Why Climate Justice Must Be the Response to Climate Change

Contributor Eliška Stroehlein is a third year English Law – French Law student at Panthéon-Assas University Paris II with an interest in international law, queerness, and representation.

[Image Description: a set of scales covered in greenery sit to the right of a green field, there is a blue sky with white clouds in the background]

In October 2018, the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the damming, headline-grabbing news that we must undertake drastic changes by 2030 if we want to stop global temperatures rising beyond 1.5 degrees centigrade compared to preindustrial levels, considered by many scientists to be the “safe” limit of climate change. As a species we have known for decades that our actions are seriously and irreversibly damaging the climate, but the consequences of a changing planet, from rising sea levels to higher temperatures, has long been presented as solely an environmental and ecological matter. But the truth is that climate change has already had a significant impact on Human Rights around the world, and will continue to do so if governments don’t provide a response that adequately tackles underlying societal, historic and economic injustices. Ultimately, the fight against climate change must be centered on climate justice.


Centrally, climate justice is a moral argument. Certain communities have more means to defend themselves against shifting weather patterns and pollution than other, more socio-economically disadvantaged communities; the climate crisis perpetuates the same racism, sexism and classism that we see in society at large. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the city of New Orleans in 2005, resulting in more than 1800 deaths, is often cited as a perfect illustration of this. Despite an order for evacuation, many people simply couldn’t afford to leave their homes. Thousands took refuge in the Superdome stadium, only to discover that they were not provided with adequate food, water or sanitation. Many attributed the slow government response to the fact that those who were suffering the most were predominantly poor people of colour, with similar conclusions being drawn in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico some 12 years later. The continued pollution of the drinking water in Flint, a city where 56% of residents are African-American and 42% of residents live below the poverty line, for more than 5 years, is another illustration. A study recently showed that poor children are more likely to develop asthma from breathing in the polluted air of inner cities in America


All these examples and many more go on to show that climate breakdown puts a whole host of Human Rights in jeopardy, from the right to an education to the right to life. As countries quite literally disappear day-by-day into the rising sea, serious questions are being asked, not least around the right to a nationality. Can a country in exile continue to be a country? The Republic of Kiribati (the highest point of which sits just 81 meters above sea level in the Pacific Ocean) bought land in neighbouring Fiji for the population to relocate to should their home be swallowed into the ocean. As our planet changes, more and more regions will become simply uninhabitable, inducing rapid climate migration. Crucially, these men, women and children (who estimates say could number 200 million by 2050) are not protected under current International Refugee Law


Moreover, science has shown that the countries that have historically emitted the most greenhouse gases are not the countries that climate change impacts the most. Britain, for instance, is said to hold the title for the biggest historic output of carbon emissions per capita, yet is not especially vulnerable to many extreme elements of climate breakdown. A study from Germanwatch calculated a Long-Term Climate Risk Index to show the countries most affected by extreme weather between 1997 and 2016. The top ten list included Honduras, Haiti, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam, Thailand and the Dominican Republic, none of which feature in a list of the top ten polluters worldwide. The UK’s Long-Term Climate Risk Index was ranked 56th in the world, despite its citizens consuming all of their resources for the year by 17 May 2019. The United Kingdom and other countries that developed during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th century, in large part off the backs of slavery and colonialism, need to rapidly cut their emissions to zero and invest significantly in green technology to ensure other countries’ right to (sustainable) development, reparations which John McDonnell promised at the recent Labour Party conference.


Often led by women, young people and minorities, citizens around the world have started taking climate justice into their own hands, filing lawsuits against their governments or corporations that are complicit in the climate crisis. Young people in the Netherlands and Colombia sued the government for inaction on climate change in the former case and deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in the latter. Both lawsuits were successful! In Peru, a farmer called Saúl Luciano Lliuya is currently suing German company RWE for their role in inducing rising global temperatures which in turn have put his city of Huaraz at higher risk of glacial flooding from the Andes. RWE emits approximately 0.5% of all greenhouse gases, so Luciano Lliuya is suing for 0.5% of the cost to safeguard his hometown, with his lawyer drawing on asbestos cases that were successful in many courts decades ago. And then of course there are the school strikes, led by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg who has Asperger’s, which this September alone mobilised an estimated 4 million young people to strike in 163 countries around the world in a call for climate justice.


But fighting for climate justice doesn’t come without serious risks. In Brazil, a country where 1% of the population owns just under half of all land, 57 environmental activists were killed in 2017 in disputes over land use; 80% of those killed were in the Amazon, home to many indeginous communities under threat from mining, logging and, as was shown recently, forest fires. In August it emerged that over 70000 fires were burning in the Amazon, up 84% from the previous year, in a move by far-right president Bolsonaro to open up the region for large scale commercial exploitation.  In Honduras, which has seen more than 120 environmentalists killed since 2010, Berta Cáceres was shot dead in 2016 for her years of grassroots campaigning against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam in the Gualcarque River, which is sacred to her indegenious Lenca community. More than two and a half years after her murder, seven men, including some that were high up in Desa, the company building the Agua Zarca dam, were convicted for orchestrating her death


Our fight against climate change cannot end with not using plastic straws, making preventing massive climate breakdown the responsibility of the individual consumer and absolving those corporations and governments that are truly to blame. Rather we need to rethink the economic and political structures that brought about these tandem levels of inequality and overconsumption in the first place, and work to dismantle them alongside empowering individuals and communities.

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