The complexity of climate justice

The effects of climate change on vulnerable communities raise ethical concerns about who should help them cope and how. Research suggests that fair and beneficial solutions are possible, but they always come with risks.

Like it or not, each of us contributes to some — perhaps even many — instances of energy and climate injustice. The oil we purchase for heating adds to particulate matter emissions that are inhaled by residents living near refineries. The firewood we burn exposes children to indoor air pollution and compounds the deforestation of tropical rainforests. The fossil fuel-based electricity we have consumed over several decades is at least in part responsible for climate change impacts such as the tidal inundations and storm surges that flood low-lying cities. The automobile we covet contributes to the acid rain that bleaches streams, forests and coral reefs. The twin concepts of climate justice1 and energy justice2 raise the issue of fairness: both to present generations, given that some people have disproportionate access to the benefits of energy whereas others have to bear its burdens, and to future generations, as we will leave them with the legacy of a polluted atmosphere and a potentially unstable climate. Writing in Global Environmental Change, Sam Barrett puts the issue of climate justice front and centre. He argues that “climate change creates a double inequality through the inverse distribution of risk and responsibility”3. Barrett points out that a majority of least-developed states have released less than 115 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per capita since 1960, whereas in most developed states emissions ranged from 1,600 to 2,700 tonnes over the same period. Yet it is the very least-developed states that will experience most of the adverse consequences of climate change4.

One recent global study that distinguished between 'experienced' effects of climate change and 'imposed' effects — essentially separating out groups that cause climate change and groups that are exposed to it — concluded that, as a result of historical greenhouse gas emissions, people in rich countries impose 200–300 times more climate-related health damage on others than they experience themselves5. This makes climate change a pressing moral and ethical concern — for reasons of responsibility and fairness — as much as it is an economic or technical one. Imagine trying to explain to a farmer in Bangladesh who has lost his three children in a cyclone that your increased pleasure in driving a bigger car outweighs his loss6.

Women registering for emergency food rations during a drought-induced famine in Balamanja, Malawi. Credit: © ALAMY

Here Barrett enters with his study about Malawi, arguably “the most climate vulnerable mainland country in Africa”3 with a history of flooding, drought, land degradation, poverty and food insecurity. Barrett essentially maintains that rich nations should help a country like Malawi adapt to the impacts of climate change, but he takes the issue further to ask: which adaptation mechanisms, funded by international donors but implemented by community groups and stakeholders, would work the best?

His work has four salient implications for all of those concerned with justice. First, it highlights the importance of local knowledge. Barrett directly asked villagers which climate change impacts they believed to be most severe. He found that villagers identified hunger, poverty and flooding as primary concerns, in contrast with the country's National Adaptation Plan of Action, which prioritizes strategies such as early warning systems, afforestation and aquaculture7. Barrett emphasizes the importance of community-level information for the effectiveness of adaptation efforts, and he makes a strong case for privileging local studies and local actors in adaptation decision-making.

Second, Barrett highlights that no single adaptation measure will be sufficient to bolster Malawi's adaptive capacity and resilience. Instead, much like the nature of the climate change threat, the country will need a suite of measures that cut across sectors. These include enhanced irrigation, drought cropping, flood protection, early warning systems, tree planting, conservation farming and fertilizer distribution. Also, specific cost–benefit ratios for individual adaptation instruments will change on the basis of their location as well as their timing8.

Third, Barrett argues that adaptation approaches must be multiscalar — they cannot be implemented only by global actors. Much climate research has focused on the global or national level, given that climate change is a global phenomenon, and sovereign nations are deemed responsible for their emissions under the Kyoto Protocol. Nonetheless, this approach misses subnational issues such as disadvantaged groups and communities. Adaptation measures work best when they are endorsed by multiple actors forming partnerships at multiple scales simultaneously, involving a mix of villagers, community-based institutions, national actors and global financing organizations. The late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom called this type of action 'polycentric' because it is irreducible to a single scale9. Barrett is reminding us that at times how something is implemented can be just as important as the action taken.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, Barrett shows that the difference between 'positive' and 'negative' adaptation can concern whether it involved communities and respected their livelihoods or whether it was implemented by experts and failed to contribute to a reduction in community vulnerability. A similar line of research distinguishes between 'soft' adaptation pathways (Table 1), which place the needs of a community equal to or above the priorities of adaptation, and the 'hard' pathways that place adaptation priorities first and require community sacrifices10. Barrett tells us that community involvement may be a precondition for lasting improvements in resilience.

Table 1 Pathways for climate change adaptation.

But his argument goes even deeper. Tragically, Barrett discovered differences within communities that can lead to injustices even when adaptation interventions have net benefits overall. In Malawi, “power relations at the community level” create substantial barriers to “delivering funds for the most vulnerable”3. In some cases, owing to their ethnicity, gender or socio-economic status, some households may be excluded from particular adaptation discussions and interventions. In other instances, village leaders will elect to implement particular measures — for example flood defences —for only their own cassava gardens.

Adaptation interventions can generate negative externalities, and justice solutions can create some forms of injustice. This implies that energy and climate justice must not only consider benefits and burdens but also their fair distribution. Equally important is ensuring that the decision-making process in energy and climate adaptation projects is inclusive, participatory and representative. No intervention will ever match a principle of fairness or responsibility in its purest form: climate justice is about shades of grey, rather than being black or white. Justice is a series of negotiated compromises that seek to manage trade-offs, maximize gains and minimize losses, but it can never eliminate losers entirely. Therefore, climate justice is most useful as a pragmatic, rather than absolute concept.


  1. 1

    Arnold, G. A. (ed.) The Ethics of Global Climate Change (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011)

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Sovacool, B. K. Energy & Ethics: Justice and the Global Energy Challenge (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).

    Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Barrett, S. Glob. Environ. Change (2013).

  4. 4

    Richard, M. A. in Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren (eds DiMento, J. F. C. & Doughman, P.) 161–180 (MIT Press, 2007).

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Smith, K. R., Desai, M. A., Rogers, J. V. & Houghton, R. A. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, E2865–E2874 (2013).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    David, A. & Rahmstorf, F. The Climate Crisis: An Introductory Guide to Climate Change (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2010).

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Malawi's National Adaptation Programs of Action Under the UNFCCC (Malawi Ministry of Mines, Natural Resources and Environment, 2006).

  8. 8

    Economics of Climate Adaptation Working Group Shaping Climate-Resilient Development: A Framework for Decision-Making (Global Environment Facility, European Commission, McKinsey & Company, The Rockefeller Foundation, Standard Chartered Bank and Swiss Re, 2009).

  9. 9

    Ostrom, E. Glob. Environ. Change 20, 550–557 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Sovacool, B. K. Climate Policy 11, 1177–1183 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Benjamin K. Sovacool.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Sovacool, B. The complexity of climate justice. Nature Clim Change 3, 959–960 (2013).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing