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From victims to claimants: Mobilizing the IPCC Assessment for climate justice (commentary)

  • Poor and marginalized communities worldwide, and island nations especially, have contributed the least to the climate crisis, but are nonetheless impacted the most by it.
  • The most recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) affirmed for the first time the need for fairness, equity, and climate justice in the world’s response.
  • The usual frame that casts island peoples as passive victims in need of climate aid is not only overplayed, but is shortsighted and counterproductive for the achievement of equitable policy and transformative adaptation, a new op-ed argues.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.

In some respects, it was expected. The same doomsday scenarios. The same periodic reminders of more horror to come. The same organization of working groups. The same approach grounded in the labored consensus of participants from nearly 200 member states.

Then a line like this one appears: “Viewed from a climate justice perspective, some argue that a more just society is more capable of successful adaptation while others argue that only adaptation that results in a more just society can be judged successful.”

Philosophical acrobatics or lecture by a law professor it is not. These are the words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the advisory body of the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC)—which delivered this statement in February 2022 in the second of three installments that together form the IPCC’s sixth assessment report (AR6). Entitled like its predecessors, “Impacts, Adaption, and Vulnerability,” the second installment by Working Group II (WGII) marks a significant step forward in comparison to the five previous assessments issued every six or seven years since 1990. AR6 boldly adopted and affirmed—for the first time ever—the value of nature-based solutions, Indigenous and local knowledge, and allied principles such as fairness, equity, and climate justice. For atoll dwellers at the frontlines of rising seas, this approach is overdue.

A group of fishers pulls their catch ashore on Cicia Island, Fiji, 2020. Photo courtesy of Håkon Larsen.

We elaborate on this sea change in IPCC assessments, and summon the scientific rigor for which the IPCC is known by sharing passages from AR6’s second installment that strengthen the narrative for climate justice. That is, the poor and marginalized who have contributed least to the climate crisis are nonetheless impacted most by it. Our contribution is this: the usual frame that casts island peoples as passive victims in need of climate aid is not only overplayed. It is shortsighted and counterproductive for the achievement of equitable policy and transformative adaptation. AR6, we contend, prepares the ground to evidence the case that island peoples must be understood instead as rightful claimants to climate reparations.

In WGII’s Chapter 15, “Small Islands,” the IPCC evidences how undue—and unjust—the climate burden is on Small Island Developing States (SIDS). The situation has been exacerbated since the IPCC’s last assessment in 2014. The years 2013-2021 all ranked among the ten warmest years on record. The link between anthropogenic warming and severe extreme weather is now an established fact. Already for SIDS, increasingly warming temperatures, intense tropical cyclones, storm surges, droughts, sea-level rise, coral bleaching, and growth of invasive species are present realities wreaking havoc. Biodiversity hotspots risk extinction of their endemic plant and animal life. Food and water insecurities mount from changes in precipitation patterns and aridity and from saltwater contamination of freshwater lenses on atolls and low-lying islands. Relative to the 1980-2000 period, most Pacific islands could experience a decline of 50% or more in the maximum fish catch potential for food and export by the end of the century. As coastal settlements and infrastructure deteriorate, and vulnerable low-lying and coastal areas diminish in their ability to support life and livelihoods, climate-induced migration will continue to increase.

SIDS are no doubt suffering some of the earliest and severest impacts of climate change. They cannot be blamed for what the IPCC characterized in a press release from August 2021 as an “unprecedented” and “irreversible” crisis. Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations, put it bluntly: “possible loss of entire countries within the century.” In the second installment of AR6, the IPCC specified the claim from the angle of climate justice: “The reasons for concern address both the distributional and the aggregate impacts of climate change, including the unfairness factor for populations that have contributed little in terms of historic emissions but that are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate.” In fact, the contribution of Pacific island countries and territories to total carbon dioxide emissions worldwide is near zero—a mere 0.23% of the global total.

The expertise called upon to produce AR6 helps to explain what makes the sixth assessment different. Unlike past assessments, the IPCC recruited throughout the review process a wide range of expertise in natural and social sciences, engineering, humanities, law, and business administration. Social scientists organized, and pushed the IPCC to integrate into assessments research that debunked such myths as the need for fossil fuels to help poor countries claw their way out of poverty when, instead, Big Oil and other fossil interests are the main obstacles.

The IPCC thus considered in AR6 peer-reviewed literature previously outside its purview, including for the first time studies of degrowth. Rather than a broad recommendation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, AR6 recognized that unlimited economic expansion cannot continue if the goal is to prevent catastrophic climate change. It looked to degrowth studies to emphasize that runaway consumption, free natural capital, cheap exports, and dispossession on the hunt for profit are unsustainable for the planet and inequitable for the people. That WGII agreed by consensus to include a critique of business as usual among conflicting values and politics across a wide range of delegations, which is, indeed, historic.

Sea level rise and storms threaten the palm-fringed shores of a village on Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands, 2010. Photo courtesy of Edvard Hviding.

