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The Case for Climate Justice

Updated: May 11, 2023

We have to convince people that our cause is aligned with their cause, that ultimately we are fighting for the same goal. We have to show that climate action is something that impacts everybody. We have a planet to win. Let’s start by getting everybody on board.

Climate justice is a central principle in SGCR’s advocacy. We’ve already explained what it means in a previous video, but in a nutshell, it means we recognise that those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis are often the ones most impacted by it, and therefore we organise for climate action by fighting for marginalised communities who bear the brunt of the climate crisis. We call on governments to enact equitable policies that are redistributive in nature and protect these groups, while making those who have contributed the most pay the bill.

But some might say — why is there a need for environmentalists to care so much about other groups? Can't we fight the climate crisis faster by focusing solely on climate policies and helping to engineer methods that can counteract the effects of climate change? Why is there a need to link every issue to climate change?

This is where the moral element of climate justice comes into play. The effects of climate change will have deleterious effects on marginalised communities, and this undermines a basic principle of (social) justice – that we as human beings have an equal opportunity to a decent life. It stands to reason that if climate injustice creates inequalities in society, then climate justice is about fighting these inequalities whenever they arise.

A table with cardboard signs that read "Workers for Climate", "Act Now", "People over profit"
Cardboard signs at the SG Climate Rally booth at the Labour Day Rally 2023 organised by Workers Make Possible.

Don’t just take it from us — in What Climate Justice Means and Why We Should Care, the philosopher Elizabeth Cripps lays out the moral reasoning behind why climate justice entails taking our obligations to each other seriously and fighting for intersectional climate action. And just this year at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos–certainly not a gathering of radicals by any means–the issue of climate justice dominated the sidelines, with activists from marginalised communities including indigenous groups and people with disabilities advocating for climate justice. Even the latest reports by the IPCC, which are generally conservative due to the large amount of consensus needed, have shifted their language towards framing issues in terms of global climate inequality.

This doesn’t mean that as a movement, we have lost sight of our original calls for the government to face the truth, combat the crisis and engage the people. Thanks to continued advocacy by us and many other groups and individuals, we have made some progress on these fronts with the SG Green Plan, net zero target, increased carbon tax — all of which we have continued to critique even as we celebrate our wins. But as we increasingly find the justice element missing in official narratives on climate change, we have made a conscious effort to highlight it in all our content.

How Climate Injustice Affects Us All

We readily admit that it’s easier to see how the climate crisis affects some groups more than others. For example, more extreme heat caused by climate change affects blue-collar workers, who have to labour outdoors, more than white-collar workers, who can seek respite in their air-conditioned offices.

In Singapore, this includes the gig delivery workers and migrant workers working in construction sites. They are more susceptible to heat-related injuries such as heatstrokes and dehydration, which puts further stress on their bodies and may aggravate their pre-existing medical conditions. The urban heat island effect, which causes highly-urbanised areas like most of Singapore to heat up faster than rural areas, as well as a lack of access to cooling equipment or indoor areas to rest, exacerbates this problem.

Climate change also disproportionately affects indigenous groups by increasing the severity of floods. Many indigenous communities have seen floods wipe out their natural spaces, destroying their homes and nature-dependent livelihoods.

A key tenet of climate justice is to advocate for a just transition. This means as much as we want climate action, the cure cannot be more bitter than the illness. For example, in the rush to build hydropower projects in the Mekong to supply more green energy, indigenous villagers are displaced and often not compensated fairly for having to uproot their lives. The ecosystems around these dams are also often negatively impacted.

Closer to home, conservation projects in Pulau Ubin have reduced the spaces available to the indigenous Orang Pulau to forage. Some of these spaces hold great significance to the Orang Pulau, while foraging is an important skill and part of their cultural heritage, passed down through many generations.

