A model of climate justice as a self-regulating system

Two years ago I developed a model for a job interview that represented climate justice as a self-regulating system. I was asked to present on the topic of “Achieving climate justice: what are the biggest challenges and how can they be addressed?”

Key actors

My first step was to identify the key actors – who needs to be involved:

Fig.1 Actors involved in achieving climate justice

(c) Nadine Andrews

  • Countries: includes governance, policy instruments, institutions
  • Cities & states: at subnational level
  • Corporations: includes CSR, commercial interests, innovation
  • Civil society orgs: includes monitoring, reviewing, researching, reporting, advising, lobbying
  • Citizens: includes lifestyle & behavioural choices, political activism, consumer pressure
  • Academia and the media could be in civil society orgs or corporations, or somewhere in between

These actors all need to be interacting with each other, which creates complexity. This led me to identify the 1st key challenge: having an integrated not fragmented approach between these actors.

 A systems thinking approach

How can fragmentation be addressed? With systems thinking – it helps us think about and work with complex problems by looking at systems as a whole and the relationships between the parts from multiple perspectives.

I then presented a systems thinking diagram that represented climate justice as a self-regulating system that can learn:

Fig.2 Achieving climate justice learning cycle

(c) Nadine Andrews

Acknowledgement – we have to be able to recognize and identify the problem. How is the particular issue being conceptualised? To what degree is that shared? What are the implications of conceptualising it in a particular way? There may be denial or denialism going on, and also selective attention – at the time of the interview there were terrible floods in South Asia that had initially received a lot of media coverage but were no longer front page news.

Acceptance – for example, developed countries have to reduce per capita consumption (energy, materials, food) to give developing countries more space for improving standards of living and wellbeing – have they accepted responsibility for this? Another example I gave was the leakage of toxic chemicals by petrochemical plants in Houston that had just occurred, affecting largely low income Hispanic and Black nearby communities – what responsibility would the industry take for this horrific public health crisis?

Agreement – because of its complexity, climate justice requires global cooperation. But how will we know when climate justice has been achieved? We need multidimensional indicators. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) perform this function however they have been critiqued as being too complex and numerous, and that 2030 is not realistic. Also the SDGs have internal contradictions – there are tensions between goals of economic development, climate/environment, and equity e.g. taking people out of poverty may trigger additional energy demands and carbon emissions. This then is the 2nd key challenge: policy harmonisation, creating synergy between the various goals. I included rewards & sanctions here because cooperation requires reciprocity – need legal frameworks, and institutions that are strong enough to impose sanctions.

The debate about loss & damage lies somewhere between Acceptance and Agreement.

Design – we need to think about potential trade-offs, side effects, synergies and co-benefits between goals, from community to national levels. Avoid lock-in to carbon-intensive infrastructure or institutions that reinforce inequality.

Intention – this includes political will. Are governments’ intentions sincere?

Enactment – many factors can undermine effective action: conflicts of interest, political instability, unavailability of resources, lack of involvement of some key actors, bad faith. I also include psychological dimensions here: the role of emotion, and unconscious processes such as defence mechanisms that thwart adaptive responses.

Assess – this stage is about learning. A self-regulating system needs feedback. Need to consider different forms of knowledge, knowledge gaps, validity and reliability of information. Are the institutions fit for purpose? The BBC had just revealed that greenhouse gases were being emitted into the atmosphere that were not being recorded in official inventories.

Movement round the cycle

This cycle needs to be working to achieve climate justice – it needs to be moving. It can break down at any of these stages. Inertia happens when actors get stuck in Acknowledgement-Acceptance-Agreement. People could also get stuck in Action, where there is not really any learning happening.

We can be asking:

  • who is involved at each stage?
  • how can actors be empowered to be involved in meaningful way?
  • whose perspective or interests are driving the cycle?

These are issues of procedural equity.

Contextual forces

This is all happening in a socio-political context of dominant economic system that isn’t designed to distribute wealth or benefits equitably, that promotes materialistic self-enhancement values that are counter to the pro-environmental and pro-social values needed to motivate climate justice action, in a world where some countries are becoming increasingly more isolationist. This was the 3rd key challenge I identified.

Fig.3 Negative forces affecting climate justice

(c) Nadine Andrews

Key challenges

To summarise, the key challenges I identified were:

  • Integration across actors
  • Policy harmonisation and synergy of goals.
  • Largely unsupportive socio-political context

Addressing the challenges

Finally, I described some approaches to help address these challenges:

 Fig.4 Approaches to address the challenges

(c) Nadine Andrews

Systems thinking approach to help think about and work with the complexity, and to help achieve integration and harmonisation of goals and policies

Observe and monitor what is going on in each stage of this climate justice learning cycle

Maintain pressure on key actors to act with urgency & integrity

Disruptive technologies & innovation – new financial instruments, technologies of the self like mindfulness practice

Social movements including spiritual and indigenous communities that promote and reinforce pro-social and pro-environmental values to create new social norms around:

  • care for others (humans and nonhumans)
  • collaboration
  • growth and prosperity – what it means to live a good life

Using the model as a diagnostic tool

I think this model has potential as a diagnostic tool to help understand a particular issue. It offers a set of questions that can be asked at each stage. A whole situation could be worked through, ideally using participatory research methods with the different types of actors.

I didn’t get the job, by the way. Their loss, I reckon! 😉

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