The sole focus of climate change as a strictly environmental issue misses by large a critical social dilemma: how differently will its impacts be born upon according to who you are and to where you live. As it stands, climate impacts won't deliver blind justice.
Other stories in the Game on! Series "It's Our Turn!": Part 1 - The Youth Must Be Heard Part 2 - A Biodiversity Challenge Part 3 - I Came, I Mitigated, I Adapted
In April 2006, a Time’s cover showed a powerful image of a polar bear peering off the edge of a small floating iceberg. The headline: “Be worried. Be very worried.” In fact, for decades polar bears and melting ice have been used as symbols of global warming and climate change. But recently these symbols have been criticised for encouraging the misconception of climate change as solely an environmental issue — when in reality, it is far from it.
The Time’s 2006 cover warned of the impact of climate change and global warming for current and future generations.
While climate change is often seen as a universal issue — one that will affect everyone equally because we are all on the same planet — this perspective is not truly accurate. It is important to recognise that the impacts of climate change will not be borne equally or fairly: between rich and poor, men and women, and older and younger generations.
Climate justice is a term used to frame global warming as an ethical and political issue, rather than solely an environmental issue or one that is physical in nature. In this article, we will discuss climate change and inequality, who is responsible for human-caused climate change, and the idea of a ‘just transition’ to a low-carbon economy.
The Unequal Impact of Climate Change
Climate change can have differing social, economic, public health, and other adverse impacts on underprivileged populations. This inequality can be felt in several ways — floods, extreme weather events, proximity to toxic facilities, accessibility to technology, food security — exhibiting the multi-impact nature of climate change.
For example, climate change will have a disproportionate impact on communities of colour and low-income communities in the United States and around the world. In the US, race even more than class is the number one indicator for the placement of toxic facilities, such as coal-fired power plants, which are large emitters of carbon dioxide and methane.
Another within-community inequality is the differential impact of climate change on men and women. Women are subject to power structures that make them more vulnerable than men to climate change. In the aftermath of extreme weather events and disasters, women are more likely to be displaced, or sexually assaulted, or to be victims of violence. Furthermore, women are more likely to be affected by drought and water shortages, often spending significant time travelling to distant water resources and returning home.
Additionally, climate change is causing higher frequencies and increased strength of extreme weather events, particularly in Asia and Africa, which are home to some of the world’s youngest populations. Consequently, these extreme weather events not only create geographic inequalities of the impact of climate change but also demonstrate one aspect of generational inequality.
Furthermore, there are huge disparities between the impact on the Global North and the Global South. Global warming of 2° C would put over half of Africa’s population at the risk of undernourishment. Often described as the driest country south of the Sahara desert, Namibia is home to a large majority of people who depend on agriculture, fishing, forestry and conservation. Electricity is still only available in urban areas. Yet, most of the country’s population lives in rural areas and informal settlements, many of them young people.
The Namib Desert receives sparse and highly unpredictable annual rainfall, ranging from 5 mm in the west to about 85 mm along its eastern limits (Lovegrove 1993).
In fact, climate change will undoubtedly make some homes so uninhabitable that several communities will have to uproot and relocate altogether. According to the United Nations, climate migration will be a reality in all parts of the world. However, the situation is worse in what is known as “vulnerable countries”.
For instance, in ‘Least Developed Countries’, climate change pressure can intersect with security issues and development-related issues, forcing many to migrate in hopes of a safer, better life. This is occurring in the Lake Chad Basin — in countries such as Niger, Chad, Cameroon, and Nigeria. Additionally, ‘Land-Locked Developing Countries’ often have scarce access to water, which is further depleted by climate change. In Mongolia, extremely cold winters called dzud deplete nomadic livestock and destroy agriculture, forcing rural communities to migrate to urban centres. Finally, ‘Small Island Developing States’ such as Fiji face greater risk to extreme weather events such as storms and cyclones. Communities on these islands face ‘planned relocation’, where entire communities need to be moved (often further inland) to escape climate change impacts such as coastal erosion. A simple contrast of the Netherlands and the Maldives further demonstrates the inequalities: the Dutch have invested billions into flood defences in attempts to ‘live with water’, whereas the Maldives have not been able to do so and by the year 2100 could be entirely submerged.
In summary, the burden and adverse impacts of climate change will be felt disproportionately by communities across patterns of geography, race, class, gender. Yet, the unequal impact of climate change is not the only issue central to climate justice.
Who is responsible for climate change?
