The banner that was unfurled in front of the Protea Hotel Edward in Durban, South Africa, in December 2011 is as good a place to start as any to grasp what much of the international climate movement is up to these days. It read, “Listen to the people, not the polluters,” and was displayed by Greenpeace activists protesting in front of the hotel.

The man directing the action was inside, meeting with prominent politicians and business leaders who were at the hotel attending the 2011 United Nations climate-change conference, but there wasn’t much question about where his allegiances lay.

A Durban local who had earned his activist stripes in the anti-apartheid movement, Kumi Naidoo became the first African to lead Greenpeace International in 2009, around the same time that the demand for “climate justice” burst into the global mainstream in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate talks. A relative newcomer to international environmental activism, Naidoo in many regards personifies the shift that has taken place among many international NGOs involved in the effort to address climate change. He took charge of Greenpeace bent on redefining the fight against global warming: he wanted it to become a cause of the poor.

In Durban, Naidoo described his commitment to climate justice to the New York Times. “I genuinely, passionately feel that the struggle to end global poverty and the struggle to avoid catastrophic climate change are two sides of the same coin,” he said. “Traditional Western-led environmentalism has failed to make the right connections between environmental, social and economic justice.”1

“Look, 1.6 billion people have no access to energy and yet live in regions that are blessed with abundant solar, wind, wave and geothermal energy,” he continued. “If we can address that problem, we can alleviate poverty, create jobs and move into a green energy future.”

Naidoo’s point about poverty, inequality, and climate change is well taken. Even as the pace of development and modernization has accelerated in the developing world, billions have been left behind. The global poor are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and any equitable strategy to address the problem must also ensure a prosperous and secure future for the now 1.3 billion people without access to electricity2 and the several billion more who don’t have enough to achieve modern living standards.

Naidoo’s framing of the climate justice imperative represents a welcome shift from earlier iterations, which imagined that climate justice would involve a kind of zero-sum redistribution of atmospheric space from rich to poor. Naidoo instead imagines a future in which climate change and global poverty might be tackled through a win-win deployment of low-carbon renewable energy that avoids emissions, meets the growing energy needs of the developing world, and lifts the poor out of poverty all at once.

But beneath Naidoo’s aspirational vision lies a diagnosis of what ails the poor and the powerless that is a good deal more problematic. “You have loaded our atmosphere with a carbon debt. Do not pass the bill to the continent of Africa,” he wrote in an open letter to world leaders.3

The theory of climate justice tells us that the gap between rich and poor and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change are not simply unfortunate circumstances that demand our attention and action, but rather the result of active efforts on the part of rich nations, wealthy elites, and powerful corporations to profit on the backs of the global poor and the environment. In this telling, the failure to deploy plentiful renewable energy in the developing world is the fault of the developed world.

There is, of course, no shortage of injustices that have been visited upon the global poor for which the wealthy developed world bears some responsibility. But denying impoverished people their rightful access to clean renewable energy is not among them. Many parts of the developing world are indeed blessed with abundant wind and sunlight. But solar and wind energy are still intermittent, difficult to scale, and substantially more costly than fossil energy, which is why they require significant subsidies.

Demands for climate justice too often ignore basic practicalities of energy, poverty, and climate change, directing our gaze away from the issues that really matter to the future prospects of both the global poor and the planet and toward issues that don’t.

Huge swaths of the world have been developing over the last three decades at an unprecedented pace and scale. That remarkable transformation has come not from the forced redistribution of global wealth or renewable energy but instead from the rapid growth of the global economy fueled by cheap fossil energy. China, India, and Brazil have become the manufacturers, farmers, and phone centers to the world, lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the process.

Contemporary demands for climate justice have been, at best, indifferent to these rather remarkable developments and, at worst, openly hostile. Some activists reject development and modernization altogether, lauding poor indigenous communities for living a simpler, more virtuous life in a closer relationship with nature. Others almost unavoidably find themselves reinventing archaic international socialist tropes in the name of sustainability.

