Principles in Climate Justice

By Mike Mallory, Sierra Club Sno-Isle Group and Climate Reality Snohomish County Chapter

From The Sierra Club, Washington State Chapter Journal – “The Crest” Volume 38, Issue 1

After Mike Mallory and his wife Marilyn retired, they knew they wanted to spend some of their time giving back to the world and they wanted to do it together. They found that climate activism was high on both their lists, in large part because of concern for the future of their grandchildren. They were attracted to the intensive Climate Reality training from top climate scientists, policy makers and health care workers. This training emphasized the need to inform people about the causes and consequences of climate change. The following is based on one of their presentations to spread the word.

When we hear stories about the frontline of environmental degradation, our sense of fairness is awoken and we are often moved to action. But when we move to action it is important to keep Environmental Justice in mind, so that we do not reinforce the pre-existing threads of oppression and injustice already woven into the system.

“Justice” is generally about balancing rights and responsibilities, benefits and burdens. Justice, in its applications to the Environment, can be divided into three categories.

  • Participatory Justice – Which deals with fairness in decision making.
  • Distributive Justice – Which balances the benefits and burdens of our social and ecological system.
  • Restorative Justice – Which guides us in restoring the balance when lost.

Participatory Justice

Participatory Justice can be described as meaningful access for all stakeholders to fair and responsive decision-making. There are important decisions that need to be made which will affect the entire biosphere. The conversations and resulting actions are of universal concern.

Participatory Justice – Requires:

1. An invitation to the table to all stakeholders: Invitations are more inclusive than mere access. Stakeholders are all those affected by our current and contemplated actions.

2. That each collective voice is heard: We must accommodate different languages and cultures. Each group must be allowed to speak for itself and groups must be allowed to select their own representatives.

3. That voices be equalized: Power affects the volume and bandwidth of messaging. Those without power are entitled to equal consideration.


  • Vulnerable voices must be highlighted. Those with-out power are historically underrepresented. We must allow those voices to move to the forefront and we must truly listen.
  • Economic voices must be brought into scale. Power has the ability to drown out the voices of others. We must turn down the amplification of power.
  • Non-Traditional Stakeholders must be included: This includes people who will speak for animal and plant life on this planet and also future generations, our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

4. Participatory justice also requires information, not misinformation. If decision making is to be wise, the decision makers need to be knowledgeable. Climate denial must be called out.

Distributive Justice

Distributive justice is ideally an initial social or ecological system that shares the benefits of natural resources and environmental costs equitably. One approach to determining whether a system is fair is described by John Rawls in his book, A Theory of Justice. Rawls offers a thought experiment – imagine that before you are born, you are provided briefly with a full understanding of the world. You understand all there is to know about the way society is organized: economic differences, racial and ethnic differences, etc. But you do not know whether you will be born black, white or some other race, rich or poor, in a developed or developing country, in this time or sometime in the future. There is an equal chance of every outcome. Are you comfortable? Only when we are comfortable with all the possible outcomes using intuitive contemplation, which Rawls calls reflective equilibrium, is the system just.

Rawls further points out that if there are adjustments to the system, they are only valid if they give an advantage to the least advantaged groups rather than exacerbating current inequalities.

Restorative Justice

Our world is riddled with injustice, so when there are conflicts within the system we need to use that opportunity to move toward a condition that increases justice in the system as a whole.

Fairness requires equal access to the benefits of development. We do have the ability to provide development to remote areas without repeating the green-house-gas emitting technology of the past. We can bring solar or wind generating micro-grids to communities from Northern Alaska and Siberia to Central Africa and the Amazon.

Restorative justice must also address environmental costs as well as benefits. We sometimes hear about communities in the “frontline” of pollution. “Frontline” is a valuable term when referring to localized pollution such as communities living downwind of a smokestack. However, climate change is global and is affecting everyone, whether rich or poor. Sea level rise affects the poor in Bangladesh but it also affects the wealthy in waterfront homes in Miami. Hurricanes destroy the homes and businesses of the wealthy and the poor alike. Everyone will have to deal with the effects of climate change.

The difference that matters when discussing justice is one of resilience. The wealthy can afford to adapt to climate change; those with few resources lack that resilience. Climate vulnerability accurately describes those unable to adapt to climate change.

When we respond to an environmental crisis we must listen to all affected groups, understand the benefits and burdens of development through the historical lens of oppression and exploitation, and work to embed practical solutions into a restorative justice framework.

From Diane Shisk, Equity and Justice Committee Chair:

The Washington Sierra Club has an Equity and Justice Committee that works to assist the Washington Chapter in transforming from an historically white-led group to an equitable group that is a strong ally to communities of color and tribes. We have developed resources to that end which can be found here:

We welcome inquiries.

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