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There is no climate justice without social justice

Amid the ongoing debates in environmental literature, much is hotly contested. However, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: there is no climate justice without social justice.

The interdependency between climate and social justice has rightfully been mainstreamed within climate change discussions. The IPCC, which was previously dominated by physical sciences, has now integrated social sciences within its 2022 report. This is according to the reality that those who contribute the least to climate change disproportionately suffer its consequences. Unequal contributions to climate change have been well documented at the international level. A recent study has found that the global North is responsible for 92% of excess emissions beyond the planetary boundary of 350 ppm, yet the global South will experience the greatest temperature increase. The same story can be found within countries:  communities with lower carbon intensive lifestyles are adversely impacted by climate change the most. Yet, the vulnerability of these groups cannot simply be attributed to the physical exposure of their homes. Research has proved that these groups’ disadvantaged socioeconomic position makes them uniquely vulnerable, because of their lack of resources to cope with, and adapt to climate change

“…those who contribute the least to climate change disproportionately suffer its consequences.”

Who are these vulnerable groups?

Before identifying these vulnerable groups, it is important to acknowledge that vulnerability is relative. Vulnerable groups are living in disadvantaged situations in comparison to other groups. Living in disadvantaged situations can be characterised by poverty, low educational attainment, poor political representation and less available opportunities. In the context of climate change, women, children, peoples of colour, and indigenous peoples, to name a few, make up these vulnerable groups. Yet, one large vulnerable group – consisting of 260 million people worldwide – has been completely overlooked within these conventional classifications: communities discriminated on work and descent.

Communities discriminated on work and descent is not a well-known or well-used term. These communities are an emerging group within research that are deliberately disadvantaged and deprived due to their ancestral status. For example, an individual who is born into a less-than-human social status, named “the untouchables” in the caste system; or a person whose ancestors’ slave status follows them today. These communities have been completely ignored within the climate justice discussion, because of a lack of evidence on their inequitable experiences of climate change. To address this lack of evidence GAS staff member, Shannon Hobbs, coordinated a research project focused on the climate injustice faced by communities discriminated on work and descent. The research project enacted a bottom-up approach, and produced seven papers covering Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. It is only now that bottom-up research has been produced, that we can begin to listen to their untold stories. And from this, we can now answer our second question.

How do they experience climate change?

Numerous climate change impacts and consequences were exposed in Brazil, Romania, Bangladesh, India, Mauritania, Mauritius and Nepal. Each story is as unsettling as the next. Let us draw upon the cases of Romania and Mauritania. The Roma people in Romania have been evicted from Cluj Napoca’s city centre and forced to live on its periphery in a slum named Pata Rat. Pata Rat is located on a highly polluted rubbish dump. Although Romania has the right to adequate housing enshrined in law, Pata Rat has a complete lack of safe infrastructure. The Roma people’s only means of shelter is to build make-shift homes from materials they source among the rubbish. Climate change has exacerbated harsher winters in Romania, however the make-shift houses provide inadequate protection against the cold. To survive, Roma families have resorted to lighting fires in their homes. There have been multiple cases where the fires have become uncontrollable, burning many homes to the ground, and causing the deaths of numerous children.

Another example is that of the Haratin people in Mauritania, who were forcibly recruited as slaves to perform menial work throughout history. Despite the abolition of slavery, the Haratin people continue to be tied to the land, which is passed down through generations. Climate change is causing desertification in Mauritania and severely declining soil fertility. Consequently, the Haratin people are suffering with food insecurity and malnutrition, due to the inability to grow enough crops to eat and sell. Malnutrition, in combination with severely reduced financial means, has resulted in many parents being unable to afford education for their children. If Haratin children do continue to attend school, their performance has suffered, because of their inability to concentrate in a constant state of hunger. The Haratin people’s story does not end here. Low education levels and living in poverty reinforces Haratin children’s vulnerability to slavery and exploitation. Unless social and climate justice are achieved for Haratin people, it is likely that the cycle will continue – their children, and their childrens’ children, will remain chained to slavery.

Moving forward to drive UN action

Communities discriminated on work and descents experiences of climate change have made it clear that this is not just an issue of climate justice. It is an issue of adequate housing, segregation, slavery, education, poverty, and therefore, of social justice. They experience discrimination and disadvantage in all spheres of life, which is why a declaration of human rights is being proposed to the UN. Shannon and the team pushing for the declaration argue that the right to protection from climate change and a safe living environment must be incorporated and implemented. There is a lot of work to be done. Advocacy; education; lobbying; building relationships; mobilising the masses. The journey is far from over, but let us finish this article where we began.

“…this is not just an issue of climate justice. It is an issue of adequate housing, segregation, slavery, education, poverty, and therefore, of social justice.”

There is no climate justice without social justice. In the same spirit, there are no effective solutions without multi-sectoral actions. The reality of climate change is a cruel paradox in which those who contribute the least, suffer the most. This is a symptom of wide-ranging forces, and there is no single solution. No policy implemented by a single actor can achieve social and climate justice. Achieving this will require policy-makers, businesses, NGOs and civil society to unite and fight for vulnerable people’s rights. Though we cannot put an end to the climate change impacts we are already committed to, we know tackling social justice is the right place to start. 


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