Why is Social Justice Relevant to Climate Change

27 August 2019  |  Just Transitions
climate protestor with sign

A climate transition will require huge adjustments to our way of life. New technologies, new behaviours and extensive costs for individuals and states. But it also offers opportunities such as a cleaner environment, cheaper energy and increased independence. Yet no matter what combination of these consequences eventuate, what is crucial for this transition is that it be a just transition, one that distributes any cost or benefit to the right groups and in the right way.

While any transition has to be informed by the best scientific understanding of climate change, the most cost-effective response and be able to gain widespread support, a fair division of the benefits of burdens of the response is crucial.

A transition should not just be perceived to be fair, but actually be fair and it is important to understand what that entails. For example, any transition will need to incorporate two related parts: reducing emissions through phasing out fossil fuel use, and replacing these GHG intensive activities with low, zero or even negative ones. Each of these tasks raises issues of justice that are central to the success of the transition, and requires addressing four related issues.

The first concerns who are the agents to whom duties are owed and by whom? Which states, communities, companies, groups or individuals ought to share the benefits and burdens of a transition? For example, phasing out the production and use of a fossil fuel such as coal will inevitably involve job losses for miners, support industries, companies going broke, stranded assets, royalty revenue disappearing and, in some instances, whole regions or communities will be affected. The question of which of these groups ought to get any assistance or be asked to bear the burdens is a crucial one for any transition. Getting the division of responsibility right is hugely important if we are to avoid compounding the harms of climate change.

The same is true for the positive dimension of the transition. Who ought to get subsidies and assistance to install or use renewable energy? Should scare resources be directed first to those who will benefit to the greatest degree, such as the already badly off? Or should we ensure that public enterprises: schools, hospitals, government departments, are prioritised by getting access to renewable technologies before the well off?

Climate transitions will also have to address the issue of what kind of things ought to be distributed between and within societies. The is the second dimension of climate justice: the currency or metric of justice. Effective action on climate change will require new technologies, compensation for those affected, loss of lifestyles and restrictions on the ability to use natural resources such as fossil fuels, and carbon sinks such as oceans and forests. These have to be weighed and assessed. One obvious good to be distributed is the remaining carbon budget. Countries have to reach agreement on how to distribute the remaining rights to emit GHGs so that the risk of dangerous climate change is minimised.

The division of the carbon budget raises another important issue: what kinds of principles ought we to adopt to divide the benefits and burdens? This is the third consideration: What principles or goals to adopt to guide the transition?

Reducing GHG emissions is the obvious goal of any transition. But this by itself is incomplete. As we saw above, how we do this matters a great deal. Compensating the well-off instead of the poor, etc. What we need to know is what kind of justice related goal is appropriate. Should we aim for the minimal goal of not making society overall no worse off? Or should we adopt a more maximal goal of making society a more equal one?

There is also an international dimension to this question. Where a country has an obligation to reduce emissions, should it do so by reducing its own emissions or those of a poor country that is vulnerable to climate change? After all, helping to reduce emissions in another country will be just as beneficial for preventing climate change, potentially cheaper and might go some way

to rectifying past harms. Thus we must also consider the scope of justice in relation to climate change.

Avoiding dangerous climate is one that must involve cooperation and division of responsibilities between states as well as within them. Without an agreement between states (even if it is a limited number of states) it is hard to imagine how this climate change can be avoided. What this inevitably requires is that states or sub state entities (local governments, NGOs, civil society groups) agree to share the responsibilities for acting to prevent climate change. How they do this will reflect the kind of commitments to different principles of justice.

Justice and mitigation

The combination of these broader goals with the narrower goal of mitigating climate change is what we can call a ‘unified’ approach to a climate transition. Contrast this unified approach with standard approaches to climate transitions. One typical approach is to say that the main, if not sole, aim of climate transition is reduction of emissions as quickly and efficiently as possible. This is called the ‘isolation’ approach (Caney 2012, p259). It is isolated because the main goal is morally simple and minimal: reduce emissions, even if some attention is paid to other issues. According to the isolation approach, other moral goals should be set aside, or considered to be of secondary importance, in the pursuit of the goal of minimising GHG emissions.

According to the unified approach, however, other moral goals should be pursued in conjunction with the emission reduction goal. A transition should combine concern for justice with concern for mitigation. Ultimately, we must balance the demands of these two sets of goals. But it is important that we keep them both at the heart of our decision-making process.

Does a unified approach make the transition harder or easier?

It could be argued that bringing broader justice-based goals into the climate transition decision-making framework would over-complicate an already difficult task, hampering progress. For example, requiring that a climate transition address health, education or other justice-based goals might invite criticism that it is too controversial and pragmatically unfeasible.

This is an important point. But, as philosopher Simon Caney notes, much depends on the values or goals at stake. What he calls a ‘maximal’ approach to justice would have specific and perhaps controversial commitments. For example, it might entail a radical political program. No doubt some maximal ideas of distributive justice are like this and would drastically complicate the climate transition process.

In contrast, there are elements of distributive justice which are minimal and less controversial, and where disagreement would not be so great.

Yet not considering justice-based goals as fundamental would likely worsen matters. Failure to address people’s concerns about who gets the benefits and who bears the costs of a wide-ranging and expensive climate transition will likely make such a transition unworkable.

A case in point is the transformation of the stationary energy sector. As some States transition to a greater reliance on renewable energy, there is fierce debate concerning the effects of this on power prices, particularly for poor households. There is also disagreement about whether or not energy companies are profiting excessively, and whether or not switching to renewables would allow reliable and secure electricity supply.

Add questions regarding the value of having more ‘distributed’ energy — in part because it allows more independence — and what emerges is a complex set of justice-related goals which must be considered as part of the switch to renewables. Failure to do so will make the acceptance of an ambitious climate transition, and thus the associated potential benefits, less likely.

Numerous other public problems have this structure. For example, broad justice-based considerations influenced (or should have influenced) the World’s response to the global financial crisis in 2008. Governments of the day provided ‘stimulus packages’, including various forms of financial support. The primary goal of these stimulus packages was to avoid or minimise economic recession. However, the details of the packages reveal concern or lack of it for other moral goals too — a unified approach. For instance, bailing out banks rather than directly assisting families with school-age children, carers, students, and farmers reflects a choice about what other goals governments had.

What these kinds of considerations tell us is that justice goals not only determine how quickly a transition should occur, they can also guide the distribution of benefits and burdens of a climate transition.

Focusing on justice is both desirable and unavoidable. It is desirable because it offers the opportunity to achieve other important moral goals as well. It is unavoidable, because without a concern for justice, a climate transition may well needlessly make people worse off and potentially make them less likely to endorse a transition.

Incorporating justice-based reasons for transitions does not mean a transition will not be burdensome. Given the scale of the required climate transition and the technological, social, economic and political restructuring entailed, it will require a huge range of resources.

Additionally, adopting a justice-based approach to climate transitions does introduce further complexity and difficulty to the decision-making process. However, it also allows planners to appreciate the opportunities inherent in a climate transition.

Even beyond such benefits, the need to significantly restructure and reshape societies provides an opportunity to make societies better in further ways ‘while we’re at it’. It offers a chance to make other things better, while fixing the problem of dangerous climate change. In this view, transition is an opportunity, not simply a challenge. Taking the unified approach outlined here helps to bring this latter view into focus. Rather than doing the bare minimum along a single dimension; climate mitigation, to avoid a looming threat the nation should take the opportunity to create a substantially more equal society.


Caney, S. 2012 ‘Just emissions’, Philosophy & public affairs, No. 4, Vol. 40, pp.255-300