The IPCC’s multidisciplinary approach allows experts to evaluate adaptation solutions according to the enduring standards of effectiveness and feasibility. It also “connect[s] the assessment of policy choices to normative principles and show[s] how better outcomes are obtained by choosing just ones,” writes WGII. Although the IPCC did not elaborate on all forms of justice, it did specify three types.

First, distributive justice calls for the fair allocation of human, natural, and technological wealth so that no one individual, state, or generation benefits or is treated unfairly to the detriment of others. To administer this outcome, the IPCC highlighted procedural justice too. It encourages underrepresented people to have a seat at the decision-making table, no matter their race, gender, class, age, religion, or the like. Not least, recognition of diverse cultures and perspectives necessitates respect for ways of being, knowing, and doing outside the hegemonic centers of western power. That island peoples from developing countries emerge as disproportionately afflicted in all three registers of injustice identified by the IPCC testifies to how traumatic the climate crisis is for them.

At stake is not only a good story, as if the drama of David and Goliath repeats in new dress. In AR6’s second installment, the IPCC writes, “Narratives play an important role in communicating climate risks and motivating solutions.” Narratives facilitate collective action through the development of shared visions. They hold the potential to shape norms and standards and, by extension, laws and policies. We have witnessed firsthand the power of narrative when diplomats from SIDS derive their rhetorical authority, in part, from citing IPCC reports in negotiations at the ocean-climate nexus.

A narrative that moves from victims to claimants, from aid to debt, if gathering pace, helps to create the conditions for island peoples to overcome perennial roadblocks. Prime among them is climate finance, or the obligations of the economically powerful to fund and support much needed adaptation and mitigation strategies for the countries they tower above. On scattered islands and atolls, locals are enduring severed ties to their ancestral homes not because there exists a nameless, generalizable, uniform humanity that provoked and rendered inevitable climate change. Extreme carbon inequality is a sociogenic crisis emerging from high-income countries and the out-sized carbon footprints of the world’s super rich.

See related: Latest IPCC report highlights agroecology as a top solution

Climate change-caused impacts look different around the world: extremely heavy rains in Somalia coupled with recent disputes between clans has recently forced people to seek refuge elsewhere. Image by The African Union Mission in Somalia via Rawpixel.

To play our own devil’s advocate, AR6 refers to vulnerable peoples as victims. We believe AR6 is no less important for that. The IPCC is not mandated to craft normative arguments or contest dominant frames. It evaluates, adopts, and reproduces language as it appears in peer-reviewed literature. We thereby mobilize AR6 not as a silver bullet but as a starting point. We build on work by other scholars who deepen our understanding of how limiting the talk of a one-dimensional victim as “speechless emissary” is. Similarly, our view of vulnerability is not meant to convey that island peoples are weak and powerless. Instead, vulnerability exposes how “slow violence” is embedded in the very structure of an unjust society, so much so that it has become a routine condition of the poor, the marginalized, the underserved worldwide.

“Narratives enable people to envision what various potential futures may mean for environments and livelihoods,” WGII writes in AR6, “and in this way facilitate the development of scenarios for the future.” The scenario we endeavor to promote is one far removed from island peoples as “helpless victims” scrambling on doomed “sinking nations,” as if paradise has gone awry. Leaders such as former President Anote Tong of Kiribati are not “cash-hungry” beggars awaiting handouts from rich countries whose coal barons, in fact, have produced this mess.

We foreground instead the steel of island peoples who refuse to accept inaction by world leaders. To promote the flourishing all of beings, to adequately redress violations to habitable life, to encourage the value of accountability for planetary wellbeing—that is, to achieve climate justice—narratives must move in the direction of climate reparations. The shift has been long in the making: international agreements since the Stockholm Declaration from 1972 have grappled with ways to level the playing field amid the (post) colonial organization of world affairs.

Debate will surely continue, including at the next Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UNFCCC in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt this November. New for this round is the IPCC’s incontrovertible evidence from AR6, which, if leveraged, might assist in realizing the demand for action on climate justice, including funding for loss and damage.


Jennifer E. Telesca is Associate Professor of Environmental Justice at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, New York, and, in Spring 2022, Visiting Professor at the University of Bergen, Norway. She if the author of  Red Gold: The Managed Extinction of the Giant Bluefin Tuna.

Vandhna Kumar is postdoctoral research fellow at the Geophysical Institute, University of Bergen. Her expertise is in marine and climate change issues in the Pacific Islands region. She hails from the Fiji Islands and has been a recipient of the IPCC scholarship program for students from developing countries.

The authors wish to thank Edvard Hviding for collaboration made possible through his multidisciplinary team project at the University of Bergen, “Island Lives, Ocean States: Sea Level Rise and Maritime Sovereignties in the Pacific.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Hear Jennifer Telesca discuss her recent book about the conservation of bluefin tuna, listen here:

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