“Climate Justice” Advances Discussion of Climate Change Risks for Vulnerable Communities

By Joanne Lu

A woman in Fiji cultivates her crops

Matelita from Nalotawa Village in Fiji cultivates her crops. Photo credit: Rise Beyond the Reef.

On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans celebrated the first Earth Day as a peaceful demonstration for environmental reform. Fifty years later, it’s now celebrated around the world and has paved the way for efforts like the Environmental Protection Agency, the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and the Canopy Project. But these efforts have not been enough, and more than ever, the world is wrestling with the risks and effects of climate change, particularly on the world’s most vulnerable communities.

Last month, in the 50th edition of the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report, all five of the top risks were environmental, including damage from extreme weather events, the failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation by governments and businesses, human-made environmental damage and disasters, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, and natural disasters. Although climate change is happening everywhere, research repeatedly shows that those who are already struggling with poverty, oppression and instability are being affected the most and will increasingly bear the consequences. That’s because the injustices associated with poverty, age, gender, social exclusion and weak infrastructure undermine these populations’ ability to cope with climate change.

For example, according to the World Bank, 78 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas and most of them rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. That means that shifting weather patterns, rising temperatures, extreme weather events like floods and droughts and land degradation are putting the poor at greater risk of losing their livelihoods, being unable to feed their families, sinking further into poverty and maybe even being forced to migrate. By 2030, the World Bank estimates that food prices could be 12 percent higher on average in sub-Saharan Africa because of crop yield losses from climate change. Combined with the other effects of climate change – including increased conflicts and deadly infectious diseases – the World Bank warns that more than 100 million additional people could be living in poverty by 2030, and most of them will be in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

What’s even more unfair is that in many cases, the communities that are most affected are the ones which have contributed the least to climate change. The island nation of Kiribati, for example, is one of the lowest emitters of carbon dioxide in the world. Yet, because of top polluters like the U.S. and China, Kiribati is literally disappearing beneath a rising sea. In 2016, the UN Institute for Environmental and Human Security reported that 94 percent of people living on Kiribati had already been impacted by climate change.

Climate action graphicWhile developing countries are suffering the most from climate change, vulnerable communities in wealthy countries are being disproportionately affected, as well. A federal report published in 2018 concluded that low-income communities and some communities of color, many of which are already overburdened with poor environmental conditions and adverse health conditions, are less resilient to and disproportionately affected by extreme weather and climate events, including the health impacts. In Washington state, for example, Seattle Foundation says that “46 percent of all toxic sites are in areas mostly populated by people of color, while 56 percent are in largely low-income areas.” These communities, therefore, are struggling with contaminated drinking water, poor air quality, unhealthy housing and extreme weather events. Because of discriminatory zoning, banking and employment practices, people in these communities also have the least access to tools that would help them cope, such as transportation, education, insurance and healthy housing.

The federal report also attributes part of the problem to the fact that these vulnerable populations are often excluded in planning processes. That’s why the Seattle Foundation launched its Climate Justice Impact Strategy to ensure that communities of color and low-income communities are “leading and shaping efforts to reduce the disproportionate effects of climate change that they experience.”

World Vision also works closely with communities around the world to identify solutions that work for their individual contexts. In Ethiopia, for example, World Vision wanted to address the health problems, carbon emissions and deforestation associated with open cooking fires. So, they worked with women to determine what kind of fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly cookstoves worked best for their needs, and they have since distributed tens of thousands of them across the country.

In India, Earthworm is also helping smallholder farmers become more resilient in the face of climate change by helping them nurture the country’s soil back to health. The Mitti Bole program (or Soil Speaks) brings together international soil experts, Indian organic farming pioneers and other researchers to educate farmers on responsible soil and water management, agroforestry to improve soil quality and sequester carbon as well as ways to reduce their pesticide and fertilizer dependence.

