Climate Justice and the International Conference on Sustainable Development Practice


What’s the biggest problem on Earth? Ask each keynote speaker at the 2014 International Conference on Sustainable Development Practice (ICSDP) this September and you will get a different answer.

Jeffrey Sachs said climate change. Erik Solheim said perverse subsidies on fossil fuels. Bineta Diop said political exclusion. No wonder the United Nations has 17 sustainable development goals on the draft table. Leaders are divided.

Three days after the conference, however, over 300,000 people came together in Manhattan to march for climate justice, a perspective that unites all races and asserts that climate change is fundamentally an issue of human rights. At the intersection of 81st and Central Park West, environmentalism and democracy intersected on the issue of equity. (Mobilization for Climate Justice, 2014)

Equity is about equal access to political processes, environmental benefits, health and financial services, and governmental protection. It is essentially a question of inclusion.

At the ICSDP, Bineta Diop of Senegal spoke about the importance of inclusion. Her organization for peace and women’s empowerment, Femmes Africa Solidarité, operates a program called the Situation Room, which responds to disruptions of democratic processes such as intimidation at voting booths. In Senegal, where desertification and other land-use issues threaten the national economy and environment, efforts to include stakeholders are critical. Diop’s effort demonstrate her comprehension of the paradoxes of environmental justice.

These often conflicting roles of exclusion and power asymmetries have been acknowledged by scholars:

“Whereas the environmental justice movement can be understood as a grassroots or ‘bottom–up’ political response, the sustainability agenda emerged in large part from international processes and committees, governmental structures, think-tanks and international NGO networks. In this sense, sustainability as a policy approach can understood as a more exclusive, ‘top–down’ phenomenon. Paradoxically, however, the implementation of sustainability is generally seen as being through local action.” (Agyeman, Bullard, & Evans, 2001)

From the perspective of environmental justice, the opportunity to engage in decision making is a problem of distributional justice. Graham Haughton highlights this concept in his article, “Environmental Justice and the Sustainable City,” wherein he distinguishes between systemic and distributional problems, i.e. polluting vs. decision-making about where to pollute. (Haughton, 1999)

As Sachs himself acknowledged, “One of the best ways to protect environmental rights is to uphold the basic civil and political rights of the individual. (Sachs, 1995)

Within this framework, we see sustainability nested within a larger complex of social inequality. Sustainability is contingent on environmental justice which is contingent on equity. In Haughton’s words, “it is useless and meaningless to create a sustainable city in isolation.” (Haughton, 1999)

To extrapolate, it is useless to create a sustainable nation in isolation. Just take a look at 2014’s map of extreme events and notice that affluent countries are equally as vulnerable as developing nations.

Given the interdependence of global ecosystems and markets, we are all stakeholders. We all must have a say in the key decisions about how we avert, mitigate, and adapt to climate change. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) represent the highest echelon of decision making, yet who authors these goals? Academics, politicians, businessmen, or democratic processes? Certainly not the world’s poor and under-represented. The very act of setting global goals calls environmental justice into question.

Returning to this paradox of environmental justice, Jeff Sachs asserted that the purpose of the SDGs is to set practical objectives for world leaders to follow. He quoted John F. Kennedy who said during a speech at American University in 1963:

“By defining our goal more clearly – by making it seem more manageable and less remote – we can help all people to see it, to draw hope from it and to move irresistibly towards it.”

Building on the importance of clear objectives, Sachs also claimed that a Chinese minister informed him that the previous Millennium Development Goals influenced China’s development agenda. Millions of people were raised out of poverty. Without fair representation, however, millions of others were excluded from decision making and consequently displaced.

Access to democratic processes is crucial to protecting the individual freedoms which are the instrumental basis for equitable societies. No inequitable society is sustainable; no unsustainable society is equitable. For many nations, a prosperous economic future is closely linked to environmental policies. Environmental rights — the right to environmental benefits as well as the right to protection from polluted living conditions — are central to any attempts at sustainability, for both the rich and poor.

Climate change threatens everyone, regardless of income level. As Amartya Sen argues in Development as Freedom, “Even when people without political liberty or civil rights do not lack adequate economic security (and happen to enjoy favorable economic circumstances), they are deprived of important freedoms in leading their lives and denied the opportunity to take part in crucial decisions regarding public affairs.’ (Sen, 1999).