Neither posture offers much succor to the global poor. While our inclination to slap the label “justice” on any problem that affects rich and poor differently offers tempting rhetorical possibilities, it is not clear that transforming issues of equity (defined as a desire to lessen economic and other disparities between rich and poor) into issues of justice (understood as a demand for retribution and reparations) does much for constituencies in desperate need of economic development and affordable energy.

The technological, social, and institutional innovations that will be necessary to expand access to energy and modern living standards while mitigating global carbon emissions will require more development, more engagement with world markets for the global poor, and greater cooperation between governments and corporations. That is the struggle that really matters for the poor, and while climate justice serves a range of discursive purposes for the international Left, it is not always clear which side of that struggle the movement is actually on.

The inspiration for our present-day proliferation of justice movements took root in the 1970s, a better time for US environmentalists but a difficult one for civil rights activists. In the decade after the passage of the federal civil rights and voting rights acts, civil rights leaders turned to the far more complicated challenge of economic justice. Creating jobs and businesses and expanding access to higher education required costly and contentious policies, from school busing to affirmative action, that alienated some of those who had supported an end to legalized segregation. Where the moral clarity of the civil rights struggle had galvanized the nation, the struggle for economic justice divided it.

Meanwhile, fresh-faced environmentalists were winning in Washington and both national political parties wanted a piece of the action. But largely low-income communities of color were conspicuously absent. The Congressional Black Caucus provided little environmental policy leadership; indeed, some black leaders were decidedly underwhelmed by the new wave of concern for snail darters and spotted owls. Unemployed urban youth seemed the endangered species worth worrying about, and the newly ascendant environmental movement appeared to divert the nation’s attention away from their plight.

The environmental justice movement changed all of that, providing a framework through which many environmentalists and civil rights advocates could find common cause. In 1982, protesters in Warren County, North Carolina, a mostly African American community, battled a proposed landfill for polychlorinated biphenyl-contaminated soil, a landmark moment for the nascent movement. Increasingly, not-in-my-backyard protesters spread the word about pollution in racial terms. Disparate exposure to toxins and associated health impacts did not just happen but were allowed to happen. They were even deliberately promoted by a system that favored wealthy, white communities. A racial rhetoric evolved: “environmental equity” morphed into the more provocative “environmental racism” and eventually “environmental justice,” which sought to fuse class- and race-based complaints.

Research emerged to support the thesis and gained credibility among environmental journalists, who were as conscious of the lack of diversity in the newsroom as environmental activists were of it in nonprofit organizations. Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, a milestone 1987 study, suggested that there was proliferating hazardous-waste-based risk in minority areas.4 Its release became an immediate media sensation, propelling its leading proponent, Benjamin Chavis, to the executive director’s job at the NAACP.

Subsequent studies cast doubt on claims that polluters were deliberately targeting minority communities and that poor communities were disproportionately exposed to toxic waste.5 But by then the die had been cast. Toxic Wastes and Race fed a politically useful narrative and seemed intuitively on target.

The concept of environmental justice was potent, since it implied a continuation of discrimination in a new form. And the political establishment — the Environmental Protection Agency, first under George H. W. Bush appointee William Reilly and, more aggressively, under Bill Clinton appointee Carol Browner — responded. Here, after all, was an issue that fused race and the environment, core concerns of the Democratic Party. The Clinton administration rechristened the Bush EPA’s Office of Environmental Equity as the Office of Environmental Justice, to which citizens could direct their inquiries. Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, encouraging agencies of government to accommodate this new brand of environmental concern.

Environmental justice proved to be an important innovation for both the civil rights and environmental movements. It simultaneously injected a somewhat shopworn civil rights advocacy with new vitality, helped advance a national conversation about racial inequality, and brought new voices to environmental policy. Traditional environmental groups like the Sierra Club now had a way to reach people generally unexcited by the “hiking and biking” brand of environmentalism.

Poorly funded local organizations came and went in response to NIMBY battles. But a robust movement endured, sustained by a combination of health fears, political mobilizing, government endorsement, energizing victories against potentially hazardous sites, and a supportive national network of sympathetic professors, students, advocacy journalists, and funders.

