Environmental protest sign

Written by Stefanie Schäfer

“[The elites] worry about the end of the world, while we worry about the end of the month.” The attitude demonstrated by a gilet jaunes protester in France 2019 highlights the problematic social division in perceptions of climate change and in attitudes towards environmental issues (Grabbe and Lehne: 2019). Previously dismissed by populist parties  as an elitist topic, climate change and its consequences are now increasingly being recognised as a crucial area of discussion; it is finally being foregrounded in political discourse. Yet in order to prevent the perpetuation of inequality in European societies, it is imperative that the EU sets out environmental legislation which ensures parity in approach and will guarantee a “fair” environmental transition across the board.

In its new priorities for 2019-2024 and the pluriannuel budget for 2021-2027, the European Commission (EC) sets a clear focus on environmental and climate change related matters. The European Green Deal that was launched in 2019 follows the aim of a European transition towards a sustainable economy and a climate neutral continent through 2050 via a designed action plan. Up until now, its implementation led to several economic and juridical EC actions including a European Green Deal Investment Plan (2020) and the proposal for a European climate law (2020) with the aim to ensure climate neutrality by 2050 (European Commission: n.d.). Furthermore, the EU proposes to strengthen climate resilience among Member States, a first important step towards a climate resilient continent (European Commission: 2020). Nevertheless, all of these positive developments in EU environmental policy and the safeguarding of biodiversity neglect two vital aspects: environmental justice and climate justice.

The term “environmental justice” was introduced during a social movement of people of color in Warren County, North Carolina (United States), at the end of the 20th century, when the North Carolina state government decided to deposit toxic waste on the landfill of an African-American community. The movement set out to address and challenge environmental injustice. This injustice took the form of negative environmental impacts on certain social and ethnic groups, which were directly linked to their social status and/or racism. Citizens were becoming increasingly aware that pollution-generating infrastructure was being placed mainly in socially or ethnically disadvantaged areas of cities (Krämer Ludwig: 2020). In the last 40 years, the definition of ‘environmental justice’ has been modified to account for further complexities and to address a wider range of issues than was formerly acknowledged. The term now refers to several dimensions and fields, among them the environmental responsibility of polluting industrial states towards developing countries, which are most affected by the pollution, and the field of environment-related health matters. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies”. It can only be achieved if everyone, no matter its social class or race, has the “same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work” (United States EPA: 2015).

The term “climate justice” is closely related to environmental justice. The concept connects the causes and effects of climate change to the legal concepts of environmental and social justice. It gained popularity through grassroots movements such as Fridays for Future, and Extinction Rebellion. On a basic level, climate justice addresses the climate inequalities between social groups and states caused by the differing degree of climate change impact on people depending on their gender, age, social status and ethnical origin. It often refers, but is not limited, to global inequalities between countries in the northern and southern hemisphere (United Nations: 2019).

Foremost, it is crucial to understand that climate and environmental injustice exists within European society and that these injustices will perpetuate racial and ethnical inequalities in years to come, if the EU fails to effectively address the issue. Even though the topic of climate and environmental justice has reached the bodies of the European Union, as can be seen in a public hearing organized by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in 2017, it still lacks legislative and political action on the EU level, especially in the field of climate justice (European Economic and Social Committee: 2017). This neglect is an ominous sign for disadvantaged groups in society and bodes badly for the EU political system as a body which ostensibly aspires to equality.

One example of a likely future struggle related to climate change is the issue of resilience building. Inequalities in the capacity to develop climate resilience measures exist on both an intra- and interstate level. While some EU Member States possess the resources to become climate-resilient states and economies, it is already the case that disadvantaged Member States, e.g. in Eastern Europe, will face greater difficulties in creating resilience towards rising temperatures and extreme weather events. Current EU cohesion policies in the area of climate resilience must be upgraded in order to prevent greater inequalities between Member States, and to prevent related consequences, such as rising populism and Euroscepticism amongst the more disadvantaged States. Climate resilience within Member States will be one of the most important topics in the near future; it might lead to greater social and economic inequalities if preventative measures are missing.

According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), Europe has had an increase in temperature above the global average, which means a rise in temperature of 1.7 °C to 1.9 °C compared to pre-industrial temperatures. Moreover, global temperatures are projected to increase between 1.7 °C and 5.4 °C by the end of the century depending on the climate model used (European Environment Agency: n.d.). Thus, necessities such as housing and working conditions will need to adapt in order to deal with higher temperatures and possible extreme weather events. Both of those fields are greatly related to the social status and economic resources of citizens. Whilst more advantaged social groups will be able to fund the adaptation of  housing towards more sustainable and resilient models – through the installation of, for example, electric fans or other types of heat blocking – disadvantaged social groups will not have the financial resources to implement such changes. Furthermore, workers from disadvantaged social groups tend to be physically exposed to heat and other forms of extreme weather during their working hours (e.g. construction workers) (see NIOSH 2016, UNDP 2016).     

Housing and working conditions are only two examples of a long list of areas in which climate change might increase already existing inequalities in society. Surely, the EU itself will only have a limited impact on national environmental resilience policies directly related to social inequalities. Nevertheless, EU law concerning other environmental topics, such as environmental liability (e.g. EC Directive 2004/35), suggests that it is fair to hold Member States accountable for environmental matters. The EU should therefore be involved in the crucial topic of climate justice and deepen its legal involvement in the field of environmental justice, to urge Member States to adequately address both legal and climate dimensions in their national legal system. This action should take place before societal and economic inequalities caused by climate change develop into even more devastating issues.



European Commission (n.d.). A European Green Deal: Striving to be the first climate-neutral continent. Retrieved from:https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en

European Commission (2020). A Climate Resilient Europe. Report: Research and Innovation. Retrieved from:https://ec.europa.eu/info/publications/climate-resilient-europe_en

European Economic and Social Committee (2017). Climate Justice: Public hearing. Retrieved from:https://www.eesc.europa.eu/de/agenda/our-events/events/climate-justice

European Environment Agency (n.d.). Indicator assessment: Global and European temperatures. Retrieved from:https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/indicators/global-and-european-temperature-10/assessment

Grabbe Heather, Lehne Stefan (2019). Climate Politics in a Fragmented Europe: Developing a More Inclusive European Climate Debate. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.com/stable/resrep20955.7

Krämer Ludwig (2020). Environmental Justice and European Union Law. 16 CYELP 1. Retrieved from:https://hrcak.srce.hr/file/363883


The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) (2016). Impact of Climate on Workers. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/climate/how.html


UNDP (2016). Climate change and labour: impacts of heat in the workplace. Retrieved from:https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_emp/—gjp/documents/publication/wcms_476194.pdf


United Nations (2019). Sustainable Development Goals: Climate Justice. Retrieved from:https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/climate-justice/


United States Environmental Protection Agency. 2015. Environmental Justice. Retrieved from:https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice

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