Climate Justice

THE CLIMATE CRISIS is fundamentally a crisis of injustice. As such it cannot be understood, let alone mitigated, apart from the poverty and inequality that are its backdrop.

In a way, we already know this. The “equity question” was taking the stage (for example, the discussion about “green jobs”) even before President Obama’s inaugural, wherein he told us that “the world has changed, and we must change with it,” and, “we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect.”

But climate justice — particularly international climate justice — will not come easy, and it cannot fall to Obama alone to explain why. This is a job for the climate movements, and in the U.S. particularly they’ve made little progress in raising critical questions of American global responsibility. Even the environmental justice movement, a clear voice for solidarity, has avoided the radioactive core of the problem: the tangible international obligations that the American people must accept before any real climate mobilization can become possible. There’s still time, but not much. If anything is certain, it’s that this coming year, as the climate negotiations finally get serious, can’t just be a year of tactics and pragmatism. The December showdown in Copenhagen, even if it succeeds in mapping the way forward, will only be a stop on the road. We’ve got to use it to deepen the conversation about justice and solidarity.

The divides are terrible and deep, even more so internationally than here at home. The economic divides, in particular, are wider and more desperate. And insofar as these divides — North versus South, rich versus poor, developed versus underdeveloped — are the roots of the climate impasse, they are as well the grounds upon which the battle to break it must be fought.

What is needed is an emergency global mobilization. And to do its proper part in such a mobilization, the U.S. must shoulder its fair share of the costs. It must do so, moreover, even as it strains with equal vigor on the domestic front. The hope, of course, is that all this effort can be composed into a green New Deal that snowballs into a great transition that not only stabilizes the climate but lifts up the poor as well. And a great hope it is, but not one that can stop at our shorelines. There is only one atmosphere, and it is globally that the battle to stabilize the climate will be won or lost.

Any true climate mobilization must solve the problem of developmental justice. It must open ways forward for the poor, and this despite the fact that greenhouse-gas concentrations are already far too high, leaving almost no “atmospheric space” to support the energy and food production, water purification, reimagined cities and settlements, transportation, and health services that will be needed if the poor are to have an honest chance at decent lives. Be clear here — if the poor, clustered in the world’s developing regions, don’t see better futures flowing from an international climate accord, then while it may be negotiated and even ratified, it will not stand.

So who pays? The answer must be “the rich,” or at least “the unpoor,” which is to say that the climate transition will not be cheap, and those who have the capacity to pay must do so. This must be true regardless of whether they live in rich countries like the U.S. or developing countries like China. Such an arrangement won’t be easy to contrive, but it has to be our goal. Nothing else will work.

Tom Athanasiou is the director of EcoEquity and, most recently, a co-author of The Greenhouse Development Rights Framework: The Right to Development in a Climate Constrained World.


  1. I agree. There is a direct, and demonstrably causal, connection between poverty and an economy so heavily based on consumption.

  2. I don’t agree that we must tackle environmental injustice on a global scale before we tackle it here at home.

    I am a victim of environmental injustice. I have environmental illness – multiple chemical sensitivities – due to exposure to toxins in my environment. I am trapped in a very polluted place which is extremely hazardous to my health and I am unable to move because there are no other subsidized housing units available to me.

    I live on less than $700/month. I am homebound. I can’t even go outside on the balcony the air is so bad most of the time. I am trapped in this apartment stuffing rags under the windows and doors trying to keep out the poisonous fumes from the diesel trucks running in the alley, unloading at the shopping center just across the alley.

    This building is full of elderly and disabled people and we are all affected. Today is an ozone alert day and summer is just beginning. Charity begins at home.

  3. The poor suffer disproportionately from the effects of environmental damage. Witness the aftermath of Katrina (they lived in the lowest neighborhoods and lacked cars to escape.) and children with asthma in mold and pest infested slums. Pope John Paul II spoke of this in 1980.

  4. very poorly written opinion! he says that unless there is social and economic justice thruout the world we can do nothing to affect climate change. he fails to show how this is all tied together, thus all he is doing is protesting the eniqualities of reality. article lacks substance!

  5. Tom deserves kudos for linking the discussion of climate change with ‘radioactive’ issues permeating environmental justice. When measured in terms of CO2 released into the atmospheric commons, the developed world owes the developing world a huge debt. Between 1960 and 2005 the average US citizen released 90 times more carbon than did the average person in Kenya.

    The poor people of the world didn’t pump the CO2 out of the ground and into the sky to make a hotter, less habitable world, but they will face its most brutal consequences: “Drier areas will become more arid, causing crop failure and forests to become dried up. Three billion people will face water shortages. All of this, they expect, will produce a refugee crisis of unimaginable proportions.”

    Three billion people, that’s half the world’s population.

    Because those fleeing a deteriorating environment will be forced to migrate into areas already torn by warfare and ethnic strife, some defense analysts believe that climate change is the greatest security threat facing the world today. America is not immune to that threat.

    It is because of this final point that I have a minor quibble with Tom’s dismissive use of the word ‘pragmatism.’ Ending climate change in a way that promotes environmental justice would be in the deep tradition of American pragmatism. The environmental medicine necessary to limit global warming could preserve rainforests, could limit the spread of deserts, could prevent ‘floods” of environmental refugees, could help to reduce poverty, and could promote human rights for indigenous peoples. All those goals are technically possible, and are well founded in the philosophical system of American Pragmatism, a way of thinking that integrates science, evolution, education, ethics, and law. Pragmatism evolved, phoenix like, out of the ashes of the America’s Civil War. A long look at those times of crisis and dueling absolutes has much to teach us about our crisis today.

    It is in our pragmatic interest to prevent war, to limit suffering, and to preserve other life forms. It is in our spiritual interest as well. Maybe times of great change make us aware that our spiritual needs and our pragmatic needs are often one in the same.

  6. Everyone should start taking responsibility for the climate/peak oil crisis (both intertwined with one another) and for turning it around. If everyone started acting locally, which is how society is going to be in years to come once the crisis fully hits, the human race may stand a chance – check out the Transition Movement.

  7. The downturn in the world economy may have provided us with a little
    breathing room in the fight against global warming. The goal of economic policy should not be to try to re-create the same levels of economic activity that were causing so much environmental destruction. The age of the automobile is over.
    Governments should be giving more support to people who are
    unemployed, during the transition to a sustainable society. In the
    United States, the programs are already in place, but need more
    money: extended unemployment insurance, food stamps, housing
    subsidies, food banks, etc. Organic agriculture requires more labor than chemical agriculture, and would provide an alternative
    livelihood for workers.

  8. Langston University will have their first Social Justice Symposium in Tulsa Oklahoma.I was heart broken to think they do not consider Climate Change as the Greatest Social Justice Issue facing us.Climate related issues not listed as a topic.The article has given me support to talk to them about this..Thankyou..

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