Finding justice within climate change actions

In December 2015, government negotiators from all countries in the world will come together in Paris, and are expected to sign what will be the long anticipated agreement to follow the Kyoto Protocol. (1) This new framework will establish a binding agreement for avoiding dangerous climate change and makes the next year of preparation one of the most important for humanity.

Climate change, “the greatest collective challenge we face as a human family”, (2) has a cruel irony in that, the hardest hit are the least responsible for contributing to the problem. The impacts of climate change threaten the well being of communities around the world, especially vulnerable and marginalized women, children and elderly people. (3) There is growing concern at how climate change is contributing to the increase of both sudden-onset natural disasters and slow-onset events, (4) increasing vulnerability, affecting food sovereignty and security, livelihood diversity and fundamentally having adverse effects on the full enjoyment of all human rights.

As well as discussions on the responsibilities for reducing pollutants in the future, a small but vocal lobby will advocate for principles of climate justice to be considered within the new agreement. The climate justice movement views climate change as an ethical issue and considers how its causes and effects relate to concepts of justice, particularly environmental and social justice. It has offered a critical agenda to effectively infuse the climate change debate with human rights in a way that is equitable for the most climate-vulnerable people around the world.

The term ‘climate justice’ is broad and allows for detailed discussions on how issues such as equality, human rights, collective rights and historical responsibility in relation to climate change and the response to it are undertaken. Climate justice in many ways has become a unifying umbrella under which different groups, such as civil society organisations and local democracy bodies that advocate for broad issues, such as gender, indigenous rights, (5) global justice and the historical responsibility for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, the rights of future generations (inter-generational justice), can find common voice. In a fractured negotiation process, many civil society organisations have used “justice” as their mobilizing narrative.

Over the past number of years, the climate justice movement has made large and impressive gains in garnering more support within the climate negotiations and beyond. In 2008 the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 7/23 on Human Rights and Climate Change, stating climate change “poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.” (6) This has been followed by resolutions in 2009, (7) a further in 2011, (8,9) 2012 (10) and two more in 2014 (11, 12). Such resolutions are also a call to arms for a greater analysis of the linkages between human rights and climate change.

This high level endorsement of human rights obligations, standards, and principles are influencing international and national policy-making in the area of climate change. It also allows for climate change to be considered whilst promoting coherence and legitimacy within national legal frameworks.

Turning climate justice into action
In addressing climate change, a techno-centric approach (e.g higher sea walls for sea level rise or drought tolerant plants for desertification) is often seen as the appropriate intervention to assist communities to adapt to a changed climate. Yet, in order to build resilient communities that are able to withstand the shocks that arise from climate change, such interventions must complement improved democracy, stronger institutions, reduced corruption, improved transparency and a greater understanding of people’s vulnerabilities, beyond simply climate.

Climate change is challenging a globalizing world to make profound shifts from unsustainable production, over-consumption, unequal distribution of resources and looks to developed countries to take the lead. These shifts will also affect how we govern our countries and how we integrate equity within our decision-making processes.

The United Nations Secretary- General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability report (13) entitled “Resilient People, Resilient Planet” stated that “while the principle of equity remains fundamental to sustainable development, disputes about how to apply it in practice mean that it has often been a stumbling block in international relations rather than a core principle for sustainable institutional design in an interdependent world”.
The idea of equity can seem difficult for practitioners of international development to implement. However, one of the more practical steps that can be employed in dealing with this at the national and local level is by using rights-based approaches, which can contribute to climate justice. Rights-based approaches focus on all people achieving minimum conditions for living with dignity, through the realisation of their human rights. (14) More specifically, within these rights-based approaches, it has been shown that a focus on the empowerment of women and a greater understanding of gender analysis can lead to transformative change. (15)

A gender analysis is not a special focus on women, but rather an understanding on how discrimination against women and gender roles interact to shape men’s and women’s enjoyment of human dignity, rights, as well as quality of life. In the context of climate change, a gender analysis can be the first step in promoting an understanding of the ways that men and women are differently impacted by climate-related hazards through adaptation and mitigation strategies. This focus can look at root causes, rights, reparations and participatory democracy, and shape the direction of any climate change related intervention (e.g how to provide access to affordable and sustainable energy for households).

Gender analysis helps us to identify historical injustices that shape the world that we live in today. It takes time but can lead to better development outcomes before any interventions are undertaken. It can help develop concrete recommendations and identify practical tools and methods to help countries integrate gender into their climate strategies and work on a daily basis.

Ultimately, the climate justice movement must continue to play a key role in advocating for human rights and equity within the United Nations Climate Change negotiation process but needs to find more robust ways to ensure that concrete and practical actions can be taken at the ground level. This must also be clearly understood by governments and organisations working with the most vulnerable who face the ignominy of their livelihoods being eroded due to a climate problem not of their making.

The author:

Brian Harding is an independent Environment and Climate Change Specialist. He works on developing strategies, plans and programmes for climate vulnerable countries in Africa and Asia.


1 France Diplomatie, 2013. 21st Conference of the Parties on Climate Change 2015.

2 Guardian, 2009

3 IPCC WGII 2014. Climate Change 2014, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. IPCC WGII. Accessed August 15th, 2014.

4 IPCC WGI. 2013. Climate change 2013, The physical science basis: Working Group I contribution to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC WGI. Accessed August 15th, 2014.

5 UNFCCC. 2014. FCCC/SBSTA/2014/INF.11 Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice Fortieth session Bonn, 4–15 June 2014.

6 Human Rights Council 26th Session Human rights and climate change G1406194.pdf?OpenElement

7 Human Rights Council, 2009. Tenth Session, Resolution 10/4. Human rights and climate change

8 Human Rights Council 2011 Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council 16/11 Human rights and the environment.

9 Human Rights Council, 2011. Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council 18/22 Human rights and climate change

10 The Human Rights Council, 19/10 Human rights and the environment

11 Human Rights Council, 2014. Human rights and the environment
The Human Rights Council,

12 Human Rights Council, 2014 26.L33. Human rights and climate change

13 United Nations Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability (2012). Resilient people, resilient planet: A future worth choosing, Overview. New York: United Nations.

14 Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, 2014. Position Paper, Human Rights and Climate Justice. Accessed on 15th August HumanRightsandClimateChange.pdf Published 27 June 2014

15 Aquilar, L. & Roger, F., 2012. Gender Review, Climate Investment Funds cif/sites/