Climate change is intimately connected to systems of inequity, oppression and exploitation. Our current global economic system – which rewards corporations and banks for unethical, immoral practices that deny the rights and wellbeing of human citizens and the Earth – drives the climate crisis. This economic system intertwines with the histories of colonization and slavery, with the stealing of Indigenous land and genocides. It is also deeply woven into homelessness, educational inequity, corrupt governments and political systems, and countless human rights abuses.
Consequently, working to address climate change must include working on matters of justice. More and more people are waking up to this fact and that is why the term “climate justice” is starting to reverberate throughout the climate movement. Young climate activists have been sounding the climate justice call for a while now, with youth-founded groups like Zero Hour focused on climate justice from the get-go.
Climate justice recognizes the fundamental connection between climate change and many of the current issues faced by humanity. Climate justice understands that action on climate change must be rooted in solutions that simultaneously address systems of oppression and the exploitation of people and the rest of the natural world alike.
In addition to the common roots shared by climate change and systems of inequity, oppression and exploitation, climate justice also highlights the way in which climate change deepens these systems. Climate change disproportionately impacts systematically marginalized populations – like people of color, low-income communities, Indigenous communities and immigrants – in several ways. First, these populations often live in locations more susceptible to the impacts of the climate crisis and environmental degradation (in areas prone to drought, in the global south, in coastal areas, and close to pipelines, poor air quality and dumping grounds for toxic waste, for example). Second, these populations are far less resilient due to poor infrastructure, lack of resources and lack of the funding needed to rebuild following climate disasters. Third, these populations are more likely to work in jobs with exposure to climate related factors like extreme heat and poor air quality. Fourth, these populations have less access to health care and are more likely to suffer from climate-related impacts like access to safe drinking water and food.
Additionally, these populations are continuously left behind in solutions to the climate crisis. They often lack access to energy efficiency measures like weatherization and to renewable energy sources. Furthermore, these populations are continuously underrepresented in the places and spaces where important climate decisions are being made and possible solutions are being discussed and implemented.
Just as climate change is deepening systems of oppression, exploitation and inequity, those systems also intensify the climate crisis. When day-to-day living is not a struggle, it’s a lot easier to prioritize addressing the climate crisis. However, if you are struggling to get food and clean drinking water, to keep warm and dry, to pay rent or your mortgage, to access health care, or if your individual rights and safety are constantly under threat, then those day-to-day, all-too-real struggles will likely take priority. In short, if staying alive in the present is a struggle, that’s where the focus will be. If there is comfort and stability in the present, we have the capacity to look at the future.
In this NPR interview, marine biologist, climate expert and author Ayana Elizabeth Johnson explores her experience as a black woman working to address climate change. Johnson highlights the toll systemic racism takes on her work on climate change. In her powerful Op-Ed for the Washington Post – entitled I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet. – Johnson turns to a quote from Toni Morrison to illustrate the nature of this intersection: “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.”
Underscoring the many points of intersection between climate change and systems of inequity, oppression and exploitation runs this fact: wealthy, systematically advantaged populations carry the bulk of the responsibility for climate change. But these populations are simultaneously least likely to suffer the worst impacts of the unfurling crisis (this should not be misread to state that wealthy, advantaged populations will not suffer from climate change – they will). And these populations simultaneously have the most access to solutions and decision-making power. These facts combine to create solutions and decisions around the climate crisis that fail to address systemic oppression and exploitation.
Because here is the critical truth we must realize. It is possible to actively work to address climate change while perpetuating systemic oppression and exploitation. Put differently, not all work on climate change automatically simultaneously addresses inequity, oppression and exploitation.
In my work as a climate activist and organizer, I’ve found that the above truth is difficult for people to grasp. Of course climate work is also justice work, I’m constantly told. And yet, this is not the case. Consider the following example, drawn from an interview between Yale Environment 360 and climate activist Elizabeth Yeampierre:
I can give you one example in New York City. We have been advocates of bringing in offshore wind. One of the things that we learned is that in order for that to happen, the pieces have to come from Europe and be assembled in New York and they would be coming in these huge container ships. Now these ships operate by diesel, and so what happens is they park themselves on the waterfront of an environmental justice community and the climate solution becomes an environmental justice problem. The climate solution is we reduce carbon, but the environmental justice problem is we dump tons of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides and PM2.5 [particles] into the lungs of the host community.
