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Why Climate Change is an Environmental Justice Issue

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    14th Apr, 2021
Why Climate Change is an Environmental Justice Issue


The responses towards the COVID-19 pandemic have helped us to ponder and address the situation from a vulnerability and justice point of view. Responses to boundaryless issues like climate change and pandemics must have ‘justice’ at their focal point because the poor and powerless suffer more than the privileged and entitled.

 “The environment is man's first right. Without a safe environment, man cannot exist to claim other rights, be they political, social, or economic”.... (Ken Saro-Wiwa)

  • Humans need food, clean water, education, income, and good health. The cause of the inability to meet these basic needs is poverty. Poverty, therefore, is a threat to the sustainability of human life.

    The Brundtland Report (1987) on numerous occasions claims causal type linkages between poverty, inequality, and environmental degradations. It does attempt, however inadequately, to bring a wider focus on these issues which are often absent from the discourse of mainstream environmentalism and the numerous conservation movements.
  • Humans have rights to food, water, education, and health, among others. The lack or absence of any of these needs is capable of creating negative chain reactions.
  • Lack of food for example weakens the immune system; a weakened immune system generates malnutrition; malnutrition opens the door for attack by diseases and sicknesses. It’s a vicious cycle that goes on unless it is dealt with externally.
    Example: Africa is no doubt, more than any other continent, endowed with natural resources: vast cultivatable land, rivers, and minerals, among others. It is no longer information that the most naturally endowed continent, Africa, is also home to conspicuous poverty, unimaginable squalor, and unprecedented environmental degradation.


What is environmental justice?

Environmental justice can be defined as fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

Following are a few examples of what people refer to as the example of environmental justice.

  • Poor air quality due to a nearby oil drill site.
  • Poisoned drinking water from a chemical plant in the area.
  • Low-income housing located in a floodplain.

Its minority communities, the poor, and people on the margins of society disproportionately exposed to these threats results in distancing from a safe and healthy life. “Environmental racism” is a term that emerged from environmental justice.

What does environmental justice look like?

  • One way to look at this question is in reverse: that is, “what does the absence of environmental justice look like?”
  • The poorest people in urban India live in a foul environment (contaminated). Research from across the world shows that the poor stand greater risks of several cancers. Also, their chances of survival are extremely low as compared to those who come from the higher social strata. It can be considered as a case of environmental injustice.

Why do we need to study environmental justice?

  • To examine how and why inequalities arise and are maintained around the world.
  • To understand the mechanisms that give rise to class, gender, racial, and other types of disparities.
  • To investigate the causes and consequences of inequitable distributions of environmental benefits and hazards.
  • To develop a broad understanding of the historical and contemporary factors that shape environmental policymaking and the emergence of environmental justice movements across the globe.

What kind of justice we are looking for?

  • Aristotle had distinguished three types of justice, namely, distributive justice, corrective justice and commutative justice (i.e., the justice of equivalence in the exchange of different kinds of goods).
  • The distributive notion of justice talks about how goods, resources, or burdens should be distributed in a society, whereas corrective justice is about compensation and punishment.
  • “Environmental justice” includes both although it focuses more on the distributive aspect of justice. So, if some has caused harm to another’s natural habitat or resources then the corrective theory of justice applies. However, environmental justice is primarily a distributive justice.

    The environment needs to be seen as a resource. And how it should be distributed not just among the present but also among the future generations necessitates the principle of distributive justice. However, unlike other resources ‘environment cannot physically transfer from one community to the other community and therefore the distribution of the benefits and costs of the environment requires the principle of distribution.

The environment needs to be seen as a resource. And how it should be distributed not just among the present but also among the future generations necessitates the principle of distributive justice. However, unlike other resources ‘environment cannot physically transfer from one community to the other community and therefore the distribution of the benefits and costs of the environment requires the principle of distribution.

