Climate justice is essential if we are to succeed in preventing global warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. This is a point that receives much more attention in the new Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report than in previous reports.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the second part of its sixth assessment report on February 28, 2022. Since the publication of the previous report in 2014, climate change has become increasingly obvious. This is reflected both in the scientific literature and in the experiences of people around the world. Increasing occurrences of extreme weather events such as floods, heat waves and associated wildfires, storms and hurricanes are all examples that have dominated the media in recent years.
The experience of climate change through more frequent extreme weather events has sparked increased interest in climate-related issues among governments, NGOs, businesses and the general public. A well-known example of increased public engagement is the “school strike for climate”, initiated by Greta Thunberg. In line with the latest IPCC report, the striking schoolchildren also made it clear that climate policy must be based on principles of justice.
If climate policy is perceived as unfair, we risk various forms of resistance and even rebellion.
Although the IPCC report expresses no opinion on the legitimacy of the various protests against climate action, the report stresses that it is important that climate policy incorporates considerations of justice as much as possible in order to succeed.
Distribution, participation, recognition
So what does climate justice entail? Three requirements are cited in the report: fair distribution (distributive justice), participation in decision-making (judiciary process), and acknowledgement. First, the distribution of the costs and benefits of climate action should not be seen as too unfair. Second, it should be possible for the groups concerned to participate in the democratic decision-making process before the adoption of climate measures that will affect them. Third, recognition of vulnerable or marginalized groups is necessary both to avoid unequal distribution and to facilitate participation in decision-making processes.
This most recent IPCC report also places greater emphasis on the importance of recognizing indigenous and local knowledge in order to succeed in climate change adaptation measures. In Norway, for example, basing reindeer herding policies on the knowledge of Sami reindeer owners, which has been accumulated over many generations, could improve the ability of reindeer herders to adapt to climate change. Climate change will lead to more variable climatic conditions during the winter in the north, for example with precipitation followed by frost. This leads to layers of ice in the snow which can block reindeer access to pasture. In such conditions, it is generally a good idea to have a good number of strong animals in the herd, such as castrates and bucks. This is also in line with the traditional knowledge of reindeer herders, while the Norwegian government tends to view bucks as only useful for breeding and has pushed herders to reduce the percentage of these ‘unproductive’ animals in the herd.
Recognition is therefore a normative principle and a value in itself. Lack of recognition can lead to inequitable distribution and lack of democratic participation, which in turn could undermine the success of climate policy.
The recent IPCC report also mentions planting trees in savannas and grasslands as an example of maladaptation that can harm biodiversity and undermine carbon storage, as savannas store carbon underground in the roots of ground cover vegetation. In addition, large-scale reforestation can lead to the dispossession of pastoralists from their traditional grazing areas, which can again lead to resistance to such climate projects.
A fair distribution of costs and benefits is relevant at many levels – between individuals and groups within countries, between states, and between different generations, including the unborn. In international climate negotiations, the fundamental principle is that States have common, but historically differentiated responsibilities with regard to climate change, and therefore to the implementation of climate policies.
This principle reflects an underlying idea that all countries have a responsibility to act, but what they can do varies. Industrialized countries in the North are better placed to decarbonize energy systems and reduce emissions, while some developing countries in the South will need to focus more on adapting to climate change than reducing emissions. It also reflects the fact that an unequal distribution of wealth and power between countries, and within countries, is a root cause of climate injustice.
Far-reaching measures both to reduce emissions and to adapt to climate change will require far-reaching societal changes to achieve a green transformation. Such a transformation can take place in various ways: from a focus on technological change and the use of markets on the one hand, to radical solutions such as “degrowth” on the other. Degrowth will involve reducing production and consumption to keep climate impact within what the climate and ecosystems can tolerate.
This is a political debate on which the IPCC has no opinion. Whichever approach is taken, the transformation must be profound and encompass energy systems, land use, urban systems, infrastructure and industrial development.
How such a transformation will be implemented in practice in different countries will also have implications for questions of justice, as there is a risk that different groups will become winners and losers under different models. Accordingly, it is important that climate policy includes justice as a fundamental principle of measures aimed at both reducing emissions and adapting to climate change.
Despite growing awareness of the seriousness of the changes we are facing, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is progressing too slowly. Moreover, adaptations to climate change are lagging behind. In other words, the climate is changing faster than we adapt to the changes. The result is that communities and local authorities have to repair the damage instead of planning ahead to deal with the changes to come.
Therefore, urgent action is needed to reduce emissions globally to prevent even greater changes and accelerate the work of adapting to climate change.
To be successful in both reducing emissions and adapting to ongoing climate change, those affected by climate action must feel heard. Thus, the latest IPCC report conclusively asserts that climate policy must be socially inclusive and not experienced as unfair. In other words, climate action must be as equitable as possible between countries, within countries and between generations.
Tor A. Benjaminsen is a professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and an associate research professor at PRIO. He is one of the lead authors of the IPCC’s 6th Assessment Report.