Environmental justice also had real, if modest, impacts on environmental policy. Advocacy efforts raised the priority for research and assessment of lead, urban air pollutants, and other toxic substances. And by effectively targeting industrial and waste-permit processes, activists made industrial siting for companies like Shintech, the largest domestic producer of polyvinyl chloride, more treacherous.

But other aspects of environmental justice advocacy were more problematic and would illustrate the ways in which fill-in-the-blank justice advocacy of all sorts has too often failed the disadvantaged constituencies it has attempted to serve. Environmental justice activism tended to mobilize communities to address perceived local risks that often did not track very well with the most serious risks that residents actually faced. While eliminating low-level exposures to industrial chemicals might make for good organizing, it doesn’t represent a particularly defensible public health prescription.

People continue to speak of the region between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, for instance, as “Cancer Alley,” even though no spike in environmentally induced cancer has been proven.6 Meanwhile, long before the summer of 2005, one could see that a direct hurricane strike was the most serious collective hazard faced by residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward and other poor neighborhoods. But environmental justice advocacy in Louisiana, dependent on convenient and visible targets of outrage, could never prioritize the more abstract hurricane risk.

Hurricane Katrina represents an admittedly spectacular misjudgment of the risks faced by low-income communities. But it is also just the tip of the iceberg. A long list of more prosaic risks — heart disease, smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, and crime, to name just a few — plague low-income communities and dwarf the concerns that have generally mobilized the environmental justice movement.7

Moreover, the environmental policies that have significantly improved health outcomes in minority and low-income communities have been universal ones, not those that specifically targeted disparities in exposures based upon race or class. Well-documented successes in battling fine particulates, airborne lead, and dirty water supplies have naturally benefited people concentrated in urban or industrial areas and heavily reliant on public resources. And yet environmental justice casts mainstream environmentalism not as the solution but as part of the problem. Environmental justice scholars suggest that both economic growth and improvements in environmental quality have come at the expense of community-of-color “sacrifice zones.”8

Still, environmental justice activists were, from the start, on to something central and important: cheap land is a magnet for low-income housing and industry, not for affluent residents. Until recently, though, the environmental justice movement has had little to say about the main causes of poverty and inequality that afflict poor communities: the dearth of good jobs, schools, and health care.9 By directing its ire at environmental threats that fit neatly into its seductive trinity of risk, race, and place, rather than those that are most pervasive and destructive, environmental justice has never had much success in improving quality of life in poor communities.

Consider that after some two years of struggle, the town of Convent, Louisiana, finally fended off Shintech’s proposed polyvinyl chloride plant when the company withdrew in September 1998. But while Shintech’s corporate masters have taken their operation elsewhere, Convent remains desperately poor, its residents plagued by illnesses that rarely affect the affluent.

Environmental justice set a template that other postmodern justice movements would follow: take an issue previously defined as having broad or universal impacts upon everyone — environmental pollution, climate change, reproductive rights, obesity — and redefine it in racial terms. Justice, in this context, takes on a very specific meaning. Disparities between rich and poor are the result of active conspiracies on the part of the rich, powerful, and corporate. Complicated social phenomena — teen pregnancy and childhood obesity, even famines and civil wars — can be reduced to a single overriding cause, the exploitation of the poor and nonwhite by the wealthy and white.

Climate justice took this strategy to new heights, offering a framework from which virtually any affliction associated with global poverty might be hung. The scope of the attributions that climate justice activists make are truly sweeping. The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis, an influential 2009 report produced by the Global Humanitarian Forum, a now-defunct nonprofit group whose president was former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, asserts that “every year climate change leaves over 300,000 people dead, 325 million people seriously affected, and economic losses of $125 billion.” The report went on to declare that it “is a grave global justice concern that those who suffer most from climate change have done the least to cause it.”10

