Injustice and oppression are global in scale. Why? Because Trans-Atlantic slavery and colonialism built the world we live in, and slavery and colonialism were unjust and oppressive. If we want reparations, we should be thinking more broadly about how to remake the world system.” 1

  • 1Táíwò, Olúfẹmi O. Reconsidering Reparations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022
global climate justice timeline

On July 14, 2020, then candidate Joe Biden released his climate plan: “The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice.” The plan outlines a comprehensive set of policies and goals aimed at promoting clean manufacturing jobs, aggressively curbing pollution, addressing instances of environmental racism across the nation, and expansive investments in and deployments of solar and wind technologies. Republicans attempted to paint the plan as a rebranded Green New Deal while those on the left thought Biden should endorse the existing Green New Deal framework. 2 Despite whatever political distance the Biden campaign felt was necessary to maintain from the Green New Deal, his climate plan and the GND share their core tenets: Jobs, Justice, and Decarbonization. Regardless of the name on the plan, justice and climate policy are intertwined goals.

It might seem an odd place to start an essay on global climate justice with a climate plan by a single country, however, this is sadly the state of much of contemporary climate justice discourse and precisely Field Notes critique of the Green New Deal’s justice pillar: climate and environmental justice stops at the borders of nation states. This fractured configuration of both climate and justice paints today’s nations as the visionaries and arbiters of a globally-just future; a world which no doubt would maintain the economic and political supremacy of the Global North over the Global South. This is in large part because contemporary thought surrounding global justice is firstly, too focused on the nation state as a site of achieving justice, and secondly is based on redistributing social and economic goods (within and between nations) based on a specific moment in time. Political philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò calls this a snapshot view of distributive justice, that is “one that analyzes the appropriateness of the current distribution of wealth, resources and economic goods at any given moment in time.” 3 Methodologies for measuring justice are fixated on injustice as a product of today’s socio-political formations, forgoing any ability to account for the historical accumulation of injustices and disadvantages that have built the world as it is today. 

We must admit, the maps featured along this essay operate under the snapshot view of distributive justice. The maps featured below, themselves, present a moment in time in which to address injustice. Each index is representative of today’s global distribution of income, cartographically delineated as geographies for NGOs, intergovernmental banks like the IMF and World Bank, and foreign investors to promote new economic opportunities for nations and peoples. Furthermore all four major indices of global justice (GINI index, the Palma Ratio, the Income Index derived from the Human Development Index, and the quintile ratio of income inequality) are measures of income. The contemporary language of global (in)justice is economics. 

  • Map of the globe showing the GINI Index
    Map of the globe showing the GINI Index
  • Map of the globe showing the Palma Ratio
    Map of the globe showing the Palma Ratio
  • Map of the globe showing the the Income Index derived from the Human Development Index
    Map of the globe showing the the Income Index derived from the Human Development Index
  • Map of the globe showing the Quintile Ratio of Income Inequality
    Map of the globe showing the Quintile Ratio of Income Inequality

In shades of blue and yellow, multiple measures of economic inequality are projected across the globe. The four measures are the GINI index, the Palma Ratio, the Income Index derived from the Human Development Index, and the quintile ratio of income inequality. Each ratio or index, by virtue of its specific calculus, tells a different story about the global distribution of income inequality. We ask: how can something which so concretely defines billions of lives be so hard to capture?

Not captured by the focus on economic factors of inequality are myriad social and material formations that must be rethought as the new conditions for a base standard of global living which focuses on assuring the best quality of life for as many people as possible. A focus on solely economics posits a world in need of repair and a world of sacrificed territories and peoples, ignoring the potential of a new, just future to be imagined, and won. 4

The economic stranglehold of justice discourse is perhaps most evident in contemporary discussions of reparations, which often focus on one-time monetary payments that aim to cleanly resolve past injustices. Reparations, in the broadest sense, are meant to rectify a wrong; they are a means of achieving justice. Often, reparation schema are bound by legal systems, limiting their geographical and historical reach. Throughout history attempts at codified systems of justice have ranged from the potentially violent Babylonian maxim of an ‘eye for an eye’ to the sprawling, privatized, carceral empire of the United States today. 5 These codified justice systems again run into the problem of the State: the enforcement of laws, and by extension achieving a defined level of justice, depends on being a citizen, aligning empire’s geographical reach and social hierarchies with the state-sanctioned definition of justice. Achieving justice through these state-bound systems depends on a documented injustice, one with a perpetrator to blame for the injustice. A bad actor rather than a bad system.

