As the alarm bells have made it urgently clear—humanity has breached planetary boundaries—causing anthropogenic climate change and environmental disaster across the world. By burning fossil fuels, overconsuming material resources, and creating endless waste, we have disrupted Earth’s ecosystems, exacerbating natural hazards with effects lasting longer than human lifetimes. But who is the “we” being referred to here? The climate crisis is no longer a simple issue of “objective” science but an issue of political discourse and pop culture. Across the globe, the effects of anthropogenic climate change are experienced unevenly, disproportionately so for vulnerable communities within and between nations. We should be critical in our efforts to mitigate, adapt to, and be transformative in the face of climate change, ensuring that we are not weaponizing emergency in the process and ignoring issues of environmental justice and equity.
Climate justice, a movement emerging from the US environmental justice movement in the 1960s, attempts to re-center communities most vulnerable to the climate crisis in decision-making. Rather than viewing the climate crisis as a result of a homogenous humanity that has degraded the planet, climate justice assigns responsibility to oppressive systems and actors that have fueled the crisis. This reading list provides an introduction to climate justice and seeks to unsettle some of the familiar, dominant discourses of climate change.
Mike Hulme, “Geographical Work at the Boundaries of Climate Change,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33, no. 1 (2008): 5–11.
To define climate change is a political act. Hulme explores key discourse, questions, issues, and framings around the anthropogenic climate crisis. He most notably unpacks the universalization of the climate crisis, the boundary-setting of global warming at 2° Celsius by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the exclusion of certain forms of knowledge generation. Hulme helps to set the scene for a critical climate justice, understanding how space, place, power, and culture form a normative understanding of the climate crisis.
Arvind Jasrotia, “Fighting 2° Celsius: The Quest for Climate Justice,” Journal of the Indian Law Institute 58, no. 1 (2016): 55–82.
The IPCC in the fifth assessment report concluded that for humanity to avoid catastrophic impacts from anthropogenic climate change, warming since pre-industrial times must remain under 2° Celsius. Jasrotia unpacks the way the IPCC, alongside other climate organizations, negotiated this target, and its disparate impacts on developing countries. Pointing out that “climate change presents the largest (re)distributive dilemma of human history,” Jasrotia considers the atmosphere as a global common, questioning how best to equitably distribute the carbon budget. He then takes the reader through critical junctures in the history of international climate negotiations and explores how different forms of power pervade these spaces.
Elizabeth A. Povinelli, “The Rhetorics of Recognition in Geontopower,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 48, no. 4 (2015): 428–42.
“Geontopower”—at the center of climate justice—challenges how we come to understand what’s considered life and non-life, and therefore, create structures of governance that rule over what we have come to understand as “non-life.” Povinelli challenges this distinction, as Indigenous communities across the world have done for centuries. It’s possible to blow up a mountain and extract its minerals because it’s considered non-life; as Povinelli notes, “we cannot take away a soul they [mountains] do not have.” Povinelli grounds the creation of geontopower in the history of colonialism and Indigenous erasure, providing context to how and why non-life (nature) is governed in an environmentally destructive way.
Rikard Warlenius, “Decolonizing the Atmosphere: The Climate Justice Movement on Climate Debt,” The Journal of Environment & Development 27, no. 2 (2018): 131–55.
A core tenet of the climate justice movement is the concept of climate debt: those historically and disproportionately responsible for the climate crisis must pay those who are on the frontlines of disaster. Warlenius explores this concept through the notion of “decolonizing the atmosphere,” or the idea that the colonial powers have not only subjugated peoples and lands but also have taken up disproportionately more atmospheric “space” by overshooting the global carbon budget. As developing countries begin to industrialize, there is little room for their fossil emissions in the atmosphere. Warlenius argues that this is unfair and unjust and that paying climate debt is one avenue where one can “simply ask those who made the mess to clean it up.”
Federico Demaria, François Schneider, Filka Sekulova, and Joan Martinez-Alier, “What Is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement,” Environmental Values 22, no. 2 (2013): 191–215.
