What you can do right now|

What You Can Do Right Now

Climate Justice 

by John E. Fernandez, Professor, MIT Department of Architecture

Many architects are moving quickly to address the climate emergency. Some would argue not fast enough and that would be a fair observation. In fact, no industrial sector is moving fast enough to limit greenhouse gases and adequately invest in adapting to the accelerating effects of a warming planet. It is also fair to suggest that the urgency of the climate crisis now warrants identifying our predicament as a full-on climate emergency. Unfortunately, the state of California has become an epicenter of an array of concurrent and compounding climate threats. 

Emergencies are difficult to manage. Consider a national security emergency, such as a terrorist attack on a major US city, or a natural disaster, such as a devastating hurricane or lethal tornado. In these situations, the short-term response is understandably concentrated on saving lives and quickly reestablishing systems of life support and critical economic activities. However, it is too often the case that society – in the name of neutralizing existential threats – also responds in ways that may include consequential measures that suspend important societal values such as civil liberties and environmental protections. It is regrettably easy to find examples during the recent history of the United States of the coupling of emergency responses to the suspension of laws and regulations intended to protect the rights of citizens, the quality of air and water and the management of waste. Doing so, risks imposing disproportionate burdens on historically marginalized and disempowered communities. If one accepts that climate change is now an emergency – which we should – then how are we going to respond in ways that do not compromise the fairness with which we conduct ourselves?

How is fairness related to climate change? 

To answer this question, it is important to return to first principles both for the concept of fairness and the science of climate change. Let’s explore fairness first.

Fairness entails the just treatment or behavior of an individual, group or society as a whole. Therefore, to answer the question above we must explore justice. There are several types of justice; each focused on a particular aspect of human actions and their consequences. 

Distributive justice concerns itself with questions of the fairness of decisions that lead to distributing benefits and harms across society. Inter-generational justice considers our collective obligations to current and future generations. Retributive justice considers how we collectively consider and act to address and repair harms done in the past. Procedural justice emphasizes the processes by which various stakeholders accept the fairness of a decision. Inter-species justice assigns rights to non-human species and adjudicates situations of ecological harm to individuals and groups of non-human species. All of these forms of justice are relevant to decision-making and actions to address climate change.

Now let’s examine the aspects of climate change relevant to the topic of justice.

There have been no other consequences of industrialization and modernization that approaches the planetary extent and temporal duration of climate change. Every region of the world has been, and will continue to be affected by the anthropogenic release of greenhouse gases since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Also, the effects of the release of the carbon dioxide will very likely not abate any time soon and may continue for many hundreds and even thousands of years. This is what has been referred to as the irreversibility of climate change (Solomon et al. 2009) arising from the very long residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the significant potential of triggering so-called tipping points; self-reinforcing dynamics initiated by crossing critical warming thresholds and accelerating destructive effects in an uncontrolled manner (McKay et al. 2022). 

The release of carbon and methane trapped in permafrost is one such tipping point: As permafrost thaws, carbon stored and methane trapped in this natural system is released, leading to more warming and thawing. Another example is the change in albedo of the Arctic Ocean – albedo is the amount of light reflected from a surface due to its color and texture. As annual Arctic ice decreases, the dark sea is left to absorb heat that would otherwise have been reflected by the bright white of sea ice, again leading to more warming and ice melt. 

As these and many other results of global warming proliferate, it is abundantly clear that fossil fuels have driven an enormous economic expansion that has disproportionately benefited countries in the global north and other affluent regions while creating conditions of extreme inequity with developing regions of the world. Colonialism, racism, oppressive governments and corporate malfeasance have left us with a world of extreme inequality with the typical American consuming about 70 times more energy than a typical Liberian (kWh per capita, source: Our World in Data) and the wealth gap between white and black Americans remaining stubbornly large, at more than $800,000 (Darity 2021). Economic development driven by fossil fuels have been a boon to some and a legacy of oppression to others.  

The production and consumption of fossil fuels has also left us with a tragic kaleidoscope of environmental injustices not limited to the developing regions of the world but affecting historically marginalized communities in every region of the world. 

Of course, the primary effort required to move toward a low carbon future is the replacement of stationary and mobile energy systems powered by fossil fuels to systems powered by renewable sources of energy. Keep in mind that there is no reason to believe that this transition will not engender substantial environmental consequences and related injustices. A good way to think about this is that, as we act on climate change, we are transitioning away from a fossil fuel-intensive global economy and replacing it with a minerals and metals-intensive global economy. 

While extraction of oil and gas has been a particularly egregious source of environmental damage, a minerals-intensive global economy will require an enormous increase in the amounts of metals and minerals for wind turbines, solar arrays, electric vehicles and almost every type of low carbon stationary and mobile energy system. In fact, renewable energy systems require amounts of metals and minerals many times that of fossil fuel systems per unit of energy produced (IEA 2023). 

This will create substantial pressures on global supply of materials. Mining everywhere, in the US and abroad, will be incentivized to vastly increase their operations to provide for the manufacture of renewable energy systems. Mining affects local communities in significant ways and there are many examples of dire environmental injustices directly and indirectly related to mining practices; for example, the devastating collapse of the mining waste storage dam in Brumadinho, Brazil (BBC 2019) and the water contamination on Navajo lands from uranium mining (EPA 2020), among many others. 

Mining is just one among many activities that hold the potential for environmental injustice stemming from climate actions. Infrastructure and the built environment are land and place-based. What we design is situated in a specific place often for very long periods of time. Where solar farms and wind turbines are located has the potential to disadvantage low income, Native American and communities of color, similarly with manufacturing and distribution facilities.  

Therefore, our application of various forms of justice as we transition to a minerals intensive economy is central to the prospect for an equitable future. 