That same year, in a letter to Sweden’s prime minister on the eve of the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen, the late Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, a champion of women’s rights and tree planting in Kenya, wrote: “My continent is slipping rapidly into a climate change-induced chaos. But this is a chaos not of Africa’s making. It is one due to the rich world’s historical emissions and current high-energy consumption levels. Not only are industrialized countries responsible for global warming given their huge historical and present emissions. But as well, they owe their current prosperity to decades of overuse of our common atmospheric space.”11

The claim made by Annan, Maathai, and other activists is not that global warming will result in misery for many millions of poor people over the coming century, an assertion that climate science suggests is at the very least plausible, but that it is resulting in misery for many millions today, one that simply can’t be substantiated. Whatever global warming’s present impacts may be in Africa — and they are exceedingly difficult to measure — they are arguably the least of the continent’s problems. Sub-Saharan Africa has been afflicted by tribal division, colonialism, bad governance, and infectious diseases for centuries. Indeed, it is the legacy of those many afflictions, much more than the relative severity of the weather, that accounts for the vast majority of the carnage that results from extreme weather events. Rich nations and communities handle extreme natural disasters much better than poor countries do even modest disasters.

The problems hanging over the climate justice agenda extend well beyond the difficulty of pinning a Kenyan drought to my grandfather’s Western emissions. Coal-addicted China, not the United States or Europe, now leads the world in carbon emissions, with some 7.7 billion tons produced in 2009, placing it above the United States and Canada combined.12 Eric A. Posner and David Weisbach of the University of Chicago Law School point out in their 2010 book, Climate Change Justice, that the world’s biggest carbon offenders after China and the United States are Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, and India. “Without deep cuts by these countries from current levels,” they write, “it is impossible to achieve reasonable stabilization goals.”13

Climate justice activists regularly argue that the West should compensate the Rest for past damages. But what is to be done about an emerging future where the lion’s share of damages to vulnerable populations in the developing world is due to emissions from the developing world? If that world has not yet arrived, it will almost certainly be here soon.

Moreover, as China, India, and other developing nations such as Malaysia and Brazil get richer, they not only cough up copious emissions, they also become more resilient to the natural disasters and other climate impacts that climate justice advocates worry will plague the future poor. Yes, emissions reductions in the present will benefit future citizens of poor nations. But developing-world emissions also benefit those very same future citizens, as the development that comes with those emissions makes it likely that citizens will be less poor than their counterparts today.

China represents an archetypal case in point. The huge public health and environmental costs of China’s economic development have been described by many observers.14 They are, without question, daunting. But the benefits of development have also become increasingly clear. In less than a generation, China has moved a half billion of its people from endemic, backbreaking poverty to modernity, complete with health care, modern housing, bullet trains, and the Internet.15 Those populations have become far better prepared to deal with the impacts of climate change, even as China’s rapid development places ever greater stress upon its natural resources and environment.

Climate justice represents the apotheosis of justice activism in another way as well. In the 1980s and 1990s, one could always find dedicated environmental justice partisans who, if queried, would betray a broad socialist or anti-capitalist orientation. But local grievances were always the heart of the movement. A sense of collective victimization, far more than ideology, lured thousands of residents and sympathizers to rallies and marches and prompted an outpouring of media coverage.

Climate justice, by contrast, often doesn’t confine itself to redistribution and successful global amelioration of, or adaptation to, climate change. Rather it imagines a profound rearrangement of politics and society away from corporate capitalism and the consumption that sustains it. At the World People’s Conference on Climate Change 2010, an alternative to the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, Bolivian president Evo Morales told a crowd of 20,000 climate justice activists, “Either capitalism dies, or it will be Mother Earth.” The lifestyle of indigenous people, he said, represents “the only true alternative.”

