Open thread: climate justice


in Economics, Politics, Psychology, The environment

Both in the literature on fossil fuel divestment and when speaking with divestment activists the concept or worldview of “climate justice” is prominent. A good example is Jessica Grady-Benson and Brinda Sarathy’s paper “Fossil fuel divestment in US higher education: student-led organising for climate justice“. They contend that climate change is increasingly seen as a social justice issue.

As I understand it, the key features of the “climate justice” perspective are the view that climate change is not a distinguishable issue that can be isolated from others like unjust power differentials, poverty, or racism. That analysis helps produce a program of action that emphasizes intersectionality: the efforts of those in one justice-based struggle to assist those involved in others, even if the immediate connection between say, maternal health in low-income countries and environmental policy in European municipalities or conditions in American prisons, is obscure. The conceptual motivation connects to both networking and political pragmatism, through the hope that social movements can be mutually reinforcing and therefore that alliances between climate change activists and those advocating for racial or economic justice will help everyone achieve their policy goals.

This climate justice terminology is comparatively new. In a post back in 2007 I used the term to refer to the question of the fair international distribution of burdens in addressing climate change: a perspective much more along the lines of institutionalist liberal environmentalism which basically accepts the existing order of the world and seeks to make the institutions that already hold power change their behaviour for the sake of their collective longer-term interests.

The liberal environmentalist account sees problems like climate change as techinical, scientific, and with the potential to be solved within existing institutions. Climate change is an unfortunate accidental product of fossil fuel energy that doesn’t automatically carry any moral lessons beyond that. British Comedian David Mitchell has a ‘soapbox’ talk describing this view succinctly.

One relevant consideration concerns motivation. Even if I accept it intellectually, Mitchell’s portrayal of climate change as an accident that nonetheless obligates a response may lack the emotional heft needed to actually produce a change in behaviour. Another key issue is the need to not only adopt decarbonization policies but to maintain them for long enough (decades) to avoid the worst possible climate change effects. Arguably, this requires a political consensus that extends beyond the left or progressives and, in fact, a political program that demands agreement on every progressive cause risks being alienating and ineffectual rather than a path to solidarity and success.

All these questions are intensely contested, and certainly cannot be resolved in a blog post or subsequent comments. On the one hand, the case that climate change is interwoven with other issues of injustice is highly convincing; it’s because some people are privileged over others that it’s so easy to allow unfettered fossil fuel use for the benefits it provides to the privileged while ignoring the harms it imposes on the marginalized, non-human nature, and future generations. It’s also plausible that the climate change movement needs to forge and maintain strategic alliances to succeed. In the end, we can’t know in advance what will work because we have never faced a problem like this before. We may never have the opportunity to do so again, since a sufficiently bad failure on climate change carries the risk of making all other human political projects moot. As such it seems obligatory to me to open up and maintain multiple paths to success, including those that require reaching beyond comfortable networks of people who broadly agree and solutions that consist of behaviours that we largely see as desirable anyhow. Stopping catastrophic climate change will mean giving up a lot, not only in terms of personal comforts and indulgences, but also in terms of comfortable political associations and worldviews.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan September 11, 2018 at 10:47 pm

The phrase “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” has a convincing ring to it, but perhaps there is also some measure of coherence which is necessary in activist movements if they are to formulate and implement major policy demands. Analysis from people like Micah White suggests that the effectiveness of social movements is easily tapped by infighting over policy demands. Other data suggests that the efforts of activists to be socially conscious on all issues contributed to the limited policy consequences of the Occupy movement.

. February 8, 2019 at 7:44 pm

Vasey also recognized the importance of uniting the various movements of which he was a part. For example, he wrote a piece for Media Co-op last year calling for environmentalists to participate in mobilizations against the far right.

“On the streets, mobilizations by the far right represent an important fulcrum for the environmental justice movement. The far right are the manifestation of colonialism, toxic masculinity, racism and nihilistic capitalist consumption,” he wrote.

. February 8, 2019 at 8:18 pm

AOC’s Green New Deal could finally force the U.S. to get serious about climate change – Los Angeles Times

As a vision statement for the progressive left, the New Green Deal is admirable, but also largely unreachable. The difficult question is not “Do you support social justice?” or “Do you oppose poverty?” but “How do you fix those in a cautious, money-dominated, politically polarized, uncertain nation like ours?” More significantly, why laden a clarion call for revolutionary action on climate change — which has wide popular support, according to polls — with attenuated social justice measures that can be more fractious?

The more controversial elements of the proposal, meanwhile, should either be excised or allowed to wither on the vine. For instance, the measure calls for “high quality union jobs” and guaranteed jobs for all. But unions are the creations of workers and ought to come into existence through workplace democracy, not government edict. And what would a guaranteed-jobs program look like? How would it get paid for? What would those jobs be? The Green New Deal also calls for “ensuring a commercial environment where every businessperson is free from unfair competition and domination by domestic or international monopolies,” and “providing all people of the United States with high quality health care [and] affordable, safe, and adequate housing.” What in the name of John Muir do those goals have to do with combating climate change?

. May 23, 2019 at 9:23 pm

First, Sunrise leaders noticed that old movements focused almost singularly on climate change. To activists, this “climate first” mentality rightly emphasized urgency. However, this framing distanced the movement from key allies and restricted the size and demographic that the movement was able to attract and maintain. Sunrise’s narrative, on the other hand, is one of class domination by the elite, a story that is more reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street than the pipeline protests and climate marches of the past decade. Sunrise knows that the climate movement cannot stop climate change by itself. Sunrise will only be successful if “we stand with other movements for change,” which is one of Sunrise’s defining principles. This explicit class framing has created space for critical alliances with the labor movement, like the Service Employees International Union, and organizations focused on social and economic justice.

Second, the founders of Sunrise noticed the internal conflict that overwhelmed organizations by learning from successful social movements. Movements focused on climate change, and other movements on the left have often been more concerned with internal democracy than on winning and claiming power. Sunrise’s structure is a notable shift from the non-hierarchical principles of Occupy for example. When too much attention and value is placed on process and hierarchy, the result is a paralyzing purism and a crippling, insular culture. Internal conflict is by no means restricted to environmental movements. The Women’s movement, for instance, was marked by constant struggles over the pressure for hierarchy and the will for internal democracy.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: