As the UN writes: “The impacts of climate change will not be borne equally or fairly, between rich and poor, women and men, and older and younger generations.” Climate change is not only an issue of environmental conservation, but also an issue of justice and human rights. We’ve written before about what climate justice is (and why it’s important!). As a follow-up, here are ten ways climate injustices thrive, and what Concern is doing to fight them.
1. Geographic injustice
One of the key tenets of the climate justice movement is the demonstrable fact that many of the countries least responsible for the current climate crisis are, nevertheless, those feeling its effects most acutely.
We can see this in World Bank data collected on countries with the lowest carbon emissions per capita. Countries like Somalia, Chad, Malawi, and Niger are among those hit hardest by climate change, despite contributing very little to global greenhouse gas emissions. Obviously, we see that some of the countries with the highest carbon footprints are also facing these effects, but these are also largely countries able to respond to disasters when they strike. The Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Burundi have comparatively fewer resources.
2. Settler colonialism and indigenous exploitation
This year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report included a word that had gone unmentioned in previous reports: “Present development challenges causing high vulnerability are influenced by historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, especially for many Indigenous Peoples and local communities,” the panel wrote, a statement made with “high confidence.”
This is a major moment for a fact of climate change that has often gone unstated. Foreign conquest and expansion has been a fact of history for centuries, but it was in the late 1800s that many European nations began the so-called “scramble for Africa,” setting up colonies and using the newfound natural resources to fuel an increase in production needs that came with the Industrial Revolution. This exploitation of both nature and people continued through the second half of the 20th Century. It not only left countries vulnerable to heat traps and increasingly extreme weather events; it also left people in these countries with fewer resources to support themselves and their families.
These effects also tend to carry the greatest impact for Indigenous communities, which the Food and Agriculture Organization has called the best custodians of natural resources. We’ve seen this play out in the United States with the Dakota Access Pipelines protests in 2016-17. The proposed pipeline would have disproportionately affected the lives of the Lakota and Dakota nations who lived on the Standing Rock Reservation. Similarly, the UN points out that Indigenous Peoples in the Kalahari Desert (which stretches across Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa) are forced to live around government-drilled water bores and rely on government support as their traditional pastoralist livelihoods have been compromised by the land degradation.
3. Gender inequality
The effects of climate change can intensify pre-existing social inequalities, especially when it comes to gender. As the Thai activist Matcha Phorn-in put it: “If you are invisible in everyday life, your needs will not be thought of, let alone addressed, in a crisis situation.”
Women often bear the brunt of climate disasters. They depend more heavily on natural resources like water and firewood, meaning that if these items become scarce, they may need to travel further for them. This equals more time spent doing unpaid domestic labor and, in some areas, greater risks of gender-based violence. Other gender inequalities within a community may leave women more vulnerable to the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, or excluded from the decision-making table when disaster risk reduction solutions and other climate change responses are designed and implemented.
“If you are invisible in everyday life, your needs will not be thought of, let alone addressed, in a crisis situation.” — Matcha Phorn-in, Thai activist for LGBTQIA+ and women’s rights
4. Intergenerational climate injustice
While younger generations have taken up the fight for climate action, part of this is out of a grave necessity: The organization Carbon Brief estimates that children born today will need to emit eight times less CO2 than their grandparents in order to keep us at just a 1.5º increase in global temperature.
Despite a dip in usage in the 1930s, global — and American — greenhouse gas emissions began to rise steadily from the 1940s through today, which means many of the people responsible for that damage will not be alive to see the full extent of it. Younger generations, meanwhile, will spend most, if not all, of their lives dealing with land loss and degradation, fewer resources, and health issues related to temperature extremes and high-impact natural disasters.
5. Economic inequality
Climate change and poverty form a vicious cycle. According to the latest World Bank estimates, unchecked climate change could push up to 130 million more people into poverty over the next 10 years. This would be catastrophic for our recent gains in international development, especially for the 130 million people at risk — and the hundreds of millions of people living in poverty today.
Many people living in extreme poverty rely on the land for their livelihoods, whether it’s through agriculture or pastoralism. 70% of those living in extreme poverty today are women. Such climate injustices combine to further the cycle of poverty. With little to no margin of error or safety net, the losses sustained by these people following a climate-related disaster will be that much more devastating.
As author and activist Jeremy Williams says in the title of his 2021 book, climate change is racist. This is linked to the colonial legacy of the climate crisis (see above). In an article based on the same premise, the Madagascar-born Williams quotes Zambian activist Veronica Mulenga, who elaborates:
“Historical and present-day injustices have both left Black, Indigenous, and people-of-color communities exposed to far greater environmental health hazards than white communities. Those most affected by climate change are Black and poor communities. As a continent we are one of the hardest hit by the impacts of climate change and we are left behind as the world progresses toward a low-carbon economy. Without taking into account those most affected, climate solutions will turn into climate exclusion.”
The effects of racism on climate change also dovetail with some of the other forms of racism within certain societies and between territories: Activist Elizabeth Yeampierre points to the exponential damage caused by Hurricanes Maria and Katrina and slow response that followed in their wakes. A 2017 NYU report also links racism and other forms of marginalization to housing in vulnerable areas, such as floodplains. These connections are not accidental.
“Without taking into account those most affected, climate solutions will turn into climate exclusion.” — Veronica Mulenga, Zambian climate activist
7. Language and literacy barriers and immigration status
Yale’s Center for Environmental Communication puts it best: “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 in the midst of an evacuation order.”
This is an especially common problem among refugee communities, who are often among the most vulnerable in a host community and, even if they are displaced in a neighboring country, may not share the same language. For instance, many Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh have lost their shelters multiple times over due to monsoons, flooding, and fires. This is partly because they are prohibited from building permanent-style shelters, leaving their “homes” in refugee camps highly vulnerable to the elements. For those refugees who don’t speak Bengali, getting official information when a storm is forecast can also be challenging.
We’ll also add to this section the inequity of illiteracy: In communities that favor harmful patriarchal structures, women are more likely to be illiterate. This leaves fully half of a population unable to get access to information they need before, during, and after a disaster hits.
8. Discrimination against the disabled, chronically-ill, and elderly
Last year, the United Nations Human Rights Council held a panel discussion on how climate change affects older people. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet added that, by the year 2050, the earth would be home to a population of 1.5 billion people aged 65 and above. If by then we also have not reduced global greenhouse gas emissions to net zero, global warming is expected to exceed 1.5º C.
“Ageism contributes to older persons’ vulnerability to climate change,” the panel concluded. Statistically, people over 65 are more likely to die during disasters, and face difficulties reaching safety and discrimination or abuse as part of a disaster response. They’re also more susceptible to climate-related events like air pollution, heat waves, and disease outbreaks.
People who are disabled and/or chronically-ill face similar challenges. We may be a bit more familiar with these now thanks to the injustices and inequities revealed by COVID-19, which placed the elderly, disabled, and chronically ill into higher risk categories. Climate change operates on a similar scale of injustice, and its effects will be felt more acutely by these communities.
Any form of injustice, in the right circumstances, can also become a climate injustice.
9. Other forms of societal inequality
Gender, age, health, and ability are just some of the ways that preexisting social inequalities can be exacerbated by climate change. However, this isn’t the whole of the situation. When resources become limited, the prejudices that underline a society become more pronounced, and these come down to bear on marginalized people including LGBTQIA+ communities, minority ethnic tribes and groups, religious minorities, and “lower” social castes and statuses. Any form of injustice, in the right circumstances, can also become a climate injustice.
10. Inequality of resources beyond climate mitigation
Many of the above inequities will lead to another climate injustice, and one that carries compound interest. All of these issues invariably leave key identities out of sight and mind when discussions and decisions are being made around disaster preparedness and response.
However, climate also sets up other inequities and injustices to flourish: Climate change and hunger, for example, go hand-in-hand, as food has already become scarcer due to global warming. A climate disaster, or even the more “everyday” setbacks of the crisis, also threaten education for millions of children around the world. This can either be temporary (if a school is destroyed or repurposed as a shelter during an emergency) or long-term (if parents withdraw their children from school to help out at home).
This is why Concern’s approach to climate change response considers the threats of the climate crisis on particular communities through an intersectional lens. There are any number of domino effects that can happen in a frontline community. We’re in part here to make sure those pieces don’t get knocked down.
How Concern fights climate injustice
Concern is clear that the climate crisis constitutes the most serious global environmental threat and is a significant poverty multiplier.
The majority of people Concern works with are involved in some way with farming and food production. Many of these communities are also on the frontlines of climate change. We work with rural communities to promote Climate Smart Agriculture, an approach that helps families adapt to better crops, growing techniques, and soil improvement practices in response to the changing — and often unpredictable — environment. We also work to strengthen links with the private sector to facilitate access to supplies and equipment.
We also do a lot of work around disaster risk reduction (DRR), which protects the lives and livelihoods of communities and individuals who are most vulnerable to disasters or emergencies. Whether the crisis is caused by nature or humans (or a combination of both), DRR limits its negative impact on those who stand to lose the most. In some cases, we can reduce the size of a disaster, its strength, or even how frequently it occurs. In tandem with this, we can also make sure that those who are most exposed to these hazards are able to better anticipate, survive, and recover — including women, the disabled, elderly, and chronically-ill.
Our climate response is unique to the circumstances of each community where we work, but one key theme for us is prioritizing indigenous knowledge and nature-based responses. We find solutions that protect, sustainably manage, and restore natural or modified ecosystems to address societal challenges. Nature-based solutions not only help to offset the immediate land degradation caused by climate change, but also address challenges like food security, water security, public health, and social and economic development.