Climate change has been a topical issue for decades now, however “climate justice” is a relatively new concept. So what is it and how is it different from other environmental movements?
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.
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, especially as we grew closer to the Paris talks. As some will be aware from Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, indigenous and community groups are becoming more and more active in their fight against fossil fuel interests.
Climate justice around the world
Keystone XL pipeline
Climate justice recently made headlines around the world when activists successfully blocked the development of 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. The campaign went on for years, with activists working tirelessly against both the pipeline and the tar sands, employing grassroots activism and non-violent direct action on par with what was seen in the late 1960s. At the end of 2015, Barack Obama finally rejected the pipeline.
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.
On a broader scale, 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 350.org, has seen more than $3.4 trillion divested globally by over 500 different institutions – with significant contributions by faith-based groups 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 values of the climate justice movement are akin to those of the larger social justice movement – community, marginalised groups, people power, and equality. This comes across through their actions, both locally and globally. Climate justice is an integrated, active way of addressing the challenges of climate change, capitalism, and injustice. Regular people can make a difference in their communities and the world!