Climate justice is a term used for framing global warming as an ethical and political issue, rather than one that is purely environmental or physical in nature. This is done by relating the effects of climate change to concepts of justice, particularly environmental justice and social justice and by examining issues such as equality, human rights, collective rights, and the historical responsibilities for climate change. A fundamental proposition of climate justice is that those who are least responsible for climate change suffer its gravest consequences. Occasionally, the term is also used to mean actual legal action on climate change issues.
The ability of populations to mitigate and adapt to the negative consequences of climate change are shaped by factors such as income, race, class, gender, capital and political representation. As low-income communities and communities of color possess few if any adaptive resources, they are particularly vulnerable to climate change. People living in poverty or in precarious circumstances tend to have neither the resources nor the insurance cover necessary to bounce back from environmental disasters. On top of that, such populations often receive an unequal share of disaster relief and recovery assistance
Subsequently, in August–September 2002, international environmental groups met in Johannesburg for the Earth Summit. At this summit, also known as Rio+10, as it took place ten years after the 1992 Earth Summit, the Bali Principles of Climate Justice were adopted.
Climate Justice affirms the rights of communities’ dependent on natural resources for their livelihood and cultures to own and manage the same in a sustainable manner, and is opposed to the commodification of nature and its resources.
Bali Principles of Climate Justice, article 18, August 29, 2002 
In 2004, the Durban Group for Climate Justice was formed at an international meeting in Durban, South Africa. Here representatives from NGOs and peoples’ movements discussed realistic policies for addressing climate change.
In 2009, the Climate Justice Action Network was formed during the run-up to the Copenhagen Summit. It proposed civil disobedience and direct action during the summit, and many climate activists used the slogan ‘system change not climate change’.
In April 2010, the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth took place in Tiquipaya, Bolivia. It was hosted by the government of Bolivia as a global gathering of civil society and governments. The conference published a “People’s Agreement” calling, among other things, for greater climate justice.
Developed countries, as the main cause of climate change, in assuming their historical responsibility, must recognize and honor their climate debt in all of its dimensions as the basis for a just, effective, and scientific solution to climate change. (…) The focus must not be only on financial compensation, but also on restorative justice, understood as the restitution of integrity to our Mother Earth and all its beings.
World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, People’s Agreement, April 22, Cochabamba, Bolivia
Controversial interpretations of climate justice
One contentious issue in debates about climate justice is the extent to which capitalism is viewed as its root cause. This question frequently leads to fundamental disagreements between, on the one hand, liberal and conservative environmental groups and, on the other, leftist and radical organizations. While the former often tend to blame the excesses of neoliberalism for climate change and argue in favor of market-based reform, the latter view capitalism with its exploitative traits as the underlying central issue.
Social justice is the fair and just relation between the individual and society. This is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity and social privileges. In Western as well as in older Asian cultures, the concept of social justice has often referred to the process of ensuring that individuals fulfill their societal roles and receive what was their due from society. In the current global grassroots movements for social justice, the emphasis has been on the breaking of barriers for social mobility, the creation of safety nets and economic justice.
Social justice assigns rights and duties in the institutions of society, which enables people to receive the basic benefits and burdens of cooperation. The relevant institutions often include taxation, social insurance, public health, public school, public services, labour law and regulation of markets, to ensure fair distribution of wealth, equal opportunity and equality of outcome.
Interpretations that relate justice to a reciprocal relationship to society are mediated by differences in cultural traditions, some of which emphasize the individual responsibility toward society and others the equilibrium between access to power and its responsible use. Hence, social justice is invoked today while reinterpreting historical figures such as Bartolomé de las Casas, in philosophical debates about differences among human beings, in efforts for gender, racial and social equality, for advocating justice for migrants, prisoners, the environment, and the physically and mentally disabled.
While the concept of social justice can be traced through the theology of Augustine of Hippo and the philosophy of Thomas Paine, the term “social justice” became used explicitly from the 1840s. A Jesuit priest named Luigi Taparelli is typically credited with coining the term, and it spread during the revolutions of 1848 with the work of Antonio Rosmini-Serbati. In the late industrial revolution, progressive American legal scholars began to use the term more, particularly Louis Brandeis and Roscoe Pound. From the early 20th century it was also embedded in international law and institutions; the preamble to establish the International Labour Organization recalled that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.” In the later 20th century, social justice was made central to the philosophy of the social contract, primarily by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971). In 1993, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action treats social justice as a purpose of
Environmental justice emerged as a concept in the United States in the early 1980s. The term has two distinct uses. The first and more common usage describes a social movement whose focus is on the fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. Second, it is an interdisciplinary body of social science literature that includes theories of the environment, theories of justice, environmental law and governance, environmental policy and planning, development, sustainability, and political ecology.
The Importance of a Human-Rights Perspective
The CJP is calling for a human rights approach to climate change. We are also calling for the development of a right to a safe climate: one that recognizes the inter-connectedness of such a right with other rights and the importance of inter-generational equity to the essence of such a right.
Climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to human rights across the globe. The world’s poor are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change. There is a growing momentum around enforcing legal responsibilities and obligations to prevent and minimize the impacts of climate change upon human lives and human rights.
While there is no recognition of a right to a safe climate at international law there has been some recognition of a right to an adequate environment. For example, Article 1 of the Aarhus Convention states:
“In order to contribute to the protection of the right of every person of present and future generations to live in an environment adequate to his or her health and well-being, each Party shall guarantee the rights of access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters in accordance with the provisions of this Convention.”
A number of existing human rights rely on a safe climate for their complete realization. These include many civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. For example, rights to life, health, adequate standard of living, property, self-determination and just and favorable conditions of work all may rely on conditions of a safe climate.
Human rights are too often equated with “moral” questions and a common theme of government bureaucrats in consultations with non-government organizations has been the urging of NGOs to frame climate policy in economic not moral concerns.
Nevertheless, it is our view that a human rights framework is essential for understanding the urgency of acting on climate change and is necessary to communicate fully the impact climate change will have on people in Australia and around the world.
In response to climate change, human rights require a triple task to be performed by governments, namely to:
- avoid harmful emissions nationally in order to respect the right to live in freedom from human-induced climate perturbations;
- protect human rights against third-party emissions of countries or corporations through international cooperation; and
- fulfil human rights obligations by upgrading people’s capability to cope with climate change through adaptation measures, such as dam building, resettlement, or land redistribution.