Climate Justice Beyond Equity: The Flourishing of Human and Non-Human Communities

19 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 22 Mar 2014

Date Written: 2009


Given the innovations in the field of political theories of justice in the past couple of decades, in particular those dedicated to the relationship between recognition and justice, procedural justice, and especially around the broadly encompassing capabilities theory of justice, it is surprising that so few of these approaches have been applied to the field of climate justice. The task in this essay is rather straightforward: to explore how a capabilities approach to justice can be applied to a conception of climate justice. The point is to explore how climate justice, in both theory and practice, can include but exceed primarily distributive frames, and incorporate ways of addressing the broad impacts of climate change on human communities and the natural world.

The argument here has a number of elements. First, recent climate justice literature has begun to move away from a singular focus on equity-based approaches, and into issues of environmental and development rights. While these rights-based notions are important developments in that they begin to focus on people’s everyday lives, I argue that a capabilities approach to justice can both encompass and clarify a range of issues central to this recent literature. Second, a notion of climate justice based in capabilities can accommodate the wide-ranging demands of climate justice movement groups. This is not only about the issues raised by these groups, but also about the subject of justice itself, which is often the community as well as the individuals within it. And finally, the argument here is also about the need to move beyond a strictly human bias in considerations of climate justice. A capabilities approach can be applied to what both human and non-human individuals and communities need in order to function, and so can offer a broad theory of justice that is applicable to multiple impacts of climate change.

The essay begins with an overview of current theories of climate justice, ranging from those focusing on historical responsibility, to those based on equitable pollution shares, to those that espouse development and environmental rights. I will then lay out a basic overview of the capabilities approach to justice, as developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. A discussion of the demands of the climate justice movement follows, and those demands are put into a capabilities framework. Finally, I examine two key ways that a capabilities approach can be expanded beyond human communities, or two different frameworks for including the impacts on the natural world in a broad capabilities-based theory of climate justice. Ultimately, the goal is a framework of climate justice that addresses both human and non-human communities, and the natural systems that sustain them.

Suggested Citation

Schlosberg, David, Climate Justice Beyond Equity: The Flourishing of Human and Non-Human Communities (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

David Schlosberg (Contact Author)

Northern Arizona University ( email )

PO Box 15066
Flagstaff, AZ 86011
United States

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