Climate Injustice

Developed countries are historically responsible for causing climate change through fossil-fuel based activities, off of which they have greatly profited and ‘developed.’ Meanwhile poor/developing countries, who have negligibly contributed to climate change, live with limited infrastructure and direct services (given century-long histories of globalization, colonization, and weakened states) and participate in nature-based industries, such as fishing and farming.  These factors then contribute to their vulnerability to climate change.

To make matters worse, science forecasts that the global distribution of climate change impacts is will befall the global south, which mostly consists of developing countries.

At the core of climate injustice resides the discrepancy between who is responsible for climate change and who bears (and will bear) the burden.


  • 90 entities are responsible for nearly two thirds of all industrial carbon dioxide and methane emissions released since 1854(Heede 2013)
Image Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists
Image Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists Source: Heede 2013, Climate Change
  • 500 million of the world’s richest are responsible for over half of the world’s global greenhouse gas emissions (Klein, 2014)
  •  Historical responsibility for climate change
Source: The Carbon Map
Source: The Carbon Map Country sizes show CO₂ emissions from energy use 1850–2011. These historical (or ‘cumulative’) emissions remain relevant because CO₂ can remain in the air for centuries.
        List of countries ranked by cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels between 1850 and 2011*
      1. United States: 361,300.0 million tonnes**
      2. China: 140,860.3 million tonnes
      3. Russia: 101,116.7 million tonnes
      4. Germany: 84,123.6 million tonnes
      5. United Kingdom: 70,042.3 million tonnes
      *In looking at these figures it’s important to keep in mind countries’ population sizes in order to look at these figures as emissions per capita. For example, in 2013, the US had a population of 316 M whereas China had a population of 1.357 B, making the former’s emissions per capita much greater than the latter’s.
      **This figure does not include emissions from the US military.
    • The United States Military, which would be ranked 36th in oil consumption among all countries if it were listed as its own country, is internationally exempt from measuring, reporting, and limiting its greenhouse gas emissions.

    Who Will Bear the Burden:

    When it comes to facing the impacts of climate change, the compounding of different factors contribute to how greatly climate change will impact different countries and communities. The three most widely used measures for vulnerability include:

    1. Exposure: The extent to which a region will face climate change impacts; or, the degree to which a system is exposed to  significant climate change from a biophysical perspective(i.e. impact on shoreline from sea-level rise; amount of increased storms, etc.)

    2. Sensitivity: How much a country depends on a sector that will be negatively impacted by climate change, or the proportion of the population particularly susceptible to a climate change impact.

    Many of these regions of course already afflicted by chronic underdevelopment, water scarcity and pollution, land degradation, food insecurity, civil conflict, infectious disease, and feeble domestic institutions. Large informal squatter settlements in overcrowded coastal cities find themselves just meters away from eroding shorelines and riverbanks. Small island states, already at risk because of their highly climate-dependent exports, struggle to overcome high transport costs, weak coastal defense systems, and fragile ecosystems. Groups of ‘climate refugees’ are on the move because of resource scarcity, growing insecurity, and violent conflict. (Roberts & Parks, 2006

    3. Adaptive Capacity: The ability of a country or place to prepare for and adapt to climate change impacts.

    Maps of Countries Most Vulnerable to Climate Change

    Vulnerability to Climate Change according to ND-GAIN Vulnerability Index (
    Vulnerability to Climate Change according to ND-GAIN Vulnerability Index (


    Visit the Climate Vulnerable Forum to follow news from poor countries most vulnerable to climate change.

    At the core of climate injustice is the reality that those least responsible for causing climate change will most greatly suffer its impacts. This injustice is magnified by the realities that (1) countries contributed to climate change profited (and continue to profit) off of the industries that produced it, and (2) histories of colonization, globalization, and neoliberalism have greatly contributed to poor/developing countries’ vulnerability to climate change.

    Climate Justice

    There is not a single definition or shape of climate justice, but rather it is a composite of various beautiful declarations by those who are most impacted by climate change — both globally and locally.

    Globally, climate justice calls for the countries who have most contributed (and profited) from climate change to take responsibility and accountability in their actions to greatly curb their emissions, support developing countries in both mitigating their emissions (while developing alternative clean energy economies) and adapting to climate change impacts, and lastly, providing reparations following loss and damage associated with climate change. The global climate justice movement also calls for countries and communities who will be impacted by climate change as key decision makers around any proposal affecting or regarding climate change.

    At their core, climate justice declarations call for the right of self-determination, living without the impacts of climate change, those who contributed to the problem taking responsibility and accountability for it, and for decision-making power among those who are most impacted.

    The People’s Agreement of Cochabamba:

    It is imperative that we forge a new system that restores harmony with nature and among human beings. And in order for there to be balance with nature, there must first be equity among human beings.   We propose to the peoples of the world the recovery, revalorization, and strengthening of the knowledge, wisdom, and ancestral practices of Indigenous Peoples, which are affirmed in the thought and practices of “Living Well,” recognizing Mother Earth as a living being with which we have an indivisible, interdependent, complementary and spiritual relationship.   To face climate change, we must recognize Mother Earth as the source of life and forge a new system based on the principles of:

    • harmony and balance among all and with all things;

    • complementarity, solidarity, and equality;

    • collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;

    • people in harmony with nature;

    • recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own;

    • elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism;

    • peace among the peoples and with Mother Earth;


    To guarantee human rights and to restore harmony with nature, it is necessary to effectively recognize and apply the rights of Mother Earth.   For this purpose, we propose the attached project for the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth, in which it’s recorded that:

    • The right to live and to exist;

    • The right to be respected;

    • The right to regenerate its bio-capacity and to continue it’s vital cycles and processes free of human alteration;

    • The right to maintain their identity and integrity as differentiated beings, self-regulated and interrelated;

    • The right to water as the source of life;

    • The right to clean air;

    • The right to comprehensive health;

    • The right to be free of contamination and pollution, free of toxic and radioactive waste;

    • The right to be free of alterations or modifications of it’s genetic structure in a manner that threatens it’s integrity or vital and healthy functioning;

    • The right to prompt and full restoration for violations to the rights acknowledged in this Declaration caused by human activities.


