Get ready for justice to take center stage in climate action


By Adrian Di Giovanni and Georgina Cundill-Kemp

Around the world people are calling for justice: gender justice, racial justice, intergenerational justice, and increasingly urgent: climate justice. What good are our justice systems if they do not respond to this call? The Justice for All report sets out an agenda for transformation of our justice systems, which can enable them to support the economic transitions and societal changes that are urgently needed.

In this guest blog in our Justice for All blog series, Adrian di Giovanni and Georgina Cundill-Kemp of the International Development Research Center (IDRC) explore what forms of justice matter as climate action ramps up. They argue that with the right approaches and investments in justice, climate action can transform society, enabling it to overcome existing inequalities and injustices and build a more resilient and equitable future.

The growing recognition of climate change as an issue of justice appears to have gone mainstream. The 2021 UN climate conference, COP 26, heralded an unprecedented focus on climate justice reflected in the media coverage. A headline in the journal Nature read “COP architects furious at lack of climate justice at pivotal summit,” while the New York Times ran with “This year, demands for redress have sharpened as climate justice has become a rallying cry,” and the BBC posted the article “The world’s fight for ‘climate justice.’”

Photo: Unsplash/Markus Spiske

In 2019, the recent surge in interest spurred us to initiate an exploratory process at Canada’s International Development Research Centre to identify the potential for a Southern-led research agenda on climate justice. For more details, read the report published by the Institute for Development Studies, in collaboration with University of Sussex — one of the first outputs of our exploration.

Much of the focus on climate justice surrounding COP 26 was on loss and damage in the Global South. It highlighted several injustices: that countries and people who will suffer the greatest impacts of climate change, despite contributing the least to it, and also face the steepest challenges in adjusting their economies to a low-carbon world. During our learning journey that continues to this day, we’ve come to understand that this aspect of climate justice is critical and urgent, but not the whole story.

The calls for climate justice rarely point to the anticipated push for ambitious climate actions in the coming years and their potential negative impacts on vulnerable and marginalized populations, especially in the Global South. In the decade ahead, societies around the world will initiate and feel the impacts of multiple societal responses to climate change (see diagram). These responses will take place locally, nationally, and on a global scale; they will occur simultaneously and likely interact with one another in unpredictable ways. Together, these responses — or the failure to respond — will bring with them societal transitions that could exacerbate existing inequalities and injustices or create new ones. With efforts in the right places, however, they could also transform society, enabling it to overcome existing inequalities and injustices and build a more resilient and equitable future.

What forms of justice matter as climate action ramps up?

Many dimensions of justice are relevant to climate change efforts; chief among these are the following three.

  • Procedural justice emphasizes decision-making processes about climate impacts and action that are inclusive, fair, accountable, and transparent, especially for groups that are most directly vulnerable to these impacts and action.
  • Distributive justice, essential to the loss and damage debates happening right now, is concerned with the outcomes and impacts of climate change and efforts to address it. Priority is placed on highlighting how different groups at local, national or global levels benefit or suffer from the impacts of climate change and climate action, as well as who bears the responsibility for them.
  • Transformative justice is based on the notion that vulnerability to climate change reflects various structural injustices in society, such as the exclusion of marginalized groups from decision-making and from alternative livelihood options that might build their resilience to climate change. From that standpoint, responses to climate change must take aim at these structural inequalities, reinforce democratic governance at all scales, and propel the realization of gender equality and social inclusion. This journal article in WIREs Climate Change explains the concept.

Transformative justice comes into sight when procedural and distributional justice are achieved. It requires a systems approach, which recognizes (i) the multiple and often overlapping societal responses to climate change that will occur at different places, times, and scales, but also (ii) the existing challenges of structural inequality and exclusions that will interact with climate responses.

Climate change responses and the role of transformative research and social change processes in moving toward more just and equitable outcomes

Climate responses will play out through various institutions and governance processes and raise questions of procedural justice: who is in and who is out when decisions are made about climate action? Moreover, those governance processes hold the potential to level power imbalances and mediate the trade-offs in distributional climate justice debates — who benefits and who suffers. However, large-scale development and infrastructure projects are riddled with painful examples of causing harm to vulnerable groups, resulting in negative unintended consequences and creating or exacerbating injustice and inequalities. In an article in Nature Climate Change, authors Mary Robinson and Tara Shine have already drawn attention to the risks to human rights posed by well intentioned, large-scale climate action interventions, like solar and wind farms or biofuel plantations.

Photo: Shutterstock/Media Lens King

IDRC joins the climate justice conversation and prioritizes Southern perspectives

Addressing climate change as an issue of justice is not business as usual. Applying a justice lens will require everyone to work differently. The challenge for the justice community will be to work simultaneously and more effectively across multiple scales of stakeholders and climate policy spaces, including national adaptation plans and nationally-determined contributions. For the climate change community, it will be important to complement the customary focus on technical solutions with more attention on the meanings, applications, and pursuit of equality, fairness, and justice.

In that spirit, IDRC supports new research to begin generating some answers to the big questions about how to achieve transformative justice in a changing climate. We see research playing an important transformative role in tackling the root causes of inequality, especially when built around partnerships with non-academic partners, with a clear commitment to the co-production of knowledge (see diagram above). Watch for developments from this research, testing approaches to promote climate justice in Africa, Asia, and Latin America:

  • Justice-informed adaption through Indigenous peoples’ knowledge systems in Chile and Peru. This action research is identifying strategies to connect with indigenous peoples’ groups to integrate their perspectives on climate justice into national adaptation plans and related measures in Peru and Chile. The research complements the groups’ larger efforts to achieve inclusion, equality, and respect for their rights around climate action. It is led by the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Perú (PUCP), in collaboration with the Universidad de Chile’s Centro de Estudios Interculturales e Indígenas and the Nature Conservancy in the United States. For more information, contact Maritza Paredes at PUCP.
  • Just and resilient planned relocation from climate change in Bangladesh. This action research identifies strategies to support more just outcomes for vulnerable populations who may need to be relocated because of the impacts of climate change like rising coastal waters in Bangladesh. Led by the University of Exeter, United Kingdom, and the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, Bangladesh, the research takes advantage of a major window of opportunity to integrate questions of inclusion and rights into Bangladesh’s National Strategy on Planned Relocation from Climate Change. For more information, contact Dr Ricardo Safra de Campos at the University of Exeter.
  • Brokering justice in a changing climate. The Climate Development Knowledge Network is supporting local groups and communities to effectively advocate for just and inclusive climate actions at the global level. The network builds on its existing knowledge brokering efforts for Southern-led climate research, linking up with an existing multi-national climate justice project called Amplifying Voices of Just Climate Action. For more information, contact Michelle Du Toit at SouthSouthNorth.

Given the increasing ambitions to act on the climate crisis, now is the time to mobilize research around climate justice. The challenge lies in forging new partnerships between those most affected by climate change and climate action, the justice community, and climate change researchers.

For further information about IDRC investments in climate justice research, contact Adrian Di Giovanni or Georgina Cundill-Kemp.