The climate movement is at a critical juncture. The process of climate breakdown is now undeniable. The IPCC report released last month warns of “inevitable” and “irreversible” climate change, and the term “code red” is appropriate when you consider the wildfires and extreme weather over the summer. Yet those in power are doing nowhere near enough. In November the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow will continue with the “play acting”, as Greta Thurnberg put it, of another PR spectacle organised for the benefit of the world’s governments.

The Cop talks pretend to address the climate crisis while doing as little as possible. For decades now, they have been producing unenforceable agreements that bear no relation to the scale of the problem revealed to us by climate science. If there is one thing we can be certain about the Cop26, it will not deliver climate justice. That is not to be pessimistic. It is to argue that if we are to address the scale of the problem, we need to look elsewhere for an alternative strategy to deal with the climate crisis than relying on those in power.

Crucial to any alternative is the notion of climate justice. In the last few years it has become a slogan of the climate movement, and rightly so. But what does it mean?

Climate inequality in the Global South

Climate justice recognises that we are not all equally impacted by climate chaos and that we are not all equally responsible for it. The unfolding climate catastrophe is not hitting us all equally. The poorest will be hit hardest everywhere and the poorest people in the poorest parts of the world will be hit hardest of all. Just as with the coronavirus pandemic, climate chaos has shown us that we are not all equally at risk. The highest mortality rates have been recorded in the poorest areas. Likewise with the access to vaccines, the rich countries are first in line.

Particularly it is the communities in the Global South who are most affected by climate change, but whose contribution to it is negligible. This is where we see the most extreme weather, the lack of funding to deal with it and where corporations recklessly exploit natural resources. It is people of the Global South who face the circumstances where they have to flee climate chaos and environmental degradation, in the process becoming “climate refugees.”

On a global scale, migration is becoming an increasing phenomena as climate chaos causes ecosystems to breakdown. Population displacements caused by climate chaos is already a feature of the modern world. Countries like India and the Philippines are experiencing large scale population displacement due to climate change. Climate justice means solidarity with refugees everywhere. So a demand of climate justice is to open the borders and let the refugees in. National borders are the arbitrary creations of states, they have nothing to do with any notion of climate justice. It is the very states that are so responsible for the climate crisis that are devoting the most resources into turning their borders into fortresses.

Legacy of injustice

When we talk about poverty in the Global South, this is the legacy of centuries of plunder and colonial exploitation in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. This has also seen the near genocide of indigenous communities the world over. The behaviour of major oil corporations is but a continuation of centuries of dispossession of indigenous communities by Western interests. These large corporations create poverty by destroying the environment indigenous and peasant communities depend on their livelihoods

Acknowledging the climate debt that the rich industrialised countries of the Global North owe to the Global South is one of the key demands of the climate justice movement.

We who live in the West are locked into a fossil fuel economy that is over two centuries old. It is the legacy of two centuries of carbon emissions that is causing the current climate crisis. The Global North is responsible for 92% of the carbon emissions that have pushed global warming beyond safe limits. Countries like Britain burnt through their carbon budget decades ago.

The current climate chaos we are experiencing is not the fault of countries like India and China, even though they have rapidly increasing emissions. The impacts of their emissions are still to be felt. Many countries in the West outsource their emissions by importing products that have a high carbon footprint but are produced in the Global South. We shouldn’t fall for the argument from the right that the real problem is China. We should support those fighting against the Chinese regime to make it more sustainable, but we should also recognise the historic responsibility of Britain and the US in terms of emissions. And that should mean Britain should lead the way in emissions reductions by cutting them more steeply and more quickly than the newly industrialised countries.

Climate justice in the Global North

Even within the Global North we are not impacted equally. When extreme weather hits richer nations, it is poorer people who can’t afford heating or air conditioning who suffer most. Look at the recent wildfires in Greece, where austerity and cuts to firefighting have left the poorest people most vulnerable. Or look at Hurricane Ida in the US, 16 years to the day after Katrina hit, where it is black and working class communities who are most at risk.

Not everyone in the Global North is all to blame either. The world’s richest 1% are responsible for 50% of global carbon emissions. In countries such as Britain we are not all frequent flyers or driving gas guzzling cars. The consumption patterns of the rich will have to be drastically curtailed if we are to stand any chance of stopping runaway climate chaos.

The struggle against environmental racism has always been at the root of climate justice in the Global North. It is not by accident that the most polluting installations are located in areas with a large black population. Even today in London, the supposedly progressive mayor Sadiq Khan wants to build the Silvertown tunnel that will bring more traffic into a predominantly black and Asian area, which has some of the worst air quality in the city. Likewise with the waste incinerator that is planned to be built in Edmonton, a poor and multicultural area in North East London. Why are there no incinerators planned for Mayfair, Surrey or Chelsea?

Climate inequality

So climate justice recognises that we are not all in the same boat under capitalism. And therefore a key demand is that those who profit from climate destruction should not also profit from measures to reduce carbon emissions. A common claim is that those responsible for climate chaos should pay the debt to those who have been most affected, particularly those affected in the Global South.

