As The Climate Heats There’s No Cooling Off the Need for Justice


By Ariana Lippi

While the world is still adjusting to “the new normal,” of masks, social distancing, and life in the virtual space, an even newer normal is rapidly approaching. Many people and nations are still fighting for their lives amidst the evolving COVID-19 pandemic and its socio-economic fallout. Simultaneously, the climate emergency is already beginning to compound pandemic-induced crises and will pose an even more complex threat which will leave no one unaffected. As we go forward dealing with the climate crisis, justice for all is imperative to ensure that rights are protected and that no one gets left behind.

(Photo: Lakilima, Shutterstock)

Climate change is here, and it is a justice emergency.

The science is unequivocal and the evidence is overwhelming: Climate change is accelerating quickly and unfolding everywhere. Worsening and more frequent environmental catastrophes such as drought, heavy rainfall, and wildfires are causing massive societal shocks which destabilize economies and social systems. Not only does this crisis reinforce existing inequalities, it hits the most vulnerable hardest — and is widening the justice gap.

The inequality of the climate crisis is grounded in the current deep-seated exclusion and inequity within our societies, which give rise to debilitating injustices. This makes responses to climate change asymmetrical, inherently unfair, and ultimately reinforce the power of the “haves.” Human lives — particularly those from historically disadvantaged and low-income communities — are under the biggest threat and will continue to disproportionately bear the brunt of health, financial, and social problems caused by environmental shocks. These challenges can fuel the rise of the most common justice problems as fundamental needs are unmet and rights are impeded.

At the individual level, extreme weather events can cause people to lose access to electricity, water, and other basic services, as well as their property, their homes, or even their lives. This is especially true for people who live in rural and low-income housing. Resultant socio-economic distress is a proven catalyst of domestic and intimate partner violence (as experienced during the pandemic); disputes about property, taxes or insurance. Justice systems must be there to support people when they face the unthinkable, and anticipate the hardship that people will go through by creating systems which are easy to use for people in need, while protecting the rights and civil liberties of all. Climate change is thus fundamentally also a human rights and a justice issue.

Justice is still the heart of sustainable development.

Justice systems (both formal and informal) are the linchpin to achieving sustainable development, and give countries and communities the best framework for supporting and maintaining the Sustainable Development Goals. While justice systems don’t always function to the best of their potential, they offer an important blueprint to implement, maintain, and uphold solutions to the core challenges facing our world by defending rights, promoting progress, and fostering fairness for all.

The response to the climate emergency must take a people-centered approach. The disproportionate impacts of climate change demonstrate the urgency to focus on the needs of those who are at risk of being left behind and put them at the fore of intersectional solutions, instead. In the face of entrenched and exacerbated inequality, injustice, and unrest caused by the pandemic, people-centered justice has proved to be a critical factor in response, recovery, and prevention. In order to tackle the worst of the climate crisis, justice for all must be a prevailing and central theme, and is a lifesaving resource in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

While existing harm to the planet will be ongoing, we must do everything in our power to adapt to current challenges and prevent fresh damage. Meeting global net zero emissions goals will necessitate both a restructuring of economies and societies to make them more resilient. The best way we can accomplish this is by making systems fair and equitable, which can be achieved by re-orienting systems to people’s needs and providing justice for all.

How access to justice supports the climate change response

Three main priorities are emerging where justice systems and actors can play an important role:

1. Creating a just transition towards decarbonization and zero emissions.

While a just transition is a broad term which can mean many things, it’s primarily concerned with principles and practices that shift economic and political power from an extractive economy to an inclusive, regenerative one. This is achieved by creating greater and fairer economic and employment opportunities in a green economy, equal access to green spaces/natural resources, and green technology for all (not just the wealthy or privileged). Every step of this process must support administrative and procedural justice for communities to have ownership of and inclusion in these transitions and subsequent economic shifts.

A just transition is underpinned by legal empowerment — particularly by civil society and grassroots justice groups like Namati, which can assist frontline communities — cooperation and justice coalitions for government programs and policies which foster inclusion, and open government transparency and inclusive knowledge building at every step.

2. Building strong, fair, and transformative justice systems and institutions that serve the many rather than the few, that meet people’s needs, and that are responsive in times of disaster.

Justice models must shift to a people-centered approach and deliver measurable improvements in justice for all. This means especially addressing existing discrimination and systemic inequalities that cause disparate experiences of the climate crisis. This can be accomplished by adding a strong environmental justice lens to all justice activities, and can start with bolstering climate justice law centers and clinics, greater legal support and legal aid and protections — particularly for those most at risk such as climate migrants and refugees, women, children, indigenous people, people with disabilities, etc. — to the model.

3. Safeguard just systems for future generations.

In addition to transforming justice systems and taking urgent action, any changes made must be sustainable and long-lasting. Sustainable solutions can be achieved by strengthening and constantly innovating and updating law and justice systems to keep up with the times. This can take the form of creating inroads within justice systems for people to seek redress and take a stand against climate change-induced injustice, and having justice actors enforce them in order to effect change. For example, youth groups globally have already taken action and have seen that legal systems are an avenue in which they should be able to seek justice. Groups from Haiti, Colombia, the Philippines, Germany, and South Africa (among others) have all petitioned against or sued their governments for their human rights and right to life which is under threat from climate change and ongoing human activity which has contributed to the state of climate emergency.

We cannot wait any longer — the cost of inaction is too steep. We must arm our societies with the best possible defense in order to mitigate the manifestations of human induced climate change and empower people to play a role in the creation of a more just and fair world.

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Ariana Lippi
Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies

Writer, student & Fulbright alumna. Passionately writing monthly about environmental justice, peace, and equity.