Experts are recognizing, too, that any effective response to climate change must take gender into account, because women and girls are disproportionately affected. Part of this is because 70 percent of the world’s poor are women and girls, but also societal roles, gender-specific health concerns and discrimination play a big part. For example, when Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe last year, 75,000 pregnant women were affected, with 7,000 at risk of “life-threatening complications” because the flooding and destruction obstructed access to clean water, sanitation and reproductive health care. Domestic work and caregiving duties – women and girls’ primary responsibilities in many contexts – also become much more difficult and time-consuming with climate change. And if they are displaced from their homes by an extreme weather event, they face a greater risk of exploitation and sexual violence.

But women and girls have a crucial role in climate change adaptation and mitigation. That’s why Project Drawdown, a repository for substantive solutions to climate change, focuses to a large extent on women and girls, including girls’ education. Education, they say, “lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities,” but it also helps curb carbon emissions because women with more education tend to have fewer and healthier children. Education can also help girls and women become more productive and responsible food providers with a greater capacity to cope with climate shocks.

Remote Energy is also helping more women get involved in climate solutions in a technical capacity. Their program equips women in developing countries with the technical skills and a community of support to become solar electric technicians. This not only opens up economic opportunities for women, but also gives them a greater voice in decisions about energy within their communities. After all, in developing countries, women are the main users of household energy, so training them in renewable technologies makes their work more sustainable and efficient, which also gives them more time to pursue education and income-earning activities.

All of these programs illustrate the core principles of climate justice as laid out by the Mary Robinson Foundation. We must remember that climate change is not just an environmental or physical problem; it also contains ethical and political dimensions.

The core principles of climate justice are as follows: 1) respect and protect human rights 2) support the right to development 3) share benefits and burdens equitably 4) ensure that decisions on climate change are participatory, transparent and accountable 5) highlight gender equality and equity 6) harness the transformative power of education for climate stewardship and 7) use effective partnerships to secure climate justice.

These principles are not new, the foundation says, but should help those in pursuit of climate justice achieve a human-centered approach – one that shares the burdens, benefits (wealth from emissions, for example) and responsibility for solving climate change fairly and equitably, and, perhaps most importantly, protects the rights of the most vulnerable.

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The following Global Washington members are working to address climate change and its impacts on the most vulnerable communities around the world.


Earthworm Foundation (formerly known as The Forest Trust) has 20 years of experience in finding solutions to the major social and environmental problems that our world is facing today. Earthworm’s vision is for future generations to not simply survive, but to thrive. The nonprofit seeks to build a world where the balance between people and the environment, value and profit, people’s beliefs and actions is maintained and where human, natural and capital resources become a force for good. For that, Earthworm sees a world where forests are a boundless source of materials and a home for biodiversity; communities see their rights respected and have opportunities to develop; workers are seen as productive partners; and agriculture becomes the instrument to feed a hungry planet and keep our climate stable.

FSC Investments & Partnerships

Forest Stewardship Council Investments & Partnerships (FSC I&P) is the Seattle-based branch of FSC. As the original pioneers of forest certification, FSC has over 25 years of experience in sustainable forest management. FSC promotes the responsible management of the world’s forests, and has developed a high standard of forest management that prioritizes the environmental, social and economic rights of community foresters, and indigenous people around the world. FSC I&P’s mission is aligned with the FSC in promoting environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, and economically viable management of the world’s forests. In 2018, FSC launched its Ecosystem Services Procedure, which allows businesses and governments an additional mechanism to demonstrate the impact of their products and investments on watershed services, carbon sequestration and storage, and biodiversity conversation, among other ecosystem services. Recently, FSC Canada received funds from the Canadian Ministry of Environment and Climate Change to support implementing the new Canadian National Forest Standard, the result of five years of rigorous consultation with indigenous groups, environmental and social stakeholders, and industry actors. It addresses the most pressing issues facing Canadian forests, including preserving the threatened woodland caribou, Indigenous people’s rights, worker’s rights, including gender equity, and landscape management and conservation.