In his recent book Toward Climate Justice, prominent climate justice advocate Brian Tokar admiringly cites the late social ecology theorist Murray Bookchin, who “insisted that the ecological crisis was a fundamental threat to capitalism, due to the system’s built-in necessity to continuously expand its scope and its spheres of control.”16

Popular journalist Naomi Klein takes the theme and runs with it. In an article published in the Nation in fall of 2011, “Capitalism versus the Climate,” Klein argues that conservative climate skeptics have been right all along: dealing with climate change really does require rejecting capitalism. “Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook,” Klein writes. “We will need to rebuild the public sphere, reverse privatizations, relocalize large parts of economies, scale back overconsumption, bring back long-term planning, heavily regulate and tax corporations, maybe even nationalize some of them, cut military spending and recognize our debts to the global South.” “In short,” she concludes, “climate change supercharges the pre-existing case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.”17

Klein and Morales reveal climate justice for what it really is: an essentially bottomless advocacy agenda that serves polarizing constituency-building politics, not a pragmatic agenda for shared global growth and prosperity. As a global movement for social justice, climate activists can tap sources of institutionalized sympathy for socialism and social democracy — strong trade unions, left-wing parties, indigenous movements, cultures influenced by radical egalitarianism — which have fared better outside the United States than inside it.

For this reason, climate justice will likely prove harder than environmental justice to tame. At the same time, by its use of blame, redistributive claims-making, and suspicion of all establishments, the climate justice movement ironically undermines agreement on the very public investments that are essential to forging a new environmental and economic future.

Like its predecessor, climate justice activism will likely enjoy one overriding success: the sheer generation of often misguided discourse. Simply put, climate justice activists and their intellectual allies in think tanks and advocacy organizations around the world will keep us talking and worrying about the array of challenges that global poverty poses.

Naidoo’s vision is, without question, both refreshingly positive and appealingly populist. “Clean energy and green investment can be total game-changers for both job creation and strengthening economies,” he has said. Proper investment in sustainable energy, he argues, can create 4.5 million new jobs in the global power sector by 2015 and lead to a better distribution of wealth and resources.18

It also, unfortunately, almost completely misses the point. The potential that cheap clean energy has to alleviate poverty has almost nothing to do with the fantasy that millions of poor people will someday work in the global power sector. Even under the best of circumstances, relatively few people in developing countries will do so. By contrast, providing energy to heat a cold home, cool an overheated one, or transport clean water would dramatically improve the lives and economic prospects of billions.

The devil, of course, is always in the details. But if one really wants to address poverty head-on, it’s unclear why climate change would be the place to start. Attacking poverty is an extremely tricky and uncertain business under the best of circumstances, and international development policy has so far proved unable to do so reliably.19 Given the checkered record that antipoverty efforts have had, it hardly seems sensible to further confound that endeavor by mixing it up with efforts to address climate change. Neither the 20-year effort to establish a global limit on carbon emissions nor the simultaneous effort to turn it into a backdoor mechanism for global wealth redistribution has had any appreciable impact on climate change or global poverty. Moreover, measures like disease control and bathroom-equipped schools for girls, which have proven reasonably effective at improving the lot of the poor, might well offer benefits that are worth keeping separate from climate concerns.

Better, perhaps, to advocate efforts that help alleviate poverty and might also provide benefits that help us mitigate and adapt to climate change, rather than the other way around. Working to make poor societies more resilient to natural disasters, whether or not they are caused by human greenhouse gas emissions, would be a good place to start and might be better achieved through existing international development agencies, such as the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development, than United Nations–enforced climate reparations.

Supporting the development and diffusion of low-carbon energy technologies that poor people could afford would clearly be another useful starting point. The reason, after all, that 1.3 billion people around the world have no access to electricity is that fossil fuels are too expensive. Developing low-carbon sources of energy that are cheaper than coal and oil would bring modern energy within reach of many who don’t have it today. That would also seem to be a more likely path to global decarbonization than the “shrink and share” mantra — entailing the dramatic reduction of Western consumption and redistribution of wealth to developing economies — that many climate justice activists embrace.

More prosaically, black carbon, which results from primitive cook stoves, diesel engines, and other inefficient combustion of fossil fuels, wood, and dung, plays an outsized role in accelerating the pace of global warming20 and also causes acute and chronic respiratory ailments. The World Health Organization estimates that it leads to the premature death of over a million people worldwide every year, most of whom, one may safely assume, are not affluent. A focused effort to bring improved cook stoves — or, better yet, modern cooking fuels — to the global poor would pay enormous dividends for both the poor and the climate.

