Climate Justice: Why Climate Change Is a Social Justice Issue

Mitigating climate change is one of humanity’s greatest challenges. In keeping with the global movement towards racial justice, this class will introduce and define the concept of “climate justice.” Using specific examples of environmental racism and social inequities, the course will explore what it means to look at climate change as a social justice issue.





How does the death rate affect the population growth rate? Won’t death rates go up because there’s no food, for example?
Yes, chronic hunger and malnutrition do kill people every year, along with preventable deaths from diseases, pregnancy-related complications, climate-related natural disasters, etc. But fertility rates are still higher than mortality rates, which ensures that the population continues growing in almost every country on earth. So while higher death rates can affect the rate of population growth, we are nowhere near a situation where death rates are high enough to stop our population from growing. In fact, we add over 80 million people to the world’s population (net) every single year—about a billion people every dozen years.

Economists’ population predictions differ markedly from those of ecologists, who predict boom/bust (we are at the end of boom). Won’t underestimating the urgency delay action?
The UN Population Division creates the most often-cited population projections, and the people who create those projections are demographers. They use the latest censuses and other demographic surveys and then make assumptions about fertility and mortality depending on what’s happened historically in other countries that have already gone through or started going through the demographic transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates.

You’re right that these projections don’t take into account ecological limits. Ecologists who produce population projections based on environmental tipping points show us another version of the future, where lives are cut short because of the planet’s inability to support the human population. It’s worth considering both. It’s also worth considering that a current consequence of having reached carrying capacity in some places is that people often live lives plagued by hunger, disease, and preventable or treatable injuries—they might not necessarily die of these plights, but they certainly aren’t able to live the healthy, fulfilling lives we’d hope everyone around the world would get to experience.

Won’t CO2 emissions increase as a country becomes richer and has fewer births? Won’t those countries become consumers like other more affluent countries?
It’s true that as countries develop and people begin to have more comfortable lives, their per capita emissions rise. This is the reason that we need to switch to renewable energy at the same time that we’re slowing population growth—doing one without the other won’t be enough to avert the most severe impacts of climate change.

We should simultaneously strive for population stabilization, reduced per capita consumption in wealthy countries, a switch to renewable energy, and a rise in consumption in the poorest places to a level that allows people to live healthy, comfortable, fulfilling lives.

Do we see examples of places around the world where, due to climate change, people are literally moving away because they are no longer habitable to human life?
People are leaving rural areas that can no longer sustain subsistence crops for the cities in their own countries. Those cities are then becoming overcrowded, which pushes people to migrate across borders. There was an interesting article about this in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago.

That 2 million number (vulnerable to flooding) has to be extremely understated. 2 million along the Missouri are vulnerable to flooding, and the US is much larger than the Missouri watershed.
That number is from an article in the Associated Press (2017) that identified communities across the U.S. that are located next to toxic Superfund sites and were at-risk for flooding from climate impacts. The number of Americans in general who are subject to flooding is much higher than 2 million, yes!

There are lots of reasons to promote access to reproductive health care and contraception, but it’s less clear how doing this in areas of greatest fertility (and most vulnerable) will help much with world climate change, or environmental justice in general?
Increasing access to reproductive health care has a variety of social and economic benefits to society, including reductions in poverty rates, lower rates of maternal and infant mortality, slower population growth, increases in education rates, and increases in the overall status of women. When women are able to choose if and when they become pregnant, they gain political and economic power that, along with the aforementioned benefits, is passed on to subsequent generations. When women have access to contraceptives and education, they tend to have fewer, healthier children. Higher levels of education facilitate higher levels of economic engagement, and contribute to better overall health for women and families. This increases climate resilience, or the ability to withstand, adapt to, and recover from climate impacts more readily and successfully than populations without access to such resources.

It seems to me that climate justice/environmental justice/social justice issues and solutions differ considerably between developed and developing countries (the US vs. Uganda, say). It would be easier if we focused on one at a time.
I think you’re right! As I was preparing for this class, I think I got a little overwhelmed by the subject matter, and was eager to include as much as possible. In the future, I will pick one to focus on. Thank you!

I don’t think the unmet need for contraception is higher in developing countries. It is about 45% globally.
We don’t have a figure for the unmet need at the global level, but in low- and middle-income countries, 46% of women who want to avoid pregnancy have an unmet need for modern contraception, according to the latest data from the Guttmacher Institute. We don’t have the same data for the U.S., but we do know that 45% of pregnancies in the United States are unintended—that is, they were either wanted at a later date or not at all. So you are absolutely right that we have a lot of work to do right here at home as well.

There are many barriers to contraceptive use, in the U.S. and around the world. Of course, cost and accessibility are among the most important. But fear of side effects and discontinuation of contraception due to actual or perceived side effects are also major reasons for non-use. Fear or intimidation by a partner or other family member is another. That’s why all family planning programs should include education, outreach, and destigmatization in their programming—and most do!

Of the UN, IMF, and World Bank, which is taking the biggest steps to alleviate the conditions you have been talking about?
Each organization approaches the issues differently, whether with innovative solutions for subsistence farmers to increase crop yields, help to relocate to higher ground in places with sea-level rise, humanitarian relief after climate-caused natural disasters, or expanding access to family planning and infant/child health (one of the reasons people in low-income settings have many children is because they know not all of them are likely to survive to adulthood—when infant and child mortality decreases, so, typically, does fertility).