Voices unheard: Questioning the ‘just’ in climate justice

The following article is an excerpt from Ecosprinter’s 2021 printed edition on a just transition. We decided to bring you the articles from this edition in a digital form as well.

At its very core, anthropogenic climate change and the way it is affecting humanity, is ultimately an issue of unprecedented injustice. The stories we tell will determine whether our society continues to self-destruct, or whether we can heal and thrive. However, how can  we reconcile worldviews? How can we ensure justice is embedded in the foundation of the transition? 

To explore this, we collected a summary of touching perspectives from the dialogues at our “Interconnected voices: Climate change, equity, and the way forward” conference in November 2020. The idea behind the conference was developed from noting the great need for more voices to come together to add to the public and policy discourse; to engage with the global community to learn from each other; and to share stories. With this essay, we want to echo those voices for a more representative and just conversation on climate justice. 


The stories we tell about climate change matter because they analyze the way we think about the past and present, and therefore shape the future. Within climate sciences, there is a “danger of a single story” as noted by Imeh Ituen, a researcher at University of Hamburg. This “single story” does not take into consideration how the historical legacies of colonialism affect present abilities of mitigation and adaptation while ignoring loss and compensation. This also doesn’t allow us to properly evaluate how gender, class, and race affect our understanding of the issue, its solutions, and where we stand. 

A uniquely vulnerable group of communities – those living on islands – further drives home the importance of storytelling and giving all voices an equal chance to be heard. As Veta Wade, an ambassador for Island Innovation living on Montserrat said; “living on an island brings the realities of climate change a step closer to the communities. It is all about storytelling and narratives since this is always the key to understanding the environment and engaging the community.” However, these stories are often downplayed by research and projects focusing on technical solutions, which do not address the deep and inherent issues of just transitions. When we put the spotlight on stories related to the planet, it is important to keep in mind “whose world is being talked about here? Whose apocalypse? Friday for whose futures? Rebellion against whose extinction? And Ende of which Gelände?”1 as Mihir Sharma from the University of Bayreuth asked in his presentation. 

Gender Perspectives 

Women and girls remain underrepresented at all levels – from policy, project planning and financing; to the legal system underpinning changes; to United Nations climate negotiations. The women and girls leading the numerous climate struggles around the world face constant backlash and are undermined by the media. The marginalization is especially true for women of color, rural women, Indigenous women and women from the so-called Global South2. Women and children are 14 times more likely to die in a disastrous climate event than men3. Yet their voices are constantly erased from the public sphere. Getting out of the crisis and achieving a sustainable future will mean that we need to include their voices and make gender inclusion a top priority. 

The disparity between women’s involvement and leadership, and the perceived value of our existence is summed up by Felipe Corral Montoya from Technische Universität Berlin: “Women are the forefront of all resistance movements that are of environmental and social activism in Colombia” yet  “what energy transition are you talking about, if a woman is killed every 17 hours in this country [Colombia]?”

While women and girls are undeniably crucial voices and agents of change, our voices are more likely to not be heard, included, or even considered. Ikal Angelei from Friends of Lake Turkana4 summarized this perfectly: “Anti-patriarchal struggle cuts across every struggle for justice”.

Indigenous Voices 

Jama Wapichana, representing the Wapishana Indigenous Peoples of Brazil and Guyana, said in her talk “Nature is our mother and we are part of her […]. We are connected to nature and respect her” showing their deep connection to nature and non-exploitative way of life. Joan Carling, representing the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development5, underlines the fact that climate justice is at the heart of indigenous people’s survival. Her statement “for indigenous peoples, climate justice requires the recognition and protection of our inherent rights to our lands, territories and resources and to self-determination and the sustainable and equitable use of natural resources” is more than just a requirement that should have been met a long time ago. It also gives a glimpse on visions and solutions that are applied in ancient and indigenous knowledge for centuries. 

