top of page

Climate Justice: Seeking Stories, Seeking Concepts

Updated: Mar 16, 2022

by Siddharth Peter de Souza, Nithya Kochuparampil, Eklavya Vasudev, and Sharada Kerkar

Locating climate justice

A recent episode of what could be termed ‘climate justice’ activism in India saw youth and concerned citizens come out to protest the government’s plans to build power and transportation lines for commercial purposes through an eco-sensitive region of Goa. The protests centered around protecting national forests and biodiverse ecosystems, and questioned the scales that were weighing development versus climate and ecological interests. They succeeded in stalling the project pending a review by a Supreme Court-appointed committee.

Episodes like this have been seen in other parts of the world too. We have seen vulnerable groups in recent years protesting actions that directly affect their interests - such as the Dakota pipeline protests in the US, which contested the project at many levels, including for violating an agreement with Native American people requiring consultation on land use around sacred sites. There have also been protests on broader conceptual issues, from ordinary individuals, often youth, as well as groups of rights and environmental activists, such as the Extinction Rebellion pressing for recognition of a climate emergency and calling for action. The reason that these protests or reactions can be read under the banner of climate justice rather than as isolated environmental protests is because the themes of these protests suggest a recognition of the interconnectedness of the problem, such as when economic interests violate environmental protections or in calling for just transition plans to decarbonise economies. At the same time, it is not that people who agitate on these questions always have the answers to these problems. They are rather asking some of the questions that need to be considered in addressing the climate problem - such as the #mymollem protesters asked of the Indian government, the Dutch NGO Urgenda,of the government’s ‘insufficient’ (Leijten, 2019) climate action plans or the shareholder climate activism of people like Mark van Baal at oil company Shell.

In this sense, climate justice activism which sometimes crosses with ‘climate crisis’ activism can be seen as something that is influencing policy from the bottom up, in a context where climate action has not yet become the crisis topic around which government policy orients. The economic and social dimensions to the climate challenge (climate justice) - whether in actions proposing to violate the climate or protect it - is now duly recognised and these will have to be factored into any interventions of an environmental nature going forward.

Unpacking the concept of climate justice

One of the reasons for creating a climate justice lexicon is rooted in a recognition of these developments. We are interested in examining how different environmental and social justice movements have centered the fight to address challenges of climate change with questions of social justice. These movements introduce varied concerns, identify different strategies, and importantly can help develop new conceptual terms to be able to articulate the impacts and effects of climate change. Through the lexicon, we try to feature these developments through reflections on the terms, practical case studies and real-life examples to show how people from different walks of life are presently engaging with climate issues, and consequently also influencing how policymakers are approaching these issues.

In developing a lexicon, we have tried to think through a vocabulary for understanding these interconnections between climate change and justice. We were interested in taking on an expansive set of terms that covered not just significant moments in terms of international instruments, or examining the development of laws, but also in how climate change impacts people through displacement, sea level rise, and climate anxiety. In this regard the terms aim to connect to how to think about justice as it resides in different social, economic and political settings, acknowledging that the experiences of groups, genders, communities will be different (Robinson, 2018).

We have also tried to highlight how questions of equity could be made central to such an examination.

By paying attention to the fact that the impacts of climate change have disproportionate consequences for people at the margins, we recognised that an articulation placing equity at the heart of climate justice meant going beyond technical solutions to also addressing climate inequalities in the material ways in which they emerge. Our choice of terms was an occasion to think through what climate justice means in this context as well. Is it grounded in fixing accountability? Is it about building a shared vision? Is it about responsibility by actors, particularly those that have historically caused the most harm? Is it in acknowledging that there needs to be urgency, ambition and a collaborative ethos to sustain change? Is it about building more participatory forums for action?

Climate justice is deliberately kept conceptually open in our lexicon. It is meant to be able to account for a plurality of perspectives, and different locations for where climate change impacts are seen. It is by no means exhaustive, but seeks to be an open and living resource where concepts and terms can undergo change, be revised, or even lose their significance depending on the nature of the struggle. Further, we have aimed to show that climate justice is frequently a matter of resistance by people and communities who are oftentimes not part of the decision making processes.

We also paid attention to the fact that an understanding of technical vocabulary is important for understanding the scientific context that has been determining the course of action and ambition required to tackle climate change. This is seen in the inclusion of terms like greenhouse gases, global warming, ocean acidification, climate feedback loops, among others.

The lexicon’s design includes a visual depiction of every concept which is an interpretation of the accompanying text.. The process we followed while creating the illustrations was first to understand the concept, identify its crux and present it using visual metaphors. The lexicon uses the approach of visual storytelling to communicate the complex and layered ideas of each concept. Visual storytelling modes help in breaking down abstract concepts into simpler, concrete, and consumable information. This pedagogy helps build a deeper connection with diverse audiences, pass on complex information and enhance engagement.

In a related vein, we’ve also supplemented each term with a real world example in order to give a material basis to otherwise complex topics.

The audience for the lexicon is anyone who is curious about the intersections of climate and justice. It is meant to be engaging and accessible, and has been visualised to make it relatable.

By producing the lexicon in Hindi and English, we hope it can be a useful guide for students, activists, teachers, and families to have conversations about climate change in an open and interesting manner, whether in evaluating policy and academic discussions on the topic, using it to measure one’s carbon footprint, examining how we need to think about intergenerational equity in reflecting on our behaviours, and on how we consume and produce. We hope to expand the languages the lexicon is available in.

In the following paragraphs, we briefly explain some of the frames that animated our approach to climate justice.

