Climate justice and capabilities: a framework for adaptation policy.

Author:Schlosberg, David

We are already living with climate change. While the political arguments about causes and responses drag on, the people who are directly affected by its very real and increasing effects are beginning to face the urgent new reality of adaptation. As has been well documented, actual trends for a number of indicators--warming, rising sea levels, and extreme weather, for example--have far exceeded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) predictions of just a few years ago. (1) At the same time, one of the major political discourses surrounding climate change policy, at both the global and local level, has been that of climate justice. Climate justice theorists, governments of the most vulnerable nations, and activists and organizations in both local and global civil society have articulated a range of frameworks for understanding the relationship between the effects of climate change and conceptions of justice and fairness. These approaches include fairly straightforward polluter pays models (based on historical responsibility), fair share models (based on the equal allocation of emissions), and various rights-based models (such as development rights, human rights, and environmental rights). The strong assumption behind these models is that normative theories of climate justice can ground global climate policies. The question here is how those can be applied to the reality and necessity of adaptation.

This article offers four arguments with regard to the current state of climate justice theory and its relationship to policy-making. First, most well-known approaches to climate justice have two important weaknesses, in that they fail to take advantage of two crucial developments in recent justice theory: one, the identification of social and political misrecognition as the key underlying condition of the maldistribution of goods and risks; (2) and two, the influential capabilities approach, which focuses on the specific range of basic needs and capabilities (including recognition) that human beings require to function. (3) These two approaches help us understand the political, social, and cultural conditions--in addition to the physical ones--that create and sustain vulnerability. In addition, the vast majority of the current theories of climate justice are focused on frameworks of prevention or mitigation, or on the distribution of the costs of adaptation to climate change. This leaves a crucial dimension under-addressed: how justice can be applied to the ways we actually adapt to the very real and growing effects of climate change on the ground.

Second, adopting a capabilities approach to climate change justice bridges the gap between ideal and abstract notions of climate justice theory on the one hand and the reality of policy-making for adaptation on the other. A capabilities approach can bring social and political recognition of specific and local vulnerabilities and the effects of climate change on the basic needs of human beings in various places and under different conditions. I argue that the capabilities approach offers a particularly constructive way of understanding issues of vulnerability and impact, and thus helps us better to conceive exactly what adaptation to climate change would consist of. A capabilities approach to climate justice can be used as a normative guideline for climate policies and offers quite concrete standards by which to measure progress. (4)

Third, and against the individualist assumptions of most capabilities approaches (and most liberal conceptions of justice), I argue that capabilities can be used to understand, catalog, and address both individual and community-level needs and vulnerabilities. A capabilities-based approach to adaptation, in other words, offers a way to assess vulnerability as it varies across location and scale, benchmark adaptation needs and goals, and include the affected public in the development of adaptation policy.

Finally, a capabilities approach acknowledges that justice depends on a revised understanding of the relationship between human beings and the nonhuman world. Clearly, human needs and capabilities depend directly on the environment, and our impact on the global climate is creating and/or exacerbating a range of vulnerabilities. Such an approach to climate justice would therefore recognize and seek to encompass the reality of our immersion in, and dependence on, the functioning of the natural world. What I propose is, in essence, a framework of justice for the anthropocene.


In this section I will simply summarize a few key recent approaches to climate change justice in order to make clear the contrast between distributional and rights-based arguments on the one hand and my proposal for a recognition-and capabilities-based way of thinking about the issue on the other.

One key approach focuses on the historical responsibility that some may bear for the present situation. (5) The central argument is that there are specific states, acting within particular practices of industrial development, that have brought us to our current climate change crisis, and that those parties should now pay the current costs of their past transgressions. Proponents of historical responsibility note that already vulnerable people in the developing world will be more, and more quickly, affected by climate change in their everyday lives than those in developed countries. Turning to the basic fairness of a climate agreement, proponents of historical responsibility argue that those with more responsibility for causing global climate change should have a greater role in preventing or mitigating its impacts. Approaches based on this idea adopt a basic polluter pays principle that puts the burden squarely on long-industrialized nations.

An alternative approach to climate justice is a per capita equity argument, or a "carbon egalitarianism." (6) Rather than focus on past responsibility for emissions, this approach seeks to give everyone an equal "share of the capacity of the atmospheric sink." (7) Proposals based on the equity principle would require a scientific agreement on the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions to be allowed; that amount would be divided by the total world population, and the result would be an equal emissions allowance for each person on the planet. Each country would be allowed to emit the sum of its population times the allowable per person emissions. In addition, Peter Singer adds a cap and trade system, whereby countries with higher emissions could buy allowances from those with lower emissions. In essence, this system would result in both lower emissions overall and compensation to nations that use less than their per capita share. It would require both the equitable consideration of each country and a type of payment scheme that would demand that the more historically responsible pay a greater share of the cost of climate change.

The per capita approach, however, does not take into account the variation in the needs of people living in different places; rather, in its equal distribution of emission shares, a basic recognition of the differences of place is simply dismissed. Yet living in unlike places and environments, and with different ways of life with varied needs, means that we might consider differential allocations, more locally defined. To give one example, a unit of carbon allocation will provide a different level of basic need to the person in a mild climate than another in a harsher environment. (8)

Another major approach to climate justice focuses on rights--basic human rights, rights to development, and more specific environmental rights--and the differentiated duties and responsibilities that flow from them. Simon Caney makes the claim that all people have a right not to suffer from climate impacts that undermine their basic interests, and has argued that climate change violates the human rights to life, health, and subsistence. (9) Paul Baer and his colleagues at EcoEquity combine a historical approach with a rights-based perspective to forge a development rights argument. They focus on the preservation of "the right of all people to reach a dignified level of sustainable human development free of the privations of poverty." (10) Importantly, neither Caney's basic rights nor the development rights emphasized by Baer and EcoEquity are claimed as new rights; rather, climate change is seen as a new threat to these already established rights. Combining these approaches, Steve Vanderheiden has offered a notion of climate justice based on both environmental and development rights. (11) Here, the right to development is rearticulated as a right to have the basic environment in which human flourishing is possible, including a stable climate system. Vanderheiden, following Henry Shue, insists that basic environmental and development rights trump other claims that are less basic to flourishing, and that developed countries are required not only not to impede others from pursuing development but also to pay the full costs of their own current luxury. The innovation here is that this approach is sensitive to the environmental conditions necessary for development and functioning while maintaining that all individuals with these rights also have the burden, duty, and responsibility associated with protecting the rights of others.

One of the most promising aspects of the rights-based frameworks is that they move beyond a notion of climate justice based on equity alone to one focused on the environmental and developmental conditions that individuals, communities, and states need to survive, develop, and function. The focus has begun to shift from ideal notions of justice and equity to how the reality of climate change makes human lives more vulnerable in specific ways.

This expansion of the human rights framework for climate justice to encompass such basic needs is clearly...

To continue reading