Introduction: Reframing Climate and Environmental Justice*

Amber Huff1 and Lars Otto Naess2


This issue of the IDS Bulletin brings together a range of empirically grounded studies that add to – and challenge – contemporary debates on climate and environmental justice. Despite a growing focus on justice dimensions of climate and environmental change, we argue that there are still ‘blind spots’ in mainstream debates that warrant increased attention. In this brief introduction, we point to three in particular: first, a persistent failure to recognise diverse contexts and knowledges; second, a continuing failure to sufficiently appreciate the deep-seated contestations around climate and environmental justice; and third, the risks associated with ‘recovery’ and ‘emergency’ mindsets driving climate and environmental policy agendas. The articles in this collection illustrate and exemplify these issues in different ways and from a variety of methodological, philosophical, and interdisciplinary approaches and positionalities. We argue for a reframing of climate and environmental justice debates and suggest some key principles to make these ‘hidden’ aspects more visible in policy and practice.


Climate justice, environmental justice, knowledge politics, framing, pathways.

1 Introduction

Questions of justice are relevant to all aspects of climate and environmental change, from how and where the impacts are felt the most, the allocation and prioritisation of funding, the type of responses that are considered, to how negative impacts can arise from mitigation, adaptation, or restoration policies (Schlosberg and Collins 2014; Jafry 2018; Eriksen et al. 2021; Newell and Adow, this IDS Bulletin). Justice dimensions of these range from who gets what (distributional justice), whose knowledge counts (epistemic justice), who gets to decide (procedural justice), and ultimately who gets left behind (recognition justice) (Young 1990; Svarstad and Benjaminsen 2020; Benjaminsen et al., this IDS Bulletin; Coolsaet 2020; Schlosberg and Collins 2014).

Claims related to climate and environmental justice are becoming increasingly complex and contested. Yet the contestations are not always clear, nor straightforward. Research over many decades from across the social sciences and environmental humanities shows how discourses around framing and responding to climate change that dominate high-level policy debates can be depoliticising, making knowledge claims and proposed ‘fixes’ appear straightforward and non-controversial, agreed by consensus whilst complex histories of intervention and struggle are erased (Paprocki 2015; Sultana 2022). Attributing causes of climate change to ‘human activities’ may be technically accurate but through omission and generalisation obscures historical inequities, uneven power relations, and disproportionate contributions to harm. They are reductive of complex geographies of injustice, often shifting blame and greatest costs of mitigation and adaptation to those with the least political power and culpability. Messages of crisis, urgency, and emergency can cause fear and shut down deliberative spaces for the appearance of quick action. Depoliticisation hides contestation, silences dissenting viewpoints, obscures alternative pathways, and draws attention away from ways in which different policy choices about responding to climate change and other environmental problems made at different levels can intersect with people’s historical and ongoing struggles for social and environmental justice (Sultana 2022).

This issue of the IDS Bulletin is intended to challenge some of the dominant views and unearth some key ‘hidden’ aspects of the justice dimensions of climate and environmental change, two separate yet also aligned areas sharing similar historical trajectories (Schlosberg and Collins 2014). We call for a reframing of the climate and environmental justice discussions, as the idea of tackling ‘twin crises’ of global climate change and biodiversity loss together has risen on the high-level international policy agenda. For example, a coalition of more than 50 countries, including the UK, has already signed on to the so-called ‘High Ambition Coalition (HAC) for Nature and People’,3 a pledge launched in 2019 to convert at least 30 per cent of land and marine territory to restrictive protected areas by 2030, with the Sustainable Markets Initiative’s 2021 launch of the Terra Carta pledge4 for the private sector calling for this to extend to 50 per cent by 2050. The ‘30x30’ commitment is a likely main target of the so-called ‘Paris Agreement for nature’ and has been a key part of the long-running negotiations of the Conference of the Parties (COP)15 of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. It is also likely to replace the expiring Aichi Biodiversity Targets that were set in 2010 and expired in 2020.