The concept of justice as a central priority accompanying economic interests at the beginning of the industrial revolution was almost entirely absent. Today, we have an opportunity to ensure that the transition to a low-carbon world prioritizes justice and anticipates coming injustices that will arise from the re-industrialization of our energy, transport, manufacturing and building systems.

What is Climate Justice?

Climate justice is the understanding that decisions and actions intended to address climate change may result in social, environmental, health, economic and other types of injustice. Climate justice acknowledges that a transition to a low carbon future may create new forms of burdens imposed on historically marginalized, racially discriminated and underserved people and communities (Simmons 2020). Climate justice is anticipatory of the exacerbation of existing environmental injustices and emerging and novel injustices resulting from our actions to both mitigate emissions and adapt to climate change. Climate justice also serves to merge priorities of environmental justice with those of energy transitions – two movements with very different origins and histories (EPA 2022; Eisenberg 2019). 

Being an architect today has never been more important. Few other professions in other industries are making decisions on a daily basis that will affect the energy and carbon intensity of society for decades and generations to come. As a profession, we have a responsibility to society to bring our knowledge and values to improve the prospect for everyone to fulfill their full potential as we move to meaningfully act on the climate emergency.

All of the above is only relevant to a building professional if there are ways to apply this knowledge. The following is a list of actions that you can take as a design professional today:

1. Engage in conversations about climate justice in your local professional community.

2. Send your favorite articles on climate justice to your immediate professional colleagues and others.

3. Hold an informational lunch in your firm on the topic of climate justice. 

4. Consider drafting a set of principles for yourself or your company that details the ways in which practice intersects with climate justice. 

5. Specify energy systems that do not disproportionately affect marginalized communities both in their manufacture and operation. Work with vendors and product representatives to find the information you need.

6. Advocate for low energy systems, like heat pumps, in projects serving low income communities. 

7. Specify materials and assemblies that do not disproportionately affect marginalized communities in the processing, manufacture and use phases as well as at end of service life. Know where your materials come from and do the research to know how, where and by whom those materials are acquired (mined, processed and synthesized) and delivered and again, work with vendors and product representatives to find the information you need.

8. Include criteria for diversity, equity and inclusion in requests for bids to provide services from all parties engaged in consultation and construction. 

9. Consider introducing the idea of sufficiency alongside efficiency as you engage with clients. This is an important topic in the climate science community that emphasizes the opportunity to limit our demand on materials and energy through design of buildings that are spatially lean while serving their purpose (IPCC AR6 2022).

10. Consider engaging with local environmental and climate justice organizations to get to know their work and explore your potential to contribute with your professional knowledge.


BBC. 2021. “Vale dam disaster: $7bn compensation for disaster victims”, February 4, 2021. Retrieved January 29, 2023, source: https://www.bbc.com/news/business-55924743 

Darity, W. Jr. “The True Cost of Closing the Racial Wealth Gap”. New York Times, April 30, 2021. Retrieved January 25, 2023 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/30/business/racial-wealth-gap.html 

Eisenberg, A. M. 2019. Just Transitions. Southern California Law Review, Vol. 92:273. Retrieved January 29, 2023, source: https://southerncalifornialawreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/92_2_273.pdf 

EPA. 2020. “Abandoned Mines Cleanup.” US Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved on January 20, 2023, source: https://www.epa.gov/navajo-nation-uranium-cleanup/abandoned-mines-cleanup 

EPA. 2022. “What is environmental justice?” US Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved on January 18, 2023, source: https://www.energy.gov/lm/services/environmental-justice/what-environmental-justice 

IEA. 2023. “In the transition to clean energy, critical minerals bring new challenges to energy security.” Executive summary from, “The Role of Critical Minerals in Clean Energy Transition” International Energy Agency. Retrieved January 20, 2023, source: https://www.iea.org/reports/the-role-of-critical-minerals-in-clean-energy-transitions/executive-summary 

IPCC AR6. 2022. “Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change.” Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 6th Assessment Report. Retrieved January 18, 2023, source: https://report.ipcc.ch/ar6wg3/pdf/IPCC_AR6_WGIII_SummaryForPolicymakers.pdf 

Our World in Data. 2020. “Primary energy consumption per capita (kWh/person)”. 

Data published by: BP Statistical Review of World Energy; U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA); Bolt, Jutta and Jan Luiten van Zanden (2020), “Maddison style estimates of the evolution of the world economy. A new 2020 update“. Retrieved January 29, 2023, source: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/per-capita-energy-use?tab=table 

McKay, D., Staal, A., Abrams, J. F., Winkelmann, R. Sakschewski, B., Loriani, S., Fetzer, I., Cornell, S. E., Rockström, J. and T. M. Lenton. 2022. Exceeding 1.5°C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points. Science, Vol 377, Issue 6611. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.abn79

Simmons, D. 2021. “What is Climate Justice?” Yale Climate Connections, July 29, 2020. Retrieved January 18, 2023, source: https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/what-is-climate-justice/ 

Solomon, S., Platttner, G.-K., Knutti, R., and P. Friedlingstein. 2009. Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. PNAS, 106 (6) 1704-1709. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0812721106

John E. Fernández

Professor Fernandez is on the faculty of the Department of Architecture at MIT. He is the Director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative, MIT’s primary environmental center addressing a wide range of issues including mining for a low carbon future, nature-based solutions for climate change, climate justice and more. Fernandez holds a Bachelor of Science from MIT and a Masters degree from Princeton University.

AIA California
AIA California
Celebrating over 75 years of service, the AIA California actively promotes the value of design and advocates for the architectural profession. AIA CA is an association of 11,000 dedicated and passionate members who share a commitment to design excellence and livability in California’s natural and built environments.

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