books climate change social justice

Book review: What Climate Justice Means, by Elizabeth Cripps

“We have then, a snapshot of injustice” writes Elizabeth Cripps. “Those races, cultures and communities least to blame for climate change suffer most, and are kept out of decision making.”

This much is well covered in other places. See Anne Kampf on the gender dimension, Vanessa Nakate’s book describes the marginalisation of Africa, my own book looks at climate and race, and there are many others. What Cripps does is bring all these strands together, and then expand them with the second part of that title – why we should care.

As the comments section or social media will tell you, there are plenty of people who are quite happy to tolerate injustice when it doesn’t affect them. That’s where Elizabeth Cripps’ book breaks new ground. As a moral philosopher, she writes about our duty to prevent suffering, and the climate crisis as a violation of human rights. “Take the human rights not to be killed, not to be deprived of health or the means of feeding yourself. Climate change, caused by humans, suffered by humans, violates these.”

Not that humans are the limit of the book’s concerns. I was pleased to see a chapter on how climate change is an injustice towards animals. There is no shortage of attention to animals in the environmental movement. It’s the entry point for a lot of people, which means that climate justice advocates are often to the side, trying to raise awareness of how environmental problems affect marginalised communities. (Can we please stop talking about polar bears for one minute, and talk about structural inequalities?) Because of this divide, the language of climate justice is rarely applied to animals, and so it was refreshing to see it included here in a balanced and holistic way.

The book discusses climate justice in its historical context, looking at legacies of colonialism, and structures of patriarchy and racial inequality. The author finds useful parallels or thought experiments to tease out the rights and wrongs of climate change. “Continuing to profit from past greenhouse gas emissions is like benefiting from stolen goods once you know they were stolen”, for example, in a discussion of ecological debt.

Sometimes books like this can lay out the problems efficiently, but leave readers with nowhere to go. Cripps paints a useful picture of what climate justice looks like, in practical terms. She also acknowledges the difficulties with unusual honesty. She admits that people who benefit most from the status quo will not care, and will not be persuaded by moral arguments. What happens then? What if those who are willing to help end up shouldering more than their share of the burden, because those most responsible won’t change? We’re into the realms of the ‘non-ideal’, and this too feels unusual.

Some of the most powerful voices on climate justice are unequivocal and unashamedly idealistic. That has its place as truth-telling, but it only gets us so far. Without letting them off the hook, how do we have open conversations about what we do when the powerful won’t accept responsibility? Are we prepared to “do more even if others do nothing, because the lives at stake are more important than that kind of fairness”?

There are complex moral quandaries in What Climate Justice Means, but it’s written for everybody. And this is not philosophy as some kind of intellectual luxury. It’s a matter of life and death, of how we live with integrity in the face of a global catastrophe which we did not create, but in which we are complicit. “This should not be controversial” the book concludes. “It’s become politically polarized, but climate justice is about the bare minimum we owe to one another. It’s about people being able to lead decent lives, not starving or drowning or dying of malaria, now or in the future. It’s about not killing our fellow human beings.”

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