This article identifies three closely related areas or ‘blind spots’ where we argue complexities in dominant climate and environmental justice debates are obscuring the problems, or in some cases enabling them to ‘hide in plain sight’: (1) the failure to recognise contributions beyond traditional academic disciplines, (2) the failure to recognise and acknowledge the implications of contestations, and (3) the risk of top-down ‘recovery’ in times of crises. The contributions to this IDS Bulletin all illustrate one or more aspects of these, as well as ways of addressing them, drawing on diverse research traditions, theoretical perspectives, community experiences of change, and struggles for justice. Notably, many of these areas are problematic precisely because they involve questions that may be seen to challenge the cause itself, and are implicitly going against the fight to counter climate change and loss of biodiversity. We argue that the opposite is true, and that this also highlights why a reframing of the debate is urgently needed. We end with some reflections on principles to move the debate forward and to reframe – and refocus – the justice agenda.

2 Three blind spots in climate and environmental justice debates

2.1 The failure to recognise diverse contexts and knowledges

Related global challenges of climate disruption, biodiversity loss and ecological degradation and their harmful consequences for people and nature are well established (Pörtner et al. 2022). Likewise, the need for action is near universally recognised by natural and social scientists, politicians, members of international social movements, as well as through international agreements related to climate (UNFCCC), biodiversity (Convention on Biological Diversity – CBD), environmental degradation (United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification – UNCCD), and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet despite these advances in environmental science and environmental and development policy, progress remains slow, and structural and systemic drivers of harmful changes for people and nature remain unaddressed (Morton 2007). A recently published study reinforces the need to take action to avoid triggering global climate ‘tipping points’ (Armstrong McKay et al. 2022).

From ‘above’, these challenges can appear to be what have been called ‘super wicked problems’ (Cross and Congreve 2020). This means that they are urgent yet seem to evade attempts to apply common sense ‘solutions’ and can thus seem impossible to resolve. As with climate change, the same actors and industries who are responsible for causing the problem are expected to provide solutions, while at the same time, due to the contestation and politics around them, appeals to science and evidence are often unable to generate policy resolution or point a clear path toward definitive action (Parkhurst 2016; Morton 2013).

A growing wealth of research on science and policy suggests that perhaps these problems are not ‘wicked’ so much as mismatched to ‘common sense’ ways of framing and politically acceptable acting on them. Addressing such ostensibly wicked socioenvironmental problems cannot be done from the high level boardroom or within the confines of traditional academic disciplines. True solutions may require that powerful political and economic actors’ interests are challenged or that dominant forms of ‘expertise’ are questioned. For example, despite increasing focus on local or indigenous knowledge in discussions around adaptation to climate change, there is some way to go until this recognition is found in practice. As Srivastava et al. (this IDS Bulletin) show in their article, there are still important gaps in inclusion of marginalised actors and their knowledge in decision-making for climate action. Benjaminsen et al. (this IDS Bulletin) show how both formal and discursive misrecognition of poor and vulnerable groups represent injustice, using examples from climate mitigation (REDD+),5 the Great Green Wall project in the Sahel, and notions of climate as a driver of conflict in Syria.

To identify just pathways, the process of knowledge production that flows into policymaking must be decentralised and democratised, drawing on strengths of both inter- and transdisciplinary approaches. Interdisciplinary approaches seek to break down disciplinary boundaries and improve the flow of knowledge and debate within and across sciences and humanities, while transdisciplinary approaches ask questions such as ‘Whose knowledge counts?’, ‘Who is the expert?’, and ‘Who can speak for whom?’. Such approaches can help put the focus on breaking down hierarchies of power and knowledge production, creating spaces for substantial public participation, and seek to facilitate dialogue across plural forms of knowledge and experience. In turn, these put the spotlight on amplifying, in meaningful ways, voices and interests of people and considerations such as the wellbeing of non-human entities, who are often excluded from high-level decision-making. As Milanez et al. (this IDS Bulletin) argue, moving beyond depoliticised framings of crisis and elite environmentalisms, and opening up analyses to make sense of the current juncture and envision truly transformative social–ecological trajectories requires critical engagement with people’s ongoing struggles for epistemological justice.