A popular call from activists, scientists, and academics alike is for degrowth discourse to be embedded in environmental policy. What is degrowth? “Degrowth” is a social movement that calls for the reduction of consumption (materialized as Gross Domestic Product) in developed nations while encouraging investment in social services and the care economy. As Demaria et al. explains, the term degrowth has re-politicized environmental issues, with the term and the movement both being oversimplified, co-opted, and simply misunderstood. This paper traces the idea of degrowth throughout history and geographies, attempting to capture the complexity and nuance of it as a call moving towards climate justice.
Kyle Powys Whyte, “Indigenous Women, Climate Change Impacts, and Collective Action,” Hypatia 29, no. 3 (2014): 599–616.
Indigenous communities are vital social actors in the fight against the anthropogenic climate crisis; as they steward approximately one-quarter of world’s land area and 40 percent of the world’s protected areas. For Indigenous communities especially, the anthropogenic climate crisis has the potential to completely disrupt what Whyte refers to as collective continuance, which captures Indigenous relationships with nature, secure Indigenous identities, and intergenerational sustainability of communal ties. Additionally, Whyte sheds light on the intersectional experiences of Indigenous women in the face of anthropogenic climate change.
Farhana Sultana, “Suffering for Water, Suffering from Water: Emotional Geographies of Resource Access, Control, and Conflict,”Geoforum 42, no. 2 (March 2011): 163–172.
Conflicts over safe water for consumption, agriculture, and production are often mediated by material and social relations. Drawing upon political ecology scholarship, Sultana explores how this critical resource is even more troubled by emotional relations, that is, the relations between the home, individual body, space, and feelings. Her discussion helps clarify the connections between gender and natural resource management in moving towards climate justice. Using a case study from Bangladesh, she explores how issues of disparate access and use of water impact water, society, and gender relations.
Filomina Chioma Steady, “Women, Climate Change and Liberation in Africa,” Race, Gender & Class 21, no. 1/2 (2014): 312–33.
The impacts of climate crisis have been seen and felt by African women, who provide the bulk of labor for agriculture, water procurement, fuel, animal husbandry, and natural resource stewardship on that continent. Steady uses an ecofeminist lens to highlight the positions of African women in climate concerns, including the degradation of forests, water insecurity, agricultural yield variation, and mitigation of and adaptation to natural hazards. She also provides context to explain how neo-colonialism and globalization are key drivers of the continued maldevelopment of the African continent and the unique impact experienced by African women as a result.
Adelle Thomas, April Baptiste, Rosanne Martyr-Koller, Patrick Pringle, and Kevon Rhiney, “Climate Change and Small Island Developing States,” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 45 (October 2020): 1–27.
Small Island Developing States (SIDs) have been identified by the United Nations as especially vulnerable to the anthropogenic climate crisis, primarily due to unpredicted sea level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of natural hazards. The Association of Small Island Developing States drove the 1.5° Celsius global temperature target at the 2015 Paris Climate Negotiations, bringing it down from 2° Celsius target in prior years. Thomas et al. notes that while SIDs have had a negligible impact on greenhouse gas emissions, they face disproportionately more risk, vulnerability, and exposure to natural hazards. The centering of SIDs in climate justice discourse has highlighted the need for climate reparations, loss and damage funding, and climate migration planning.
Avner de Shalit, “Climate Change Refugees, Compensation, and Rectification,” The Monist 94, no. 3 (2011): 310–28.
Who is pathologized as a result of climate change? De Shalit focuses on the evacuation and the destruction of homes due to natural hazards as “environmental displacement[s]” and explores how people become environmental refugees because of anthropogenic climate change. Solutions, such as loss and damage compensation, have been proposed to rectify the loss of space and place experienced by vulnerable communities. De Shalit challenges the notion of monetary compensation as an acceptable form of reparations for environmental refugees, arguing that not only does such compensation place a monetary value on a landscape that is incommensurable, but it gives license for polluters to continue worsening anthropogenic climate change—as they can simply pay for it later.