This unequal impact of climate change is even more noteworthy given that the communities that will likely be hurt the most by climate change are also the ones that are the least responsible for it. In fact, the industrialised countries of the Global North are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the UN climate Convention recognising the primary responsibility of the North to reduce emissions, the production and consumption habits of industrialised countries continue to threaten the survival of humanity and biodiversity.
With less than 5 per cent of the world population, the U.S. uses one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 per cent of the coal, 27 per cent of the aluminium, and 19 per cent of the copper.
Due to the actions of countries in the Global North, developing countries in the Global South now face the challenge of developing within the boundaries of a low carbon economy, with enough resources and technology, that they are not subjected to poverty. Simply put, countries should not be forced to stop development due to climate change.
For centuries, many indigenous peoples, peasant communities, and fisherfolk have been able to live harmoniously and sustainably with the Earth. Yet, now they also face the impact of climate change. According to the United Nations, in the high altitude regions of the Himalayas, glacial melts affect the rural dwellers’ water supply, creating more in the short term, but less in the long run as glaciers and snow cover shrink. Furthermore, indigenous peoples in the Kalahari Desert, in Africa, are forced to live around government drilled bores for water and depend on government support for their survival due to rising temperatures, dune expansion and increased wind speeds which have resulted in a loss of vegetation, and negatively impacted traditional cattle and goat farming practices.
Ironically, many of climate change’s ‘solutions’, such as agrofuels, mega-dams, genetic modification, tree plantations, and carbon offset schemes, can also negatively impact these communities. Yet, there is also potential to learn from these communities to discover real solutions to climate change.
Turning Over A New Leaf: A Just Transition
Thankfully, many of these ideas surrounding climate justice are gaining momentum and are encapsulated by the idea of a ‘just transition’. This term is gaining fast attention in defining priorities for the implementation of the Paris agreement. In general, it is a transition from coal and fossil fuels to alternative sources of livelihood in non-extractive industries. It stands for enabling the transition to the new climate economy that can be built without ignoring the economic and social interests of the poor and marginalised.
Inspired by the South African trade unions, the argument was picked up first by the American labour movement and trade unions and then the coal-mining hubs in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in Poland, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia. On behalf of moving workers from one industry to another, the term ‘just transition’ has been used to advocate standards of union engagement and outcomes. Now, it is typically associated with the elements of equity, fairness, and environmental justice particularly in the context of climate change threats. Additionally, the concept now stands for the rights of labour in industry, Small and Mid-size Enterprises (SMEs), the informal economy, and agrarian communities around the world that are coping with threats to their livelihoods.
Central to this argument is the idea of shared but differentiated responsibility to mitigate and resolve the climate crisis. At the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Katowice, Poland, a Just Transition Declaration was made. Since then, several countries have begun to incorporate the concept, tools, and processes of a “just transition” in their development plans and particularly in nationally determined contributions (NDCs) that provide road maps for their climate actions.
During the 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24), a Just Transition Declaration was made to give climate justice political support in hopes of mainstreaming this issue into global policy.
Climate justice has not only gained momentum in policy. The global youth are paying attention. Through their activism, they are bringing more awareness to climate justice than ever before. For example, the issue of intergenerational justice is central to their plight. It is being recognised more and more that while climate change affects large numbers of people alive now, most of the impact of climate change will fall on future generations.
Former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, has stated that “thanks to the recent marches, strikes, and protests by hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, we have begun to understand the intergenerational injustice of climate change.” As she stressed, intergenerational partnerships — where young people are no longer seen as the “beneficiaries” of environmentalism, but as “means of implementation” and “creators of opportunities” — are of critical importance. This perspective is exactly what the 'GameOn!' project hopes to enhance by encouraging the global youth to take action against climate change.
Mary Robinson’s book, Climate Justice, refers to climate change as a humanitarian issue and makes the case for hope.
To conclude, I will refer to a young leader that has already inspired young people around the world to take to the streets and fight against climate change. Greta Thunberg, the young teenager from Sweden whose activism I discussed in the first article of this 'It’s Our Turn!' series, spoke directly about intergenerational climate justice in her speech to the United Nations. She pointed out that decreasing carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 brings a 50% chance of staying below 1.5 °C. This estimate also relies on younger generations sucking hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 out of the air with technologies that “barely exist”. She called global leaders to action: “The eyes of all future generations are upon you and if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.”
It is time for us, both young and old, to act. We must work together in the fight against climate change. It’s Game On!