In conclusion, the diversity of development approaches present at the ICSDP were greatly overshadowed by the unequivocal message sent by 300,000 activists at the Peoples Climate March three days later. It is clear that the solutions to the world’s biggest problems lie in issues of equity, particularly political access. Environmental justice demands that we the people shall be part of the decision making processes that affect our environment. The role of energy is central to this discussion. Yet until municipalities control their own means of energy generation, even New York City remains a passive customer, excluded from decisions as to how its energy is generated. In Oakland, CA the Energy Solidarity Cooperative is working to democratize financing and ownership of renewable energy through partnerships in traditionally disenfranchised communities.

Inclusive tools are needed for constructive change. One this point all the ICSDP keynote speakers agree. Sachs, Solheim, and Diop support the adoption of ICT. One such resource that stood out at the conference was, an online ‘open space’ on climate adaptation issues and synergies with mitigation which allows practitioners, researchers and policy makers to access credible, high quality information and to share experiences and lessons learnt.

Faced with the biggest problems on Earth, ICT may present some of the biggest inclusive solutions.

Works Cited:

Haughton, G., (1999) “Environmental Justice and the Sustainable City,”. 233 – 242.

Agyeman, J., & Bullard, R. D., & Evans, B. (2001). “Exploring the Nexus: Bringing Together Sustainability, Environmental Justice and Equity”. 88.

Sen, A., (1999) “Development as Freedom”. 16.

Mobilization for Climate Justice West. “What is Climate Justice?” (2014). Retrieved from

Femmes Africa Solidarité. Retrieved from

National Climatic Data Center. (2014). Retrieved from

We Adapt. (2014). Retrieved from

Energy Solidarity Cooperative. (2014). Retrieved from


9 thoughts on “Climate Justice and the International Conference on Sustainable Development Practice

  1. frobertsgregory

    I think the question should not be what is the biggest problem on earth, but more so how can we holistically see the connections and common ground between seemingly diverse environmental issues. The feminist principle of intersectionality can perhaps theoretically frame how we look at these issues. As far as I am concerned, climate change is connected to fossil fuels, political exclusion and Global North/South inequality. The bigger issue perhaps is inequality, rampant consumerism and disregard for human life. Some lives matter more than others according to our current levels of consumption, violence and inequality. I am excited that more attention is on climate change with these marches, but I wonder if they have a long term impact on changing policy or consumption levels. Perhaps once the march is large enough to get even Fox News scared, we will see a greater impact. I appreciate your discussion of democracy because democracy/inclusion is at the heart of natural resource management and equitable environmental decision making. I think sustainability is seen as a top down approach because it was coined that way- many communities have engaged in sustainable practices such as recycling and composting before the term was coined in the 80s. And I also agree that it is not useful to create a sustainable city in isolation because some of us cannot go green while the rest suffer. Which begs the question if Europe is really the leader in sustainability when much of its’ wealth is built upon the legacy of slavery, imperialism and colonialism…. So yes, we must combat environmental racism and uphold human rights to deal with climate change in 2014. Thank you for providing the link to

  2. I really enjoyed how you start your discussion by linking this week’s topic directly to current events as relevant as the 2014 International Conference on Sustainable Development Practice and the march climate justice. The march in NYC was definitely impressive, but what I believe was most amazing is the fact that marches for climate justice were actually organized in over 2800 places in more than 160 countries around the globe. I believe this speaks to the urgency of the matter and the need for political leaders to take action as soon as possible.
    Nonetheless, while political leaders can make changes that have great impacts at a national or even international level to alleviate the unequal burdens of climate change, it is important for each of us, as an individual, to think of our own power to create change. I think that we shouldn’t just think of climate justice, but of trying to stop or reduce what causes these inequities in the first place, climate change. Political leaders should be involved in trying to stop (or at least alleviate) climate change, but we can also do our part to reduce our own impact on the environment by making changes in our everyday lives. Based on the popularity of these marches, people are generally aware that climate change is happening, now they need to realize they can make a difference and start taking action.

  3. You bring up Agyeman’s statement that EJ began as a grassroots movement while sustainability was more top-down. This was a section in that reading that did not sit well with me as I believe that overlooks the smaller-scale efforts that people made to green their own environments. I think of my alma mater forming one of the first Center for Environmental Studies in the country in the 1970’s where their building was seen as a student-faculty experiment, with a greenhouse, early solar thermal panels, weirdly flushing toilets that used less water, and other features. Not only did the students participate in the retrofitting of this old carriage house, but they also lived there (and awkwardly enough there are still lofts for beds in many of the professors’ offices). Large-scale legislation is not only new in comparison to these efforts, but also still so much more controversial and tricky to implement and get everyone on board. Due to these high-level conflicts, I still see most of the sustainability movement being carried out on a grassroots or local level, therefore there are even more opportunities for it to join forces with the EJ movement.

