When it comes to climate justice, we need the facts - but it’s important that we don’t forget about the feelings too.

According to world-renowned natural historian and broadcaster David Attenborough, climate change is the "biggest threat modern humans have ever faced". Whether this fact fills you with dread, anxiety, anger, or sadness, it's difficult to read a statement like that and not have an emotive response.

However in the Global North that operates from a more "western" framework, approaches to tackling climate change generally avoid discussing or integrating emotion, opting instead to view the issue through a purely utilitarian, scientific, and technical lens.

The science behind climate change is as certain as science can ever be. Nearly all actively publishing climate scientists (97-98%) support the consensus on anthropogenic climate change, and emphasising this fact is important.

But in order to offer holistic and effective solutions to climate change, it's important to view the climate crisis as not only a scientific question, but a social and political one as well.

The importance of an intersectional approach to climate justice

The term 'Intersectionality' was coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe how race, class, gender, sexual orientation and other individual characteristics intersect with one another. The concept acknowledges that everyone has their own unique experiences of marginalisation, and that all forms of oppression and discrimination are linked.

An intersectional approach to climate justice highlights how different individuals and groups are impacted differently by climate change - something that a more utilitarian "one-size-fits-all" solution to climate change cannot accommodate.

According to Anna Kaijser and Annica Kronsell, "the responsibility, vulnerability, and decision-making power of individuals and groups in relation to climate change can be attributed to social structures based on characteristics such as gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, nationality, health, sexual orientation, age and place. Moreover, the impacts of climate change, as well as strategies for mitigation and adaptation, may reinforce or challenge such structures and categorisations".

Take the destruction caused by the 2005 Hurricane Katrina for example. Marginalised people living in New Orleans were less likely to be able to evacuate, and to afford to live somewhere else - their experience of the disaster was inextricably linked to their race and class.

"We need to address the inherent inequalities in our system that lead to some people breathing worse-quality air, experiencing the brunt of storms and being able to recover far slower than other people" says Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement.

In order to address these inequalities, yes we've got to listen to the data, but we must also listen to the voices and the emotions of those most impacted. We've got to challenge hegemonic power structure, re-imaging systems and ways of working, and re-imagine what is possible.

Your ability to stay calm is not a reflection on your objectivity

It's not a coincidence that a dispassionate approach to tackling climate change is mostly purported by "western" governments.

What is colloquially referred to as "the Western World" is said to be built on the philosophical values derived from ancient Greek philosophical schools like Aristotelianism and Stoicism, and the 18th Century Enlightenment. The emotional repression and hyper-rationalism encouraged by these philosophies is entrenched in Western approaches to climate policy.

However, this goes beyond just philosophical inspiration. Our ability in the West to stay calm in the face of such an existential threat is not a reflection of our objectivity, but our privilege to not feel the immediate consequences of climate change.

While incidents of climate change induced natural disasters are increasing in the Global North, such as Hurricane Katrina, and the 2020 bushfires in Australia, it is still overwhelmingly the Global South that bears the brunt of climate change.

It's much easier to support incrementalist climate policy (a method of policy-making by making small incremental changes instead of a few large jumps), when we're not experiencing frequent Category five hurricanes, as the people are in the Caribbean. It's much easier to remain "rational" when our home is not on the brink of being swallowed by rising sea levels, as is expected of the Pacific nation of Kiribati in little over twenty years.

Organisations representing 90 developing countries say that their plans to prevent damage have already been outpaced by climate-induced disasters, and according to a recent study published by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), 46 of the world's poorest nations don't have the financial means to "climate proof" themselves.

Expecting members of developing nations to approach climate solutions "rationally" is not only massively insensitive, but also wildly hypocritical, given that a 2020 analysis found that the Global North was responsible for 92% of all excess global carbon emissions. Of this 92%, the United States is responsible for 40%.

When it comes to climate policy, it doesn't have to be a case of facts over feelings, or feelings over facts. The two ideas do not need to be mutually exclusive. Acknowledging how the scientific facts and realities of climate data make us feel is a powerful tool for advocacy, one which all those who strive for climate justice must recognise.

Written by Susie Dodds

Image: Shutterstock

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