Thus, we are not simply dealing with scientific or technical problems amenable to what Mike Hulme calls ‘solutionism’ (Hulme 2021). Conflicts around courses of action are largely value‑based and are shaped by power and a variety of contested assumptions (Coolsaet 2020), and there is no ‘silver bullet’ fix. These are inherently social and political problems, involving intrinsic multidimensional justice dilemmas.

2.2 The failure to recognise contestations and their implications

A second ‘blind spot’ lies in the fact that in high-level policy debates dominant discourses around framing and responding to climate change can be depoliticised or rendered technical (Murray Li 2007; Nightingale et al. 2020). Proposed fixes may appeal to ‘common sense’ or to cultural biases, or may appear straightforward and non-controversial, and therefore agreed by consensus, and contestations fade into the background. Solutions are often framed as global and universal, missing local nuances. For example, García-Dory et al. (this IDS Bulletin) argue that generalised global narratives that condemn livestock production for a high level of methane emissions are creating exclusions and injustices. This is because the dominant policy story linking livestock production and emissions does not differentiate between unsustainable forms of industrial livestock production and consumption from forms of extensive pastoralism that provide necessary food and income to people who live in places that are unsuitable for agriculture. Through omission and generalisation, this narrative practice shifts blame and the greatest costs of mitigation to those with the least political power and culpability, creating and perpetuating and sometimes intensifying environmental injustices whilst silencing those who are engaged in active struggles to defend their rights, livelihoods, homes, ecologies, and even lives.

Dominant approaches to address climate and other processes of environmental change share a tendency to place growth, not ecology, nor climate, and certainly not justice, at the heart of the international policy agenda. These approaches emerge from a ‘market environmentalist’ rather than social or ecological worldview, and which sees environmental problems and their social consequences as ‘market failures’ that can be remediated through market mechanisms and technical management (Huff 2021). Responses to climate-related or other types of uncertainty and the unruliness of climate change challenges tend to seek ever-greater degrees of control and disciplinary management of nature and society ‘from above’, guided by a (fantastical) belief that perpetual growth can somehow be ‘transformed’ and made ‘green’ or sustainable as if by magic. In doing so, the well-documented but deeply entrenched structural and systemic drivers of harmful change for people and nature are left unexplored and unaddressed. For example, in exploring intersections between the growing global abolitionist movement and struggles for environmental justice, Brock and Stephens‑Griffin (this IDS Bulletin) explore how, contrary to common ideological associations between policing and justice, the sedimented institutional logics of policing, rather, enforce forms of social ordering and property regimes that socially reproduce patriarchal and colonial relations of domination and exploitation that harm people and nature. Failure to think deeply about such structural and systemic drivers in considering courses of action means that crises continue to escalate, and challenges expand and diversify, particularly for the most vulnerable people and ecologies around the world.

A focus on democratising knowledge and action, bringing out these conflicts and contestations, can make these hidden drivers, experiences, and critiques visible. Doing so can help unmask supressed ways of seeing and acting in a changing world, shift priorities, multiply possibilities and pluralise pathways, and help open up the field of policy choices. For example, Milanez et al. (this IDS Bulletin) argue that reframing the question of ‘systemic change or climate collapse?’ from a decolonial perspective would point not only to the need for political economic reconfiguration, but for building a completely different framework of existence.

2.3 The justice implications of a ‘top-down’ recovery and emergency mindset

A third problematic area is the increasing evidence of negative impacts of top-down schemes to ‘fix’ issues, but also the difficulty in challenging solutions that are developed in the name of broader interests and the perceived need for large-scale solutions to tackle large-scale problems.