Securing climate justice

The climate issue is “unfair” from an equity perspective in two primary ways. Firstly, the developmental benefits that unsustainable extraction and exploitation of resources yields is distributed unequally (Bretschger and Valente, 2011). This is true both on an individual and collective level. On an individual level, people with more power, money and resources have benefited disproportionately from exploiting the climate, while people with lesser capital, both monetary and social, have enjoyed a much smaller share of the benefits which have accrued. On a collective level, this same dynamic plays out with developed countries having benefited more than developing countries. Secondly, the negative consequences that an unsustainable mode of development is causing in terms of a changing climate and resultant adverse events such as increased disasters, water distress, food insecurity etc. are again experienced disproportionately by vulnerable populations with fewer resources to cope (Islam and WInkel, 2017).

Besides the moral unfairness of the phenomenon, climate injustice threatens the very survival of vulnerable populations, as the nature of climate change threatens the fundamentals of life such as water, food, clean air, cool temperatures, etc.

Therefore, the conversation on climate justice first needs a recognition by all people of the unequal threats that climate change poses. It also needs an understanding that the climate problem is a problem of interdependence. This is because it threatens the bases of life that will lead to mass disasters of human life and property and ultimately threaten supply chains for everyone. Thus, the argument towards addressing climate change in a manner that also addresses social inequality is persuasive for both moral reasons of fairness as well as to rationally address the interdependent nature of the problem. This requires dialogue within and between communities and needs local participation in the processes of decision making and governance.

Across the world, social movements by school children, marginalised communities, indigeneous people and small-island states to name a few are making an effort to bring this discussion within mainstream politics through protests, litigation, advocacy and various forms of engagement. A crucial aspect of these efforts is a method to articulate these problems in simple and accessible forms. Social media blog posts and instagram stories have become increasingly popular in this regard. As Dal-Pan writes, “While initially, social media were mere spaces for conversation and sharing, they have become prime channels of information, communication and interaction”. The use of these channels then along with appropriate pedagogical mediums are an important way to educate, advocate and speak about issues. An interesting example of this is Green Humour, a popular initiative in India that speaks about the environment, sustainability and other similar issues using cartoons, comics and illustrations . The climate lexicon is also one such attempt wherein we have tried to combine science, law and pictorial representation to convey the complexities of climate justice while ensuring that the language is lucid, examples are pertinent and pictures are descriptive of each defined term.

Writing the lexicon in times of Covid-19

he COVID-19 pandemic, as a health crisis that also brought on an economic and social crisis, has offered a number of lessons in preparing for future crises of this scale and intensity. In the case of climate crises, there is an added potential dimension of environmental collapse, which means that in addition to the inadequacy or collapse of human-made systems, we also risk losing the support of external natural ecosystems. At a systemic level, the pandemic has therefore been an eye-opener in asking people whether the systems they rely on (and contribute towards) such as healthcare or state subsidies/welfare are built to operate in such ‘exceptional’ conditions.

Going further, we saw how COVID-19 had the worst impacts on the already poor and vulnerable - a high potential risk we also highlight in the lexicon in the face of extreme weather events brought on by climate change. In India for instance, we saw the effects of under-invested public care systems and absent social safety nets in many parts of the country, while we also saw the inverse in some states such as Kerala. In Kerala, long-term investment in the public healthcare system, the learnings put in place after the Nipah (a zoonotic) virus in 2018, and its ability to engage all stakeholders, like Kudumbashree and other self-help groups, in responding to the crisis, ensured that all residents in the state (locals and guest workers) could be provided for in food, shelter and healthcare services. In our lexicon, under ‘H’ we list ’Human Responses to Climate Change’, where we recognise that measures taken to combat climate change in advance, from international agreements down to national choices for mitigation and adaptation, will determine the human cost (physical and mental), especially on vulnerable populations. This is an important justice consideration because as varying COVID-19 management records have shown ,the success of our responses are likely to depend on a mix of specialised protocols in place from past experiences of a similar event and on existing public systems that are fortified to allow access for all to food, shelter and health services in an emergency. The focus here is on building equitable adaptation to stressors, which must also be a crucial aim of efforts to meet the climate challenge. COVID-19 has shown us how crises need to be met and how falling short can result in avoidable human tragedies.

Next steps

Continuing with the COVID-19 analogy, another aspect which the pandemic highlighted was the interdependence of different stakeholders and strategies to meet the challenge of public health in a crisis. Similarly, n the context of climate justice, Mary Robinson (Former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) reminds us, that “we will succeed only if we recognise that the struggle to combat climate change is inextricably linked to tackling poverty, inequality and exclusion” (Robinson, 2018) Therefore, it is important to encourage conversations, policies and laws which look at climate change mitigation and adaptation in its entire complexity and integrate the need to reduce social inequality as a necessary adjunct to it.

To achieve this, increasing attempts need to be made to disburse and discuss credible and understandable climate relevant information. Empowering people with knowledge of climate inequities, its impact on them and what they can do about it is the first step towards moving to a climate just future. This, then, is also the final takeaway that we want for the audience of the climate lexicon- to use it as a starting point to initiate climate conversations, action and debate with peers, family members, mentors, and to allow these conversations to be ‘living’ and fluid as further insights and research reveal more about climate injustice.

(Siddharth is the Founder of Justice Adda and Post doctoral researcher at the Global Data Justice project, Tilburg Law School, Nithya is a Senior Consultant, Climate and International Affairs, Justice Adda, Eklavya Vasudev, is a Senior Consultant Climate and Health, Justice Adda and a PhD Researcher at The University of Erlangen-Nuremburg and Sharada is a Senior Consultant- Design at Justice Adda and a Masters Candidate in Public Policy and Human Development at Maastricht University.)


bottom of page