Prioritizing the Poor in Earth System Governance

Updated: Jan 8

A pro-poor focus in earth system governance research is still missing.

As someone who has worked on global environmental issues for over 25 years, I am amazed to see the rapidly growing literature on planetary stewardship and transformative change towards earth system governance. Also, it is wonderful to observe the growing ‘justice turn’ in our research communities, with many studies now focussing on climate justice, planetary justice, and so on. And yet, this literature often stays at the level of ideal conceptions and abstract arguments drawing on normative theories of justice. What is missing is a clearly articulated pro-poor focus in earth system governance research.

Artwork by Alexandra Bowman @scripta_bene/ NY Times

This is the core argument in a short Perspective paper that I have written this summer with Prakash Kashwan, Aarti Gupta and Chukwumerije Okereke. In short, we argue in this paper that while any type of planetary stewardship requires planetary justice, what is urgently needed are better theoretical approaches and differently focused empirical studies that put the needs of the poor first when it comes to analyzing and advocating governance responses to planetary ecological crises.

Inspired by Gandhi’s Talisman (Khosoo 2002), we argue that this requires powerful actors across all scales of governance to abide by three tenets of pro-poor planetary justice: That the poor and marginalized majority shall not be made worse off; that the lot of the poor must improve; and that the poor be recognized as legitimate participants (whether directly or via representation) in decisions that affect them.

In our view, these three tenets are necessary and non-negotiable elements of any strategy for earth system governance and planetary stewardship. Yet we find few analyses so far that lay out what such a pro-poor focus within planetary justice could look like. In our Perspective paper, we hence open this debate within the earth system governance research community. We discuss whether dominant approaches to planetary stewardship and earth system governance prioritize the poor (spoiler: they don’t), and we then sketch what alternative approaches might be needed.

Our conclusion is straightforward: planetary justice − as a system to secure the integrity of the planetary system and universal protection of basic human dignity for all people − requires prioritizing poor people’s interests within planetary stewardship. It requires thinking through complex allocation challenges, such as addressing extreme concentrations of wealth in industrialized and middle-income countries and international redistributions of wealth and opportunities to help poor countries protect their populations against the catastrophic consequences of climate change. Addressing these allocation challenges head-on, within and between countries, is critical to realizing a vision of planetary justice that is pro-poor.

However, such challenges are not sufficiently addressed nor prioritized in earth system governance research so far. For the ideals of planetary justice to be achieved, we must focus any vision of planetary stewardship on structural change and the lives and life worlds of the poorest and most marginalized people of the world. To realize these needs remains a major challenge for the earth system governance research community.

The full paper – ‘Planetary justice: Prioritizing the poor in earth system governance’ is fully open access. Download it here.

© 2020 Frank Biermann