  • There is “no universal consensus” on the “principle of distribution” and it is still being discussed and debated in climate negotiations locally, nationally, or globally.
  • The argument for environmental justice is largely coming from developing and least developed countries which argue that rich countries are responsible for many of the environmental challenges, as in the course of their development they emitted disproportionate amount of toxic gases and waste and they continue to extract more than their fair share of earth’s resources. For example, on a per capita basis, Americans emit five times as much carbon dioxide as Chinese and ten times as much as Indians.
  • United Nations framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) set the goal as a stabilizing ‘greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’.It operates on the principle of ‘common, but differentiated responsibilities.’There are many negotiations still going on to meet this target.

What is global warming and climate change?

  • Climate change includes both global warming resulting from the human emissions of greenhouse gases and the shifts in weather patterns of the earth.
  • Global warming is the long-term heating of Earth’s climate system observed since the pre-industrial period (between 1850 and 1900) due to human activities, primarily fossil fuel burning, which increased the concentration of greenhouse gas levels.
  • The term is synonymously used with the term climate change, though the latter refers to both human and naturally produced warming and the effects it has on our planet.

    While developed nations have historically emitted far more greenhouse gases than developing nations, the effects of global climate change are predicted to be felt most severely by poor, developing nations. Two primary reasons developing countries will be disproportionately affected by climate change.
    1. First, developing nations may simply be exposed to more damaging changes in climate as a result of their location on the globe.
    2. Second, their relative lack of infrastructure, technology, and governance institutions may make it more difficult for developing countries to adapt to changes in climate.

    Climate impacts can exacerbate inequitable social conditions.

    • Low-income communities, people of color, indigenous people, people with disabilities, older or very young people, women are potentially susceptible to risks posed by climate impacts.
    • Examples of some affected communities: Seniors, people with disabilities, and people with chronic illnesses may have a harder time living through periods of severe heat, or being able to quickly and safely evacuate from major storms or fire.
    • Low-income group people may live in subsidized housing, which too often is located in a flood plain. Economically challenged people may also be hard-pressed to afford flood or fire insurance, rebuild homes, or pay steep medical bills after catastrophe strikes.
    • Language barriers can make it difficult for immigrant communities to get early information about incoming storms or weather disasters or wildfires, or to communicate effectively with first responders during an evacuation order.

    What is the relationship between climate change and environmental justice?

    • Impacts of climate change may disproportionately affect those who are socially or economically disadvantaged, presenting environmental justice
    • Studies have shown relationships between higher temperatures and negative health outcomes. For example, higher temperatures have been associated with increased occurrence of death and illness, including hospital visits, emergency room visits, and birth defects. The disproportionate impacts of climate change on these communities, including:
    • Exposure to urban heat
    • Vulnerability to wildfires
    • Farm-worker exposure to extreme heat

    Why Environmental justice has the potential to reduce inequalities?

    • Inequality has been a persistent issue in the climate change discussion.
    • It has been part of the discussion on the “climate justice” issue, which in turn is a particular case of the “environmental justice”
    • ‘Climate change and social inequality are two main challenges faced by the international community, both on a global and a local level.
    • Even though the wealthiest countries and high-income households carry more responsibility for climate change, the poor are the most severely impacted by its effects.

    Thus, climate justice is the key in reducing growing inequalities.

    Unequal Impact of Climate Change and the Role of Key Global Agreements

    • Although anthropogenic climate change is a global phenomenon, its impacts are neither equally distributed over developing and developed countries nor between the rich and the poor.
    • Those developing countries and poor communities that will be most heavily affected by the impacts of climate change have contributed the least (in terms of greenhouse gas emissions) to the problem.

    What are the problems with environmental injustice in India?

    • Lack of involvement and participation: Lack of participation of common people in government’s decision-making processes for sitting industrial projects.
    • Absence of local communities: Local communities are absent from the processes that oversee environmental assessments and the management of ecological impacts.

    Lost space for locals:

    • Increasingly in India projects are being located on the coasts where there are transport advantages and land and water are more readily available.
    • Fishing and coastal communities are in contesting with the large multinationals for the spaces where they have their homes and work hard for their living.
    • Inefficient law enforcement: The problem is compounded by poor enforcement of environmental law. India has a very poor record of compliance with environmental regulations and violations have real and profound effects on the lives of people.

