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The Co-optation of “Climate Justice”

September 16, 2022

A decade and a half ago, “climate justice” was presented as a radical alternative to the prevailing narrative about climate change which conceived of the problem as purely an environmental crisis, with relatively simple technical solutions (i.e. faster adoption of renewable energy sources). Activists, especially from the Global South, highlighted the fact that the climate crisis is a symptom of a deeper crisis rooted in extractivism and neoliberal capitalism. 

As such, climate is not only an environmental issue, but one that is rooted in social issues — economic inequality, racial injustice, legacies of colonialism, and more. And the solutions to the problem are correspondingly broader. “System change, not climate change” was the clarion call of climate justice organizations and movements.

Now, the term “climate justice” is in vogue — with politicians, funders, pundits, NGOs, and more. Often, people use “climate justice” as shorthand for paying attention to frontline communities, and supporting those communities with resources to adapt to climate impacts. 

This is not a bad thing! But it’s a much more limited understanding of the term than its original usage. If climate justice is only about support for frontline communities without an analysis of the underlying systems and structures that have led to those communities’ vulnerabilities, it’s not climate justice. It’s climate charity.

Charity will not get us out of the climate crisis or address the deep inequalities underpinning the crisis. The next time you hear a politician or an NGO leader speaking about “climate justice,” ask yourself if they are really talking about charity, or if they’re truly talking about the systemic changes we need.