What is Climate Justice and Why is it Important?

An overview of what the term 'climate justice' means and its significance

Mike Smith
December 11, 2023
A sign that reads Climate Justice Now

Did you know that, if you live in the United States, your refrigerator likely uses ten times more electricity than the average Nigerian gets from the grid for their entire life?

It’s one of my favorite factoids about climate and I think a clear illustration about the problem we’re facing – namely that every human deserves certain basic rights and that impacts of climate hit everyone a little differently, that these effects tend to harm the people along the same lines that other injustices do, and that in addressing climate, we need to be talking about something known as Climate Justice

Climate justice is a fundamental concept that revolves around the equitable and fair treatment of all people, particularly the most vulnerable communities, in the face of climate change. It encompasses both the ethical and political dimensions of addressing climate change, emphasizing the responsibility to protect these vulnerable groups and rectify the unequal burdens of climate impacts they often bear.

At its core, climate justice recognizes that the effects of climate change are not distributed equally among populations. Vulnerable communities, including those in low-income areas, indigenous groups, people of color, and those living in developing countries, tend to face disproportionate risks and suffer more severe consequences due to their socioeconomic status, location, or lack of resources.

One of the key aspects of climate justice is understanding and addressing the concept of environmental prejudice. This refers to the disproportionate exposure of disadvantaged communities to environmental hazards, pollution, and climate risks. For instance, marginalized communities often live in areas more prone to flooding, extreme heat, or other climate-related disasters, without adequate infrastructure or resources to cope with these challenges. Disproportionately, the marginalized communities are people of color or religious or ethnic minorities.

Climate justice seeks to rectify these disparities by advocating for inclusive and participatory approaches to climate action. It emphasizes the importance of involving affected communities in decision-making processes, ensuring that their voices are heard, and their needs are addressed. This approach not only acknowledges their rights but also recognizes their knowledge, resilience, and contributions in developing sustainable solutions. This is often a big change from how development was historically done. 

Moreover, climate justice aligns with the principles of intergenerational equity, recognizing that actions taken today will significantly impact future generations. By mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects fairly and effectively, we pave the way for a more sustainable and just world for our children and grandchildren.

There are several reasons why climate justice is of paramount importance:

1. Ethical Imperative: Climate justice stems from the ethical responsibility to ensure fairness and equity for all individuals, irrespective of their background or geographic location. It's about safeguarding the rights and well-being of those who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing. 

2. Human Rights: Climate justice is massively interconnected with human rights. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, based upon the US Bill of Rights and drafted, sponsored, and signed by the United States declare that everyone has the right to a standard of healthy living. This includes clean air, water, food security, and a healthy environment. By addressing climate change, we uphold these basic human rights and uphold American principles and international law. 

3. Social Equity and Inclusion: Climate gives us an opportunity to correct past wrongs – not by disadvantaging one group, but instead helping those that have been held down to get up. It aims to promote social equity by challenging systemic inequalities and empowering marginalized communities. By ensuring these communities are not left behind, we build a more inclusive society.

4. Sustainable Development: Integrating climate justice into policies and practices promotes sustainable development. It encourages environmentally friendly practices that also take into account social and economic considerations.

Efforts toward climate justice involve a wide range of initiatives, from policy advocacy and legal frameworks to grassroots activism and community-led resilience-building projects. The goal is to create a world where everyone can adapt to the changing climate while mitigating further damage and ensuring a fair distribution of resources and opportunities.

But here’s the most important thing: It starts with you

Percentage of CO2 emissions by world population graph

The first part of justice is to stop doing harm. The wealthiest 10% of humans cause nearly half of climate emissions (source). If you’re reading this on smart phone or laptop in your native language, this almost certainly means you. It goes back to the stat this article started with. 

So if you care about climate, human rights, and future generations, you have a moral obligation to address climate pollution. But here’s the best part: You have the power to make outsized change, too. 

Your footprint, while an important part of the climate justice story that should be ignored, is also tiny in comparison to the footprint of your employer. Your company is making decisions, usually without malice, that are harming others. So by becoming an advocate for it to change behaviors, you can change outcomes. 

And that is the start to being an advocate for climate justice.

Mike Smith
December 11, 2023

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