Climate Justice in the Anthropocene

02 May to 03 May

Coordinators: Sam Adelman (University of Warwick), Louis Kotze (Northwestern University)

Description of the meeting

The topic of the workshop is climate justice in the Anthropocene. Natural scientists use the concept of the Anthropocene to highlight the rupture of the Earth System. In 2002, Nobel chemistry laureate Paul Crutzen popularised the concept when arguing that ‘It seems appropriate to assign the term “Anthropocene” to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch’. Future geologists will find evidence in the planet’s stratigraphy of radionuclides from nuclear weapons testing, greenhouse gas emissions, the 300 metric tonnes of plastic produced annually, and enough concrete to cover the surface of the planet-more than half of which has been produced in the past two decades.

The Anthropocene epoch is a period in Earth’s geological history signalling an unprecedented global socio-ecological crisis where humans act as geological agents capable of changing the Earth system. Stratigraphically, this denotes a new period in Earth history where humans dominate the geological epoch by acting as major driving forces in modifying the biosphere: humans are significantly altering bio-geochemical or element cycles, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur that are fundamental to life on Earth; as well as causing unprecedented modifications of water, energy and biological cycles. As a consequence, virtually all global environmental indicators have been rising exponentially, showing that the Earth system has clearly moved outside the envelope of Holocene variability. To this end, the Anthropocene Working Group recently concluded that there is probably convincing evidence to formalize the Anthropocene as the new geological epoch in the near future.

Yet, whether it is formalized or not, what is already clear from the burgeoning and ever-expanding academic and popular literature, is that the Anthropocene concept has captured an ever-widening audience and emerged as a powerful trope. As a discursive category the Anthropocene now occupies a central position in the human-environment relations discourse.

The Anthropocene has many scholarly manifestations or utilities: it could signify a complex time of accelerated anthropogenic change; it could be a narrative framing of contemporary life and futures; it could act as a lens through which to view multispecies worlds in formation; and/or a spatial and material manifestation of specific economic, scientific, and political practices. As it stands, the Anthropocene is “paradigm dressed as epoch”; it has entered the Zeitgeist in spectacular fashion, and it has scientific respectability despite not yet being formalized. In addition, the Anthropocene radically unsettles the philosophical, epistemological and ontological ground on which both the natural sciences and the social sciences/humanities have traditionally stood.

In addition to anthropogenic climate change, eight other planetary boundaries have been breached or are under threat. (The nine boundaries are: biodiversity, climate change, biogeochemical flows (these have been breached), stratospheric ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading, ocean acidification global freshwater use, land system change, and chemical pollution (all in danger of being breached)). Nearly half the Earth’s land surface has been transformed by human activity during the Great Acceleration, with significant impacts on nutrient cycling, biodiversity, ecosystems and soil structure. More than half of all accessible freshwater is utilised directly or indirectly by human beings, and underground water resources are being rapidly depleted.

The Anthropocene has entered public consciousness and is a useful concept within which to frame climate justice. It is also a problematic concept to the extent that it implies that all human beings are equally responsible for the harms arising from anthropogenic global warming. The workshop will problematize the notion of the Anthropocene, and discuss how climate justice can be achieved for people and communities most vulnerable to but least responsible for anthropogenic global warming.

The workshop will consider the needs and interests of countries in the global South with relatively low adaptive capacities as well as the needs of the poor and vulnerable in developed countries through an assessment of the links between environmental and climate justice. The effectiveness of the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change will be assessed. This assessment will include a discussion of compensation and reparations, and relocation and resettlement.

The workshop will consider the similarities and differences between climate justice and environmental justice and the requirements for a coherent theory of climate justice that provides answers to the question who owes what to whom, and why?

Themes will include:

  • What is a just distribution of climate-related risks?
  • Who should provide resources for adaptation, mitigation and loss and damage, according to which criteria?
  • How is climate justice related to gender, global and distributive justice?
  • What is the potential of the Sustainable Development Goals to achieve global climate justice?
  • To what extent can human rights be used to protect against climate injustices?
  • How could climate justice be achieved for the world’s most vulnerable categories of people, including, among others, women, children, the Global South’s poor and indigenous people?
  • What are the correlations and potentially reinforcing impulses between climate justice and gender justice?
  • What forms should a just transition to enable global climate justice (referred to in the Preamble to the Paris Agreement) take?
  • How should justice be conceived and achieved for small island developing states whose existence is threatened by rising sea levels?
  • What is the role of and the potential risks of geoengineering in pursuit of climate justice and are these risks worth taking?
  • To what extent is the nascent body of climate litigation across the globe useful in the pursuit of climate justice.



Our experience in Oñati

A workshop on Climate Justice in the Anthropocene took place from 2-3 May 2019 at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in Oñati, Spain. The workshop was conceived, initiated and coordinated by Sam Adelman and Louis Kotze. Over two days, participants from all over the world engaged in in-depth debate over the contours of climate justice in the Anthropocene, the limits of current approaches and possible ways forward, especially in light of the IPCC report Global Warming of 1.5oC. The discussion touched on the criteria for climate justice; who owes what to whom, in what form and why; the extent to which Holocene categories of justice – distributive, environmental, gender, global, reparative – are relevant in the Anthropocene; and how climate justice relates to vulnerability and resilience.

In a highly interactive setting, the workshop participants discussed fourteen draft papers on the theoretical underpinning of climate justice, earth system governance, and climate change litigation. Selected papers from the workshop will be published in the prestigious publication series of the International Institute for the Sociology of Law.

For more information: 

Workshop Coordination Team

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