What is Climate Justice?

Today’s dirty energy economy directs the biggest benefits to a small, wealthy elite, and the biggest disadvantages to the rest of us, especially the poor and working classes, communities of color and indigenous peoples. Not only is it a system of planetary destruction, the dirty energy paradigm is racist, imperialist and oppressive, but its alternative — a renewable energy future — need not be.

In 2019, 350PDX frontline staff of color defined climate justice as using participatory democracy to create community-led solutions in addressing the root causes of climate disruption and recognizing the disproportionate impact climate chaos has on frontline communities. Participatory democracy means the participants have the power to make decisions on policy.

The Goal of a Just Transition

When we say we are working towards a Just Transition, we are envisioning a society where the burdens of transition – retraining workers, remediating toxified lands, building new infrastructures and technologies–are fairly shared across groups. Likewise, a just transition requires that the benefits of transitioning to clean, renewable systems–vibrant communities and wild spaces, economic benefits, and employment opportunities–are shared equitably.

Let’s Begin

We are grounding ourselves in the work other communities have done, are doing, and plan to do. We understand no transition of such size happens all at once, and it will take ongoing, consistent and meaningful action to promote public policies and practices supporting a just transition here in Portland, Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest region. Focusing on our local demands, we work towards a world that shares the benefits of a 100% renewable energy economy among all people.

Environmental justice incorporates the idea that we should be just as concerned about wetlands, birds and wilderness areas as we are about urban habitats, where people live in cities, about reservations, about things that are happening along the US-Mexican border, about children that are being poisoned by lead in housing and kids playing outside in contaminated playgrounds. So we have had to struggle to get these issues on the radar of a lot of large environmental groups.

Climate Justice means working at the intersections of capitalism and its effects on environmental degradation and the racial, social, and economic inequities it perpetuates.  A fundamental proposition of climate justice is that those who are least responsible for climate change suffer its gravest consequences both within and between countries. Climate justice relies on concepts of environmental and social justice, along with a human rights approach, to address the effects of climate change. [source]


There are numerous resources out there to get started on how to work with and support the work of frontline communities and organizations.  Below we list out some of these resources.

  1. The Jemez Principles were outlined and adopted at coalition meeting in 1996 hosted by the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ), in Jemez, New Mexico. The meeting was designed to reach a common understanding between participants from different cultures, politics and organizations.
  2. Delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held on October 24-27, 1991, in Washington DC, drafted and adopted these 17 principles of Environmental Justice. Since then, the Principles have served as a defining document for the growing grassroots movement for environmental justice. 
  3. Principles from the Second People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit (2002):
    1. Principles of Working Together (en Español)
    2. Principles for Alliance with Green Groups
    3. Youth Environmental Justice Principles & Resources:
      1. Principles of the Youth Environmental Justice Movement
      2. Youth-to-Youth and Youth-to-Adult Principles of Collaboration
      3. Youth Leadership in the Environmental Justice Movement
  4. Climate Justice Principles:
    1. Principles of Climate Justice (2009)
    2. 10 Principles for Just Climate Change Policies in the U.S. (2002)
    3. Bali Principles of Climate Justice (2002)

Reading List

Here are some books that can help you learn more about climate justice and the climate justice movement:

Before engaging with environmental issues, Klein was part of the movement against neoliberal globalisation. This book picks up a central critique of many climate groups, explaining why capitalism is deeply related to the climate crisis. As a member of the board of 350.org, she shares not only comment but practical insights into the strategies and plans of the movement.

This relatively unknown piece from 1999 had a huge impact on the climate movement. The report by the NGO CorpWatch includes a detailed look at the term and concept of climate justice.

This publication was written by internationally known activists and scientists in 2009. It is a broad and critical analysis of climate policy and also explores alternative ways to solve the crisis, considering the application of perspectives such as feminism. The flexible mechanisms of the Kyoto protocol as well as the idea of green capitalism are criticised and alternatives such as climate justice and sustainable economies are presented.

In this 2010 book, activists report on the World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia in April 2010. This alternative conference developed radical demands for civil society and southern states, such as a climate justice court and huge financial transfers. It illustrated the ability of the movement to engage political actors, and development new alliances after the failure of the Copenhagen conference in 2009. Bolivia brought parts of the conference declaration to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, but they had no enduring effects.

A good introduction into the central concept of the movement – justice. In Tokar’s 2010 publication he explains why activists refuse the “false solutions” of climate change such as as economic instruments. He stresses the responsibility of the northern countries for emission cuts and resource transfers, and the need to support southern countries.

This 2012 release comes from the popular scholar-activist Patrick Bond, from South Africa. Using examples from countries in the global south he argues that market-based instruments such as carbon trading and the clean-development mechanism are not working. They often have negative consequences for the local population, harm the environment and make little impact on reducing emissions.