Climate Justice: An important component of climate adaptation projects

Green Transition 6 July 2018 Trine Stausgaard Munk

All over the world, regions, countries and cities are increasingly investing in projects that help them adapt to more fierce and unpredictable weather conditions. A growing number of these projects seek to include a ‘climate justice’ dimension. But what is climate justice and how can this new concept be operationalised and implemented?

8 min

Climate change and social inequality are two crucial challenges currently faced by the international community, both on a global and a local level. Even though the wealthiest countries and high-income households carry more responsibility for climate change, the poor are the most severely impacted by its effects. This is because they usually live in areas exposed to environmental hazards, such as floodplains or steep slopes, and lack the necessary infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather. That is why the concept of climate justice is key in reducing growing inequalities. 

What is Climate Justice?

Climate justice highlights one of the biggest challenges of our time – climate change – while building on the historically evolved concepts of social and environmental justice and concepts of social equity.

Social justice is about fair treatment and involvement of all people and communities in the development, implementation and enforcement of laws, regulations and policies.

Environmental Justice emerged as a concept in literature and public discourse in the 1980s United States, as a reaction to communities of colour being in closer proximity to toxic waste sites. The following movement was built on principles of social justice and used those principles to reframe environmental issues as social issues. The term has expanded to look beyond toxic waste and now incorporates the everyday environment of marginalized groups, in which a good environment is key to achieving social equity.

Climate justice is a development of the environmental justice movement, gaining traction within the last five years. It is generally analysed and discussed on two levels:

One is at the international level, where the discourse revolves around the responsibility for creating the burden and the responsibility to pay for, or otherwise support, alleviating and mitigating climate change.

The second is the community level, where lower socio-economic groups are typically the most exposed and vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This level deals less with climate change mitigation and instead focuses on gaining political power and representation in the adaptation process, as well as gaining access to resources to address the effects of climate change.

Justice in relation to climate change is hence related to the uneven (spatial) distribution of climate change exposure, vulnerability and capacity.

Justice is typically divided into three types: Procedural Justice (participation, inclusiveness, and empowerment in decision-making), Distributive Justice (the spatial and statistical distribution of costs, benefits and risks) and Justice as Recognition (the underlying determinants of procedural and distributional justice).

Climate Justice needs to embrace all the three types.

Holistic business cases with a climate justice dimension

Recently, climate justice has won increasing attention in pressuring measures for climate change adaptation to directly address the inherent inequality posed by climate change. Cities and communities want to understand how funds spent on climate change adaptation can simultaneously improve the climate justice. Or in other words,  how we ensure that climate adaptation investments are just.

Therefore, cities and utilities look to build holistic business cases for climate change adaptation to make more informed decision-making. These business cases can be crucial to unlock funding and to support complex and sensitive political processes.

However, being able to include these social aspects in business cases, requires better understanding of how such measures can be designed into our existing climate change adaptation solutions, which indicators are relevant, how we can quantify them and how we can monetize them through automated and digitalised approaches.

Methods for measuring climate justice

When examining literature on social vulnerability and social equity in relation to the environment and climate change, research tends to simply overlay data concerning climate change hazards with demographic factors in a given area, to spatially identify the climate-vulnerable groups within the community.

Focus has been on the creation of indices that combine statistical environmental and demographic data, rather than on identifying the specific economic weight of a variation of the indicator.

In fact, very little has been done in the direction of documenting the causal chain or monetizing or attributing a unit-prize to the chosen indicator’s social vulnerability, to provide for a more tangible evaluation of the effects of climate action.

Concerning the combination of indices, different examples can be found within the available literature:

  • The Climate Justice Index has been created by combining and attributing equal weights to Climate Change-Induced Flooding Hazard Index (CCFHI), Environmental Hazard Index (EHI), and Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI).
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) displays and combines environmental and demographic information of a given area, drawing from publicly available data.
  • The California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen) identifies California communities by census tract that are disproportionately burdened by, and vulnerable to, multiple sources of pollution. Cutter et al. developed a social vulnerability score, by looking at eleven composite indicators that represent factors that contribute to social vulnerability, and mapped the scores based on standard deviation from the mean.
  • Colburn et al overlaid, with the help of GIS, four social vulnerability indices (personal disruption, labor force, poverty index and housing index) with climate vulnerability (community vulnerability to sea level rise, business vulnerable to seal level rise and the species vulnerability and catch diversity of each fishing region) to identify which groups are especially vulnerable to climate change.
  • Kim et. al. combined climate risk vulnerability with the GINI coefficient (which provides a measure of social equity) and concluded that race, social service assets and economic factors were disproportionately affected by climate risk supporting the idea that climate injustice and climate change are related.
  • Martinucci et. al. layered social characteristics, physical exposure and infrastructure assessment using GIS.

In respect to studies on quantified impacts of climate change on poverty, there are two approaches: integrated modeling assessments which run scenarios of climate variability impacts on economic growth with and without climate change predictions, and econometric studies which compare past changes in climate effects on poverty to predict future impacts.

Operationalizing climate justice: Collaboration with UMASS

In order to investigate current trends within climate justice and help societies and authorities operationalise climate justice, Ramboll has started a partnership with University of Massachusetts Boston (UMASS). As part of this collaboration, Ramboll hosted a workshop in Boston in 2018 to ask stakeholders to co-investigate current trends in and help operationalise climate justice.

The participants were first asked to describe what they thought were the key concepts to climate justice. They then discussed what they found were key indicators of climate justice and how they would take an indicator and use it to evaluate the level of justice in an area. Participants discussed the inherent characteristics of groups they found to be historically and currently disadvantaged by institutions.

The table below was produced by synthetizing the most common frameworks for assessing social vulnerability identified within the literature with the outcomes of the Workshop held with stakeholders in November. Social vulnerability and social inequity can be a factor of personal status, community status and urban context. The most important parameters to assess these factors have been listed here, their purpose being that of allowing to track changes in vulnerability throughout the course of the adaptation planning and understanding its impact on climate justice within the community.

Climate justice model

Climate justice model

A key outcome of the workshop was acknowledging a lack of documentation regarding the direct and indirect components of equity in relation to climate change. Ramboll is currently working with UMass on the following two activities:

  1. A method to mapping the historic and inherent inequity of a community and identification of components that may be directly influenced by climate adaptation (e.g. education) and those that cannot (but are indirectly influenced, e.g. race)

  2. Unfolding social cohesion: the key component identified during the workshop, and a parameter recognized in literature as a key factor for deciding the level of resilience for a community. Is it possible to develop a method to estimate social cohesion? To increase it? And to monitor and evaluate it?

Further progress from this collaboration will be published on Ramboll websites.

Read more

Co-benefits and climate justice (PDF, 1.6 MB)

Written by Martin Zoffmann and Trine Stausgaard Munk

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