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Why should we talk about climate justice?

The notion of climate justice brings to the table the unequal historical and present responsibilities of countries, companies, and individuals regarding the climate crisis.

Climate change is an urgent challenge today, impacting countries in the Global South the most. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the communities most affected are those that have historically contributed the least to this phenomenon. Between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people in the Global South are the most vulnerable to climate change worldwide. Latin America, responsible for only 8% of greenhouse gas emissions, is highly vulnerable to disasters and phenomena such as food insecurity and forced population displacement caused by climate change in combination with other factors. Furthermore, the region has limited means to adapt to the effects of climate change. Therefore, to speak of climate change implies recognizing that we are facing not only an environmental problem, but also a political and ethical one, with differentiated effects and responsibilities. In this context, climate justice places equity and human rights at the center, seeking to address these issues in an interconnected manner, and considering diverse forms of inequality.

The notion of climate justice brings to the table the unequal historical and present responsibilities of countries, companies, and individuals regarding the climate crisis. Such responsibilities can be measured through the high emissions of Global North countries and large corporate polluters, as well as through the disproportionate impacts of the wealthy on the climate crisis. They have a greater impact through their lifestyles, investments and political actions that often deny the seriousness of the climate crisis, as well as blocking just transition processes and silencing the voices of those who defend the environment and the need to replace fossil fuels and the current economic model.

According to OXFAM’s “Inequality Inc.” Global Report, corporate power is driving climate collapse, exacerbating multiple inequalities and increasing the suffering of millions of people. Since 2020 the world’s five richest men have more than doubled their fortunes to US$869 billion by 2023, while the wealth of 5 billion people globally has shrunk.

The great responsibility of billionaires

As a result, the richest 1% of the world’s population generates as much carbon emissions as the poorest two-thirds of humanity. Moreover, although only slightly more than one in five people live in countries of the Global North, they account for 69% of private wealth and almost three quarters of the world’s wealth. Multinational corporations are the other major beneficiaries of this outrageous accumulation process, accelerated after the pandemic, as the profits of the largest companies experienced an 89% increase between 2021 and 2022.

Beyond exposing historical and present socioeconomic inequalities between countries and social classes, climate justice is heir to studies on political ecology and struggles for environmental justice that have historically denounced environmental racism and the disproportionate effects of environmental degradation on black, peripheral, indigenous and peasant populations. By the same token, the notion of climate justice is nourished by the demands of the feminist movement that have exposed the major effects of the environmental and climate crisis on women. Thus, the notion of climate justice accounts for structural inequalities between regions, but also within the same country and how specific populations such as indigenous people, blacks, women, or people with disabilities are more likely to suffer the adverse effects of climate change.

On the other hand, climate justice also analyzes the intergenerational inequalities that mean that today’s children and youth, despite not having contributed significantly to the climate crisis, suffer its impacts more severely as they grow up and see their right to a sustainable future undermined. In fact, a 2021 study in the journal Science found that children born in 2020 will experience between two and seven times more extreme weather events, especially heat waves, compared to people born in 1960.

The concept of climate justice

At the international level, the concept of climate justice is a derivation of the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities(CBDR), which is a key standard of global climate policy. The principle was established in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which recognizes that all states have a responsibility to protect the climate as a common good of humankind and to address the challenges posed by climate change. This agreement advocates different levels of environmental protection and commitments on the part of industrialized and developing countries. The CBDR was one of the achievements of the cooperation and articulation of developing countries during the UN Conference on Environment and Development, better known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The principle recognizes that developed and developing countries have historically contributed unequally to the climate crisis: the higher levels of industrialization of the former account, for example, for their higher greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, developed countries have greater financial and technological capacity, and can address climate impacts and challenges differentially. They can reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a greater extent and finance the losses and damages that climate change is generating in the most vulnerable countries, to mention just two examples.

At the COP-28 Conference of the Parties in Dubai in 2023, a historic decision was reached to approve a Climate Loss and Damage Fund for vulnerable countries. The Fund received contributions of approximately US$400 million, but researchers and organizations active in the fight against climate change stress that the devastating and unprecedented impacts caused by global warming demand greater resources and comprehensive commitments.

The Climate Damage and Loss Fund for Developing Countries was defined by UN Secretary António Guterres as “an essential tool to achieve climate justice“. However, to achieve real climate justice, much more needs to be done. According to OXFAM’s “Climate Equality: A planet for the 99%” report, the crises (climate and inequality) are interconnected, inextricably linked, and feedback on each other.

Therefore, the best antidote to end climate collapse and poverty is to promote equality in all spheres. Unless we move away from fossil fuels, tackle inequality and put people’s rights at the heart of climate decisions, it will be impossible to build a truly just transition to a sustainable future.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.


Political scientist. Professor of International Relations at Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRRJ) and in the Postgraduate Program in Political Science at UNIRIO. PhD in Political Science from the Complutense University of Madrid.


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