Moving forward 

Studies also show that just transitions need to be developed from traditional knowledge and modern science applying community and eco-system based approaches, as is already practiced in many indigenous communities around the globe. Joan Carling connects to this fact when she recounts, “Indigenous communities are one with their land. This relation is reflected in the values of doing no harm, maintaining peace and conserving futures for the coming generation; forming the framework for sustainability.” There is an organically grown and strong commitment to a sustainable lifestyle that got lost through industrialization and the proliferation of neo-liberal values and systems. For example, Adrian Lasimbang representing the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia said, “Indigenous communities have the ability to embrace renewable energy and protect the environment and this merits recognition.” So let us start the recognition and learn from each other in diverse and representative research groups applying creative solution-finding considering non-western perspectives and traditions. One key statement from our workshop “Rights Based Approach for Climate Justice” was that “we need to build partnerships with indigenous peoples as rights-holders, and stewards of nature who are providing solutions to climate change.”

One fact we found especially inspiring during this workshop was the consensus-based decision making of tribes in the Philippines as described by Lulu Jimenez. She also highlighted the well-established communication and alignment of different tribes in her region within their campaign against large hydropower dams endangering their territories. It seemed to us like a deeply participative and respectful process empowering those not in power.

Just transitions need a truly participative and inclusive global solution-development. Ikal stated, “the participatory approach is always good – but not participatory on paper.” She mentioned that participative processes require more time leading to some stakeholders losing patience. However, in her opinion, taking the extra time is worth it: “It is such a smooth sail after that!” Research underlines this fact and found out that participative decisions are much more respected and implemented compared to top-down processes and at the end more effective.

To conclude, just transitions require a constant critical reflection of current institutional, societal, contextual, and empirical biases tackling existing unjust global power structures and discrimination. This applies to the cause and effect of ongoing climate change impacts, to the preparedness, capacity and resources to tackle these as well as to participation in decision and solution development. As Mihir Sharma opened his talk:  “Climate Change – Whose crisis?” 

This is why we should always  critically reflect on some essential  questions from time to time:

  • Whom do we believe we are representing? 
  • Whom are we speaking for? 
  • Whom do we imagine ourselves fighting on behalf of?
  • Is this a safe and just space?
  • Who has the most to teach us and the least opportunities to do so?

The essay is based on presentations held at the online conference “Interconnected Voices: Climate Change, Equity and the way forward”, which the Reiner Lemoine Institut organized jointly with the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanity (AGYA) in November 2020.

Zakia’s PhD research at the Reiner Lemoine Institut is broadly concerned with the dimensions of socio-technical transitions, the mobility of people, and climate change, with a focus on urban environments and small islands. In particular, she looks at how infrastructure investments and policies can be most effectively implemented in order to achieve the global sustainable development goals. She is passionate about the environment, social equity, and the need for defending human rights. 

In her PhD research at the Reiner Lemoine Institut, Katrin looks at electricity access and climate change impacts on Southeast Asian islands. Sustainable electricity access is a prerequisite for many adaptation measures. Therefore, she investigates how climate change resilient energy systems may look like in order to sustain positive adaptation potentials for the local communities. Katrin is concerned about climate change and is part of the climate justice movement. She is especially passionate about environmental protection, energy transition and social equity and supports actions with her own body, research and volunteer work.

  1.  Allusion to the anti-coal movement in Germany called “Ende Gelände” which translates literally into “End of compound”. The question posed here translates as: “End of which compound?”.
  2. Essay on the term „Global South“
  3. Peterson, K. (2007). “Reaching Out to Women When Disaster Strikes.” Soroptimist WhitePaper, http://www.soroptimist.org
  4.  Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT) is a grassroots organization founded in 2011 that works with and on behalf of the communities within the greater Lake Turkana basin to demand their collective social, environmental, economic, cultural and territorial rights. https://www.friendsoflaketurkana.org
  5. https://indigenouspeoples-sdg.org