The climate crisis is one of humanity’s most complex conflicts yet. The dangerous impacts of a warming, fossil-fuel dependent world span from wildfires capable of destroying entire towns to cancer-causing air pollution that afflicts the next generation. Countries in the Global South that are barely emitting any heat-trapping emissions have felt the impacts of this struggle acutely, despite countries like the United States and China accounting for nearly 40% of cumulative global carbon pollution.
The obstruction of climate action by high-emitting countries over the past several decades—even after the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) was established—has left the international community with a colossal task: hold bad actors accountable and ensure a smooth transition from a period of injustice to an equitable and safe future for all.
Over the course of history, addressing such complex and consequential conflicts has invoked transitional justice processes, mechanisms that aim to help societies emerging from conflict and oppression recover, build for a better future, and prevent the same conflict from reoccurring. Scholars have pointed out why a transitional justice lens should be applied to the global climate crisis, highlighting qualities like the profound loss and a lack of existing judicial infrastructure to address the scope of injustice.
After a summer when almost no one was left untouched by the climate crisis, it’s past time to operationalize a transitional justice process and help communities who are suffering.
While transitional justice is not a fixed process, the United Nations (UN) has identified four pillars as a guiding framework: truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence.
Below is a look at what tools are currently being used to facilitate justice for climate change on an international scale and where those mechanisms are falling short in ensuring transitional justice and a clean future.
Transitional justice for climate change requires truth
Establishing and acknowledging the truth about violations is the critical first step toward reconciliation. Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, the truth is often obscured. Bad actors, particularly fossil fuel companies, have worked for decades to mislead and deceive the public and decision makers about the impact of their business models on the planet.
As early as the 1960s, more than half a century ago, scientists showed that heat-trapping emissions from the production of fossil fuels would cause significant changes to the climate. Instead of taking action to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change we’re seeing today, wealthy countries like the United States, Japan, and countries in the European Union (EU) continued to produce heat-trapping emissions, fuel the climate crisis, and actively prioritize power and profit over a safe and healthy future for our planet.
While some conflicts rely predominantly on testimony, science is an additional source of truth in the climate crisis, providing key evidence to support the experiences of people on the ground. The advancement of science over the past several decades has helped shed light on the truth around the impacts of human activity on the climate and more recently, has allowed us to understand what share of responsibility individual countries and corporations hold.
In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to provide policymakers with a regular scientific assessment on the current state of climate change. At the time, that body of science helped leaders understand this was a conflict with global consequences and would require international cooperation. The IPCC still plays this role today, with the sixth assessment cycle of reports published earlier this year.
Science today has advanced rapidly, allowing us to understand the truth around culpability. In 2010, for example, we knew that at least 20 countries had the highest emissions and the least climate vulnerability at the national level—an inequality that has only been exacerbated since. The subsequent rise of attribution science has been able to prove the direct correlation between climate change and specific disasters like drought, wildfires, and extreme heat. Climate scientists at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) even have linked disasters to individual companies, some of which are state-owned like Saudi Aramco.
Despite efforts by those in power—and who are profiting—to obscure the truth, we have precise science in hand that must inform the mechanisms of both reparative and forward-looking justice.
What does justice mean for people and countries harmed by climate deception?
With unfettered access to the truth—in this case, who is responsible for climate damages—the global community can now move forward to prosecute perpetrators of harm and human rights violations. This piece of transitional justice is critical to address past injustice, demonstrate to victims that this behavior will not go unpunished, and pave a path forward that will ensure accountability.
Over time, there have been mechanisms for proactive climate action. The UNFCC Paris Agreement, for example, proposed that the global community would work together to limit the Earth’s temperature warming by 1.5°C by the end of the century. It also called for financing of climate mitigation and adaptation. For both goals, however, there is no legally binding mechanism under which parties are responsible for limiting emissions or providing funding. Even when an international governing body like the UN takes formal action to affirm that the climate crisis is a threat to children’s rights, real accountability and preventative measures can still fall short.
