Last week’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate impacts, vulnerabilities and adaptation marks a breakthrough for emphasizing environmental justice in the worldwide effort to limit global warming, some climate experts say.
Since the IPCC’s last assessment of climate science in 2014, which was part of the basis for the Paris climate agreement, there has been a “tremendous increase in societal awareness of environmental justice issues,” said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School. “The report reflects this throughout.”
The new research reviewed by the IPCC shows more clearly than ever how greenhouse gas emissions from a minority of people in developed countries are driving deadly climate extremes like heat waves and droughts, while poorer Black and Brown people in developing countries disproportionately bear the impacts, including deaths, property destruction, famines and displacement.
The report’s “exhaustive documentation” of the fundamental injustice of global warming “can help identify approaches that would reduce these disparities,” Gerrard said.
The word “justice” did not even appear in the Summary for Policy Makers of the 2014 edition of the report, said Ko Barrett, IPCC vice chair and senior advisor for science at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The new assessment “looked at global data on mortality due to floods, droughts and storms in the last decade (2010-2020), and found that deaths were 15 times higher per event in global hotspots of high human vulnerability, particularly in Africa, Asia, small islands and Central and South America,” Barrett said.
The higher death rate can’t just be explained by the frequency or intensity of the extremes, she said. “Clearly, effectively and fairly addressing the challenges of climate change will require knowing, understanding, and recognizing climate-related inequalities.”
Effective adaptation requires asking, “Are we being fair and careful not to further disadvantage poor, vulnerable and under-represented populations,” she said. The answers led the IPCC to conclude that “Inclusive governance that prioritizes equity and justice in adaptation planning and implementation leads to more effective and sustainable adaptation outcomes.”
If policy makers heed the report, it can help lay “the scientific groundwork for the creation of equity-based development and infrastructure projects,” Barrett said.
Science Makes Governments More Accountable
The report’s key documents provide a scientific basis for local, national and global climate policy decisions. Wolfgang Cramer, a climate researcher at the Mediterranean Institute of Biodiversity and Marine and Continental Ecology and an author of the report, said it’s important to note that all governments sign off on the final Summary for Policymakers, leaving them no excuse to not act.
That document is “a government call, not just a bunch of scientists who just decided to do this,” he said. “During the approval meeting every sentence is projected onto a shared screen, and sentence by sentence, we are asking them: Do you understand? Do you hear us?”
When governments approve the report, it’s a “crucial moment,” he said.
After that, citizens don’t have to debate the facts of climate change with their governments, but can tell them “‘You have already taken notice of the message,’” he said. “‘what we’re going to discuss now is what to do.’”
The IPCC more clearly than ever recognizes that ecosystems and biodiversity are “equally as important as humanity, and that interact with humanity,” making climate justice a global issue for humanity, Cramer said.
Previous IPCC reports have been used to support a number of lawsuits by citizens, youth groups and local governments against climate polluters, but the new focus on justice, backed by more social science research, can help strengthen the legal case for climate action, said Carroll Muffett, president and director of the Center for International Environmental Law.
The Paris climate agreement spells out global climate concerns related to justice, including human rights impacts, especially to Indigenous communities, along with gender and generational inequality. Given the way global climate governance works, the pact’s language was practically an invitation for the IPCC to focus more on justice, Muffett said.
“In the wake of that we had the 1.5 report,” he said. That 2016 IPCC science review showed the grim cost of heating up the planet more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (3.6 F), which Muffett said can be “measured in human lives.”
As a result, the IPCC had to start mainstreaming social and environmental justice considerations, not just in the impacts of climate change, but how society deals with them.
“So many of the warning flags have to do with the social dimensions of mitigation strategies, forcing the IPCC to grapple with that for the first time,” he said. “If you don’t mainstream those considerations in developing mitigation and adaptation, it shows we could do massive additional harm.”
The IPCC report is a new pillar strengthening the legal foundation for holding governments and businesses accountable for meeting their obligations under climate agreements and policies, Muffett said.
“From a legal perspective, if you look at oil majors and other polluting industries, we can say they were on notice, that they misled consumers, investors and governments,” he said.
“If you adopt something that is out of alignment with a 1.5 degrees world, you are intentionally going down a path that will result in human rights violations.”
Just seven years ago in Paris, Muffett said, it was a fight just to keep the 1.5-degree warming limit on the table. Now, the new report includes detailed information on the dangers of exceeding that limit, including, along with impacts to forests, coral reefs and other ecosystems, damages to human communities that can’t be undone, he said, raising the stakes for climate action.
Climate strategies that involve exceeding that limit and relying on unproven technologies to reduce the temperature again later “are building into them massive amounts of suffering and loss from the beginning,” he added.
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Muffett said it was encouraging to see the IPCC report repeatedly include traditional knowledge and the expertise of Indigenous peoples as part of the climate justice and equity conversation.
“That speaks to a fundamental step change we’ve been seeing in the wider climate space for the last several years, where we’re realizing there are other and equally valid ways of knowing, with respect to both climate science and climate impacts,” he said. Finally you see the mainstream science community accepting and acknowledging that.”
Integrating Indigenous Knowledge is Not Easy
Getting the IPCC to that point wasn’t easy, said Heidi Steltzer, a mountain ecologist and climate researcher based at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. She had already been influenced by Indigenous knowledge when she worked on a special section of the 2019 IPCC report on oceans, ice and snow, she said, after many years of collaborating on education at a university with a student body about 41 percent Native American.
When she met the other authors at a meeting in March 2019, with the report due in May, she felt that background made her contribution stand out.
“Mine was different from most of them, or perhaps it is that I felt more free to attempt something different,” she said. “That’s what’s come from the experiences at Fort Lewis, feeling more free to try to do work that is authentic.”
It was the first time since 1996 that an IPCC report would dedicate a chapter to the world’s mountains, and she said she wanted to tell a story, as Indigenous people might, rather than just list scientific facts.
“I felt that the story couldn’t just be about changing snow and ice in the high mountains,” she said. “We can’t isolate the drivers of change, we can’t know what would happen if only one thing changed, like snow melting earlier. An integration of understanding is needed because things are happening in concert.”
Stories, she had learned, is how Native peoples build that integration of understanding.
“Our world is changing in many ways at once. Ice and snow, atmosphere and warmth, species abundances and adaptations,” she said. “Western science teaches us to pull these pieces apart, to determine precisely the ecosystem impacts of each. Yet, we can’t do this, and for me, it’s become strange that we try.”
Steltzer said she met resistance to the approach she wanted to take as she revised the text.
“I felt trapped. I’d committed to the work and knew it was important to do,” she said. “There wasn’t much time and there were strong differences of opinion.”
But she found at least a few allies who also recognized the need to tell a more holistic story.
“Together, we ensured that at least a few key statements described the concert taking place in the mountains of our world as the presence and persistence of snow and ice shrink and it’s warmer than it once was.”
Last week’s report suggests the groundwork laid by Steltzer and others to see climate science from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and communities of color is paying off, as more diverse voices from around the world are being included in the panel’s work.
“There is prioritization on greater equity across gender and across the global North and South,” she said. “Social justice is fundamental to who comes together and to valuing the different perspectives equally. The soft spoken person, the woman of color, the islander and the forest dweller should have equal influence to those with identities of greater privilege.”