Why equity is fundamental in climate change policy research

Sonja Klinsky, Timmons Roberts, Saleemul Huq, Chukwumerije Okereke, Peter Newell, Peter Dauvergne, Karen O'Brien, Heike Schroeder, Petra Tschakert, Jennifer Clapp, Margaret Keck, Frank Biermann, Diana Liverman, Joyeeta Gupta, Atiq Rahman, Dirk Messner, David Pellow, Steffen Bauer

Research output: Contribution to journalEditorialpeer-review

111 Citations (Scopus)


In a recent keynote address at a major international conference on climate change governance, 1 renowned political scientist Robert O. Keohane argued that research on the politics of climate change is urgently needed (Keohane, 2016 2). However, when providing an overview for the ideal direction of the field, he argued against focusing scholarship on the normative dimensions of climate policy. In response to questions afterwards we understood him to argue that while equity is important generally, it is a potential distraction from addressing climate change, and could undermine collective action in the face of this urgent public goods crises. 3 We believe it is important to respond to Keohane's comments because they seemed to fit within an established line of argument that we have heard from very influential players in U.N. negotiation halls, academic journals, and within think-tanks and government ministries. As Todd Stern, US Special Envoy for Climate Change purportedly declared during the Durban Platform negotiations, " if equity's in, we're out " (Pickering et al., 2012). Posner and Weisbach (2010) similarly argue that discussions of justice ought to be left out of both academic work and policy discussions because they are conceptually flawed, could " derail the negotiations, " and erode political will (2010). These sentiments are particularly problematic when combined with an emerging post-Paris discourse that suggests that we are in a post-equity era of a voluntary and universal climate agreement. In this post-equity world, issues can be addressed by national contributions that will be self-deter-mined. Despite strong references to justice, human rights, and equity in the Paris Agreement's preamble, the concept of equity is largely absent from its substantive components. Paris recognized that the agreement will reflect " equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR-RC) in the light of national circumstances, " a softening of the original principle of equity and CBDR-RC. The global stocktake on progress towards Paris' goals must be conducted " in light of equity, " but further definitions or declarations are avoided (UNFCCC, 2015). The Paris outcome reflected the desires of some powerful countries, including the United States, who have long resisted the inclusion of equity and justice in multilateral environmental agreements. However the massive bloc of 134 developing countries insisted from the first environmental summit in Stock-holm in 1972 that the nations who caused global environmental problems – and the ones who had the money to address them – should carry the greatest burden in cleaning them up. Considering that adequate global action requires deeper mitigation effort from more actors than ever before, regardless of their historical emissions levels, and that climate impacts are increasingly threatening those who have typically contributed little to the problem and who often lack the resources to adapt, it is clear that justice remains as central to climate change politics and decision-making as ever. In stating that equity is either irrelevant or dangerous in a post-Paris world, Keohane revisited three common assertions repeat-edly used to downplay equity in the climate context. First, that a focus on equity risks encouraging lower -quality research that is muddled by researchers' normative stances. Second, that a focus on equity could seduce scholars into devoting unwarranted time to issues less central for politics and climate action. And third, that an inherent trade-off between climate change and equity precludes a focus on the latter at the expense of the former. As scholars committed to climate action, we suggest that these claims warrant explicit interrogation, particularly now as we face the dire need for immediate and deep action on climate change just at the time that equity provisions are sidelined in the Paris Agreement. In this commentary we rebut these common assertions and argue that analyses of equity and justice are essential for our ability to understand climate politics and contribute to concrete efforts to achieve adequate, fair and enduring climate action for present and future generations. Climate change action is too important not to address the issue of equity; failing to do so risks the collapse of the new regime. 1. Why we need research on equity and climate Given scientific and political calls for more ambitious climate action, we suggest four distinct but overlapping reasons why we need more research on climate change and equity, not less.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1619
Pages (from-to)170-173
Number of pages4
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Publication statusPublished - May 2017


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