Climate Justice: A Framework for Addressing the Global Consequences of Climate Change

by Al Reem M. Al Ameri
Department of International Studies, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Abstract: Climate change is one of the most urgent transnational and transgenerational problems of our time. Although it requires global collective action, climate justice remains a “hushed- up” and untold story. This paper approaches climate change from the climate justice framework.


1. Nature of the Problem: The Definition and Background

For decades, people believed that it was questionable that human activities affected the climate. They thought that a “balance of nature”1 governs the environment. Then, several decades into the nineteenth century, the Western world witnessed an industrial revolution that relied heavily on coal in the beginning and later on oil and gas. However, it was not long before scientists began to sense changes in global temperatures. Especially during the 1930s, given the developments and progress in technologies and services related to the environment, meteorology, and climate, observers started to notice steadily rising temperatures and increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere; from that period, climate change has become a reality and a crisis that has begun to loom over the horizon. 

Nevertheless, knowledge of climate change and its impact, including rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, remained limited to scientific circles and environmental and climate scientists until the green movements and environmentalists appeared in the 1970s. They managed to bring the issue into the public sphere and have been able to include climate change on world governments’ agendas. The issue of climate change moving from closed scientific circles to the public sphere  engaged different groups beyond the environmentalists and ecologists. For example, it helps address climate change by examining critically the current economic activities that rely heavily on burning fossil fuels and depleting natural resources like water, air, and land. It led some scholars to formulate theories criticizing our modern and selfish economy, such as “the tragedy of commons”2 by Garrett Hardin. With his work in 1960, Hardin managed to draw public attention to the problem with modern economic style and anticipate future problems and the collapse of our environmental system as a result of our self-centred activities and overuse/overconsumption of the shared natural resources. Since the 1960s, there has been a “public recognition of the global environmental crisis”3 caused by human activity, which, of course, requires human intervention – government intervention and collective action – to tackle the problem that humanity faces and to mitigate its adverse effects to the greatest extent possible. 

In the early 1970s, the first major international conference on the environment was held by the UN in Stockholm, Sweden, marking the first international recognition of climate change. At the end of the decade, “Climate change was recognized as a serious problem by the First World Climate Conference in 1979.”4 Since then, an extensive series of meetings and international conferences on the environment and climate change have been held with broad international participation. Examples of such efforts include the Earth Summit in Rio (1992), during which the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted, Kyoto Protocol (1997), where participants agreed on emissions reductions, to the Paris agreements of 2015, which set out a global framework to deal with climate change in terms of mitigation, adaptation, and finance.

However, these international conferences and agreements on climate change are primarily framed by the liberal economic perspective that dominates global politics today. In other words, the liberal perspective tackles climate change from a material economic perspective and offers economical solutions, such as clean economy, renewable energy, and carbon coupons/carbon trade. Moreover, this liberal view argues that combating climate change needs a collective and equal responsibility for all nations. Therefore, there must be collective action and cooperation in solving climate change, and here lies the problem of this approach. The truth is that climate change is not the responsibility of all countries equally and not all countries are affected by climate change impacts on the same scale. Moreover, not all countries can afford climate change costs, mitigation costs, or costs adapting to climate change, which is known as the “adaptation capacity.” 5 Therefore, it is of paramount importance to approach the problem of climate change differently so that we can understand the reason as to why climate change solutions have so far failed and why the international community – both state and non-state actors – has not yet reached a consensus. This paper approaches climate change from the perspective of justice. It will describe and analyze two main principles of justice: 1) Distributive Justice: distribution of responsibilities and burdens inter-nations and inter-generations. 2) Procedural Justice: the participation of all who cause and are affected by climate change in international decision-making processes.

By examining climate change from an ethical point of view and as an issue of injustice, the paper answers the following questions:

• Can considering climate change as an urgent moral issue help in developing a comprehensive international agreement?  

• Can framing climate change as an ethical problem prevent climate negotiations from stalling or drifting endlessly?  

• How can calls for climate justice help us in addressing phenomena such as climate refugees and environmental racism?

2. The Voice of Morality: The Rise of Environmental Justice Movement

It is quite unfair to discuss climate justice without first shedding light on the environmental justice movement, especially given that some thinkers and academics consider that climate justice has been born out of this movement. For many, environmental justice movements and their affiliated organizations helped in conceptualizing, contextualizing, and shaping climate justice discourse. The issue of climate justice has always been embodied in environmental justice activities from the outset. The movement has led to approaching climate change ethically and morally. Additionally, it paved the way for the organization and establishment of climate justice principles, thereby striving to combat climate change by seeking justice in the first place. 

