From Environmental to Climate Justice

SEI Co-Director David Schlosberg considers the connections and conflicts between environmental and climate justice, and what these concepts mean for activists.

'Doha COP18 Protests: World Resources Institute' , Sourced: Flickr CC

What is the relationship between environmental and climate justice? For the last 30 years environmental justice has been a major movement and organising discourse in the arena of environmental politics, focused on environmental inequity, lack of recognition, political exclusion, and the decimation of communities. With climate change, environmental justice themes were taken up by climate justice activists, while at the same time the impacts of climate change increasingly shaped the environmental justice movement.

The way the evolution of both movements are inextricably woven together can be seen in cases such as Hurricane Katrina. Before Katrina, environmental justice organizing in New Orleans mostly addressed the corridor dubbed ‘Cancer Alley’  – the communities near the oil refineries, chemical plants, and other toxin-producing industries that line the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. The focus was on the substances that came out of the smokestacks and fell on the local communities. But after Katrina, environmental justice activists increasingly addressed the other impacts of the emissions coming out of those same stacks – they didn’t just fall on the local peoples, but also went into the atmosphere, added to greenhouse emissions, caused the warming of the Gulf that added to the strength of Katrina, and so came back to impact the community in a new way. A concern for environmental justice grew into a concern with climate justice.

Environmental justice and climate justice movements share many core principles, including a respect for indigenous conceptions of the nature, the importance of self-determination of all peoples, and opposition to the role trans/multi-national corporations play in the environmental decimation of communities.

But these movement-based ideas are not the only way climate justice has been defined. There are actually three very different ways that the concept of climate justice is discussed. Academics, as is their practice, have some very ideal ways of thinking about climate justice – ideas based in theories of justice. Elite non-governmental organizations – mostly international environmental groups – have a more pragmatic, policy-focused approach. Finally, activist groups that use climate justice as a rallying cry are clearly tied to the history, principles, and demands of the longstanding environmental justice movement.

These differences in the conception of climate justice, especially between more mainstream environmental organizations and grassroots movement activists, have sometimes led to conflict and disagreement. Some climate justice activists are concerned that the major groups, focused as they are on global emissions policy, disparage the community-based work of the environmental justice movement.  When community groups frame climate change in terms of the actual impacts of climate change on communities—infrastructure, health impacts, access to health or water or jobs – they are often dismissed as caring only about local problems. As the more mainstream environmental groups are focused on global carbon emission policy, the interests of community groups are often seen as misplaced or irrelevant. In addition, global environmental NGOs often try to work with the corporate sector, while environmental and climate justice activists are suspicious of corporate or consumerist responses to climate change; they see such approaches as catering those with wealth, rather than the already vulnerable. Still, the critique of grassroots groups is misplaced. Both environmental justice and climate justice are at once both local and global – they demand attention to both the big picture and the everyday impacts of climate change.

Looking forward, there are many opportunities for the thriving grassroots movements on environmental and climate justice to continue to influence each other, as well as environmental policy. Food justice, for example, presents an opportunity for collaboration over questions of food security, with notions of local agriculture presented as a way to combat carbon emissions, preserve Indigenous and other local practices and culture, and to create jobs and economic opportunity. Likewise, movements such as Lock The Gate address both the range of impacts of the fossil fuel industry as well as the importance of community and cultural resilience in the face of climate change.

In addition, the application of ideas of environmental justice to the development of adaptation policy is crucial – especially in light of the recent IPCC report on climate impacts. Climate change is already changing the relationship between human beings and their environments. Just adaptation would focus on addressing vulnerability and providing for basic human needs. Key is the inclusion of impacted populations in conversations about how to build resiliency and strengthen community responses to inevitable change.

For movement groups, concepts of environmental and climate justice can help us to challenge the existing human practices and systems that have led to environmental vulnerability, and to develop new and resilient relationships between human communities and their environments.

David Schlosberg is Professor of Environmental Politics in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Co-Director of the Sydney Environment Institute. He is known internationally for his work in environmental politics, environmental movements, and political theory – in particular the intersection of the three with his work on environmental justice. He is the author, most recently, of Defining Environmental Justice (Oxford, 2007); co-author of Climate-Challenged Society (Oxford, 2013); and co-editor of both The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Oxford 2011), and The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory (Oxford 2016). Professor Schlosberg’s current research includes work on climate justice – in particular justice in climate adaptation strategies and policies, and the question of human obligations of justice to the nonhuman realm. He is also examining the sustainable practices of new environmental movement groups – in particular their attention to flows of power and goods in relation to food, energy, and sustainable fashion. And he continues with theoretical work at the interface of justice, democracy, and human/nonhuman relations in the Anthropocene.