    How does environmental justice relate to climate change?

    • The environmental destruction, including those that accompany warming global temperatures, impacts poor and marginalized communities often first and more acutely."Ecology and social justice are intrinsically united."
    • The chances are high to find low-income living in floodplains, which are vulnerable to sea-level rise, or near fossil-fuel-burning power plants or areas with less reliable water supplies.
    • "Just transition” is another term related to environmental justice and climate change. It's the principle that as the world phases out fossil fuels, it doesn't leave behind those communities economically dependent on the industry, and that such a transition doesn't contribute to socio-economic inequality.
    • Climate change also brings out the idea of “intergenerational justice”. It suggests that future generations are among those disproportionately impacted by the consequences of a warming planet driven by the decisions and actions of their previous generations.

    What is the history of Environmental Justice in India?

    Environmental justice is a relatively new term in India. However, Indian environmentalism has, for the most part, been about social justice.
    • The history of India’s environmental justice movements can be traced back to British rules, such as the Bengal peasant revolt of 1859-63 against indigo plantations, which carried ecological undertones.
    • Gandhi’s freedom movement also advocated a model of self-sufficiency and opposing industrialization.
    • After independence, there was a heavy boost to large infrastructure for nation-building such as multi-purpose dam projects and steel plants. This impetus on rapid industrialization ushered in a wave of environmental justice movements that fought for the preservation of water, forests, and land, such as:
      1. Narmada BachaoAndolan
      2. Appiko movement
      3. Chipko movement
      4. Silent Valley protest.
      5. Bhopal Gas Tragedy
      6. Plachimadacoca-cola Struggle
      7. Mahan Mine Development
    • Recent movements include those against corporations such as Vedanta in Niyamgiri, Odisha, or Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu.

    Is there a legal framework to tackle issues?

    It is noteworthy that our Preamble lists “justice” above the other moral-political values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. From the state point of view, it can also be said that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions

    It is noteworthy that our Preamble lists “justice” above the other moral-political values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. From the state point of view, it can also be said that “justice is the first virtue of social institutions.”

    • The Forest Rights Act (FRA) or the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, is an important piece of legislation that recognizes the historical injustice done to scheduled tribes and other traditional forests dwellers.
    • The National Green Tribunal was set up under the National Green Tribunal Act, 2010 (NGT Act). The objective of the NGT Act is to provide effective and expeditious disposal of cases relating to the protection of the environment and its stakeholders.

      The NGT is changing environmental jurisprudence in India. It is not a result of a widening definition of ‘aggrieved party’. In its early days, it attracted litigants because of its speed in arriving at a decision. It is enhancing public expectation through judgments and policy directions which reflect a commitment to its statutory obligation to decide cases according to the principles of environmental sustainability. Also, the composition of the bench and the inclusion of technical experts has given a new dimension to its decision-making process. Independent, in-house, technical experts have become part of the analysis that produces judicially binding decisions.

    What is the importance of Environmental justice in present times?

    • It defines the human relationship with the environment.
    • It highlights the importance of conservation and fair usage of natural resources.
    • Sustainability can only be well comprehended through environmental justice.
    • It defines the need for just distribution of resources (distributive justice).
    • It strengthens environmental laws, policies, and regulations.

    What kind of vulnerabilities the “Environmental Justice communities” get affected from?

    Those communities which are most impacted by environmental harms and risks are usually referred to as “environmental justice (EJ) communities” or, “overburdened communities.”

    Disproportionate Vulnerability

    • They are at greater risk from elevated temperatures and associated co-pollutants.
    • They are economically more vulnerable to disasters and illnesses.
    • They are at greater risk from energy and food price shocks.
    • They are at greater risk of displacement.

    Greater Risk from Elevated Temperatures and Co-Pollutants

    • Low-income people are less likely to have access to devices meant to regulate the temperature.
    • Asthma has a strong association with air pollution. Poor socioeconomic status also contributes to non-adherence to maintenance treatment of asthma.