The environmental justice movement emerged in the mid-’60s, especially in marginalized communities of colour and in poor rural areas. Initially, the movement’s demands were environmental rights equivalent to those in prosperous communities and wealthier classes. It also called for equal protection from natural disasters and hazards, which have become more frequent and increasingly devastating. 

Simultaneous with the growth of civil rights movements in many regions of the world, environmental rights – the right to a healthy environment – were increasingly being viewed as an inherent human right. According to many scholars’ remarks, there was a merger between civil and environmental rights at around that time. This integration helped, to a great extent, shape the concept of environmental justice. 6 Since then, the environmental justice movement has been a pluralistic movement that embraced civil, political, social, and environmental rights. Most of the time, therefore, reflections on environmental justice are necessarily a process of consideration of human rights and dignity of all individuals. That is why “the concern for the relationship between the conditions of everyday life and the natural world, illustrates how a move from environmental justice to a concern with climate change should not be unexpected.” 7  

Perhaps the most remarkable influence of the environmental justice movement is that it has helped link our ecosystem and climate change issue with human rights concerns in all its aspects – national sovereignty, self-determination, social justice, the right to access resources, the right to protection from environmental dangers, and the right to sustainable development for current and future generations. Overall, the diversity of the environmental justice movement is reflected in climate justice approaches. Herein lies the importance of the environmental justice frame for a comprehensive understanding of climate justice development. It is essential to tackle climate change from such a holistic approach – Justice – which offers a way to encompass the full range of concerns.  

Climate (In)justice.  

1. Who should shoulder the burden, make decisions, and take action on climate change?8

So far, the paper has addressed the evolution of discussions on climate change from its beginning, when it was merely viewed as an environmental phenomenon, until a broad consensus has been reached on the fact that climate change is a problem caused by modern human activities. Then, the paper examined the integration and interaction between the environmental justice movement and concept of climate justice and explained how the movement’s grassroots activities and its organizations helped in formulating and enriching the climate justice approach. 

Indeed, there is no single exhaustive definition of climate justice. Instead, there are several definitions and explanations for the concept of “climate justice,” reflecting to a great extent the breadth and inclusiveness of this concept/approach. For example, Robyn Eckersley defines climate justice as the “fair distribution of the benefits and risks of social cooperation and, second, the minimization of those risks concerning an expanded moral community. 9 While the Mary Robinson Foundation, a pioneering organization in promoting the concept and the approach of climate justice, defines Climate Justice as follows: “Climate  Justice states that ‘climate justice links human  rights and development to achieve a human centred approach, safeguarding the rights of the  most vulnerable and sharing the burden and  benefits of climate.10 Moreover, one of the  definitions that profoundly expresses climate justice dimensions is the one mentioned in Organizing Cools the Planet booklet: “Climate  Justice is a vision to dissolve and alleviate the  unequal burdens created by climate change. As a form of environmental justice, climate justice is the fair treatment of all people and freedom from discrimination with the creation of policies and projects that address climate change and the systems that create climate change and perpetuate discrimination.11

Almost all these definitions of Climate Justice mentioned above have been translated from mere abstract words to practical reality. The definitions have also been institutionalized and operationalized mainly by non-governmental organizations, such as Climate Justice Now, Climate Justice Action, CAN International, and Environmental Justice Foundation. These institutions are working to strengthen the climate justice approach and frame the problem of climate change in a more comprehensive framework than other frames that seem unable to accommodate a problem of such magnitude. The ethical and moral stand is the starting point for these entities’ work, by considering that there is a problem of injustice and inequality between the contributors and those affected by climate change, a problem that is undoubtedly transnational and intergenerational. It also works on altering our consumer societies to sustainable societies and by shifting our high-carbon economy to a green economy for the sake of our planet and the human race’s existence.

This paper will be limited to examining the two most important elements/ principles in the Climate Justice Approach:  

• Distributive Justice.  

• Procedural Justice. 

1.1  Distributive Justice

Through the question of distributive justice – which deals primarily with the distribution of damages, benefits, and burdens of climate change between those who cause it and those affected by it – we see that there is inequity in the degree of vulnerability to climate change. The countries most affected by climate change are the least contributing to it, while the countries emitting the most greenhouse gas are the least affected by climate change and its effects. One of the main reasons for variation in the degree of vulnerability is that not all nations can mitigate climate change impacts nor do they have the same capacity to adapt to climate change and cope with its consequences. This undeniable fact makes the climate justice approach more necessary and relevant than ever before.