In the case of historic oppressions, parties and actors in the wrong might seem clear, for example the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation producing Redling maps for 239 American cities that categorically denied homeownership to Black citizens. But, these institutions were empowered by a Jim Crow friendly federal government. Establishing blame is complicated by asking who is ultimately responsible for the injustice of redlining: Cartographers who created the maps? The institutions themselves? Congressional representatives that created these institutions? What is clear through the fog of blame is that the federal government commissioned a cartographic practice that has resulted in nearly a century of economic injustice as generational wealth building was denied to thousands of Black citizens in the late 1930s. The city of Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, enacted a harm-based reparation program in 2021, offering $25,000 grants to qualifying Black residents for home repair, down payments, or other housing related needs. Eligibility was dependent on homebuyers or a direct ancestor being an Evanston resident between 1916 and 1969, or upon showing evidence of housing discrimination from Evanston policies. 6 While programs like these do make meaningful differences in the lives of those they help, historically-focused monetary reparations, once paid, tend to treat the injustice as a settled matter, clearing the conscience of the oppressor without guaranteeing future well-being of the oppressed. Like the snapshot view, these one-off payments treat historical injustices as a singular event that can be monetarily addressed rather than a systematic and layered history of continual disadvantage and limited capability. Globalized attempts at climate justice will have to move beyond singular events of harm and towards justice and reparations as a means to build a just world.

Táíwò is one scholar seeking new forms of enacting global climate justice. At the core of his critique, Táíwò takes issue with the harm-repair model of reparations. He argues that typical models of reparations have focused on addressing historic injustices as instances of harm, which, coupled with the unfolding futurity of the Climate Crisis, are no longer morally applicable or effective means of ensuring climate justice. 7 Harm-repair views on reparations trade on welfare narratives reducing instances of historical harm and injustice to the denial or removal of some pre-established baseline quality of life. It requires a naturalization of injustice and a valorization of global capitalism. Beyond the difficulty of who will confess their sins through economic repayment is simply the question of determining the monetary amount that will return disadvantaged citizens to a perceived baseline of the welfare state. Justice and injustice are measured in the language of economics. They are bound by willingness to pay and accept calculations, abstract models, and often revolve around two nearly impossible questions: what level of harm has been done, and what invented welfare baseline should harmed denizens economically be returned to? When, confined to a single nation-state these questions are nearly impossible to answer, but when given injustices, like the transatlantic slave trade, that cross international territories and involve temporally and physically co-existing oppressors, there is no clear standard welfare state to return to. Global injustice cannot be solved in Stata or R or in a spreadsheet.

Instead, Táíwò argues for a constructive idea of reparations, focused not on harms committed, but on the level of global well-being we wish to achieve. 8 Formulating the confluence of climate justice and global reparations as a future-oriented venture reattunes justice as a means to build a new world rather than recover a world already lost. Global climate justice is intent on building a better world for the global citizenry by adopting a materialist cosmopolitanism aimed at unmaking the global racial empire of today and creating institutions that materially benefit those who have been subject to accumulating disadvantages. 

Will we welcome people who flee submerged coastlines and sinking islands–or will we imprison them?” 9

  • 9Goodell, Jeff. The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World. Melbourne: Black Inc., 2018.

The materialist formulation of cosmopolitanism, which is the collection of beliefs that illustrate the philosophical and social implications of being a citizen of the world, is significantly expanded from the contemporary dignity-based focus of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism was first formulated by Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic, who in response to the unequal application of justice based on social status, declared himself a cosmopolitan, a “citizen of the world.” 10 Diogenes’s Cosmopolitanism was one of dignity: everyone is intrinsically equal regardless of their class, race, gender, or any other stratification that their societies fold them into and as such everyone should have equal access and opportunities afforded to them. This version of cosmopolitanism remained an abstract belief, discounting the importance of direct material and financial aid in ensuring that equal opportunities translated into equal capabilities to pursue them. Philosophers from Cicero to Kant would adopt this position in their formulations of justice, focusing on dignity of opportunity while often weakening the original unequivocal inclusivity of Diogenes’s totalizing claim of global citizenry. 11

Despite the weakened inclusivity of Cosmopolitanism, it remains the bedrock for discussing, organizing around, and legislating global justice. Political philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum notes that the Cosmopolitan position, thanks to its reverence within Western thought, has been adopted (and adapted) in the formation of many human rights campaigns, national constitutions, and international agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 12 However, she argues something different in her book The Cosmopolitan Tradition: the millennia-old tradition has highlighted the role of dignity over material well-being, bifurcating the moral duties of justice into establishing a level playing ground for everyone based on their own internal capacity or providing material aid that seeks to counter histories of accumulated disadvantages. By establishing these as different courses of justice, the idea that enacting a global regime of justice does not require monetary investment has been able to seep into international politics; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes a list of rights without any concrete means to ensure the goals of the declaration are achieved uniformly across the globe. As Nussbaum succinctly notes, “the accident of being born in one country rather than another pervasively shapes the life chances of every child who is born.” 13

The impact of place on someone’s capabilities is far more granular and nuanced than nationality alone. As the groundbreaking work of Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “father of environmental justice,” has shown, the distribution of pollutants and toxic materials follow lines of race and socio-economic status within the United States. 14 Bullard and others work at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit showed that commitments to environmental justice had to go beyond mere recognition of dignity: the environment we grow up in has a profound impact on our capabilities to live certain kinds of lives. 15 Environmental justice, and by extension, climate justice, are fundamentally about the material conditions of people’s lives.

