What is Climate Justice?
Climate justice includes a focus on the root causes of climate change and making the systemic changes that are therefore required, a commitment to address the disproportionate burden of the climate crisis on the poor and marginalized, a demand for participatory democracy in changing these systems which require dismantling the fossil fuel corporate power structure, and a commitment to reparations and thus a fair distribution of the world’s wealth.
The movement to fight climate chaos is shifting. Activists are re-defining themselves and changing their strategies. A growing number of people are turning away from the identity of “environmentalist” and instead are identifying as “climate justice activists.” Additionally, social and economic justice activists are joining the fight against climate change in increasing numbers. In the early 1980s some activists began focusing on the environmental destruction that disproportionately impacts low income communities and communities of color, which gave rise to the environmental justice movement. Now, many people from the environmental justice movement are widening their focus to the issue of climate.
This movement is new, and the concept of “climate justice” remains poorly articulated, while the need for clarity is urgent. What is climate justice? How is it different from environmentalism or social justice? How do climate justice activists understand the operations of power that are creating climate chaos? What are our theories of change in response to that understanding? What therefore is the strategy and trajectory of the climate justice movement?
Climate justice includes a focus on the root causes of climate change and making the systemic changes that are therefore required, a commitment to address the disproportionate burden of the climate crisis on the poor and marginalized, a demand for participatory democracy in changing these systems which require dismantling the fossil fuel corporate power structure, and a commitment to reparations and thus a fair distribution of the world’s wealth. Some articulate climate justice more loosely as the intersection of environmentalism and social justice, drawing on the intersectionality analysis developed by feminists and critical race theorists to understand the interlocked workings of race and gender.
Climate justice activists seem to draw heavily on the tactics and strategies of social and environmental Justice activists. As traditional mainstream environmentalist strategies fail, even the most consummate self-identified “insiders” are moving away from their policy and litigation strategies towards the tactics normally associated with social justice activists. Some, like James Speth, are arguing that the solutions to the climate crisis lie outside the environmental sector and focus on systemic changes to unbridled growth and plutocratic wealth disparities and the destruction of democratic possibilities that come with that. (See James Speth, Bridge at the End of the World. Also see Gar Alperwitz, America Beyond Capitalism). Connected with this is the increased focus on the human impacts of climate change. Organizations like 350.org put a human face on the world of suffering caused by the climate crisis. Some organizations, like Rising Tide, Mobilizing for Climate Justice and Peaceful Uprising to name a few, came into being in the last few years as climate justice organizations. Despite this fact, the concept of climate justice still remains murky even within our organizations. This is typical in the early stages of movements, especially those that seek systemic change.
When studying the history of social movements, we trace a movement’s trajectory as it defines itself. Successful movements develop a common language, strategy and tactics. Today as the climate crisis becomes more terrifying and we come to terms with the fact that what we have been doing so far is not working, it is more important than ever to move to that next stage, where “climate justice” becomes a household term like abolition, suffrage or divestment, and everyone knows what the goals of the climate justice movement are. I am hoping to contribute to this process of definition, and and I hope others will as well as we move toward more clarity and a more thorough articulation of the concept of “climate justice.”