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The IPCC Is Finally Using the Right Words to Talk About Climate Change Inequality and Justice

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On Monday, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest assessment of the state of the global climate crisis, focusing on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”—one of the core areas the IPCC addresses in its wide-ranging reports published every seven years or so. This edition, called the Sixth Assessment Report, is different from previous iterations in many ways, but one of the most striking is a new approach to framing the issue of global climate equality. While previous versions referenced “poor” or “developing” countries often, they barely talked about them in the context of “equality,” “inclusivity,” or “justice” at all.

These changes reflect the strengthening voice of those already suffering the effects of climate change: small-island nation states, indigenous peoples, and poor communities in drought- and flood-stricken regions—the majority of whom live in parts of the world that, for the most part, have barely contributed to the problem. Over the last year, the calls for wealthy countries with a long history of fossil-fuel usage to step up in the name of climate justice have increased significantly.

Ahead of COP26, held in November in Glasgow, Scotland, many in the climate world raised the concern that developing countries would lack the proper representation, due to difficulties navigating pandemic complications, including lacking access to vaccines. Indeed, a group of organizers even put together a virtual “Mock COP26” partially in response to these concerns—the organizers specifically granted more delegates to countries categorized as what they called the Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA).

The actual talks did not result in the sorts of guarantees that these at-risk countries were demanding—specifically, that richer countries would agree to pay for the “loss and damage” caused by climate change to poorer nations. Nevertheless, those demands formed one of the most coherent and resonant narratives of the Glasgow negotiations, perhaps best exemplified by a Nov. 1 speech given by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, in which she called a 2°C rise in global temperatures a “death sentence” for poor coastal and island communities.

Even in the few months since then, climate change rhetoric has shifted dramatically in public discourse and, as the language of the IPCC’s recent report suggests, in scientific circles as well. For example, the report makes clear that climate resilient development can only happen “when governments, civil society and the private sector make inclusive development choices that prioritize risk reduction, equity and justice.”

“It is remarkable to see the increase in the use of ‘inclusive’ and ‘justice’ in the report,” says Danielle Endres, a University of Utah professor who researches, among other things, environmental communication. “[It] signals a rhetorical shift that is responsive to climate justice advocates and frontline communities that have been working for years to highlight the inequities in the ongoing impacts of climate change, the ways that lower-emitting communities are experiencing disproportionate harms from the threats from climate change, and that proposed solutions and adaptations to climate change need to center justice.”

Not only that, the Sixth Assessment Report also spells out the need for “inclusive planning initiatives informed by cultural values, Indigenous knowledge, local knowledge, and scientific knowledge”—essentially calling for a more equal voice to be given to those same frontline communities.

It’s been a long time coming. “I believe when the IPCC reports began, scientists were more worried about sounding like activists instead of scientists, since their legitimacy lies in their impartiality,” says Phaedra C. Pezzullo, a professor at University of Colorado’s Center for Creative Climate Communication & Behavior Change. “However, since the initial IPCC report, the scientific world has become more worried about sounding exclusive and unjust in their assessments. This is a positive trend, I believe.”

Indeed, COP27, to be held in Egypt later this year, is already being discussed as the first of these major U.N. climate meetings to place climate justice at the center of the negotiations. However, notes Endres, while “the increase in usage of justice in the report also signals a broader rhetorical shift from a more technocratic focus to a justice focus … simply adding the words does not guarantee justice will be pursued and achieved in adaptation actions. So the key will be for these rhetorical shifts to be fully integrated into local, national, and international climate adaptation and resilience plans.”

At-risk communities are not holding their collective breath, especially after the disappointments of COP26. This year, a group of small-island developing states, led by Palau, plans to bring to the U.N. International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the first case seeking to hold wealthy polluters accountable to the damages their historic actions have wrought on poor, at-risk nations.

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