Last year’s climate change COP26 took place against a backdrop of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. The current COP (COP27) was in addition happening in the midst of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, droughts and extreme heat in Europe, and the spectre of impending global energy and food crises. The simultaneous regional and global ‘crises’ have intensified a forceful policy discourse of ‘global recovery’ through strengthening the post‑pandemic ‘growth economy of repair’ across sectors (Fairhead, Leach and Scoones 2012; Huff and Brock 2017). This has been pitched in terms of scaled-up, top‑down, market-driven and control-oriented ‘big bang’ schemes like the World Economic Forum’s ‘great reset’; ‘build back better’ campaigns in the UK and US; the Sustainable Markets Initiative’s ten-point pandemic recovery plan; the ‘Global Safety Net’ campaign; and the HAC for Nature and People’s pledge that aims to place 30 per cent of terrestrial and marine territory under strict protection by 2030, among others.

In this context, messages matter: messages of crisis, urgency, and emergency – such as the increasing focus on a fixed number of years left to address problems before it is too late – can drive processes with significant justice implications (Srivastava et al., this IDS Bulletin), for example leading to civic space being shut down for the appearance of quick action. Arguably, what such narratives can do is hide, for a time, mounting harmful consequences for people, biodiversity, our lived cultural landscapes and built environments and wild spaces. It points us toward a future of expanding sacrifice zones, deepening inequalities, and in which the ever-growing hunger for growth at all costs will continue to generate, intensify, and spread the cascading effects of ecological crises. Inequities seem inevitable with justice able to be treated as a ‘check-box’, or systemised injustice dismissed and misrepresented as simply ‘bad apples’, necessary ‘trade-offs’, sacrificing the lives and futures of some as the cost of ‘progress’.

While climate change-related loss and damage is now firmly recognised in negotiations under the UNFCCC, there is as yet no clear compensation mechanism, and only limited understanding or consideration of those associated with non-economic losses such as cultural heritage and local knowledge, which are unquantifiable and irreplaceable (Boyd et al. 2021). For these reasons, however, these approaches could have negative, and at worst, disastrous effects. As long as we are on this trajectory, the best we can hope for is that crises are prolonged, delayed, and outsourced to the margins, shifted in space and time.

3 Making the invisible visible

Dominant approaches to framing and responding to crises can direct attention away from and preclude deeper analyses of systemic problems and dynamics of change as well as other, possibly more promising, and already existing approaches to response. ‘Solutions’ based in control and scaling-up technical interventions can obscure latent possibilities and alternative pathways, hiding contestation and power relations. This can close down spaces for debate and ‘lock in’ a single pathway as if it were the only possible course of action. While focusing on a single pathway may look like decisive action, it leads to major blind spots and a tendency to treat the underlying drivers of crises as sources of solutions themselves.

We argue that achieving meaningful action on the climate crisis requires moving beyond existing approaches and enacting radical changes to transform thinking about the drivers, nature, and distribution of ostensibly ‘global’ challenges and relationships among science, technology, society, and nature across multiple scales. This means recognising that the climate and environmental ‘crises’ are about history and justice, shaped by diverse geographical contexts and situated struggles, as much as the geophysical environment. It requires challenging our assumptions about authority and power and opening up debates to plural knowledge and experiences. It means seeking to understand why many proposed ‘solutions’ are resisted by communities on the ground. It means rejecting ways of seeing the future as a ‘zero sum game’, asking instead about how so-called ‘alternative’ knowledges, approaches, and practices, applied collaboratively at different scales, can create opportunities for learning and uncover pathways that could disrupt harmful trajectories and move us toward more just, desirable, and abundant futures.

Inequalities between countries and regions are a primary consideration of high-level climate justice frameworks. Despite dominant discourses of the ‘planetary’ and ‘global’ nature of climate challenges, the fact is that the world is highly stratified and vast inequalities and power imbalances exist, even in ‘multilateral’ fora. Yet inequalities have also shaped politics, environmental changes, and complex terrains of social contestations within countries, affecting communities and social groups within communities who have often engaged in long struggles to have their rights recognised and to defend access to territory, resources, livelihoods, and identity against exclusion and expropriation in the name of ‘development’ and, more recently, ‘sustainability’. These inequities and struggles often fall under the banner of environmental justice (Sultana 2022).

