“We’re all in the same boat, and it’s sinking”, you may have heard climate activists say. This metaphor is problematic for many reasons. Not least because it disregards that the ‘boat’ is indeed a large ship, with many different decks, and while champagne is still flowing in the luxury cabins on the upper decks, the engine noise on the middle decks is shattering people’s eardrums.On the lower decks, people are already drowning. And guess where the lifeboats are…
We are all in this together, and yet we are not! Let’s apply the metaphor of the sinking ship to planet Earth. While extreme weather events, rising sea levels, soil degradation, and biodiversity loss mean poverty and hunger for some people (on the lower decks), others capitalise on the multiple ecological crises (bring in the champagne!). It is the core of the Climate Justice Movement to acknowledge this inequality and to fight against it.
Why we demand climate justice
The science behind climate change has been well-known and researched for decades. The concept of climate justice, however, is comparatively young. It builds on the notion of environmental justice, which emerged from the long history of protests by Afro-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans against environmental racism and large-scale infrastructure projects in the US, and particularly against the fact that the worst projects tend to be on land belonging to first nations peoples or in areas where non-white people live. A key demand of these protests was for issues of social justice to be addressed in environmental protection and in the distribution of ‘environmental harms’, like air or water pollution.
Now, what do we mean when we speak of climate justice?
Climate justice extends far beyond the demands for ‘climate protection’, which largely focus on reducing greenhouse gases through technical approaches. Instead, it understands climate change as a social and political issue that constitutes one of the most severe inequities in human history and looks for ways to right these wrongs. The idea of climate justice recognises that the climate crisis is the outcome of capitalist exploitation, centuries of (neo)colonial rule, and an imperial mode of living (see chapter two). It therefore understands the climate crisis as a social crisis which needs to be addressed to get to the very root of the problem.
For further information on climate justice, see for instance Climate Justice Alliance or Degrowth web portal.
The inequalities at the heart of the climate crisis
Climate change is human-made, caused by industrialised countries, and disproportionately affects those who are least responsible for it. The impacts of the climate crisis, that is to say the ecological degradation, human and non-human deaths, and the destruction of livelihoods elsewhere, are accepted as environmental and social ‘costs’ of economic growth, benefiting a small share of the human population – primarily white men in the rich and industrialised countries of the Global North.
The term ‘Global North’ does not necessarily refer to a country’s geographic location but describes an economically, and thus politically, powerful status. People living in countries of the Global South, with average per-capita-emissions of up to 200 times less than those of the average person living in European countries, are already affected by the climate crisis today, and are forced to flee from droughts, floods, or deathly heatwaves. By contrast, wealthy countries can – for now – protect their inhabitants by investing in adaptation measures and allegedly ‘green’ technologies. At the same time, we are already seeing how climate change is being instrumentalised to justify ever more repressive and racist border regimes, such as at the European Union’s (EU) external borders. Such international injustices intersect with many other systems of oppression – racism, sexism, ableism, and classism are just some of them. These are part of the same colonial ideology of domination, exploitation, and growth; and institutionalised in the global capitalist state system.
In sum, climate change is the consequence of an economic system that is based on inequity, racism, ecological degradation, and an ideology of growth for growth’s sake, entangled with (neo)colonial dependencies and oppression. Thus, climate change cannot be seen and confronted as an environmental issue alone. The false solutions (see chapter nine) that many politicians and business leaders are promoting – governmental and corporate sustainability initiatives, for instance – as well as the annual UN climate negotiations are part of the same system and the very logic that caused the multiple ecological crises in the first instance.
Coal and the need for justice
Coal extraction and combustion not only contribute to these social and global inequalities but are entangled in neo-colonial trade relationships that are rooted in these inequities. Within globalised capitalism, trading companies buy resources where they are cheapest, which means in countries where environmental and health protection and labour costs are low, and resistance is more dangerous due to heavy repression. Germany, for instance, stopped all domestic hard coal mining in 2019 – although its lignite coal mining is thriving – but still imports hard coal from Russia, Colombia, the USA, and South Africa.
The immense economic power of transnational energy companies allows them to buy or seize land anywhere in the world. Indigenous peoples, small-scale farmers, and other marginalised groups are being displaced from their land; trade unionists, land defenders, and activists are murdered. Millions of people suffer from a lack of clean water, and some of the world’s most biodiverse places are being destroyed. Consequently, when Europe consumes electricity that is produced by burning hard coal from elsewhere, the Global North exploits people in other countries in more than one way.
For example, the coal might come from La Guajira in Colombia, where the gigantic opencast mine El Cerrejón is turning a once fertile and biodiverse ecosystem into a moonscape. Tens of thousands of people, indigenous communities, and members of various minorities are affected by this in different ways (see chapter five). The multinational extraction companies that own the mine, with their headquarters in Europe, Australia, or North America, profit immensely from the destruction of these people’s livelihoods. After shipping the coal halfway around the world, it is burnt in power plants of the Global North, and carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere. The result is ecological and social degradation, pollution, and climate catastrophe, which in turn affect people in Colombia much more immediately than those in European countries.
How do we translate climate justice into action?
How can we achieve climate justice, especially when so much harm is already done?
Of course, putting an end to emissions in rich countries – whose wealth is based on their enormous historical emissions and ongoing exploitation of countries in the Global South – needs to be one of the first steps. But fighting for climate justice means a lot more. In order to genuinely address the contemporary ecological crisis, and the profound inequalities at its heart, we must change the system and challenge corporate and state power. This is why “system change, not climate change” is a popular slogan in the climate justice movement. It is not enough to merely aim for a reduction in CO2 emissions – especially if it comes at the expense of ecosystems and the livelihoods of people in the Global South – but we must fight for a life in balance with nature and humanity, without exploitation. For everyone.
Climate justice is not just about CO2 emissions
It is about power and politics, extractivism and state power, and human-nature relations! Concretely, this means a focus on, and fight against, global and local hierarchies of power. It means to oppose the exploitative systems of production and consumption, to fight capitalism and hierarchical state structures, and to undo and unlearn all social inequities and systems of oppression. Patriarchy, white supremacy, structural racism, and the imperial way of living have changed – but not ended – with the end of historical colonialism. They live on in trade agreements, land grabs, extractive and infrastructure projects, and the false solutions of ‘green’ capitalism (see chapter nine).
The system of growth and control, within which the excessive consumption of ener- gy-intensive industries is embedded, needs to be dismantled. Fossil fuels need to be left in the ground, and land grabbing and mining for any kind of energy generation need to be stopped. In effect, we have to overcome capitalism and the hierarchies and exploitation institutionalised in the state. Climate justice requires open borders and a global redistribution of wealth. Historic beneficiaries like the early-industrialised countries and big companies have to be held accountable for the damage they have caused, and energy companies must be collectivised, because they will not volunteer to pay for their wrongdoings. These sound like big steps – perhaps impossibly-so – but there are many small steps in the direction of climate justice: we need to change our consciousness, mobilise sustained resistance, and build alternatives based on non-hierarchy, solidarity, mutual aid, cooperation, and autonomy!
We must join forces, both locally and globally. And it is the people who are most affected by the climate crisis that lead the way. We must begin right now!