Climate change as an ethical, political issue

In the early 1980s in the United States, a new movement grew out of multiple protests and lawsuits regarding toxic waste and pollution in poor neighbourhoods and on farms. The environmental justice movement – as it was called – sought justice for people who were disproportionately affected by environmental degradation, and was led by the very marginalised groups who saw the most damage to their communities. This differed from the larger environmentalist movement, which focused on ecological degradation and frequently ignored the impact on poor communities and neighbourhoods. The environmental justice movement sought to rid the world of environmental racism – a concept that wasn’t considered by most environmentalists.

As climate change became a more pressing problem the wider environmental movement took on the responsibility of trying to mitigate the impacts of global warming, and educating people about how it would affect the environment.

While the consequence for humans has always been a concern of environmentalists, it is not necessarily their focus – especially when it comes to the most marginalised groups of people. Consequently, efforts and campaigns to help ecosystems may harm poor and indigenous communities, and most importantly, do not address the root causes of climate degradation.

The climate justice movement is the international environmental justice movement’s response to climate change. It views climate change as a complex social justice issue, as opposed to simply an environmental one. While environmentalism may see climate change as a result of poorly regulated industries, climate justice sees it as a product of inequality and an economic system obsessed with growth for the sake of growth. Racism and classism are inextricably linked to climate change, and these issues cannot be ignored.

People power

One important factor of both environmental justice and climate justice is that they are grassroots movements, which stress the need for communities to be involved in organising their own actions and deciding their own futures. While climate justice often involves putting pressure on large corporations or governments, this pressure comes from the people and not from above. There is faith in the ability of communities to influence the powerful, rather than faith in the powerful themselves. In other words, climate justice is a people power movement.

Organising – as opposed to individual action – is the strategic basis of the climate justice movement. We have already seen many examples of this organisation popping up around the world. As some will be aware from Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, indigenous and community groups are leader in the fight against fossil fuel interests.

Climate justice around the world

Keystone XL pipeline

On his first day as President, Joe Biden cancelled the Keystone XL permit by Executive Action, representing a massive victory in a fight that 350 and allies have waged for the last decade. The Keystone XL pipeline, which would have carried oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. A massive grassroots network of First Nations peoples, ranchers, and other locals began an anti-pipeline campaign in 2010.

Newcastle Coal Port blockade

Pacific island nations are among the most vulnerable places in the world when it comes to the impacts of climate change. In October 2014, leaders from 12 different Pacific Island nations – called the Pacific Climate Warriors – formed a blockade at the world’s largest coal port with their homemade, traditional canoes. Part of the 350 Pacific movement, the 30 activists managed to prevent 8 of the 12 ships from leaving the port.


ICBC withdraws from the Lamu, Kenya proposed coal project

350 Africa and many partners including Save Lamu, had been fighting this project in a UNESCO World Heritage site, and ecologically sensitive area, for many years. In 2019 we reported on new road blocks for this project, but just in November we saw two key victories – GE, originally with a 20% stake in the project – declared it would not build any more new coal plants, and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), which had an 80% stake, pulled out of the project. The 1,050 MW plant would have been the largest in East Africa and the first in Kenya, which boasts tremendous renewable energy capacity.

Halt to the proposed Guaíba open-pit coal mine in Brazil

This mine encountered a new roadblock when the Federal Court suspended its environmental license, a tremendous victory for the 4.5 million people living in the Porto Alegre area. This victory means that 166 million tons of coal and 4.5 gigatons of CO2 (an amount that would have been equal to 10% of global annual emissions) will stay in the ground, no longer threatening artisanal fisherfolk, farmers and Indigenous communities. People’s power won again as 350, along with partners, marched, gathered petitions and public comment, and united to put an end to this coal Goliath.


On a broader scale, since over a decade activists and organisations worldwide have taken to putting pressure on institutions to withdraw investments from fossil fuel extraction corporations and funds. The divestment movement, led by, has seen more than $39.88 trillion divested globally by over 1500 different institutions – with significant contributions by faith-based groups, educational institutions, governments, and foundations. This has been a major blow to the fossil fuel industry, and is making investors think twice about both the security and ethics of investing in coal, gas and oil extraction.

Climate justice values

The fight against climate change is a fight for justice. We recognise that climate change is an issue of inequality – People all over the world are feeling the impacts, but the people suffering most are the ones who have done the least to cause the problem.

Climate justice makes climate change a social issue by centering frontline communities and acknowledging power structures, while dismantling exploitative and harmful institutions in order to respect life.

The work we do — and the ways we do it — has to address that injustice. That means listening to the communities who are getting hit hardest, amplifying the voices that are being silenced, and following the leadership of the people on the frontlines of the crisis.