Table 1. The Climate Risk Index for the 2017, the most affected countries 12

Let us now look at some statistical figures that illustrate the distribution of climate change damages and related natural phenomena, such as droughts, floods, and storms. According to the latest statistics, 13 between 1999 and 2018, Puerto Rico, Myanmar and Haiti were the most affected and vulnerable to related climate risks and impacts; storms, floods, temperature extremes, mass movements, and heat and cold waves, etc. In 2017, “Puerto Rico, Sri Lanka, and Dominica were at the top of the list of the most affected countries, followed by Nepal, Peru, and Vietnam.” 14 As shown in Table 1, “eight of the top ten are developing countries; one is classified as an upper middle-income country (Dominica) and one an advanced economy generating high income (Puerto Rico).” 15

On the other hand, the main contributors to change are industrialized countries with major economies. For instance, data shows that the major emitters of Carbon dioxide – which is the most  significant contributor to human-induced climate change – are the US and China, followed by the  European Union, India, Russia, and Japan. 16 In  addition, “China and the US alone are  responsible for more than 40% of the world’s CO2  emissions, while the top 15 generates 72% of CO2  emissions, and the rest of the world’s 180 countries  produce nearly 28% of the global total; close to the amount China produces on its own.” 17 These statistics  show the extent of the disparities between countries that contribute directly to climate change and responsible for massive environmental devastation through their high-carbon economies and countries with modest economies with very low CO2 emissions. 

Table 2. The World’s top 5 CO2 Emissions-Generating Countries 18 (metric tons of carbon di oxide equivalent)

This data raises fundamental questions which should guide our thinking as we address climate justice problems such as: Who should bear the brunt of climate change costs today? How should the costs of climate change mitigation and adaptation be distributed between states? There are three mains known principles 19 to tackle these questions: 

1. Polluter Pays Principle: 

This principle states the following: Whoever has caused and brought about climate change ought to bear the burden of paying the costs and mitigating its impacts. 

2. Ability to Pay Principle: 

This principle points out that all should bear the burden, but in proportion to their ability to pay, since climate change is a global problem and each the country is affected, albeit to varying degrees. 

3. Beneficiary Pays Principle: 

This principle shifts the burden of climate change onto countries that benefit from using fossil fuels and relying on carbon-economies. Therefore, the more a country emits CO2 in the atmosphere, the more costs it must pay, the more burden it must bear. These principles can be applied separately or in combination. However, some will argue that only one of these principles must be followed to achieve a just distribution of climate change’s burdens. However, what matters here is that using the climate justice approach, we can take into consideration different principles and methods to achieve the desired equality and justice.

1.2 Intergenerational Justice

Another dimension of distributive Justice is intergenerational Justice. It is well known that climate change is a transcending crisis, as it moves beyond the geographical boundaries among nations and also straddles temporal boundaries across generations. Therefore, one of the main pressing issues in combatting climate change is how to deal with the trans-generational character of climate change. There are two issues we must consider in this regard. First, the burden on the current generation results from the activities and greenhouse gas emissions of previous generations. Second, future generations are expected to confront the severe effects of climate change and depend on our actions today.20  

It is through a climate justice approach that we are able to ask to what extent members of one generation can inherit moral obligations from the actions of previous generations? In addition, what are the obligations and duties that the current generation owe to succeeding generations?21  

In fact, there are no simple one-size-fits-all answers.  What is crucial in this regard is to guarantee human rights and intergenerational justice. Human rights treaties and climate change agreements set out obligations and duties to secure current and future generations’ rights. For instance, Article III of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) stipulates as follows: “parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, based on equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.”22 In addition, the UN considers protecting the climate as a right of future generations, and this was asserted in the draft resolution “Protection of Global Climate for Present and Future Generations” that was submitted in the General Assembly in 2008.23  

The protection and assurance of human rights, including environmental rights, can be done by acknowledging the complexity of climate change and by critically assessing the proposed solutions. It can also be done by providing normative/ethical guidelines for sustainable resource management, transforming sustainable development, and moving to a green low-carbon economy. Moreover, it can be accomplished by global collective action that includes everyone and ensures everyone’s participation. This last point brings us to the second side/aspect of Justice, which is Procedural Justice through which distributive Justice can be achieved.

