Published: April 7, 2023 By

As CAS prepares for its annual Asia Symposium, we feature here a Brief by roundtable panelist Denise Fernandes, PhD student in Environmental Studies at CU. Denise explores an Indian perspective on climate justice and demonstrates here why an area studies approach remains crucial for understanding the issues that we’ll be engaging with in the symposium: how legacies of empire, movements toward justice, and environmental challenges are shaping contemporary Asian societies.

   I write this brief as the oceans have recorded the hottest temperatures till date; tornadoes have ripped through the south and midwest US; the island nation of Vanuatu has secured a UN resolution on climate justice; the IPCC released another dire warning on climate change; climate scientists have faced sanctions for protesting more climate action; and globally states and private companies continue to extract oil, gas, and coal. As these events simultaneously unfold around me, my mind is constantly wrestling with the idea of climate justice. What does it mean? Who has agency over it? Who controls the narratives? How is it theorized at different governance and policy scales? Why is it such a contested concept? Over the past twelve years, with my work in policy and academic circles and along with historically disenfranchised communities who are deeply impacted by extreme weather events, I have come to realize that climate justice is not a very simple concept. It is deeply contested at different scales of governance where international climate negotiators, politicians, economists, scientists etc. articulate climate justice very differently in comparison to tribal communities, subsistence farmers, and/or historically disenfranchised/marginalized groups. This constant struggle with the term is what makes it extremely difficult to operationalize “just climate transition policies”. 

   Climate justice is embedded within larger political economic and socio-cultural processes. It is imperative that within academia we start to (re)conceptualize this idea of climate justice and the ways political economic processes or socio-cultural hierarchies influence certain interests in climate justice debates globally. Climate justice literature has largely been conceptualized in North America or Europe with a focus on the North-South structuring of the world system, historic emissions and climate finance responsibilities, and the disproportionate harms of climatic events (Schlosberg & Collins, 2014; Sultana, 2021; Newell et al, 2021; Khan et al, 2021). Even within this scholarship there are contestations on the climate justice movement goals and the ways it manifests. Even though states in the Global South argue for climate justice at the international climate negotiations, within their territorial borders certain situations present cases of climate injustices. These contradictory articulations of climate justice are further complicated by colonial histories and power hierarchies like gender norms, religious ideologies, caste discriminations, and ethnic conflict. I have come to understand these contradictions both as an Indian who has to navigate the identity of being a religious minority and a female in a country where religion, caste, and gender shape the political and cultural discourse, and through my work on climate change, energy politics, and social justice movements in India. 

  At the 2021 World Sustainable Development Summit, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated, “the road to fighting climate change is through climate justice”. Similar statements have been made by the Indian bureaucracy at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with regards to the common but differentiated responsibilities clause on carbon emission responsibilities. While these statements were being made, India was arresting climate activists and adivasi (tribal) environmental leaders. This is not to say that the historical aspects of carbon emission responsibilities should not be addressed at the UNFCCC but it points to a troubling and disturbing notion of who gets to call for climate justice and at what level. I’ve been specifically thinking about these contradictions in climate justice based on my two research projects: (a) my Ph.D. dissertation project that investigates climate mitigation projects like solar parks in India and Morocco that have been adopted as the “best” solution to address carbon emission reduction but have disproportionately impacted adivasi, lower caste, and ethnic minorities communities. India along with France proposed the International Solar Alliance (ISA) treaty as a part of the Paris Agreement. The ISA along with the World Bank have been fundamental in pushing for these solar park projects in the Global South. These solar park projects have led to water and energy insecurities for small farmers, women, and pastoralists. I analyze four crucial instruments- science & technology, finance, cartography, and property law that have been used by states, multilateral agencies, and the private sector to produce solar landscapes for profit. (2) my second project investigates climate justice counterstories from adivasi women and dalit activists on social media to understand how oppressed groups contest the Indian state’s idea of climate justice while bringing on the ground environmental activism to the digital space. Both my projects wrestle with the state’s idea of “climate justice” and the ways grassroot environmental movements challenge these dominant state narratives to reimagine climate justice. Personally, I have been reflecting on ways we as academicians or policy influencers need to avoid climate justice being co-opted into empire building strategies by state, multilateral agencies, and private companies while dispossessing vulnerable communities during the climate crisis. 

     This complex understanding of climate justice requires us to broaden our understanding of who is impacted in this discourse and how we need to work around climate policies at different governance scales. This might also require us to rethink about the North/South binary at the UNFCCC and broaden our discussions on aligning with climate action movements and social justice movements that address class, race, religious, caste, or gender inequalities globally. Climate justice is going to be a constant struggle and from the Indian perspective we need to bring in a more dalit-adivasi critique to the state notions of climate justice. I am particularly drawn to the anti-caste social reformer Jyotirao Phule’s reflections in his 1873 “Gulamgiri” (Slavery) text where states, “This single instance speaks volumes for the indifference of these Brahmin officers in the Education Department to the welfare of the depressed classes here. (You will be shocked to know that) when one such patriotic 'enlightened' Brahmin was working as the Chief Executive Officer in the (Poona) Municipality, when the position of water supply was pretty serious during the summer last year, he did not have the courtesy to allow these depressed people to draw drinking water from the common Government troughs.”[1] Droughts are common in the Poona region of Maharashtra and have gotten worse in the last few years. But the caste, religious, gender, and adivasi dynamics have also gotten worse in the region/country and this 1873 anecdote by Phule is only reflective of the present-day reality in India where only certain privileged groups can access critical resources thus requiring an urgent (re)conceptualization of the very idea of climate justice. An Asian/South Asian studies perspective along with a more critical understanding of place, scales of governance, and social relations is important for any scholarship on the politics of climate justice. 




[1] Translated from Marathi to English by Prof P.G. Patil