

This movement is about reshaping policies to address environmental issues exacerbating social and economic inequalities. By integrating principles of justice and equity, climate justice transforms the approach toward ecological governance, leading to more inclusive and practical solutions.

Background on Climate Justice

Climate justice emerged from the understanding that citizens do not equally shoulder the impacts of climate change. It extends beyond environmental policy, intertwining with human rights and social justice.

The concept originated in the 1960s, gaining traction as communities disproportionately affected by climate change sought recognition and action. The objectives of climate justice are multifaceted. It aims to do the following:

  • Ensure equitable distribution of the burdens and benefits of climate change and its solutions.
  • Recognize and empower the voices of marginalized communities in climate policy.
  • Integrate social justice into environmental actions and policies.

Globally, climate justice is increasingly relevant as nations confront the universal challenge of climate change. Developing countries, facing severe impacts but with limited sources, advocate for justice in international climate negotiations. Critics also urge developed nations to take greater responsibility, reflecting their historical emissions.

Fundamental movements and figures in the climate justice arena include the following:

  • The environmental justice movement in the U.S. highlighted racial and class disparities in environmental policies.
  • International platforms — like the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — debated climate justice principles.
  • Influential figures like Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and a climate justice advocate, and Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist, have been pivotal in bringing attention to the global South’s challenges.
  • Grassroots organizations worldwide — from the Pacific Islands to African Nations — are vocal in demanding justice in climate action.

These movements and figures have been instrumental in bringing climate justice to the forefront of global environmental discourse, striving to ensure policies and actions are fair, inclusive and effective in addressing the complex challenges of climate change.

Impact on International Agreements and Protocols

Climate justice principles are increasingly shaping international environmental agreements by bringing equity and fairness to the forefront of global climate action.

The Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, is a prime example. It marks a significant shift by attempting to lower the planet’s temperature by two degrees Celsius. It also acknowledges that developed nations, which have contributed more to global emissions, should take greater responsibility in addressing climate change.

The agreement also highlights the importance of supporting vulnerable nations through financial aid and technology transfer, addressing the climate justice principle of equitable resource distribution.

It incorporates the concept of “nationally determined contributions,” allowing countries to set their climate action plans, reflecting their capabilities and circumstances. It respects the diverse socio-economic contexts of different nations, aligning with climate justice’s call for fairness and inclusivity.

Moreover, climate justice advocacy has shifted international dialogue from a purely environmental or economic focus to one considering social and ethical dimensions. There’s a growing recognition that climate policies must address the disproportionate impacts on marginalized and vulnerable populations.

This shift is evident in increased discussions about loss and damage in climate change negotiations, recognizing that some impacts are beyond adaptation and require compensation. Moreover, 10 percent of households that produce the most emissions contribute almost half of greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the bottom half contributes between 13 and percent. 

International commitments now often include components addressing equity — such as funding for adoption in developing countries — acknowledging that those who are least responsible for climate change are often the most vulnerable.

The Role of Science and Research

Scientific research advances climate justice, providing essential data and insights to understand climate change’s unequal impacts. This research highlights vulnerable communities’ disproportionate challenges, underpinning the need for equitable climate policies.

Scientists also develop future climate models, guiding policymakers on the urgency and scale of necessary actions. These scientific findings set realistic and just targets in policies for emissions reductions, renewable energy and conservation efforts.

The collaboration between scientists and policymakers is consequential to effective climate justice policies. Scientists’ data and understanding of climate phenomena inform policymakers, who transform this knowledge into practical regulations.

An example of this synergy is the influence of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the Paris Agreement. However, the challenge lies in making scientific research accessible to non-experts, requiring effective communication strategies.

Increasingly, participatory research is bridging this gap. It involves scientists working directly with communities to understand their challenges and perspectives, leading to more inclusive and relevant climate solutions.

Challenges and Criticisms

One major challenge is balancing economic interests with environmental goals. Policies that prioritize reducing emissions and protecting vulnerable communities can sometimes conflict with short-term economic growth. For instance, industries reliant on fossil fuels may face significant restructuring, potentially leading to job losses and economic disruption.

Another challenge is the complexity of global coordination. Climate justice requires international cooperation, as climate change is a worldwide issue. However, aligning different nations’ diverse interests, capabilities and responsibilities is challenging. Developed countries may resist providing the necessary financial and technological support to developing countries, citing domestic priorities.

Critics of climate justice policies often argue the practicality of implementing these policies. Some argue the ambitious goals of this advocacy — such as drastic emissions reductions or complete shifts to renewable energy — might not be technologically or economically feasible within the proposed timelines.

The Future of Environmental Policies and Climate Justice

The climate justice movement may significantly influence future environmental policies, steering them toward a more inclusive and equitable approach. This shift will likely be evident in international climate agreements, with forums like the United Nations Climate Change Conferences focusing more on this advocacy.

The platforms will be crucial in negotiating commitments supporting vulnerable nations and communities. Additionally, the trend will see increased involvement of marginalized and indigenous groups in policy-making, ensuring environmentally sound and socially equitable policies.

These regulations may balance environmental goals with economic and social considerations, likely leading to more aggressive targets for emissions reduction and renewable energy adoption, alongside financial stability and job creation measures.

Technological innovation will also be central, with advances in green technology achieving climate goals. International collaboration — particularly in knowledge transfer and financial support for developing countries — will be vital in these future trends.

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About the author

Steve Russell

Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.