BY now there is universal recognition that the global climate regime is changing and that it will impact people disproportionately depending on where they live, and other factors that contribute to vulnerability like age, gender and income.
Perspectives and policies evolve with time and serve a better purpose if they are aligned with ground realities. Environmental justice cannot be discussed in isolation without taking into account the historical experiences of nations and impact of past events on present vulnerabilities.
So far we have lived in a world of plenty with enough resources to meet the needs of the people and a carbon budget that could absorb the greenhouse gas emissions without severely damaging the ecology and altering weather patterns. But now we live in a world of shrinking resources and a burgeoning population that is pitting vested interest groups against each other for the grab of critical resources. Add demographic shifts, pandemics like Covid and new geopolitical fault lines to the conundrum, with economies in recession and rising inflation, and the picture of a grim future is complete.
In this backdrop the interpretation of justice assumes grave importance. Whenever the word justice is invoked, it suggests that a wrong has been done that needs to be righted. Global warming has triggered new debate on policies and development goals as seen by countries that have come to regard luxuries as necessities and countries that are struggling to meet basic needs.
Environmental and racial justice are intertwined.
The past history of South Asia has also assumed a new significance in the light of climate change, making regional countries link past injustices to present misfortunes. The colonisation and exploitation of the subcontinent thwarted its development trajectory. The siphoning of its wealth, social marginalisation of the local population, violation of human rights and a systematic policy of discrimination that stripped people of their dignity, are seen as contributing factors responsible for delaying social development and economic growth.
Some in the Global South feel that 19th-century racial prejudices have morphed into environmental injustices in the present century that will continue to pose a challenge to the concept of justice and its universal application. Climate parleys have been the longest negotiations in history with no conclusive outcome. Meanwhile the planet is in turmoil but despite the looming existential threat the Global North is neither reducing emissions fast enough nor providing adequate mitigation and adaptation support or compensating loss.
Some hold the Global South responsible for its vulnerabilities. The blame list includes lack of investment in human capital, gender discrimination, unsustainable population growth rate and poor governance. However, this doesn’t take into account the impact of a rapidly warming planet as a game changer.
If 2030 was not flagged as a critical timeline for reducing emissions and 2050 was not set as a deadline for reaching net zero emissions, and if the Global North had not disproportionately consumed the global carbon budget, the Global South would have had another four decades to achieve development goals and be better prepared to cope with crisis and fragility. A just transition thus requires that developed economies fast-track emission reduction and provide financial and technical support to developing countries. Concurrently, the Global South needs to practise climate justice at home and provide better governance. This will strengthen its moral stance on demanding climate justice.
Racial prejudice and clash between civilisations have been a part of human history. It so happens that all the people living in the Global South are coloured but that does not make them children of a lesser God. Their future will be adversely affected by global warming. This makes climate change a rights-based issue and a moral responsibility.
Philosopher David Hume believed that reason is influenced by feeling. Perhaps that is why our response to tragedy is different. Every death, every violation of rights, every injustice doesn’t elicit the same emotional response. The level of empathy changes with race and place. Alongside solutions like making lifestyle changes and transitioning faster to renewable energy, we need a moral mandate to address climate challenges. Environmental justice is not only about the difference in wealth between rich and poor countries. There is an emotional disconnect between the Global North and South and this gap needs to be bridged fast.
Justice will remain an elusive goal but we must never give up striving for it. It is a symbol of progress and the first principle of humanity. When every death diminishes us and we realise that no man or woman is an island unto itself and that one day the bell will toll for everyone, finding equitable solutions will become easier.
The writer is chief executive of Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.
Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2022