Pressing for such practical and targeted goals is where the climate justice movement might accomplish the most good. Whether sufficient capacity and motivation exists within such a freewheeling movement for realistic and disciplined advocacy of those policies, however, is an open question — like environmental justice, climate justice mostly gains the spotlight when it plays outraged naysayer.

But “justice” activism has all too often failed to deliver on its promised vision for the poor. Even more, it has proven to be a distraction from more effective efforts. Rather than moralize about climate debt and reparations, those who truly care about poverty and the climate should focus instead on the kind of disciplined and pragmatic forms of advocacy it will take to build a prosperous and equitable future for the poor.

1. Broder, John (2011). "Greenpeace Leader Visits Boardroom, Without Forsaking Social Activism." New York Times. December 6th.

2. World Energy Outlook (2012). "World Energy Outlook 2012 Factsheet."

3. Naidoo, Kumi (2011). "Please Don't Squander This Moment." Greenpeace. Dec 9th.

4. Chavis, Benjamin and Charles Lee (1987). "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States." United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice.

5. See: Anderton, Douglas, Andy Anderson, et al. (1994). "Environmental Equity: The Demographics of Dumping." Demography. 31 (2): 229-248; Boer, J. Tom, Manuel Pastor, et al. (1997). "Is There Environmental Racism? The Demographics of Hazardous Waste in Los Angeles County." Social Science Quarterly. 78 (4): 793-810; Heiman, Michael (1996). "Race, Waste, and Class: New Perspectives on Environmental Justice." Antipode. 28 (2).

6. For a further discussion of "Cancer Alley" see Foreman, Christopher (1998). The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution: 73-77.

7. According to Cooper et al (2000), "Blacks have the highest rates of CHD [coronary heart disease]": Cooper, Richard et al. (2000). "Trends and Disparities in Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Other Cardiovascular Diseases in the United States." Circulation. 102:3137-3147; For a discussion of racial differences in hypertension see Thorpe, Roland, Dwayne Brandon & Thomas LaVeist (2008). "Social Context as an Explanation for Race Disparities in Hypertension: Findings from the Exploring Health Disparities in Integrated Communities (EHDIC) Study." Social Science and Medicine. 67: 1604-1611.

8. Pezzullo, Phaedra & Ronald Sandler (2007). "Introduction: Revisiting the Environmental Justice Challenge to Environmentalism" in Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement, eds Ronald Sandler & Phaedra Pezzullo. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

9. Marmot, Michael (2005). "Social Determinants of Health Inequalities." Lancet. 365: 1099-1104. This insight helped yield an ongoing discussion about, and advocacy around "health disparities" as exemplified in "Health Disparities and the Body Politic: A Series of International Symposia" (2005). Boston: Harvard School of Public Health.

10. Global Humanitarian Forum (2009). The Anatomy of a Silent Crisis. Geneva: Global Humanitarian Forum.

11. Maathai, Wangari (2009). "PACJA Letter to Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt." Climate Justice Now.

12. Datablog (2011). "World Carbon Dioxide Emissions Data By Country: China Speeds Ahead of the Rest." The Guardian. January 31st.

13. Posner, Eric & David Weisbach (2010). Climate Change Justice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

14. Watts, Jonathan (2010). When a Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind — Or Destroy It. New York: Scribner.

15. Ran, Zhang (2009). "WB Hails Poverty Reuction in China." China Daily. April 9th.

16. Tokar, Brian (2010). Toward Climate Justice. Porsgrunn, Norway: Communalism Press.

17. Klein, Naomi (2011). "Capitalism vs. The Climate." The Nation. November 28th.

18. Libby, Heather (2011). "Three Questions for TckTckTck Board Chiarman, Kumi Naidoo on the Results of the G8." Tck Tck Tck. May 27th.

19. Easterly, WIlliam (2007). The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. New York: Penguin and Collier, Paul (2007). The Bottom Billion: Why The Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Oxford University Press.

20. Prins, Gwyn et al (2010). The Hartwell Paper. May: 22.