    Economic Vulnerability to Disaster

    • The poor lack the resources to build sturdy structures and put other engineering measures in place to protect themselves from being negatively impacted by disasters resulting from climate change.
    • Poorer families may live in squatter (empty buildings without the owner’s permission) settlements because they cannot afford to live in safer (more expensive) areas.

    Greater Risk from Energy and Food Price Shocks

    • On average the Scheduled Caste (SC) households had a monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) 37% lower than the general category households, and this shows how food price shock can adversely affect the community.

    Climate change is affecting the poorest people and the poorest countries hardest, despite these being the least responsible. Following are the examples from the UN report which illustrates why the climate crisis is an environmental justice issue:

    1. Poorest get most affected by climate change: Extreme weather can destroy homes and infrastructure, and changing weather patterns can reduce crop yields and make some conditions unworkable. While richer people and richer countries may be positioned to adapt to these new circumstances, poorer countries and poorer people are struggling to do the same.
    2. Poverty and extreme weather: Countries and districts lacking essential infrastructure and quality housing are simply less able to cope with extreme heat waves, extreme cold, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires. It is a greater problem for poorer countries and poorer people in richer countries.
    3. Access to food: Essential crop yields, such as wheat and maize, have already been negatively affected by climate change. A further change could mean the breakdown of food systems and supply chains in vulnerable areas. Once again it is the urban and rural poor who are the worst hit.
    4. Health impacts: Delivery of basic medical services will suffer in some particularly vulnerable areas, exacerbating existing health complaints and leaving preventable conditions unchecked. Climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health.
    5. Fishing and coastal communities: As climate change causes the loss of marine ecosystems and damages others, the impact on already fragile fishing communities could be catastrophic. Changing marine migration patterns are vastly unpredictable. Meanwhile, storm surges, coastal flooding, and rising sea levels are likely to disrupt livelihoods and cause injury, ill-health and death in coastal regions.
    6. Poverty reduction efforts will be set back: With the erosion in food security comes the likelihood that efforts to reduce existing inequalities will be scaled back. Economic growth is likely to decline. Poverty reduction will be more difficult and less effective.

    The impacts of climate change are already being felt by the poorest. Any further addition to climate change brings substantial risks to human well-being, again to the poorest, as well as to ecosystems.

    Sustainable development and environmental justice

    The phenomena of sustainable development and environmental justice come to play in the quest for growth in developing economies. Sustainable development is meant the meeting of economic, environmental, and socio-political needs of the present generation without endangering future generations. It is a single phenomenon that has a tripartite dimension.

    • It is socio-political
    • It is economic (economic sustainability)
    • It is environmental (environmental sustainability)

    The three dimensions of sustainable development are however inextricably interwoven.

    What are the steps that can be taken to achieve environmental justice?

    • Recognize the damage or loss and try to repair it.
    • Application of the “Polluter-Pays Principle".
    • Scientifically cleaning up the sites where environmental damage has been done (Fukushima disaster clean-up).
    • Creating an equitable system for decision-making to make sure that the people that live in the community are sitting at the table when decisions are being made about what’s located in their community.
    • Approach the authorities or representatives who are making decisions that are not in the best interest of the people they represent.
    • Provide climate training to help people become more engaged.
    • Build cleaner and greener. If we don’t pollute and we build a better cleaner, and greener, then we won’t have these environmental justice issues.


    Global happiness is attained when there is an inter-state understanding that sustaining the environment is inextricably tied to the need to respect the rights of others to the environment. A clean environment is a human right. Injustice to one is an injustice to all. Injustice to any part of the environment is an injustice to the global environment. From the discussion, it is evident that climate change is a precursor for environmental injustice and it requires a solution that is inclusive of both the aggrieved party and the miscreant.

    There are many entities such as plants and animal species ecosystem geological formations such as mountain, river, lakes, and so on who cannot speak for themselves, they should also be included in the debates on environmental justice. Many countries have begun to recognize such rights of the non-human entity on the planet.