By Eezu Tan
Higher-income countries have caused 80% of global greenhouse gases, but will bear only 13% of the costs in 2035. Meanwhile, all other countries are projected to experience 87% of the costs caused by climate change.
Children today must emit 8x less carbon emissions than their grandparents. People of colour are more likely to die of environmental causes than white people.
Whether it is global, inter-generational, or racial, you cannot talk about climate change without talking about inequality.
It is easy to view environmental problems from a purely technical lens - such as reducing carbon emissions, achieving “green growth”, and attaining 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-Industrial levels. But without a multi-dimensional approach to climate change, are we simply slapping on a bandaid without fixing the root cause?
Let’s take the example of hydro-electricity which has been touted as a clean, renewable energy resource. It involves the construction of dams to control flow and thereby produce energy. Sounds great, right?
Yet, hydropower developments have harmed wildlife and displaced millions of locals. The Mekong River for instance, runs across six countries from China to Vietnam, impacting more than 70 million people who depend on it as a source of food, income, body of transport or site for cultural practice. Unfortunately, the development of dams has led to extreme flooding and droughts, thereby threatening the river’s biodiversity and fisheries.
“I used to get fish every time I went out, but now I catch very little - just enough to eat, but not to sell,” says fisherman Utai Khampa. He represents one of millions of people whose lives have been displaced by the development of hydropower dams.
This demonstrates how climate technology, like any technology, is not neutral. It can indirectly harm the most vulnerable communities who are at the frontlines of experiencing climate change.
Therefore, a technocratic approach based on the number of kilowatts generated, or carbon emissions reduced, is not enough for us to tackle the climate crisis. We need to design solutions that put the people and planet ahead of profit.
A climate justice framework
A climate justice framework helps us to recognise the social and economic impacts we have on people. It is a paradigm that recognises how historically marginalised communities are most vulnerable to climate change, despite having contributed the least to causing it.
According to Yale Climate Connections, climate justice recognises how “low-income communities, people of colour, indigenous people, people with disabilities, older or very young people, women - all can be more susceptible to risks posed by climate impacts like raging storms and floods, increasing wildfire, severe heat, poor air quality, access to food and water, and disappearing shorelines.”
So how can we equitably tackle climate change?
Consider the three dimensions of justice:
- Distributive justice - How are resources divided and shared? Who benefits and who bears the risks and harms? If there are patterns, how did they emerge?
- In the hydropower development example, the electricity companies and recipients of electricity may have received the upsides of the project. However, they may have failed to consider their impacts on the river’s local communities and biodiversity.
- If you run a synthetic meat business, you may consider the impact of stakeholders along the supply chain, such as farmers.
- If you run a renewable energy company, you may consider which groups will have access to clean energy and which groups do not.
- Procedural justice - How fair, transparent and inclusive are decision-making processes? Whose voices have been privileged in the process and how did this occur?
- If you work in transport or energy infrastructure, you may consider incorporating the voices of local communities and wildlife conservation groups in your design.
- If you work in regeneration practices like reforestation, you may think about how you could work with Indigenous groups to learn and share knowledge. After all, Indigenous people protect 80% of global biodiversity even though they comprise less than 5% of teh world’s population.
- Recognition justice - How are people’s various needs, rights and experiences rendered visible or invisible in decisions around climate change? What characteristics or specific needs are incorporated in frameworks for making climate relevant decisions?
- You may consider incorporating business metrics that go beyond carbon emissions and profit, to respect the livelihoods of local communities and wildlife. This includes non-monetary losses such as the loss of culture, community relations, health or life.
- You may consider disaggregating data by gender, ethnicity or any other axis of marginalisation.
- To any investors, you may consider investing in founders who are people of colour or live on the frontlines of experiencing climate change.
Other frameworks that embed climate justice include the capabilities approach, the power approach and the Mary Robinson principles. For business leaders, I also recommend the Climate Justice Playbook, written by the B Corp Climate Collective.
To quote the sustainability Professor Kyle Whyte, “The climate justice movement...should not just be a movement that seeks to lower carbon footprints so that the world of privileged people is preserved.”
After all, if we are tackling the climate crisis, it is our duty to discard the colonial and capitalist legacies which have caused the crisis in the first place. It is our way of forging a more equitable world.