Enabling change in our Society, Environment and Economy (SEE)

Climate Justice

by Tanya Grehan, ACU Student Intern

“The injustice of the whole issue of global warming and climate change lies in the fact that those who have contributed nothing to its genesis will suffer the most from its consequences”

Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia

When people hear the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ they think of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, deforestation, pollution and dwindling natural resources. And rightly so. Yet, these themes commonly associated with climate change overlook a crucial ethical dilemma of climate change. That is, the issue of social justice, or more specifically, what is termed as “climate justice”.

Climate justice is based heavily around notions of ethics, environmental rights and community responsibilities and takes a strong stance on correctly placing the blame for climate change where it belongs. For example, industrialised, wealthy nations such as the US and European nations have traditionally contributed significantly to climate change over the last 150 years or so. In fact, they continue to do so, without making any real reductions in consumption and emissions. On the other hand, developing nations, such as India and Brazil have per capita emissions of carbon 12 – 20 times less than that of the US. Even with India’s and China’s recent rapid economic development and growth, their emissions remain relatively small in comparison to their population. Thus, the blame for climate change must be placed with wealthy nations who for years have plundered the Earth’s natural resources unrestrained.

Another aspect to consider is the difference between the reasons for consumption of natural resources. It is clear that much of the consumption of natural resources in wealthy nations occurs as a luxury, supplementary to an already high standard of living. In developing nations, consumption of natural resources occurs mainly as a response to the growing demands and needs of the population, in order to meet basic survival needs. Furthermore, developing nations often consume natural resources in more traditional and sustainable ways, based on years of experience, cultural knowledge and living off the land.

Another dimension of climate justice that emphasises the widening gap between wealthy and developing nations relates to the immediate effects of climate change. Many academics have argued that poor countries, who traditionally hold the least responsibility for climate change, are the countries who will likely suffer more directly as a result. For example, African nations will face even more severe clean water shortages, limited food resources, flood risks and so on, not to mention the associated loss of arable land, extreme weather events, malnutrition and increasing health problems.
climate_justiceGiven the contexts of contributions to climate change and reasons for consumption, the gap between wealthy and developing nations becomes increasingly apparent. Wealthy nations are obviously in a much better position financially and technologically to reduce their emissions and adapt to an Earth that must be preserved, but are resistant to positive change. Some academics have even argued that the industrialised world owes the third world a massive “climate debt” as reparation for the damage done to the environment during their period of growth and stability.

However, it is not all bad news. There is an immense opportunity here for small nations to uphold their right to seek economic development, but to skip the unsustainable infrastructure, habits, life styles and practices of the industrialised world. Perhaps the wealthy nations “climate debt” (if paid) would help to balance out the ethical dilemma of the third world to seek economic development over reducing their ecological imprint? Looking at it from this angle, this might be a way that developing nations can pursue economic interests that meet both the needs and wellbeing of their people, as well as the needs of the environment. After all, what is the point of building a strong and resilient nation without the sustainable Earth needed to enjoy it?

With thanks to our


  • ACT Government Environment and Planning
  • The Association of Independent Schools of the ACT (AISACT)
  • Catholic Education Office (Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn)
  • Education and Training Directorate
  • ACT Government