Many of the people and communities that are most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation are those who are already poor and largely excluded from the rewards of global economic activity. Responsibility for human-caused climate change is also distributed unevenly – most historical emissions have been from the richest countries that have the most resources and capacity to adapt to rising temperatures.

In addition to this geographical dimension, climate change is intimately related to other inequalities, such as structural racism. Even within the same country or city, people with less privilege in society – whether due to their ethnicity, gender or other factors – are likely to be worst affected by climate change. The logic also applies on an intergenerational basis: young people and future generations have contributed least to rising temperatures but will suffer most from extreme outcomes over the course of this century.

Building on these facts, the concept of ‘climate justice’ places an ethical challenge at the heart of the argument for climate action. It identifies climate change as a symptom of unfair and unrepresentative economic, social and political institutions, drawing links to other issues like rising global inequality.

Who advocates for climate justice?

A large and growing movement – particularly featuring youth, women, disabled people, Indigenous Peoples, and activists from across the Global South – is confronting political and business leaders over their record and plans for climate action. Alongside its critique of existing systems, the movement puts forward measures to deal with climate change in a manner that also addresses injustice, and which go considerably further than current policies and targets in several key respects.

The environmental justice and, later, climate justice movement was born primarily from the advocacy of people of colour both from the Global South and within rich countries, particularly the United States. For decades, activists have led local campaigns against pollution from industrial facilities, which are often located near poorer, non-white communities, and against the activities of foreign or multinational corporations as they exploit the natural environment for commodities and harm the heritage of many Indigenous Peoples in the process.

These environmentalist, anti-racist roots have inspired increasing recognition of the connection at the global level between historical legacies of colonialism and resource extraction, patterns of socioeconomic development, and vulnerability of ecosystems and people to climate change (recognised officially by the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report).

Since 2018, millions of young people have participated in mass protests against ‘climate delay’ and inaction, through groups such as Fridays For Future. A range of civil society groups with a diverse membership has emerged, and vocal coalitions have formed (for example, the COP26 Coalition in the UK), seeking to influence the world’s most powerful decision-makers and their response to climate change.

How does climate justice relate to the legal system?

Activists have often pursued their claims to climate justice through the legal system. Laws that establish rights and protections for communities – and corresponding responsibilities for industry – have long been used to fight instances of polluting activity (such as toxic chemicals). However, such laws are often difficult to enforce, particularly when regulatory agencies are underfunded, and issues regarding who has the right to bring a case can make it challenging for communities to raise issues independently. In recent years, there has been a groundswell of ‘climate change litigation’ by communities and individuals affected by climate impacts. Some cases rely on human rights and constitutional principles to argue that governments have fundamental responsibilities to protect their citizens from climate change impacts, and that companies have a corresponding obligation to stop contributing to those impacts. Other cases seek to enforce climate related obligations that are increasingly being recognised by regional, national and sub-national legislation.

What does climate justice mean internationally?

There are two core issues at the international level: first, whether countries are contributing their ‘fair share’ in reducing global emissions, and second, where financing comes from to support climate change mitigation and adaptation in poorer countries.

There is no globally agreed cap on emissions in the Paris Agreement but it does create an obligation for signatory countries to submit their intentions to decarbonise through Nationally Determined Contributions “to achieve” its long-term temperature goal of limiting warming to well below 2, and preferably 1.5, degrees Celsius. Climate science identifies a roughly fixed ‘budget’ of carbon that the world can emit before that goal is compromised.

Although the Agreement (Article 4) recognises that developing countries will take longer to peak their emissions, and that countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”, there is no official way of dividing up the contribution to the global effort. Advocates for climate justice argue that some countries’ commitments do not constitute a ‘fair share’ in this effort, supporting their claim with evidence from scientific literature, and therefore call for deeper cuts in emissions than those countries are currently pursuing. Richer countries are often the target of this criticism, but so too can be powerful emerging economies like China and India.

The question of finance creates a clearer division between higher and lower income countries. Some thinkers argue that people in the rich Global North owe the poorer Global South based on historical greenhouse gas emissions, and that national debts in the Global South should be restructured and cancelled as part of a programme of ‘climate reparations’. The Paris Agreement affirms the importance of financial support from rich to poorer countries. However, a promise to jointly mobilise US$100 billion in climate finance from developed to developing countries by 2020 was not met. Steps could be taken to increase financial flows, make adjustments so that more finance supports adaptation (which is a priority for many vulnerable countries), and ensure concessions are made on debt repayment – considering that many poorer countries are already in debt distress. Since adaptation cannot prevent all harm from climate change, many countries and the climate justice movement also call for payments for ‘loss and damage’.

How should climate justice shape the low-carbon transition?

The concept of a just transition is related to climate justice. It refers to ensuring that environmental transitions, typically at the level of a country, region or sector (e.g. phasing out coal mining), involve processes and outcomes that promote socioeconomic fairness,  minimise the harm to affected people and communities, and ensure the benefits of change – such as the creation of new ‘green’ jobs – are widely shared.

More generally, climate justice highlights that rich people around the world make an outsized contribution to climate change through their higher per-capita emissions. The role of fossil fuel companies in driving emissions – and in seeking to obscure their responsibility and the case for changing course – is emphasised too, particularly since fossil fuel extraction has so often damaged the lands and health of oppressed people while a relatively small number of executives, financiers and shareholders have profited.

There is also scepticism towards so-called ‘false solutions’ to climate change from some campaigners and activists, who argue that certain measures leaders claim will help mitigate climate change, such as increasing the share of nuclear power, utilising carbon capture and storage or deploying carbon credits for offsetting, will allow polluters to carry on polluting and to consolidate their structural power. Therefore, advocates often propose deconstructing or at least rebalancing the existing capitalist economy, encapsulated in the slogan “system change, not climate change”

This Explainer was written by Rob Macquarie and benefitted from review by Catherine Higham and Sabrina Muller.

Keep in touch with the Grantham Research Institute at LSE
Sign up to our newsletters and get the latest analysis, research, commentary and details of upcoming events.