It’s also worth noting that climate goals have historically been established when political and fossil fuel industry power was central to how negotiations operate. It was the fossil fuel industry, for example, that made a concerted effort to ensure the Paris Agreement didn’t include provisions about heat-trapping emissions. When using these goals as principal milestones, it’s necessary to recognize when they may be insufficient and when they may not benefit everyone.
Beyond what is possible under the UNFCC framework, countries and coalitions of countries have taken to other methods for securing justice. In countries like Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Brazil, and recently at the state level in Montana, people and children are fighting in the courts for their governments to recognize their rights to a healthy environment within their own legal frameworks.
This past year, the small island nation of Vanuatu took matters into their own hands on the global stage. A coalition of over 130 countries, led by Vanuatu, successfully called on the UN to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to issue an advisory opinion that will help clarify nations’ obligations and help ensure that states—and the institutions under their jurisdiction—can be held accountable for their actions contributing to climate change under international law. With an expected decision in 2024, the advisory opinion could help transform international climate justice and clarify that accountability can shift into a formal judicial setting previously used in transitional justice processes. For countries like Vanuatu, the climate crisis is not just about justice now, it’s about human rights protections for present and future generations.
Justice on an international scale has always been challenging, especially when world leaders like the United States fail to even acknowledge the authority of bodies like the ICJ. And the complexities of climate change present even more unprecedent obstacles. Whether it’s firm accountability measures facilitated by the UNFCC or a strong ICJ advisory opinion, solid mechanisms for achieving justice are essential to addressing the past and future impacts of the climate crisis.
Reparations is key for achieving climate justice
According to the UN transitional justice guidance, victims have the right to receive adequate reparation for harm suffered. Measures of reparation could include economic compensation, as well as things like public apologies or support that will help improve the quality of life of victims.
In the case of climate change, the damages are vast. From physical damage to infrastructure and negative health impacts, to lost cultural heritage and intergenerational trauma—the consequences are undoubtedly challenging, and sometimes impossible, to measure.
The depth and breadth of harm that human-caused climate change has done to communities is not a reason to back away from reparations. It’s why the need for meaningful loss and damage compensation is paramount.
At COP27 in Egypt, parties agreed to establish a fund to pay for the loss and damage from extreme climate impacts. By taking this step in solidarity with climate-vulnerable countries, the United States and other rich countries started to restore the trust and credibility necessary for nations to tackle this global challenge together.
Since then, however, United States special envoy on climate change John Kerry said the United States would not contribute to the fund. The United States also failed to support Vanuatu in its effort to create a mechanism of justice through the ICJ.
In order to secure any form of transitional justice, rich and high-emitting countries like the United States, Saudi Arabia, and nations in the EU will need to play a genuine and active role.
A Transitional Committee for the Loss and Damage Fund has been meeting in the year leading up to COP28 in Dubai this November. A successful fund will be inclusive, transparent, and efficient, and will center the voices of climate-vulnerable countries. Many across the globe are eager to see this pillar of transitional justice in practice after this year’s UNFCC conference.
We need a guarantee the climate deception will stop
The fourth pillar—guarantees of non-recurrence—works to ensure that the fight for truth, justice, and reparations also comes with an assurance that all efforts have been made to prevent human rights violations in the future.
Thanks to a robust body of science, we know what is needed to stop the impacts of climate change. We know that sharply and quickly phasing out fossil fuel production in an equitable way, and transitioning to clean and safe energy sources will help limit worsening extreme weather events and climate disasters. In turn, a guarantee of non-recurrence will need to come with the implementation of accountability mechanisms that reflect that science.
Bad actors in the climate crisis will also need to be held accountable and do right by countries and communities that have borne the brunt. Without justice for past harms, it will be nearly impossible to ensure the crisis will not get worse. By establishing a strong, coherent framework for accountability, justice, and reparation, we can manage the impacts of climate change and also set a framework for collaboration on global threats that may arise in the future.
Without properly addressing the fundamental need for truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence, we run the serious risk of a prolonged climate injustice—an injustice that spans into every thread of our global fabric. By recognizing the need for a transitional justice framework to address the climate crisis, we can better help those who have suffered and walk forward together toward a future that is safe and just for all.