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Climate Justice and Capabilities: A Framework for Adaptation Policy

  • David Schlosberg
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1 Commission, Climate, The Critical Decade: Climate Science, Risks and Responses (Canberra: Climate Commission, 2011);

2 Fraser, Nancy, Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition (New York: Routledge, 1997); and Young, Iris Marion, Justice and the Politics of Difference (London: Routledge, 1990).

3 Nussbaum, Martha C., Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011); and Sen, Amartya, The Idea of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009).

4 Breena Holland has also developed a capabilities approach to environmental and climate justice, though there are key distinctions between our efforts: Holland's work is more specifically focused on environment as an instrumental support system for human needs, while the current piece more broadly addresses the contrast with other notions of climate justice, the role of recognition, and applications to communities and the nonhuman realm. See Holland, Breena, “Justice and the Environment in Nussbaum's ‘Capabilities Approach’: Why Sustainable Ecological Capacity Is a Meta-Capability,” Political Research Quarterly 61, no. 2 (2008), pp. 319–32; Holland, Breena, “Environment as Meta-Capability: Why a Dignified Human Life Requires a Stable Climate System,” in Thompson, Allen and Bendik-Keymer, Jeremy, eds., Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012), pp. 145–64.

5 See, e.g., Agarwal, Anil, Narain, Sunita, and Sharma, Anju, “The Global Commons and Environmental Justice—Climate Change,” in Byrne, John, Glover, Leigh, and Martinez, Celia, eds., Environmental Justice: International Discourses in Political Economy—Energy and Environmental Policy (Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2002), pp. 171–202; Kartha, Sivan, “Discourses of the Global South,” in Dryzek, John, Norgaard, Richard, and Schlosberg, David, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 504–20; Neumayer, Eric, “In Defence of Historical Accountability for Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Ecological Economics 33, no. 2 (2000), pp. 185–92; and Shue, Henry, “Global Environment and International Inequality,” International Affairs 75, no. 3 (1999), pp. 533–37.

6 Jamieson, Dale, “Climate Change and Global Environmental Justice,” in Miller, Clark A. and Edwards, Paul N., eds., Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001), pp. 287–307; and Singer, Peter, One World: The Ethics of Globalization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

7 Singer, One World, p. 43.

8 Derek Bell makes a similar argument regarding different needs, and calls the per capita approach an oversimplification; see Bell, Derek, “Does Anthropogenic Climate Change Violate Human Rights?” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy 14, no. 2 (2011), pp. 99124.

9 Caney, Simon, “Cosmopolitan Justice, Rights, and Global Climate Change,” Canadian Journal of Law and Jurisprudence 19, no. 2 (2006), pp. 255–78; and Caney, Simon, “Climate Change, Human Rights, and Moral Thresholds,” in Humphreys, Stephen, ed., Human Rights and Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 69–90.

10 EcoEquity, “Greenhouse Development Rights” (2008);; emphasis in original.

11 Vanderheiden, Steve, Atmospheric Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

12 See Schlosberg, David, “Capacity and Capabilities: A Response to the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework,” Ethics, Place and Environment 12, no. 3 (2009), pp. 287–90.

13 Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference, p. 18.

14 Fraser, Justice Interruptus, p. 14.

15 Whyte, Kyle Powys, “The Recognition Dimensions of Environmental Justice in Indian Country,” Environmental Justice 4, no. 4 (2011), pp. 199205.

16 For discussion of this more psychological approach to recognition, see Honneth, Axel, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995); and Taylor, Charles, Multiculturalism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994).

17 Kompridis, Nikolas, “Struggling over the Meaning of Recognition: A Matter of Identity, Justice, or Freedom?” European Journal of Political Theory 6, no. 3 (2007), p. 278.

18 Figueroa, Robert M., “Bivalent Environmental Justice and the Culture of Poverty,” Rutgers University Journal of Law and Urban Policy 1, no. 1 (2003), pp. 27–42; Peña, Devon, “Identity, Place and Communities of Resistance,” in Agyeman, Julian, Bullard, Robert D., and Evans, Bob, eds., Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), pp. 146–67; Schlosberg, David, “The Justice of Environmental Justice: Reconciling Equity, Recognition, and Participation in a Political Movement,” in Light, Andrew and de-Shalit, Avner, eds., Moral and Political Reasoning in Environmental Practice (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), pp. 77–106; Schlosberg, David, Defining Environmental Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); and Whyte, “The Recognition Dimensions of Environmental Justice in Indian Country.”