Instead, approaches are needed that confront the institutional structures and policy processes that produce and maintain inequalities between countries and regions, but also recognise that national-level priorities and policy processes can exacerbate inequities and vulnerabilities within countries that have been shaped by long histories of encounter with colonialism, imperialism, warfare, and other forms of extractivism,6 as well as endogenous forms of social violence and exclusion along axes of identity and social difference not limited to gender, age, caste, class, and ability (Sealey-Huggins 2017). This is particularly so when national priorities reflect the interests of a narrow elite, special interest groups, or international lobbyists and consultants and can silence or suppress the voices and interests of people who have been made vulnerable through long and varied processes of socio–political and economic exclusion.

Approaches to climate and environmental justice must reject efforts to apply one-size-fits-all solutionism, including universalising ways of thinking about justice, and actively seek to accommodate plural experiences and ‘pathways’. This means recognising that there will be variation – across sites and social groups – in the needs, aspirations, and meaningful notions of justice for those who experience the greatest vulnerabilities in the face of change. Action to remove or mitigate factors and practices that perpetuate injustice is important, but not sufficient on its own to ensure just outcomes because it can be different than supporting the creation of social and environmental policy frameworks and norms of practice that actively seek to build plural forms of justice.

In conclusion, we suggest the following principles to address the three blind spots outlined above and to move towards more just and inclusive pathways for climate and environmental policy processes:

First, there is a need to recognise that a fundamental change of approach is essential to understand and address multidimensional justice dilemmas associated with climate and other forms of environmental change, pointing to the necessity of keeping the focus on addressing root causes and transformative approaches to justice (Sultana 2022; Newell et al. 2021).

Second, there is a need for greater awareness that harmful impacts of environmental change are not only caused by changes in the biophysical environment but also by policies meant to address environmental problems and by historical exploitation and marginalisation. As García-Dory et al. (this IDS Bulletin) highlight, this may also mean tackling contradictions in our own wish to decarbonise lives and lifestyles and looking more holistically upon the range of impacts of policies that otherwise would seem to be a ‘no-brainer’.

A third principle is the need to identify opportunities to foster inclusive deliberative spaces at national and subnational levels for members of affected communities and groups to fully participate in identifying and responding to environmental changes and challenges and shaping accountable and fit-for-purpose national and subnational policy processes (Srivastava et al., this IDS Bulletin). This includes ensuring that funding and policy interventions at international and national levels support these processes and reach and benefit people at the local level living on the margins and most in need, and address those needs and aspirations in meaningful ways.

Fourth, there is a need to resist the large-scale, big fix ‘solutions’ that have been developed by powerful political and industry groups at a great social, economic, and empirical distance from real-world challenges and implementation settings, hiding implications for different social groups. An increasing body of literature is challenging notions of ‘triple-wins’ and ‘climate-smart agriculture’ (e.g. Suckall, Stringer and Tompkins 2015; Taylor 2018; Ellis and Tschakert 2019).


* This IDS Bulletin was funded and produced as part of the IDS Strategic Research Initiative on Climate and Environmental Justice.

† Many thanks to the contributors and authors of this issue of the IDS Bulletin. We are grateful for review comments to an earlier draft of this introduction. Any remaining errors and omissions are the responsibility of the authors.

1 Amber Huff, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, UK.

2 Lars Otto Naess, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, UK.

3 High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People — HAC for Nature and People.

4 Terra Carta, Sustainable Markets Initiative (sustainable-markets. org).

5 Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries (REDD+).

6 The system of extracting living and non-living materials from nature to generate outflow of material wealth in the form of natural resources.


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© 2022 The Authors. IDS Bulletin © Institute of Development Studies | DOI: 10.19088/1968-2022.135

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC), which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original authors and source are credited, any modifications or adaptations are indicated, and the work is not used for commercial purposes. The IDS Bulletin is published by Institute of Development Studies, Library Road, Brighton BN1 9RE, UK.

This article is part of IDS Bulletin Vol. 53 No. 4 December 2022 ‘Reframing Climate and Environmental Justice’.