At Saturday’s mass gathering in Paris marking the end of the United Nations climate negotiations, there were tens of thousands of people on the streets. One of them, a Swedish activist named Svetlana Gross, held a sign that said simply “climate justice.” The phrase was the one most commonly used at the COP21 summit, which culminated in a historic agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Gross explained to me that her sign meant that “we need to acknowledge that everyone on this planet has the right to a decent living standard within the limits of the environment, which means that particularly in Western Europe we are overconsuming. Our lifestyles assume that other people don’t have the right to [decent living standards]. And I don’t think that’s right.”
But the “right to a decent living standard within the limits of the environment” was not at center stage in the negotiations. Although poor and developing nations won the right to be held to different standards in their abilities to cut emissions, the closest the agreement comes to climate justice is, in the words of the document, “emphasizing ... sustainable development and the eradication of poverty.” The Paris accord goes as far as “recognizing” the importance of “safeguarding food security and ending hunger,” and “acknowledging ... human rights, the right to health, the rights of indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities ... gender equality, empowerment of women,” etc. Words like “recognize,” “emphasize” and “acknowledge” are legally meaningless.
A few hours after I spoke with Gross, Dipti Bhatnagar, international climate justice and energy coordinator for Friends of the Earth, addressed a massive crowd from a makeshift stage in front of the Eiffel Tower, saying, “We are demanding climate justice because it’s not just the climate we have to deal with, but many other crises that are linked to it.” She listed the myriad issues: “we have a climate crisis, we have an energy crisis, we have a crisis of inequality, we have a racial crisis.”
Meanwhile, in Le Bourget, the site of the negotiations, country representatives at COP21 were narrowly fixated on the climate crisis, divorced from its links with other problems. Even on climate crisis alone the summit yielded an agreement that will not sufficiently protect the planet from warming.
But on the streets, our current environmental catastrophe was seen as a symptom of a greater set of ills. Bhatnagar continued her speech, saying, “So climate justice is about saying, ‘We need to stop climate change, but we cannot let stopping climate change create other problems. We need to fight for all the issues at the same time.’ ”
This view is a critical one that has been brought to the table over the course of several years primarily by marginalized people from the global south, as well as indigenous communities worldwide, and that eventually percolated into the consciousness of most of the civil society representatives in Paris. Climate justice is essentially what poor communities of color in the United States have been calling for under the term “environmental justice.”
Climate change is finally being acknowledged as a dire reality by wealthy and corporate elites who have thus far thrived on being able to take advantage of poor workers and weak regulations, using the labor of marginalized communities to enhance the lifestyles of rich populations while enriching themselves, and exploiting the earth’s natural resources every chance they got. Seeing the writing on the wall, many companies like Shell Oil have taken a leading role in “advising” governments on how to transition to a greener economy. Corporate groups are worried about how climate change presents “risks to our investments” and concerned that “more radical policy measures will be required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
The Paris accord does indeed set emissions reductions goals (that are not ambitious enough). But it leaves out how countries can implement those goals. In the lead-up to COP21, fossil fuel companies, preparing for the inevitable, threw their weight behind a carbon tax as a mechanism to reduce climate change, and in the end the Paris accord mentioned “carbon pricing” as one way to achieve emissions cuts. But without mechanisms to reduce emissions that ensure climate justice, the agreement may be left to so-called market forces like carbon pricing. And market forces have no respect for human rights. Indeed they are predicated on putting a price on human life and dignity.
There are some who understand climate change to be so urgent that the demands for justice are seen as tangential to the fate of our species. But history has shown us that when we create hierarchies of causes, those who are the most vulnerable are always asked to wait for justice, to wait for a day that may never come. Climate change has many victims right now, and poor people of color are unsurprisingly paying the highest price. Just this week alone, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced in the Philippines by Typhoon Melor. The recent record-breaking rains and subsequent flooding in Chennai, India, killed hundreds of people and left millions without basic services. Such natural disasters will continue to strike with increasing ferocity and will cause the most damage to the weakest among us.
If market forces are to mitigate climate change, the lives of millions of poor people simply become part of an equation. The inequality that is exacerbated by global capitalism will remain intact, sacrificing the poor to preserve the rich. And that is why climate justice has to be the framework within which warming is curbed.
Now that nations have agreed on an inadequate protocol to reduce warming, the task of centering justice falls to ordinary people and their communities. Grass-roots activists can hold local municipalities accountable, even if national governments remain unresponsive. As tens of thousands of people gathered in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower last Saturday, Jean Le Goff, a Paris-based activist, surveyed the scene before us and told me, “I think this is the beginning of a big climate movement.” For government and corporate elites, the Paris accord was the end of an era of global negotiations. For climate justice activists, this is only the beginning.