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A New Framework to Study “Planetary Justice”

Updated: Jan 9

Just a glance through the scientific literature shows an increasing ‘justice turn’ in discourses on global environmental change and earth system transformation. After many years of neoliberal dominance, there is a new abundance of references to equity, equality, and justice. That is fantastic news.


And yet, from a social science perspective there is still a huge amount of confusion of what justice actually means in concrete terms. For too long, questions of mis­allocation, inequalities and injustices have been marginalized by a mainstream discourse in Northern science communities that relegated justice considerations to purely personal, normative convictions, notwithstanding a strong but small community of justice scholars especially at local governance scales. Concerning research on planetary transformation, global change and governance, justice has been a relative fringe issue for long, and broader conceptual frameworks are missing.


What we thus need is a richer debate on the conceptual foundations of what justice research on global sustainability and environmental change could mean. This is especially the case if we want to turn from a normative debate on planetary justice (‘what is just?’) towards an empirical debate on what conceptualizations of justice different actors in global environmental politics actually support.


To advance this debate, I have recently published a paper, co-authored with Agni Kalfagianni of Utrecht University, on a novel research framework to empirically study ‘planetary justice’. Our research framework is designed for social scientists to engage in a meaningful and practical manner in concrete, comparative research efforts that study how philosophical positions on justice have found their reflections in actual political discourses, programmes and policy positions in global governance.


We use in that article the term of ‘planetary justice’ to signal the planetary scale of both the problem and the framework that we advance. Competing terms do not capture our ambition as neatly as planetary justice does. ‘Environmental’ justice has generated a strong community of scholars and stands for a rich research tradition. Yet ter­mino­logically, it brings problematic connotations of a nature-human or person-environ­ment dichotomy that does not capture the integrated character of socio-ecological transformations that stands at the centre of the current Anthropocene debate. ‘International’ justice is a political concept that refers in essence to relations of peoples and countries. ‘Global’ comes closest to what we refer to as planetary justice. Yet also here, the terminological weight lies on global society and social systems, and on obligations of justice that people owe to other people (at global scale), less so on the intertwined nature of the earth system in the Anthropocene where social and ecological systems have become inseparable and where obligations are owed to nonhuman entities as well. Planetary scale, planetary society-nature integration and non-binary system thinking stands behind our idea of a justice framework. It is hence ‘planetary’ justice, as a term, that we are using as key concept for our framework.


We believe that the conceptual framework on planetary justice that we advance can help in several research challenges.


First, we argue that the framework can inform integrated assessment modellers and foresight analysts when constructing narratives and storylines for the next generation of global assessment models, drawing on world views and justice perceptions that are based on sound, widely found theoretical systems, not on ad hoc assumptions.


Secondly, the framework can inform social scientists in systematically analysing political processes, institutions, policy documents, programmes and positions with a view to the assessment of the normative views present in such processes or documents, allowing to clearly demarcate different views, identify inconsistencies, and elucidate overlaps and agreements. Systematic comparisons across policy discourses, communities, regions and over time might help, in particular, to advance understanding of different perceptions and positions, as well as assist in shaping common ground among actors, which eventually can advance global governance more generally. As such, a sound conceptual framework can help develop an empirical-analytical research community on planetary justice that goes beyond philosophical theorizing, globalist activism or the anti-normative concerns expressed by many (often Northern) scientists.


Third, the conceptual framework can be useful for researchers in the community, including the Future Earth network, the Earth System Governance Project or the IPCC, in an effort to more systematically reflect on the normative foundations of such major networks, and guide global research and assessment programming.


In our full paper, published in December 2020 in the journal Earth System Governance, we lay out five broad philosophical traditions that form the basis of our Planetary Justice research framework. These five traditions are liberal egalitarianism, cosmopolitanism, libertarianism, the capabilities approach, and what we describe as ‘critical perspectives’. We then develop propositions from these five traditions for three key concerns that are central in any debate on planetary justice: (1) what are the subjects of justice, (2) what should be seen as just, and (3) what mechanisms should be supported to achieve justice. This leads us to sets of merely five remaining basic propositions for each theoretical tradition that can be used in empirical analysis or integrated assessments to distinguish and compare different conceptualizations of planetary justice.


We exemplified this framework by examining two prominent examples of current planetary sustainability politics: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, agreed upon by the UN General Assembly in September 2015 as the main directional policy document at the global level; and the founding documents of the Future Earth research platform, a major international research platform aiming to provide knowledge and support for sustainable transformations at planetary scale. We found that justice is incoherently conceptualized in these two cases, if at all. This is problematic: cosmopolitan aspirations cannot be satisfied with libertarian mechanisms; capabilities cannot be promoted by global distributive principles; and a critical agenda cannot be expressed simply by notions of individual well-being and human development.


By clarifying the normative positions behind major political and scientific programmes and broader visions for our future, the Planetary Justice research framework that we advance forces to think more carefully and clearly about what it is that we consider unjust, who is facing that injustice, and what is the right mechanism to address it.


This is, we argue, not only a much-needed scientific endeavour. It is also a promising step towards fostering a broader societal dialogue about the kinds of just societies we aspire to live in.


The full paper, ‘Planetary Justice: A Research Framework’ (December 2020), can be downloaded here.

© 2020 Frank Biermann