Planetary Justice

‘What do we want? – climate justice!’ is a common slogan in the climate justice movement. I admire the energy of those who take to the street and I get much hope from their actions. Yet, as an academic I believe that we also need to develop a clearer idea of what ‘justice’ means when it comes to protecting planet Earth. We have, on the one hand, highly sophisticated debates among philosophers about justice in its various understandings. On the other hand there is a wide variety of political actors, and often political scientists, who use terms such as ‘justice’ and ‘equity’ without much reflection about what they imply. The global research platform ‘Future Earth’, for instance, starts out in their mission statement that they want to contribute to a ‘sustainable and equitable world’ – without ever defining what they mean.

In 2018, I have advanced with colleagues the notion of ‘Planetary Justice’ and developed a conceptual framework to empirically study different understandings of ‘justice’ or ‘equity’. We did not propose a particular concept of justice but sought to bring structure, clarity, simplicity and comparability among different interpretations of justice in global change research. We reduced the wealth of five broad normative approaches to systematic, parsimonious answers on three key concerns any analyst of justice is facing: the subjects of justice and their relationship; the metrics and principles of justice; and the mechanisms on the basis of which justice is pursued.

On a more normative level, I have recently argued with colleagues that we need to have a much clearer pro-poor position in earth system governance research and policy. Drawing on Gandhi’s Talisman, we argued that such a pro-poor focus requires powerful state and non-state actors across all scales of governance to abide by the three tenets of pro-poor planetary justice: (1) That the poor and marginalized majority shall not be made worse off; (2) That the lot of the poor must improve; and (3) That the poor be recognized as legitimate participants (whether directly or via representation) in decisions that impact upon them. We hoped through this intervention to have more social scientists engaging with an explicit pro-poor focus in their research.

Related research includes:

Planetary justice: A research framework (open access article, 2020)

Planetary justice: Prioritizing the poor in earth system governance (open access article, 2020)

© 2020 Frank Biermann