To be clear, building more projects to supply green energy or conservation projects are a good thing. However, the environmental and social impact of such projects need to be more fairly weighed with the benefits to ensure the quality of life of indigenous groups is not reduced. As people who live in the space, indigenous communities are stakeholders in the projects and should be actively included in the planning process. Through participatory processes, we can co-create solutions where sustainable development and indigenous ways of living co-exist. Oftentimes, we have much to learn from indigenous groups on regenerative practices — after all, they manage almost 50% of the world’s landmass and 80% of its biodiversity.

System Change, Not Climate Change

Other issues might seem a bit harder to connect to the climate crisis. Take disability rights. What does fighting for equal treatment for people with disabilities have to do with the fight against climate change? It turns out, quite a lot. People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by natural disasters, and more extreme weather events will lead to more of them being displaced. And, remember the campaign against plastic straws? A well-meaning campaign, but many people with disabilities pointed out that they depended on plastic straws to drink.

People with disabilities are not a small group–it’s estimated around one billion people worldwide live with some form of disability, and many people will experience temporary disability at some point of their life. They have different needs and different life experiences, but they deserve the right to the same standard of living as able-bodied people. It behooves climate activists to ensure that when we advocate for climate action, whether its policies, advocacy campaigns, or protests, that we ensure such climate action is inclusive. Read this summary of our recent Nature Club discussion on disability and climate to learn more.

What about the queer community? Fun (or not-so-fun) fact–one person unsubscribed to our monthly newsletter after we wished the queer community a happy Pride Month, saying:

“I joined becos I support climate change. Stick to your original cause. Climate does NOT equate LGBT causes”

Well, we hope that person reads this, because we’ll explain how they’re linked! For starters, similar to other marginalised communities, they often have less access to housing and adequate healthcare, which reduces their capacity to adapt to changing climate conditions. For example, gay marriage is illegal in Singapore, which means LGBTQ people do not have access to government-subsidised public housing. Recent research also highlights how there is a stigma against LGBTQ patients in healthcare settings in Singapore and a lack of awareness amongst doctors with regards to LGBTQ health, resulting in unequal health outcomes compared to non-LGBTQ patients. All these have knock-on effects on the queer community’s mental health and further disadvantages a community which has already been historically disproportionately affected by environmental pollution and disasters.

When advocating for climate action, we should adopt a lens of ‘queer ecology’, taking reference from the queerness of the natural world around us, and critically examine what we deem as ‘natural’, to ensure all communities have a equal right to live in a world free from climate injustice. We could even learn a thing or two about how the queer community has organised for their rights, both overseas and here in Singapore.

Lastly, what do climate activists have in common with abolitionists who advocate for the abolition for the death penalty? This one’s admittedly a bit harder to see the links, but ultimately it boils down to the principle of justice. From the limited data that is available, many of those on death row for drug trafficking reportedly come from low-income communities, and from ethnic minority groups. Meanwhile, the drug lords who exploit the vulnerability of these traffickers walk free. There are also instances of people on death row being mistakenly convicted.

Ultimately, both climate activists and abolitionists want the same thing – a system change, so that those who are most responsible for the problem bear the cost, instead of marginalised communities. It is also about painting an alternative future that prioritises reducing harm and instead of perpetuating violence.

Organising, Not Mobilising

The underlying principle behind why we advocate for climate justice is that we want to build a community that organises instead of mobilises. It’s a subtle difference. According to labour union organiser Jane McAlevey, organising is when you build solidarity amongst different groups, and explicitly pursue a strategy to grow your movement. Mobilising is when you seek to turn out the people who already agree with you, and the goal is to increase the size of the turnout.

Organisers seek to build a ‘structure’, in other words, a community that can build the power to make the demands you want to see achieved. That means winning over people who are undecided or who even disagree with you. And to do that, you have to convince people that your cause is aligned with their cause, that ultimately you are fighting for the same goal. You have to show them that climate action is something that impacts everybody.

We have a planet to win. Let’s start by getting everybody on board.


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