Where governments have introduced measures to limit carbon emissions, they have nearly always been based on market mechanisms which commodify nature. Climate justice activists are very critical of some of measures such as emission trading. Other examples included assigning a monetary value to the world’s remaining rainforests so that companies can continue to buy permits to continue polluting. In other words, a solution that treats the world’s remaining rainforests like commercial carbon sinks.

None of these measures have been effective in reducing emissions. In fact, emissions have accelerated over the past fifteen years since these measures were first introduced. Worse, some of these measures threaten the rights of many indigenous people who have been the custodians and protectors of these areas. In some cases they have prompted another land grab by the very governments and corporations responsible for emissions. So calling for climate justice is about calling bullshit on market mechanisms and green capitalism. The system is built on the search for profit, and in the process it tears apart the environment and indigenous communities. No solution can come from within the system.

Economic justice

What forces can deliver climate justice? Injustice is embedded into the world’s current economic system and its political institutions. At the Cop15 in Copenhagen in 2009, the world’s rich countries promised to pay the poor countries over $100 billion per year in climate finance by 2020. To date they have delivered less than $20 billion. When the Paris climate agreement was signed-off in 2015, it promised to limit global temperatures by 1.5 degrees. The agreement forced the world’s poorest countries to sign away any right to sue the world’s rich countries for the consequences of climate chaos.

Institutions like the UN reflect the global power imbalances in the world. The imbalance between the rich countries of the Global North—states such as Canada, the  EU, Japan, the USA and Britain—and the Global South. Even within the Global South, there are differences between the newly industrialised countries such as India, Indonesia, China, Brazil and smaller countries such as Bolivia, Bangladesh, most African states and the Pacific Island nations. And even within those states there are conflicts between the rich elites who control the government and the rest of society.

This is not even to mention the oligarchic petro—states such as Russia and Saudi Arabia, whose interest is to continue business as usual regardless of the consequences for the climate. The UN is beholden to the views of the most powerful countries, with smaller nations holding very little sway. So UN general secretary Antonio Guitierres might say the latest IPCC report is “code red”, but the reality is that the institution he serves upholds the system that has got us into this mess.

Politicians have given cover to some of the most blatant examples of climate injustice, such as the decades long conflict of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta with Royal Dutch Shell and the Nigerian government. The reckless pursuit of oil has devastated the delta and deprived the Ogoni people of their means of subsistence through fishing as the water is so contaminated in oil. Yet when their leaders rose up to oppose this destruction, Shell conspired with the Nigerian military dictatorship to have one of their leaders, Ken Sarowiwa, put on trial and executed.

Or we could consider the case of Texaco and Chevron in Ecuador, whose lands were contaminated by oil drilling in one of the worst cases of oil pollution ever to appear in an international court. In 1993, the local community filed a class action lawsuit to force former well operator Texaco—acquired by Chevron Corporation in 2001—to clean up the area and provide for the care of the 30,000 inhabitants affected by oil contamination. In February 2011, an Ecuadorian court ordered Chevron to pay $8 billion in compensation. The verdict was later confirmed by the Ecuador Supreme Court in 2013, with the amount fixed to $9.5 billion. Chevron simply refused to pay the judgement claiming that the decision was “illegitimate and inapplicable”. A ruling deeming the Ecuadorian verdict as unenforceable.

These examples illustrate the institutions of global capitalism do not exist to uphold any principles of justice, let alone climate justice. If one court rules against them they will just appeal to a higher international court, as Chevron did, until they get the result they want. Our global economic and political system is rigged. It exists to defend the interests of the rich and powerful at our expense.

Radical justice

The fundamental divide in society is not between vegans and those who occasionally consume animal products. Neither is it between the majority of people in the Global North and the people of the Global South. The working class of the Global North are not the problem, they are a big part of the solution to the climate crisis. If we are going to rapidly transform society towards a sustainable future where planet and people come before profit, workers are central. We need millions of people to work in renewable energy, refit homes, build defences against extreme weather, improve health facilities and so much more. The one million climate jobs campaign has illustrated this in great detail. The global wave of climate strikes of 2019, inspired by the Fridays for Future movement of school students, shows how workers can be won over to the idea of climate justice. It was a small but promising step in mobilising the working class of the Global North for climate justice.

The real divide is between a tiny minority who profit from the destruction of nature. Just 100 corporations are responsible for 70 percent of global carbon emissions. At the head of these corporations are the key decision makers who continue to profit from a system that is plunging the world into a climate abyss. They are to be found in the world’s major financial centres—Frankfurt, London, New York, Paris, Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Singapore, and Tokyo. It is not just because these decision makers are greedy and reckless, although many of them are. Capitalism is a system driven forward by competition between corporations, which means everything is subordinated to the logic of profit maximisation.

There can be no solutions to the climate crisis which maintains the status quo. The slogan of the climate justice movement is “system change not climate change”. Who stands in the way of climate justice? It is the corporations that have profited from climate destruction and the governments who defend their interests who are the key obstacles. There can be no genuine climate justice until we put an end to the system that rewards those who profit from climate destruction. “System change” is about challenging the economics of capitalism, but also the racism, inequality and oppression that are intrinsic to how it operates.

No government or institution will deliver climate justice for us. Climate justice can only be won from below, from the struggle of ordinary people fighting to build a more sustainable and just world.