A New Framework to Study “Planetary Justice”

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

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