19 This is one of the “storms” in Gardiner's metaphor of climate change as a “perfect storm” of tragedy. See Gardiner, Stephen M., A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

20 See, e.g., “The Anchorage Declaration” of the Indigenous Peoples' Global Summit on Climate Change. Such a focus is also clearly part of the discourse of affected states, local social movements, and international NGOs—the actual political discourse of climate justice encompasses recognition more so than the academic literature on the concept.

21 They highlight the “local material and symbolic contexts in which people create their lives, and through which those lives derive meaning” and show that it is those “contexts” that are threatened by climate change. Adger, W. Neil et al. , “This Must Be the Place: Underrepresentation of Identity and Meaning in Climate Change Decision-Making,” Global Environmental Politics 11, no. 2 (2011), pp. 125.

22 Ibid., p. 21.

23 Sen, Amartya, Commodities and Capabilities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Sen, Amartya, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor, 1999); Sen, The Idea of Justice; Nussbaum, Martha C., Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Nussbaum, Martha C., Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006); and Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities.

24 Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, p. 71.

25 Sen, Amartya, “Human Rights and Capabilities,” Journal of Human Development 6, no. 2 (2005), pp. 151–66; and Nussbaum, Women and Development, pp. 78–80.

26 Defined politically as “being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one's life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association,” in Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities, p. 34.

27 See Holland, “Justice and the Environment in Nussbaum's ‘Capabilities Approach,’” and Holland, “Environment as Meta-Capability,” for the former, and Schlosberg, David, “Justice, Ecological Integrity, and Climate Change,” in Thompson, Allen and Bendik-Keymer, Jeremy, eds., Ethical Adaptation to Climate Change: Human Virtues of the Future (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012), pp. 165–84, for the latter.

28 Sen, Development as Freedom, p. 70.

29 Anand, Sudhir and Sen, Amartya, “Human Development and Economic Sustainability,” World Development 28, no. 12 (2000), p. 2038; and Sen, Amartya, “Why We Should Preserve the Spotted Owl,” London Review of Books 26, no. 3 (February 5, 2004), p. 1.

30 Nussbaum, Frontiers of Justice.

31 Page, Edward, Climate Change, Justice, and Future Generations (Cheltenham, U.K.: Edward Elgar, 2007); and Page, Edward, “Intergenerational Justice of What: Welfare, Resources, or Capabilities?” Environmental Politics 16, no. 3 (2007), pp. 453–69.

32 Holland, “Justice and the Environment in Nussbaum's ‘Capabilities Approach’”; and Holland, “Environment as Meta-Capability.”

33 Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, p. 80.

34 Hanna, Elizabeth G., “Health Hazards,” in Dryzek, John S., Norgaard, Richard, and Schlosberg, David, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 217–23.

35 Leckie, Scott, Simperingham, Ezekiel, and Bakker, Jordan, eds., Climate Change and Displacement Reader (London: Routledge, 2012).

36 Holland, “Environment as Meta-Capability.”

37 Holland, “Justice and the Environment in Nussbaum's ‘Capabilities Approach,’” p. 328.

38 Nussbaum, Women and Human Development, p. 74.

39 Page, Climate Change, Justice, and Future Generations; and Page, “Intergenerational Justice of What.”

40 Figueroa, Robert M., “Indigenous Peoples and Cultural Loss,” in Dryzek, John, Norgaard, Richard, and Schlosberg, David, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 232–50. For another discussion of a community-level approach to capabilities, in particular as applied to indigenous environmental justice, see Schlosberg, David and Carruthers, David, “Indigenous Struggles, Environmental Justice, and Community Capabilities,” Global Environmental Politics 10, no. 4 (2010), pp. 1235.

41 Schlosberg, “Justice, Ecological Integrity, and Climate Change.”

42 Wolff, Jonathan and de-Shalit, Avner, Disadvantage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

43 Ibid., p. 10.

44 See, e.g., Rasmus Heltberg and Misha Bonch-Osmolovskiy, “Mapping Vulnerability to Climate Change,” World Bank Policy Research Paper 5554 (2011); Climate Commission, The Critical Decade; the Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping System (; and Maplecroft's Climate Change Vulnerability Index (

* I would like to thank the many colleagues who have commented on previous versions of this argument, in particular Breena Holland, Paul Baer, Simon Caney, Jonathan Pickering, Steve Vanderheiden, and the reviewers for EIA. Financial support was provided by the Australian Research Council for Discovery Project, “Rethinking Climate Justice in an Age of Adaptation.”

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