    Developed countries, as the main cause of climate change, in assuming their historical responsibility, must recognize and honor their climate debt in all of its dimensions as the basis for a just, effective, and scientific solution to climate change. In this context, we demand that developed countries:

    • Restore to developing countries the atmospheric space that is occupied by their greenhouse gas emissions. This implies the decolonization of the atmosphere through the reduction and absorption of their emissions;
    • Assume the costs and technology transfer needs of developing countries arising from the loss of development opportunities due to living in a restricted atmospheric space;
    •  Assume responsibility for the hundreds of millions of people that will be forced to migrate due to the climate change caused by these countries, and eliminate their restrictive immigration policies, offering migrants a decent life with full human rights guarantees in their countries;
    • Assume adaptation debt related to the impacts of climate change on developing countries by providing the means to prevent, minimize, and deal with damages arising from their excessive emissions;
    • Honor these debts as part of a broader debt to Mother Earth by adopting and implementing the United Nations Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth.

    The focus must not be only on financial compensation, but also on restorative justice, understood as the restitution of integrity to our Mother Earth and all its beings.


    The Bali Principles of Climate Justice (2002):

    We, representatives of people’s movements together with activist organizations working for social and environmental justice resolve to begin to build an international movement of all peoples for Climate Justice based on the following core principles:

    1. Affirming the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, Climate Justice insists that communities have the right to be free from climate change, its related impacts and other forms of ecological destruction.
    2. Climate Justice affirms the need to reduce with an aim to eliminate the production of greenhouse gases and associated local pollutants.
    3. Climate Justice affirms the rights of indigenous peoples and affected communities to represent and speak for themselves.
    4. Climate Justice affirms that governments are responsible for addressing climate change in a manner that is both democratically accountable to their people and in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities.
    5. Climate Justice demands that communities, particularly affected communities play a leading role in national and international processes to address climate change.
    6. Climate Justice opposes the role of transnational corporations in shaping unsustainable production and consumption patterns and lifestyles, as well as their role in unduly influencing national and international decision-making.
    7. Climate Justice calls for the recognition of a principle of ecological debt that industrialized governments and transnational corporations owe the rest of the world as a result of their appropriation of the planet’s capacity to absorb greenhouse gases.
    8. Affirming the principle of ecological debt, Climate Justice demands that fossil fuel and extractive industries be held strictly liable for all past and current life-cycle impacts relating to the production of greenhouse gases and associated local pollutants.
    9. Affirming the principle of Ecological debt, Climate Justice protects the rights of victims of climate change and associated injustices to receive full compensation, restoration, and reparation for loss of land, livelihood and other damages.
    10. Climate Justice calls for a moratorium on all new fossil fuel exploration and exploitation; a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear power plants; the phase out of the use of nuclear power world wide; and a moratorium on the construction of large hydro schemes.
    11. Climate Justice calls for clean, renewable, locally controlled and low-impact energy resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for all living things.
    12. Climate Justice affirms the right of all people, including the poor, women, rural and indigenous peoples, to have access to affordable and sustainable energy.
    13. Climate Justice affirms that any market-based or technological solution to climate change, such as carbon-trading and carbon sequestration, should be subject to principles of democratic accountability, ecological sustainability and social justice.
    14. Climate Justice affirms the right of all workers employed in extractive, fossil fuel and other greenhouse-gas producing industries to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood based on unsustainable production and unemployment.
    15. Climate Justice affirms the need for solutions to climate change that do not externalize costs to the environment and communities, and are in line with the principles of a just transition.
    16. Climate Justice is committed to preventing the extinction of cultures and biodiversity due to climate change and its associated impacts.
    17. Climate Justice affirms the need for socio-economic models that safeguard the fundamental rights to clean air, land, water, food and healthy ecosystems.
    18. Climate Justice affirms the rights of communities dependent on natural resources for their livelihood and cultures to own and manage the same in a sustainable manner, and is opposed to the commodification of nature and its resources.
    19. Climate Justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias.
    20. Climate Justice recognizes the right to self-determination of Indigenous Peoples, and their right to control their lands, including sub-surface land, territories and resources and the right to the protection against any action or conduct that may result in the destruction or degradation of their territories and cultural way of life.
    21. Climate Justice affirms the right of indigenous peoples and local communities to participate effectively at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation, the strict enforcement of principles of prior informed consent, and the right to say “No.”
    22. Climate Justice affirms the need for solutions that address women’s rights.
    23. Climate Justice affirms the right of youth as equal partners in the movement to address climate change and its associated impacts.
    24. Climate Justice opposes military action, occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, water, oceans, peoples and cultures, and other life forms, especially as it relates to the fossil fuel industry’s role in this respect.
    25. Climate Justice calls for the education of present and future generations, emphasizes climate, energy, social and environmental issues, while basing itself on real-life experiences and an appreciation of diverse cultural perspectives.
    26. Climate Justice requires that we, as individuals and communities, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth’s resources, conserve our need for energy; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles, re-thinking our ethics with relation to the environment and the Mother Earth; while utilizing clean, renewable, low-impact energy; and ensuring the health of the natural world for present and future generations.
    27. Climate Justice affirms the rights of unborn generations to natural resources, a stable climate and a healthy planet.




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