1.3 Procedural Justice

Procedural justice is often overlooked when addressing climate change. Indeed, there is a plethora of literature, research, and discussions on the distributive justice of burdens and climate change costs, whether mitigation or adaptation cost, where distributive justice can only be achieved through just procedures and fair processes. In the view of many scholars,24 a defect in procedural justice will affect the outcomes of any agreement on environmental and climate change, foremost among which is the endeavour to achieve climate justice. Herein lies the critical importance of considering both principles of justice, the procedures/procedural principle and then the distribution principle. Procedural Justice is mainly concerned with questions relating to actions, decision making processes, and parties involved. Therefore, we can raise some questions about which parties are entitled to participate in the decision-making processes or take part in drafting and designing climate treaties and agreements. Since climate change is a transnational global problem and All are Affected,25 it requires collective action, multilateral agreements, and international coordination to combat it. However, there are several principles/criteria to define who should participate in the decision-making processes.  

This paper examines a guiding principle of procedural  justice for participation in a climate change regime and to achieve climate justice, namely All Affected  Principle (AAP), which states “that a decision-making  process needs to offer some form of participation to those who are affected by the  outcome of the decisions that are made.”26 This concerns the fairness  of the processes by which substantive outcomes are agreed and relates to the level of participation and recognition of all the actors involved in decision making processes.”27 Although many scholars have criticized this principle for being vague and a simple solution to a complex problem, the next section will examine three justifications28 for considering this principle as a suitable way to achieve just participation and representation in climate change agreements: 

1. Intuitively Attractive Principle

The AAP principle provides an intuitive answer to who should participate in the decision-making process in a climate change agreement. Accordingly, all actors affected by an agreement’s outcome are entitled to participate or be represented in the agreement drafting process; any party affected by a decision must consider its interests while making the decision.  

2. The Epistemic Value of the All-Affected Principle: 

This justification, which is philosophical to some extent, assumes that the parties whose interests are affected by a decision are the best decision makers or the most suitable parties to make the right agreement/decision. As a result of all affected parties’ involvement in the decision-making process, the outcomes are expected to be more effective and equitable. 

3. Moral Justifications for the All-Affected Principle: 

The last justification for considering the AAP as one of the most suitable principles for achieving procedural justice in the climate change regime is that the AAP is upholding ethical values, which are:  

I. Moral Standing: Those who are affected by a decision should have an opportunity to influence a decision’s outcome. Otherwise, the international community will not achieve a state of justice and fairness regarding climate change agreements and procedures.  

II. Autonomy and Political Equality: The involvement of affected parties in the decision-making process allows them to achieve a degree of autonomy and self-determination. In contrast, some affected parties’ exclusion from a decision making progress will deprive them from realizing these values. 

All affected parties’ participation in the decision-making process will increase the effectiveness and compliance with climate change agreements. The closed-door policy and exclusion of a large segment of the international community are grave concerns that could obstruct and undermine the endeavour to reach a global consensus and achieve climate justice. 

Absence of Environmental Global Governance   

This last part will briefly highlight the harm caused by the lack of global governance in efforts to achieve climate justice. A global issue as climate change transcends arbitrary borders among countries and it becomes vital to have a global entity responsible for organizing collective efforts of states to ensure commitment and respect/acceptance of the environmental agreements policies. Although there are various environmental organizations at international and local levels and many conferences and summits on climate change, we still lack political will and commitment from states. The dilemma always remains the doctrine of state sovereignty, as no international organization can compel any country to act. Nonetheless, these international efforts are symptoms in developing global environmental governance to combat climate change.  Besides the need for global governance to ensure global climate justice, there are some phenomena related to climate injustice, and it cannot be addressed without supra international organization. 

One of these pressing issues, for instance, is climate refugees, the human cost of climate change. It is considered a relatively recent phenomenon, and there is no, as yet an official universal agreement or consensus on its definition. An increasing number of refugees migrate and flee their homes due to natural disasters caused by climate change. In most cases, it is forced migration, particularly from the impoverished Southern countries, affected by climate change severally, to migrate internally to safer places or internationally to the North – Europe or North America. Add to that some manifestations of environmental racism,29 such as industrial countries’ waste that ends up in Africa, causing toxic air and greenhouse gas emissions, ignoring the effects of the environmental impacts and the human health in these countries. In addition, factories are being transferred to the third world, where environmental laws are less strict or virtually non-existent in some countries. It seems as if the third world or Africa is the land that has no rights or as if it is terra sacer.30  

In this regard, these present issues and perhaps many other issues in the future will significantly drive towards a just and comprehensive approach to climate change. Besides developing global international governance, which will serve as a guarantor in an international environmental regime, Procedural Justice allows affected minorities to participate and be represented in the decision-making process that affects their future and rescues their homelands. This will ensure an equitable distribution of the costs of climate change, considering each nation’s abilities and capabilities. 


