We are already living with climate change. While the political arguments about causes and responses drag on, the people who are directly affected by its very real and increasing effects are beginning to face the urgent new reality of adaptation. As has been well documented, actual trends for a number of indicators—warming, rising sea levels, and extreme weather, for example—have far exceeded the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) predictions of just a few years ago. At the same time, one of the major political discourses surrounding climate change policy, at both the global and local level, has been that of climate justice. Climate justice theorists, governments of the most vulnerable nations, and activists and organizations in both local and global civil society have articulated a range of frameworks for understanding the relationship between the effects of climate change and conceptions of justice and fairness. These approaches include fairly straightforward polluter pays models (based on historical responsibility), fair share models (based on the equal allocation of emissions), and various rights-based models (such as development rights, human rights, and environmental rights). The strong assumption behind these models is that normative theories of climate justice can ground global climate policies. The question here is how those can be applied to the reality and necessity of adaptation.
This article offers four arguments with regard to the current state of climate justice theory and its relationship to policy-making. First, that most well-known approaches to climate justice have two important weaknesses, in that they fail to take advantage of two crucial developments in recent justice theory: one, the identification of social and political misrecognition as the key underlying condition of the maldistribution of goods and risks; and two, the influential capabilities approach, which focuses on the specific range of basic needs and capabilities (including recognition) that human beings require to function. Second, that adopting a capabilities approach to climate change justice bridges the gap between ideal and abstract notions of climate justice theory on the one hand and the reality of policy-making for adaptation on the other. Third, and against the individualist assumptions of most capabilities approaches (and most liberal conceptions of justice), that capabilities can be used to understand, catalog, and address both individual and community-level needs and vulnerabilities. Finally, that a capabilities approach acknowledges that justice depends on a revised understanding of the relationship between human beings and the nonhuman world.
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