What is Climate Justice? Environmental, Political and Ethical Aspects.

Climate justice refers to the idea that the climate emergency is not only an environmental issue, but also a political and ethical issue. Climate change will increasingly be a defining experience for all life on Earth in the near future since the changing climate will lead to disruption of fragile ecosystems around the world. Global average temperatures have already increased by 1°C above pre-industrial levels in 2017 and are likely to increase by 0.2°C every decade unless immediate action is taken to stop emissions as well as remove greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the atmosphere [1]. The IPCC (United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Global Warming of 1.5°C report details the various effects of a 1.5°C rise including sea-level rise, intense heat waves, water and food insecurity, extreme weather events, among others. The most extreme impacts of climate change will largely be borne by populations who have historically benefited the least from fossil fuel extraction and use [2].

In the Sustainable Development and Equity report released by the IPCC, equity in a changing climate is defined as having three dimensions: intergenerational, international, and national. Intergenerational equity relates to how future generations will experience far more hardship and suffering from the excesses of the current and past generations [3]. International equity refers to the fact that some countries are far more susceptible to heatwaves, food and water shortages, and extreme events than others based on their demographic, economic, and geographic conditions. National equity refers to the possibility of existing socio-economic inequalities in the population becoming exaggerated due to climate change.

Poverty and hunger alleviation are two areas that have seen significant progress in the past few decades. The global undernourished population decreased from 15% in 2000 to 8.9% in 2019 and global poverty rates fell from 36% in 1990 to 9% in 2017 [4,5]. The Covid-19 pandemic showed that even if these communities no longer experience extreme poverty, building resilience, which is characterized as the ability of communities to overcome adverse situations, takes time and sustained effort by governments around the world. Crises such as extreme weather events and pandemics threaten to erase decades of progress made in reducing suffering around the world. 

Climate change will bring more droughts that threaten the amount of land available for food production. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) estimates that 75% of the 1.2 billion poor people in the world live in rural areas and the economics of these regions are highly dependent on agriculture [6]. The global population is expected to peak at nearly 11 billion near the end of this century. Ensuring that there is sufficient high-quality food available to feed an additional 3.4 billion people with a shrinking amount of agricultural land in an unpredictable climate system will be challenging [7]. 

The increasing global population leads into the intergenerational aspect of climate change. While many countries have committed to reducing their emissions by 2050, this is much too late, as the atmospheric lifetime of CO2 is estimated to be between 50 – 200 years. Other GHGs last anywhere between a few decades to many millennia [8]. Even if carbon emissions peak in a few years, the effects will last much longer. Any increase in temperature leads to feedback loops, like melting ice and droughts. In the former, melting ice decreases the albedo of Earth, reducing the amount of heat reflected away from the Earth. In the latter, droughts cause dry conditions that make wildfires more likely. Wildfires, in turn, release billions of tons of carbon currently locked in trees and other organic matter into the atmosphere [9,10]. There are many more mechanisms by which feedback loops can be triggered. These effects will be experienced largely by generations that did not contribute to the changing climate. It is therefore imperative on our generation to ensure that the amount of suffering borne by future generations is reduced.

Similarly, with the international issue, countries with historically minimal emissions have already started facing severe consequences of climate change and will continue to do so. Low-lying Pacific Islands such as Kiribati, which lies just 2 m above sea level, face the risk of losing large amounts of land due to sea level rise [11]. Kiribati has one of the lowest per capita emissions in the world at 0.6 tCO2e/capita in 2014 compared to a range of 10 – 68 tCO2e/capita in Canada [12,13] but is at risk of inundation. The population of over 100,000 Kiribati face moving permanently and losing all ties to their land due to forces completely outside their control. Other crises that can emerge from a changing climate include wars and conflicts. The former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon characterized the Sudan civil war as the first climate change conflict, caused by change in rainfall patterns [14]. Academics predict climate change will play an increasing role in exacerbating existing tensions between nations leading to more confrontations [15]. 

While climate change will affect nations based on their ability to adapt and innovate, even within countries, the most vulnerable groups will experience the worst impacts. Poor, marginalized and Indigenous communities will bear the brunt of climate change as it exacerbates current challenges faced by these communities such as loss of land, wildfires, and water insecurity. Climate change further threatens the traditional practices and lifestyles of Indigenous people already experiencing cultural genocide due to colonization. 

No country or individual will be unaffected by climate change. However, wealthier, and politically favoured communities have the means to influence public policy to ameliorate the effects of climate change, while under-privileged populations will experience the majority of the suffering. Recent heat waves have shown that people who lack housing or air conditioning, as well as elderly people, are highly vulnerable. Extreme heat will occur more frequently and in places that are ill equipped to deal with it, as was evident during the 2021 heat wave in the US and Canada. We need forward thinking public policy to address these issues and infrastructural investment to allow vulnerable population groups within nations to adapt to a changing climate.

A comprehensive climate justice platform must address all these issues. It must advocate for government and policy makers to seek out the voices of communities and activists to develop inclusive and just solutions. Although a comprehensive climate justice policy is yet to be defined, there are many proposals such as the “Green New Deal” proposals being considered in the USA and Canada. Individuals must ensure they remain informed about these issues and consider these proposals a starting point rather than the conclusion of the climate justice movement. Climate change has the potential to create permanent classes of haves and have-nots. The public has a responsibility to ensure the voices of those most affected by climate change are heard by those in power.



  1. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/chapter-1/
  2. https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-56941979
  3. http://centaur.reading.ac.uk/38524/1/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter4.pdf
  4. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.DDAY
  5. https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/world-hunger-facts-statistics
  6. https://www.pnas.org/content/104/50/19680
  7. https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/world-population-prospects-2019.html
  8. https://blogs.edf.org/climate411/2008/02/26/ghg_lifetimes/
  9. https://www.pnas.org/content/116/48/23947
  10. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/23082018/extreme-wildfires-climate-change-global-warming-air-pollution-fire-management-black-carbon-co2/
  11. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/LosingLandtoclimatechange.aspx
  12. https://www4.unfccc.int/sites/ndcstaging/PublishedDocuments/Kiribati%20First/INDC_KIRIBATI.pdf
  13. https://www.ivey.uwo.ca/media/2112500/4462-ghg-emissions-report-v03f.pdf
  14. https://ourworld.unu.edu/en/does-climate-change-cause-conflict
  15. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/07/11/how-does-climate-change-impact-conflict-world/