Climate change is a complicated and multifaceted problem that touches all aspects of human life: the social, economic, political, and environmental. It is a problem that exceeds all traditional frameworks, meaning that any limited and one-dimensional approach to the problem will not be sufficient and may not lead to any desired results. The climate justice approach, which has evolved and crystallized over several decades of human effort and activities, is the most comprehensive and holistic approach that does not exclude any aspect of life, does not exclude any part of the earth, does not marginalize any human group, and most essentially stems from an ethical and moral position. Also, through distributive and procedural justice, global climate justice can be achieved. While most of the focus has been on distributive justice, without proper consideration for procedural justice, the goal of achieving climate justice will be incomplete.


  1. Spencer R. Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
  2. Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons” Science 162(3859) (1968): 1243-1248. 
  3.  Stephen McGlinchey, Rosie Walters, and Christian Scheinpflug, International Relations Theory (Bristol, England: E-International Relations Publishing, 2017).
  4.  United Nations, UN Environment Programme  (UNEP), Climate change Information Sheet, (2001).  available at
  5. Ellina Levina & Dennis Tirpak. (2006). Adaptation to Climate Change. Key Terms. Paris.
  6.  Ibid.
  7.  David Schlosberg & Lisette Collins. (2014). From Environmental to Climate Justice: Climate Change and the Discourse of Environmental Justice. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 5, no. 3 (2014): 359-374.
  8.  Mathias Risse, (2008). Who Should Shoulder the Burden? Global Climate Change and Common Ownership of the Earth, HKS Working Paper No. RWP08-075,
  9.  Robyn Eckersley, The Green State: Rethinking Democracy and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004)
  10.  The Geography of Climate Justice An Introductory Resource. Mary Robinson Foundation (Ireland), 2011, 
  11.  Hilary Moore and Joshua Kahn Russell, Organizing Cools the Planet: Tools and Reflections on Navigating the Climate Crisis (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011)
  12.  Ibid. 
  13.  David Eckstein, Vera Künzel, Laura Schäfer, Global Climate Risk Index 2018. Germanwatch, 2017, 
  14.  Ibid.
  15.  Ibid.
  16.  Pollution by Country Population. (2019). Retrieved  2020-01-10, from country/
  17.  Sean Fleming Chart of the day: These countries create most of the world’s CO2 emissions. [online] World Economic Forum. Available at: theday-these-countries-create-most-of-the-world-s-co2- emissions/ [Accessed 7 Jan. 2020].
  18.  Ibid. 
  19. Simon Caney, “Distributive Justice and Climate Change” in The Oxford Handbook of Distributive Justice, ed. Serena Olsaretti (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018), 664-688.
  20.  Ibid.
  21. Fabian Schuppert, “Climate Change Mitigation and Intergenerational Justice,” Environmental Politics, 20, no. 3 (2011): 303-321.
  22.  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Kyoto Protocol, Kyoto, 19.
  23. UN General Assembly, Protection of global climate for present and future generations of mankind: resolution / adopted by the General Assembly, 22 December 1989, A/RES/44/207, available at:
  24.  David Schlosberg and Lisette Collins, “From Environmental to Climate Justice: Climate Change and the Discourse of Environmental Justice,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5, no. 3 (2014): 359- 374.
  25.  Luke Tomlinson, Procedural Justice and Climate Change: Defining Who Should be Included in the Decision-making Processes of a Climate Change Agreement. Unpublished paper (2011). 936f459f-8b31-4c646b8d1511.pdf 
  26.  Ibid.
  27.  Ibid.
  28.  Ibid.
  29.  Environmental racism refers to the process and outcome of racial discrimination in the enactment and enforcement of environmental laws, rules, and regulations and in targeting minority communities for the siting of polluting industries.
  30.  The Sacer term in Latin means “the one who may not be sacrificed, yet may be murdered with impunity, a life that is worth neither saving nor killing”. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben used the term in his book Homo Sacer/The Sacred Man, and here I borrowed it and used it to describe the lands of the Third World as Terra Sacer/The sacred land.

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