Climate justice means radically rethinking climate policies

Applying concepts of human rights to the climate debate could lead policy-makers to adopt very different approaches, says Julian Dobson.

Do we really know whether climate change and the policy responses to it impact unfairly on those who are already worst off, and what does that mean in practice?

“If you’re affected by climate change, you don’t need further evidence. But if you’re a politician or business leader, sometimes you do,” said Sean McCabe of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, speaking at the second of three ‘dialogues’ on climate justice.

The event, hosted by Glasgow Caledonian University and JRF with the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, focused on the science and evidence for climate justice, looking specifically at the interface between discourse on human rights and social justice and the burgeoning studies of climate change.

The climate justice approach fundamentally shifts the focus of policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change. It asks who bears the burdens of a changing climate and the costs of responding to it, and questions whether the load is fairly distributed.

Tahseen Jafry, Director of Glasgow Caledonian University’s Centre for Climate Justice, said this is an approach that puts people at the heart of development discourse. It forces decision-makers to identify the poorest people in society, agree what fundamental rights they should have, understand why and how they are vulnerable, and tailor their actions accordingly.

This is a radical change from existing policy approaches, which focus mainly on risk with an implied assumption that all groups are equally vulnerable. As Chris Shaw of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute observed: “Policy audiences are most interested in risk and have least to say about rights.”

This is why the quest for evidence to support a climate justice approach is urgent.

“Tangible, hard evidence is absolutely critical – what do the risks look like and what can we do about it?” asked Tahseen Jafry. The event heard from academics who have been at the forefront of gathering this evidence.

The Centre for Climate Justice has conducted a comprehensive trawl of academic articles published over the course of ten years to articulate key themes and areas of debate. From around 8,500 separate papers its researchers found 1,100 that were particularly relevant, and from these they identified 16 categories of discussion.

The work at Glasgow Caledonian University dovetails with two other studies presented at the event. One, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, is an evidence review undertaken by the Centre for Sustainable Energy in partnership with the universities of Oxford and Manchester.

A further study, the Environmental Change Institute’s Climate Crunch project, investigates relationships between rights and responsibilities and asks whether climate change policies are simply displacing risks from certain groups of people to others.

The evidence presented will be discussed in a fuller report of the event to be published on the JRF website shortly.

The third dialogue will be held in London on 9 October.