What is Climate Justice?

by Reinout Debergh

Climate justice is key to addressing the climate crisis on a global level. However, there is no single definition or climate justice concept. Given the large variety of concepts, this article will limit itself to the essential. The goal is to give readers an overview of the most important types and principles of climate justice.

Types of climate justice

Distributive justice is about how the benefits and burdens of living together are to be distributed among people [1]. Important questions are to distribute what, how, and among whom. In terms of climate change and what is distributed, it is usually either emission rights or costs that are distributed [2].

Procedural justice refers to the fairness of processes used by those in power to reach certain outcomes or decisions [3]. It involves questions such as: who is included in the decision-making process, how is the decision-making power distributed, what is the voting procedure, are vulnerabilities recognised, can communities participate [4].

Intergenerational justice discusses how people should act towards future generations. The costs of emissions now might be paid by future rather than present generations [1]. It requires that generations do their fair share so that future generations can fulfil their needs, do not experience serious harm, and can enjoy things of value [5].

Compensatory justice is about the fair compensation of victims of injustice by those who caused the injustice [6]. Just like distributive justice, it entails a transfer of resources, but they differ in the following way. First, start from a baseline just distribution of goods. Then a deviation from this baseline can occur. If this deviation is due to a wrongful act, then it is about compensatory justice. If the deviation is due to harmful but not wrongful actions (such as a natural disaster), it is about distributive justice [7].


The principle of historical responsibility distributes the burden of paying proportionately to past emissions and relates to compensatory justice [8]. However, some issues exist such as the ‘dead polluters objection’ (those who cause current climate change are not alive anymore) and the ‘excusable ignorance objection’ (it cannot be expected that people knew that their actions were harmful before 1990) [8, 9]. Thus generally, 1990 is used as a start date for historical responsibility [8]. 

The ability to pay or capacity principle is a principle of distributive justice and states that countries with a higher ability to pay should reduce their emissions more than poorer countries. In the case of distributing emission rights, the number of allocated rights should be inversely related to the ability to pay for abatement [10].

The principle of mutual advantage states that benefits and burdens should be allocated in a way that benefits all parties [11]. Grandfathering is the view that past emissions increase the right to future emissions [12].

The principle of guaranteed minimum states that those who do not have enough for a decent life should be given resources to live decently [13]. According to the principle of basic needs or the priority principle, rights to survival emissions should first be allocated and what remains should be distributed to the benefit of those least well off [11, 14].

The all affected principle is a principle of procedural justice and states that those who are affected by the outcome of a decision-making process need to be able to participate in that process [15].

Hopefully, this has given you a better understanding of what constitutes climate justice. There are many other climate justice-related concepts, but the most relevant ones have been explained here. The next article in this series will examine how these are concepts incorporated into the climate change regime complex, if at all.


[1] Chris Armstrong (2012), ‘Global Distributive Justice: An Introduction’, Cambridge University Press, ISBN: 9781139026444; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139026444 (last accessed 11 May 2021)
[2] Lukas H. Meyer, Dominic Roser (2016), ‘Distributive Justice and Climate Change. The Allocation of Emission Rights’, Lucius & Lucius, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/auk-2006-0207 (last accessed 11 May 2021)
[3] Sarah Bennett, Lorelei Hine, Lorraine Mazerolle (2018), ‘Procedural Justice – Criminology.’, Oxford Bibliographies, DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396607-0241 (last accessed 11 May 2021)
[4] Diewertje Hendriks (2016-17), ‘Is Distributive justice sufficient for a climate finance regime? A climate justice based approach to climate funds’, Institut Barcelona, https://www.ibei.org/ibei_studentpaper41_105369.pdf (last accessed 11 May 2021)
[5] Janna Thompson (2010), ‘What is Intergenerational Justice?’ in Future Justicehttp://www.futureleaders.com.au/book_chapters/pdf/Future_Justice/Janna_Thompson.pdf (last accessed 11 May 2021)
[6]  Manuel Velasquez et al. (1990, 2014), ‘Justice and Fairness’, originally in Issues in Ethics V3 N2, republished here on Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, URL: https://www.scu.edu/ethics/ethics-resources/ethical-decision-making/justice-and-fairness/ (last accessed 11 May 2021). 
[7]  Lukas H. Meyer, Dominic Roser (2010), ‘Climate justice and historical emissions’ Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 13.1, pp. 229-53, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/13698230903326349 (last accessed 12 May 2021)
[8] Alexandre Gajevic Sayegh (2017), ‘Climate justice after Paris: a normative framework’, Journal of Global Ethics, 13.3, pp. 344-65, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/17449626.2018.1425217 (last accessed 12 May 2021)
[9] Laura Garcia-Portela (2019), ‘Individual Compensatory Duties for Historical Emissions and the Dead-Polluters Objection’, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 32, pp. 591-609, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10806-019-09798-9 (last accessed 12 May 2021)
[10] Lucas Bretschger (2013), ‘Climate policy and equity principles: fair burden-sharing in a dynamic world’, Environment and Development Economics, 18.5, pp. 517-36, DOI:  doi:10.1017/S1355770X13000284 (last accessed 12 May 2021)
[11] Chukwumerije Okereke (2010), ‘Climate justice and the international regime: Climate justice and the international regimeWIREs Climate Change, 1.3, pp. 462-74, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.52 (last accessed 12 May 2021)
[12] Carl Knight (2012), ‘What is grandfathering?’, Environmental Politics 22.3, pp. 410-27, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09644016.2012.740937 (last accessed 12 May 2021)
[13] Marco Grasso (2018), ‘Big Oil’s duty of disgorging funds in the context of climate change’ in Routledge Handbook of Climate Justice (1st edn), ed. by T. Jafry. London: Routledge, ISBN: 9781315537689; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315537689 (last accessed 12 May 2021)
[14] Bert Metz (2000), ‘International equity in climate change policy’, Integrated Assessment 1, pp. 111-26, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1019171513507 (last accessed 12 May 2021)
[15] Luke Tomlinson, ‘Procedural Justice and Fair Participation in Climate Change Governance’, URL unavailable (last accessed 12 May 2021)
Categories Climate Justice

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