Climate justice – everyone talks climate, but somehow skips the justice part. Have you experienced that as well?
The climate crisis dominates our everyday lives – from being on frontpages of newspapers, heavily discussed in talk shows, setting the agenda of big international conferences, to rising climate migration, the significant lack of climate finance, or ever-increasing natural disasters such as devastating floods and extreme droughts. The climate crisis is everywhere. Yet, people have very different feelings and opinions regarding this global challenge. Casually speaking, there are three ‘types’: those who care, those who do not care or are uncertain how to feel, and those who yet still deny the impacts of the climate crisis. I want to focus on those who seemingly care in this text – because I feel there is a huge misunderstanding when it comes to the most vital principle of any climate action: climate justice.
Climate justice is a term I also work with at CFFP and in my activism, it is a term a lot of people use – but it seems different people mean very different things when talking about climate justice. As mentioned before, in my opinion, people go on talking about climate yet skip the justice part somehow. So, let’s dive into what this exactly means.
People make it about the individual.
A lot of people, specifically left-leaning, middle- and upper class people, have adopted a sustainable lifestyle in the past years. The picture of a sustainable lifestyle? Flying less, using less plastic, wearing second hand clothes, and eating vegan. Don’t get me wrong, all these are noble individual choices which I totally support and (in part) live by myself. But they are exactly that – individual choices (that only a very specific group of people can afford for that matter). They are not able to abolish the capitalist, racist, and deeply unjust system, which is responsible for the climate crisis in the first place, in the long run. Moreover, I have two issues with this development. First, I feel like a lot of people think that by adopting a sustainable lifestyle, they have done their service to society and no longer need to care or worry about anything – or anyone – else (no, our 7€ almond latte in a recycled cup will NOT save this planet, sorry). Second, people fail to see the bigger picture and how they are sustaining deeply oppressive structures by not focusing on the apparent and very active links within the climate discourse: energy & food security and sovereignty, environmental racism, conflict and war, access and ability, housing, maternal health, sexual and reproductive justice and rights, colonialism, capitalist exploitation, knowledge production and sharing, data science, agriculture – I could go on and on.
I am not asking people to stop living a sustainable lifestyle, on the contrary. I am asking people to stop thinking that is all they can do and start thinking how they are giving back to the communities most affected by the climate crisis. I am asking people how their choices actually bring justice to unjust circumstances.
People take on a bird's eye view.
I’ve witnessed that a lot of people truly perfected separating themselves from any sort of responsibility. People care about the climate but mostly about what happens around them, about what seems to be within their reach or grasp. But they are often detached by climate crisis impacts elsewhere on this planet due to geographic distance. This is a dangerous and reckless path to tread on because it diminishes the one very true fact about the climate crisis: everything – and everyone – is connected. Unfortunately, people taking on a bird’s eye view and thus distancing themselves from any responsibility can be witnessed at all levels. How so?
The personal level: people judging others, even in their close circles. On an institutional level: ministries and organisations blaming each other back and forth, instead of working together. This makes it also incredibly challenging for activists and civil society organisations to receive any information or support because ministries are too busy finger pointing at each other. And then, on an international level. What currently bothers me the most is countries like my own, Germany, and other Global North countries, accusing China of not doing enough in terms of emissions reduction. And rightly so, because China is a huge polluter and contributes immensely to the climate crisis. Although the country’s emissions declined in 2022, China still produces around a third of the world’s annual carbon emissions and its climate policies are not aligned with long-term solutions (Stanway, 2022). Yet, this does not have to be a barrier for other countries to move ahead when it comes to climate action – specifically keeping in mind historic emissions and questions like shared responsibility, or the dire situation of countries like Barbados, Vanuatu or Afghanistan, who are already bearing the brunt of this crisis. Should we just not act only because a few countries are not on board? What is this, kindergarten? We need to find collective solutions for a collective problem, no matter if some will not participate. With collective action, they will come around eventually. Steadfastness and willingness are key!
But back to my initial point: bird’s eye view. We are all in this together. We are all part of the systems in place, part of polluting this planet. And we all carry the responsibility to protect and care for it – although, the degree of responsibility varies greatly. Specifically people and governments in the so-called Global North must no longer pretend they are just bystanders offering help from the outside. We are literally the reason this planet is on fire.
People get lost in climate-tech solutions.
Sure, it would be convenient if we just invented a fancy tech solution taking the climate crisis off our shoulders. And people truly get not only creative and inventive when it comes to climate-tech solutions – they also become incredibly generous. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against innovation and handy new tech inventions (in moderation). But will they alone solve this crisis? Absolutely not! Once and for all: the climate crisis is a social crisis. This is not (only) about the climate – it is about exploitation and oppression, about the ways we live with each other, about justice. No climate-tech solution will guarantee justice for the hungry, the beaten, the oppressed, the forgotten. And it really angers me how much money available there is for climate-tech but when it comes to affordable housing, child- and healthcare, social services, or fighting racism, funding always seems scarce. How is that possible? I can tell you. Investing in care and justice is not lucrative, you will not win a prize for it, you will not make (more) money. But if you only invest in climate-tech for profit reasons, you are in this battle for the wrong reasons in the first place.
People do not think of climate justice in an intersectional way.
Back to what climate justice actually is and means. To me, climate justice is an intersectional concept. It goes beyond climate action and entails racial, social, environmental, economic, and health justice. Climate justice is about protecting people and the planet. An even better term might be intersectional environmentalism. Leah Thomas, founder of Intersectional Environmentalist defines it so:
Intersectional environmentalism is an inclusive version of environmentalism that advocates for both the protection of people and the planet. It identifies the ways in which injustices happening to marginalised communities and the earth are interconnected. It brings injustices done to the most vulnerable communities, and the earth, to the forefront and does not minimise or silence social inequity. Intersectional environmentalism advocates for justice for people and the planet (Thomas, 2020).
If you consider yourself a climate-conscious person, or even a climate activist, think about why you care and how you approach climate justice. Think about what you are actually giving back to the communities most impacted by climate injustice. Think about how you are actually changing your life so other people benefit (and not only your conscience). Caring about the climate and adopting a perspective of climate justice should be full of joy, laughter and caring for each other. But it should also make you rethink your own position on this planet and maybe make you feel uncomfortable. Because yes, you are definitely contributing to the climate crisis. And, I am convinced, only if we feel discomfort, we realise the need to change, and thus, improve.
And if you are reading this and you consider yourself one of the most impacted people by the climate crisis, I can only apologise and promise that everything I do, I do with having those most impacted, specifically Black and Indigenous folks, in mind. I want to use the power and influence I have to improve circumstances for those most affected by the climate crisis, offer platforms to those constantly silenced, and smash spaces of white confidence and false climate solutions.
And to this planet who nourishes, hosts, and shelters us as humanity I can only say: I am so sorry. We owe you and I thank you.
Sheena Anderson is Project Manager at CFFP, leading our work on Climate Justice and Anti-Racism.