  4. I appreciated the post – especially because it pulls in current events and technologies to situate and contextualize our readings. Niavila’s comment above on how “poor communities will feel greater impacts” of climate change really resonates with me. The blog post discusses how climate change will impact all of us. While this is certainly true, like many global issues have been handled in the past, I worry that as climate change progresses efforts will be made to simply mitigate effects of climate change that will end up protecting the privileged and those in power, rather than fundamentally shift the structures and behaviors that catalyze climate change (e.g. shifting the economic model and culture of consumption). This will undoubtedly leave working class and low-income communities to bear the brunt of climate change effects. And like Niavila said, these marginalized communities are already likely to feel greater impacts as the infrastructure and geographic placement of their communities is often at the most vulnerable locations for natural disasters and other effects of climate change. If we do not take huge steps to stop climate change, rather than mitigate it, I am concerned the divide between the haves and the have nots, the protected and the unprotected will only increase.

  5. jennamhahn

    I like your discussion that the implementation of sustainability is generally seen as being through local action. A key example of this is in The Compact of Mayors. It is “an agreement by city networks – and then by their members – to undertake a transparent and supportive approach to reduce city-level emissions, to reduce vulnerability and to enhance resilience to climate change, in a consistent and complimentary manner to national level climate protection efforts.”

    This seems like a good start, and shows that many places are willing to act even if the larger, top-down governments are unable or unwilling. However, it also is easy to poke holes in, as the focus is largely on reducing GHG with little focus on equity or social aspects of climate change. Even the way it is worded implies the general population joins on after the officials. Additionally, without regional, national, or even international interventions, externalities may simply be shifted to new locations that do not participate in the Compact or other laws, or in Haughton’s words, “it is useless and meaningless to create a sustainable city in isolation.” Even within the Compact, elements and implementation vary greatly.

    Although I hope for international consensus moving forward, I am hesitant to believe in the reality of it. Countries often have competing priorities or lack the capacity for implementation even if there were to be clear agreements made. Inclusion is paramount, as is restructuring weakened institutions as a whole. What that looks like can be very different for each place. Lastly, because most international law is not in fact binding, it is extremely difficult to enforce (and by whom?), which then puts the responsibility back on each nation to have to enact its own laws, which we see is not working. I fear that the state of the world will have to get a lot worse before action of scale is taken. It is so unfortunate, after all, since the climate march clearly demonstrated that it is a concern of so many around the world. Hopefully those voices will continue and eventually be integrated more into actionable policies. Although I am struggling to stay positive, I do have faith in changes, or else I wouldn’t be in this field.

  6. aldotudela7

    Thanks for this interesting post! I agree with the importance you give equity on environmental justice. There is, however, a certain connection I am having a tough time figuring out, and that is between environmental justice and our economy. The current goal of incresing profits seem to continue to be the driver behind most corporations. Their power, not only economical but political too, offers them the ability to inffluence decision-making according to our “democratic” approach, and worst of all, our political system accepts it; as lobbying becomes not only common practice, but a necessity at a certain point. From my point of view, we need to look at a ‘bottom-up’ approach as a “sustainable” solution for this problem, looking to tackle environmental justice issues at a community level. However, these “solutions” cannot stand for themselves, the projects that we as planners need to promote have to deal with an economic growth at the community level too, and in particular to the most disadvantaged. This, however, is no easy task, but we are not facing an easy problem, and to my point of view, this should be the focus of our efforts.

  7. caitlintouchberry

    I appreciated this post for its look at social equality, sustainability, environmental justice, and equity through the lens of climate justice. I think that Haughton’s Equity Principles for Sustainable Development can also provide goals to keep in mind. The concepts of intergenerational, intra-generational, geographic, procedural, and inter-species equity should offer guidance and measures of success as global plans and actions are formed to address climate change.

  8. niavila

    The issue of environmental justice and representation is very interesting. It was also discussed in class yesterday highlighting that due to institutionalized injustices, certain people groups are excluded from quality education. Without quality education, these groups that are disproportionately exposed to environmental and social injustices do not have the resources and information to change this and protect their communities.
    There is also the concept of resilience in climate adaption. It is true that as an interconnected global society, we will all be affected by extreme climate events. However, poor communities will feel greater impacts because of the lack of resources to “bounce back” or be resilient after the extreme events. For example, extreme flooding in Kashmir vs in New York.
    Thanks for highlighting several inclusive efforts on climate change mitigation, I was not aware of some of those.

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