Climate justice and Australia’s climate priorities
19 Apr 2016|

The real climate debate isn’t around whether anthropocentric climate change is happening, but the nature, speed and scale of action we need to take in response.  ‘Climate justice’ situates how we should respond to climate change as a moral, ethical and political matter requiring a just response, rather than just a practical or physical problem to be solved.  As with every great public dilemma, a variety of preferences exist in relation to what action should be taken, depending on differences in understandings of how the world works and normative preferences as to what constitutes the good society. Various forms of ‘action on climate change’ could promote a widely divergent array of social outcomes—quite apart from the question of emissions reduction.

One of the key ideological divides might be described as that which exists between ‘the camp of whatever’ and ‘the camp of justice’. Put broadly, the ‘camp of whatever’ advocates the view that the threat of climate change is so great and so urgent, that ends justify means—what matters is that sufficient solutions are found quickly and effectively enough to avert global environmental and economic catastrophe.

For example, as Robyn Eckersley, Professor of Political Science at the University of Melbourne, has noted, ‘the very prospect of civilisational collapse has been invoked to justify the suspension or truncation of democracy to ensure the protection of planetary boundaries through authoritarianism or technocratic planetary management via geoengineering techniques such as solar radiation management.’ The ‘camp of whatever’ may, for example, be prepared to entertain or tolerate the radical commoditisation of nature, replacement of existing biomes with monocultures, mass displacement of people, and further concentration of corporate power.

The ‘camp of justice’ is also preoccupied with the urgent pursuit of emissions reductions to limit global warming, but with the added qualification that action should be founded on an ethic of care for people and the natural world, with a fair and equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens. It is inflected through an appreciation of the historical origins and context of the present crisis, and a deep awareness that neither culpability nor consequences are equally shared. Nor are all groups affected equally—in terms of gender, for example the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) work on Gender and Climate Change found that women are more vulnerable than men to climate change impacts. Climate justice offers a progressive and ethically sound framework for determining priorities in responses to climate change. Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and one of the world’s most prominent proponents of climate justice, describes this way of thinking as linking:

‘human rights and development to achieve a human-centred approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts equitably and fairly.’

Robinson points out that, far from being a fringe proposition, the path of climate justice is inherent in the outcome of COP 21 in Paris, which proposed the adoption of the following protocol by:

‘Emphasizing with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020.’

Climate justice is also ‘nature centric’, to the extent that it involves a rejection of false ‘solutions’ that would come at the expense of preserving biodiversity and ecosystems.

Climate justice is neither anti-technology nor atavistic. Indeed it’s future oriented, appreciating that the threat of rising emissions offers the great opportunity for profound advance in human society through, for example, renewable energy technologies and a reprioritising of low-carbon high social value activities like care.

Australia must rapidly reduce carbon emissions in line with the science to a zero carbon economy, and must phase out all fossil fuel extraction. On those foundations and in no particular order, here are seven climate justice priorities that should condition the nature of climate action taken by Australia:

  1. A particular focus on protecting the rights and interests of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander peoples who are uniquely vulnerable to the affects of climate change.
  2. Taking seriously the special obligation that Australia owes to Pacific Island nations, including the necessity of enabling migration with dignity for communities displaced by rising sea levels and other climate impacts. More broadly, climate justice entails more humane and effective policies towards asylum seekers.
  3. Meeting relevant international aid obligations. As a rich developed nation, Australia should raise its foreign aid contribution to the Millennium Development target of 0.7 percent of national GDP and additional commitments should be made to provide climate finance to developing nations.
  4. Doing what is possible to mitigate impacts on the natural world by reducing other stresses and impacts, and creating buffers. In the oceans, for example, ending overfishing and destructive fishing techniques and creating large-scale no-take marine sanctuaries are crucial to rebuilding resilience.
  5. Climate change is the ‘ultimate threat multiplier’. In this context it’s essential to have robust public services and amenities to support citizens to withstand such impacts. This includes measures to mitigate risks to those particularly vulnerable to climate impacts, including the elderly, children, those with preexisting health conditions and rural and regional communities.
  6. Recognising that some impact on the economy is inevitable in phasing out fossil fuels, Australia should explore the path of planned ‘just transitions’ to decent new jobs for workers and soft landings for communities impacted upon by decarbonisation.  Within this transition, burdens should fall most heavily on the big polluters, particularly Australia’s fossil fuel mining industry. The Climate Council recently reported, for example, that if all of Australia’s coal resources were burned, it would consume two-thirds of the global carbon budget (based on a 75% chance to meet the 2°C warming limit).
  7. Preferring solutions that democratise the energy system, for example through household and community owned power generation.

Transformation is inevitable; disruption is to be expected and change is the new normal, but we can still decide how we are going to treat each other in a shifting world. A climate justice approach offers the hope that, as Naomi Klein says, ‘while things are already getting hotter, they don’t have to get meaner.’