Discussion Topic: Climate Justice Beyond the State

The latest special report from the IPCC (IPCC 2018) suggests that, without a very significant to limit greenhouse gas emissions, global warming is likely to exceed 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052. The same report outlines a series potentially very severe consequences, from sea level rises to biodiversity loss to the spread of disease.

In 2016, the states of the world signed on to the Paris Climate Agreement, acceding to the idea that global temperature rises must be contained to no more than 1.5-2°C, and making a series of emissions-reduction pledges to contain temperature rises to within this range. Recent analysis, however, suggests that most states’ pledges were too weak to achieve this goal (Rogelj et al. 2016), and that no major industrialised nation is presently on-track to meet its pledges, in any case (Victor et al. 2017).

Given the apparent failure of states to take the steps so urgently needed to address climate change, it is growing increasingly important to consider the roles which other sorts of actors might have to play in mitigating the threat posed by climate change. It is to such issues that this section of the website is devoted.

Consider, for example, that the majority of GHG emissions are associated with the activities of corporations in some way or other. Richard Heede found that around 63% of global emissions over the period 1854-2010 are traceable to the activities of just 90 large petrochemical and concrete corporations (Heede 2014). For example, what are the duties of such corporations in light of their contributions to climate change? Which members of those corporations are responsible for discharging those duties?

Another set of issues concerns sub-national political communities, themselves also substantial contributors to climate change. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (2016) reports that Texas, for example, emitted 708.81 million metric tons of CO2 in 2014. Meaning that if it had been a country, it alone would have been the 8th largest emitter of CO2, worldwide, in that year (Olivier et al. 2016, pp. 42-3). Cities have been estimated to account for upwards of 70 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions (IEA, 2008). What are the duties of sub-national communities? How might they be justified?

Finally, there is the matter of individuals. All emissions are ultimately traceable to the decisions of individual human beings. What’s more, many individuals are beginning to take steps to address climate change. Millions  have begun to practice ‘green consumption’, altering their purchasing habits in an attempt to reduce their impact upon the environment (Erhardt-Martinez et al. 2015, pp. 113-5). Others have engaged in political activism. The BBC (2014) reports that over 600 000 people marched in several cities around the world on the 21st of September 2014, in the lead-up to the United Nations’ Climate Summit.


BBC, 2014 Climate change summit: Global rallies demand action’, BBC News, 21st September.
Erhardt-Martinez, K. Schor, J. B. Abrahamse, W. Alkon, A. H. Axsen, J. Brown, K. Shwom, R. L. Southerton, D. & Wilhite, H. 2015 ‘Consumption and Climate Change’, Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives, pp.93-127, Oxford University Press.
Heede, R. 2014 ‘Tracing athropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854-2010’, Climatic Change, Vol. 122, No. 1-2, pp.229-241,
IEA 2008. World Energy Outlook 2008. Paris: International Energy Agency.
Masson-Delmotte, V. Zhai, P. Pörtner, H.-O. Roberts, D. Skea, J. Shukla, P.R. Pirani, A. Moufouma-Okia, W. Péan, C. Pidcock, R. Connors, S. Matthews, J.B.R. Chen, Y. Zhou, X. Gomis, M.I. Lonnoy, E. Maycock, T. Tignor, M. Waterfield, T. 2018 ‘Summary for Policymakers’, Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty, IPCC, World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.
Olivier, J. G. J. Janssens-Maenhout, G. Muntean, M. Peters, J. A. H. W. 2016 ‘Trends in Global CO2 Emissions: 2016 Report’, The Hague PBL Netherlands Environmental  Assessment Agency, Ispra: European Commission, Joint Research Centre, pp.1- 86.
Rogelj, J. Elzen, M. D. Höhne, N., Fransen, T. Fekete, H. Winkler, H. Schaeffer, R. Sha, F. Riahi, K. Meinshausen, M. 2016 ‘Paris Agreement climate proposals need a boost to keep warming well below 2 °C’, Nature, Vol. 534, pp.631- 639
Victor, D. G. Akimoto, K. Kaya, Y. Yamaguchi, M. Cullenward, D. Hepburn, C. 2017 ‘Prove Paris was more than paper promises’, Nature, Vol. 548, pp.25-27.

14 December 2020

The Paris Agreement 5 years on: big coal exporters like Australia face a reckoning

On Saturday, more than 70 global leaders came together at the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit, marking the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement. Prime Minister Scott Morrison was denied a speaking slot, in recognition of Australia’s failure to set meaningful climate commitments. Meanwhile, t...

Protestors calling for climate justice for current and future generations
9 September 2020

The Moral Case for Climate Action

Why should Australians take action on climate change? This is often thought of as an environmental question, a health question, or an economic question. But, more fundamentally, it is a moral question. The moral case for stronger Australian action on climate change comes from five different argument...

bicycle crossing the road
27 August 2019

What Should I Do About Climate Change?

We need climate action now. The IPCC is unequivocal, and citizens are listening even if their governments aren’t. Extinction Rebellion has stopped traffic; Australian schoolchildren have cut school to demand change; Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg just used a UN COP 24 plenary to berate negotiator...

coloured garbage bins
27 August 2019

Who Should Do What?

Climate change is something we have a moral duty to address: in failing to do so, we expose vulnerable people in the future to the prospect of great harm. But who are “we”? Who has this duty, and what exactly is the climate action we ought to take? A natural picture is this. What is needed to...

green building
27 August 2019

Taking Up the Slack

Taking up the slack: when governments don’t act on climate change Every year, governments of the world meet to progress action on climate change. And every year, each government recommits to take action to tackle the risks that climate change threatens. That governments should commit to and imple...