We need the climate solution, but then we need to talk about how we electrify the industrial waterfront and how these ships can plug in so they’re not burning diesel. While we’re doing that, we also need to look at how we create the market instead of following the market — wind turbines that are built in the United States so we don’t have to bring the parts in from Europe.Unequal Impact: The Deep Links Between Racism and Climate Change
Consider also the disparity in access both to solar technology and to jobs within the solar industry. White residents are more likely to install solar panels than black or Latinx residents. Factors like income and homeownership (vs. renting) play a large role in this disparity. However, a 2019 study published in Nature Sustainability found that even after controlling for median household income and homeownership, a stark disparity still exists. Furthermore, the jobs created by the solar industry are still predominantly filled by white workers.
These are just two examples illustrating ways in which action on climate change can actually perpetuate systems of inequity, oppression and exploitation.
True success in climate action is not possible without addressing these systems. We cannot solve climate change if a large sector of the human population is excluded from the process, whether due to issues of access or lack of representation. And that is why more and more climate activists, experts and leaders are emphasizing the need for a just transition.
Just transition is not a new concept. In 1997, a coalition of environmental justice and labor organizations formed the Just Transition Alliance. Just Transition Alliance works “with frontline workers, and community members who live along the fence-line of polluting industries, we create healthy workplaces and communities. We focus on contaminated sites that should be cleaned up, and on the transition to clean production and sustainable economies.”
Just Transition Alliance defines “just transition” as “a principle, a process and a practice”:
The principle just transition is that a healthy economy and a clean environment can and should co-exist. The process for achieving this vision should be a fair one that should not cost workers or community residents their health, environment, jobs, or economic assets. Any losses should be fairly compensated. And the practice of just transition means that the people who are most affected by pollution – the frontline workers and the fenceline communities – should be in the leadership of crafting policy solutions.“What is Just Transition?” from Just Transition Alliance
Just transition seeks to illuminate and remove corporate influence from the work of addressing climate change, with solutions driven instead by communities and rooted in a quest for equity, inclusion and the health and safety of the full community.
All of this means one thing: to address the climate crisis, we must address systemic inequity, oppression and exploitation. Reframed to highlight the incredible opportunity of this moment: successfully addressing the climate crisis will also blessedly involve successfully unearthing and dismantling these self-perpetuating systems that currently thread throughout the world, leading to human rights abuses, the stripping of nature and intense poverty (to name just a few horrific outcomes). We must finally build a way of life that honors all of life – all humans, all other species and the Earth on which we all depend – with respect.
How can you be part of this work?
First, educate yourself. Read more about climate justice and just transition. Here are a few good resources to start that exploration:
Climate Justice from the Global Justice Ecology Project
racism is the root cause of our climate crisis by Jamie Margolin
Second, critically evaluate climate solutions. As you work to address climate change, whatever the avenue, ask yourself how you can shift your work to embrace the practices of climate justice and just transition. Read the full interview between Yale Environment 360 and climate activist Elizabeth Yeampierre to get a sense of what that process might entail.
Fourth, work for increased representation. Representation of marginalized populations is essential to the process of climate justice. If you are on the board of an organization working to address climate change, actively work to increase representation and leadership from members of marginalized populations. Work to elect members of these populations to positions of leadership locally and nationally. If you are involved in educational programs, elevate the work of members of these populations in your programming. In any place where conversations occur, decisions are made, solutions are developed or information is spread, look at who is represented and seek to increase representation.
Finally, talk with young people about systemic inequity, oppression and exploitation. The good news here is that young people seem much more able to grasp the intersection of the climate crisis and justice. However, it is still important to ensure that we are not teaching and talking about climate change as if it is happening in a void, distinct from systems of injustice. The more these intersections are common sense, the more clear it will be that to address the climate crisis, we must actively work for justice as well.