Climate Justice Demands an Integrated Geography 

Message painted on wall that says "asterisk" Leave no one behind; photo by Etienne Girardet for Unsplash
Image by Etienne Girardet for Unsplash

Photo of Marilyn Raphael by Ashley Kruythoff, UCLA

Some months ago, I was asked to speak about climate justice at a monthly seminar series. The invitation welcomed my “perspectives on the role of Earth Observations (EO) for climate justice, areas of momentum within the geography research community [as] well as areas where attention is needed.” I was immediately tempted to say “no” because I felt that there were people better able to address this topic at that level, but the invitation cast the request within the context of my roles as the president of American Association of Geographers and director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, two groups which should definitely have something to say about climate change and climate justice. So, I agreed, taking it as an opportunity to do a deeper dive into the issue of climate change and climate justice, from the perspective of a physical geographer. I learned a lot — here is some of what I learned.

Climate science and climate justice

Historically, climate scientists have treated the climate as if it were a phenomenon separate from ourselves. We saw it as a very complex phenomenon that functioned on its own, largely beyond our control, its variability something that we could measure objectively, describe, and analyze. The study of climate variables that affected human comfort and survival was prioritized and predictions of the same were used to prepare for drought, floods and the like.

Climate justice demands that climate scientists no longer ignore what is right in front of our eyes but recognize and redress the ways in which our practice of science contributes to this injustice.

Human-induced climate change has changed that perspective. Primarily we now see that our use of the planetary resources, particularly fossil fuels, is directly responsible for the changes in climate that we are experiencing. The largely negative impacts of climate change, are unequally distributed so that people who are already disadvantaged and least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that forced climate change, are the most vulnerable. Climate justice, which recognizes how these inequities are exacerbated by climate change, is a movement as well as a way of approaching the climate crisis. The climate justice movement highlights the connections between climate change and social injustice.  Most importantly, climate justice demands that climate scientists no longer ignore what is right in front of our eyes but recognize and redress the ways in which our practice of science contributes to this injustice.

To understand the role of EO for climate justice requires talking to climate justice organizers and activists themselves, given that climate justice, like environmental justice, is a movement more than an area of academic application and research. Physical scientists need to know the needs of groups working to advance climate justice. We also need to know the uses — present and potential, by and for whom or what — of the kinds of knowledge tools (datasets, models) we are working to construct. Additionally, often the need is not for additional research but rather a redistribution of resources to tackle problems whose causes and consequences are already sufficiently clear — especially to those who are most affected by them. So, we have to think in terms of community data needs as well as the relationships between producers of scientific knowledge and affected communities.

More generally, physical scientists need to pay more attention to the role of scientific representations of climate change in obscuring climate injustice. This is an ongoing issue. Here is one example — attributing responsibility for climate change to a generalized “humanity” instead of to a specific set of powerful human institutions that have a long track record of harming, exploiting, and extracting wealth from colonized and marginalized people and places. In this context, “climate change” might be more productively addressed as a symptom rather than a cause.  We, rightfully, talk about the disproportionate impacts of climate change on marginalized groups but this framing can elide the underlying processes producing both climate change and systemic marginalization — for instance, settler colonial control of land that facilitates fossil fuel extraction and industrial development while undermining the ability of Indigenous communities to adapt to climate change’s effects.

A geographical approach to linking climate science and climate justice

In geography, there is an is an emerging body of work called Critical Physical Geography, which may be used as a lens and guiding framework for bringing climate justice into climate science. Critical physical geography advocates paying more reflexive attention to how knowledge is produced — how we conceptualize our research and the methods that we use. It argues that social inequalities and power relations are implicitly woven through what we study and should not be ignored if a thorough understanding of our science is our goal.

A recent paper puts urban climatology at the center of this discussion. Arguably, the city is the place where human impact on the landscape and climate is concentrated and where measurable and perceived climate change was noted well before global climate change was widely confirmed. Even today, the temperature increase attributed to large cities (the Urban Heat Island) is larger than the global average temperature increase. And cities are major sites of greenhouse gas emissions. The city is also the place where much work on environmental justice is done because of the unequally distributed negative impacts of the increased temperatures and air pollution, among other things. critical urban climatology draws on the tenets of critical physical geography to argue that we need both urban climatology and environmental justice to fully understand urban climates because they are shaped both by legacies of colonialism, and race, gender, and class; and by the nature of the urban energy budgets, the variation in air quality, and the thermal and moisture characteristics that define them.

Going forward, what do we do?

In those brief preceding paragraphs, I have barely touched the surface. There is so much more to learn, to inform how we practice and use our science. Physical scientists (physical geographers) have made great strides to understand the physical nature of climate and climate change. However, our understanding of climate, climate change and its impacts is limited by the fact that we do not incorporate the human element. The divide between these perspectives is nothing new, as Mei-Po Kwan pointed out in 2008, but this has to change, because our environments are no longer only physical or only human. Was it ever so? Bridging the gap between physical and human geography practice will not only better address climate justice but will also improve our science.

Learn more about AAG’s work on climate action and justice


DOI: 10.14433/2017.0115

Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at raphael [at] geog [dot] ucla [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.