The Climate Crisis is an inherently material phenomenon. Abstract concepts like dignity or honor do little to stop hurricanes, forest fires, storm surges, famine, or drought. The focus on dignity is in acute misalignment with Climate Crisis-induced resettlement that will occur across the 21st century, which will put immense strain on existing agricultural production systems. Peter Kropotkin in the late 19th century foresaw the mismatch between ideals and the material needs of people: “It has always been the middle-class idea to harangue about ‘great principles’ –great lies rather! The idea of the people will be to provide bread for all.” 16 Kropotkin’s optimism for an equitable food system is undergirded by his political commitment to anarchist communism, which if enacted when Kropotkin was writing in 1892 might have been a workable solution. Today complete governmental collapse into anarchy will not result in global climate justice. The fight for climate justice is about choosing what to reject and what to save while building a more just future. 

It should be made clear here that Nussbaum’s position differs diametrically from Kropotkin. She does not argue for overthrowing the existing governance system, instead she argues that the focus of aid must be on ensuring peoples everywhere have institutions which materially provide for their basic needs. 17 While the anarcho-communism of Kropotkin might be appealing at first glance, the real contribution of Nussbaum is in pushing the current framework for justice and the institutions that achieve it towards metrics of material aid, an aspect of justice that will become increasingly important as the Climate Crisis causes global population patterns to shift throughout the 21st century.

Naturally, much of contemporary Global Climate Policy has focused on the exact aspect of cosmopolitanism Nussbaum critiques: the focus on opportunity over capability. The World Bank and IMF focus on bolstering under-developed economies, not ensuring the material improvement of people’s lives around the globe. 18 This opportunity-based vision of climate policy as a means of justice often focuses on the historic exploitation of countries and their economic underdevelopment (aka untapped markets for global capital) in the Global South. This greening of globalized capitalist practices under the cover of climate justice will not alter the social and political configurations that have allowed the Climate Crisis to fester. Kropotkin again offers insight: “If the coming revolution is to be a social revolution, it will be distinguished from all former uprisings not only by its aim, but also its methods. To attain a new end, new means are required.” 19

These new means are climate reparations: future-oriented redistributions of wealth, social goods, and resources which pointedly aid those who have been burdened by the accumulated disadvantages of a racialized, colonial world. 20 As political economist Keston K. Perry puts it: “Climate reparations therefore serve as a starting point for upending the racialized nature of climate disaster due to colonial legacies of environmental degradation, destruction and dispossession.” 21 Climate reparations are the starting point of global climate justice, not the end goal.

  • 16Kropotkin book was originally published in English under the title The Conquest of Bread. The final section of the book examines food as a vehicle for his formulation of an anarcho-communist society. Kropotkin, Peter. Anarchist Communism. London: Penguin Classics, 2020.
  • 17Nussbaum, Martha C. The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal. S.l.: BELKNAP HARVARD, 2021.
  • 18Link to FDI/World Bank/IMF
  • 19Kropotkin, Peter. Anarchist Communism. London: Penguin Classics, 2020.
  • 20Táíwò, Olúfẹmi O. Reconsidering Reparations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022.
  • 21Perry, Keston K. “The New ‘Bond-Age’, Climate Crisis and the Case for Climate Reparations: Unpicking Old/New Colonialities of Finance for Development within the Sdgs.” Geoforum 126 (November 2021).

Maxine Burkett, the scholar who coined the term Climate Reparations in 2009 in her eponymously named article, argues that the unequal geographic, and subsequently economic, effects of the Climate Crisis reveal an imbalance between carbon emitters and those most directly affected by the Climate Crisis. 22 The effects of the Climate Crisis will strike communities that have already been disadvantaged by the global economic system the hardest, as wealthier nations and communities buffer themselves from its more devastating effect. Instead of following economic recovery models focused on post-disaster insurance (a similar formulation to harm-based reparations), climate reparations operate on the principle of assurance: the goal of reparations is to achieve and ensure the best life for as many people as possible. 23 For Táíwò, climate reparations are a “systemic approach to redistributing resources and changing policies and institutions that have perpetuated harm.” 24 This should not be read as an indictment of all institutions, as new materially-focused institutions and coalitions will be necessary to ensure that climate reparations are paid in full. These new institutions (and reformulations of existing ones) will be engaged in the difficult work of identifying the pressure points where the Climate Crisis will be felt unevenly, and assisting through policy,  material aid, and wealth redistributions in the safe passage of climate refugees fleeing sea-level rise, the creation of uninhabitable zones, wildfires, and droughts experienced across the globe. Achieving this will no doubt be difficult, but enacting an internationalist Green New Deal that ensures traces of racial capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism do not survive the Climate Crisis will demand the inclusion of a future-oriented vision of global climate justice.