Future of Fish

Future of Fish works to ensure sustainable livelihoods for fishing communities and long-term health of wild fish populations, which billions of people depend upon as a critical source of protein. Climate change is already wreaking havoc for coastal communities in developing countries, with rising seas damaging dockside infrastructure and warming waters driving away traditional fish stocks. The result is loss of income, food, and in many cases, cultural heritage.  Future of Fish collaborates with small-scale fishers to design better systems, practices, and technologies that help fishers continue supporting their communities in a time of unstable climate impacts. Climate justice is only possible when front-line communities have the resources they need to survive and thrive. Future of Fish works closely with fishers, seafood supply chains, and the local community and governments to co-design interventions that build environmentally sustainable, climate resilient, and economically viable fisheries. With support from global and regional partners, Future of Fish helps address food security and achieve long-term social and environmental impact for coastal fishing communities around the world.

Heifer International

Heifer International is on a mission to end global hunger and poverty in a sustainable way. For over 75 years, the organization has invested alongside more than 35 million farmers and business owners around the world, supporting them to build businesses that deliver living incomes and protect the environment. Heifer works with smallholder farmers using a tried and tested community development model, providing farming inputs that enable them to grow their businesses using locally available resources. Expert teams and partners provide training in climate smart agriculture techniques so farmers can increase their resilience to climate change, improve production, restore soil health and reduce deforestation. Many of the communities Heifer works with are among the most vulnerable to climate change. Heifer works with them to manage grazing, protecting areas of important biodiversity, enabling farmers to make a living income and restore resources for future generations. Heifer also invests alongside farmers in clean, green energy solutions, like solar power systems and biogas, so they can generate the energy they need to power their continued growth. Heifer believes local farmers hold the key to feeding the world, and it is working with them to make their farms sustainable in every sense of the word.

Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch conducts on-the-ground research to document the impact of climate change and climate-harming activities and to advocate for positive change locally, nationally, and internationally. We disseminate our findings through our global media network and 11 million social media followers. We use our findings and media exposure to urge governments and corporations to implement rights-respecting environmental policies and practices, with a focus on the disadvantaged populations that are suffering harms most acutely. In coalition with other environmental and human rights groups, we successfully advocated for the inclusion of human rights language in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. In the coming year Human Rights Watch’s work on climate change will focus on two of today’s most urgent issues: protecting forests that serve as critical “carbon sinks” and accelerating a global shift away from the use of coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. We will undertake research and advocacy on issues including food insecurity for Indigenous communities in Canada and the ways in which climate-harming activities, like coal emissions in Europe and Africa and deforestation in South America, also harm human rights.

Mercy Corps

The climate crisis is creating unprecedented challenges for millions of people already burdened by poverty and oppression. Mercy Corps’ climate resilience work tackles the human impacts of climate change—particularly disappearing livelihoods, rising food insecurity, increasing disaster, and escalating violence—by empowering communities to adapt, innovate and thrive. Mercy Corps tackles the root causes of instability, empowering people to survive crisis and transform their communities. As climate change is a key driver of events such as floods and droughts that undermine development gains and threaten vulnerable people, Mercy Corps partners with local communities to rebound from disasters while helping them be more prepared for the next ones. In Mali, Mercy Corps partnered with local communities, through a cash for work program, to construct dams along the Niger river to secure communities against flooding and conserve water for off-season farming. As a result, for the first time in 30 years, 250 families in the Tassakane village of the Timbuktu region didn’t suffer from flooding during the rainy season


Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more. This includes working with enterprise customers as well as non-profits and NGOs around the world to scale the impact of their work. Microsoft is empowering first responder organizations to meet critical global needs, humanitarian organizations to drive greater impact, and displaced people to rebuild their lives with a mix of technology, cash grants, employee donations and staff time. This mission-driven work is evident in its environmental work, which began in 2012 as a carbon neutral company. In responding to the urgency of climate change, Microsoft recently made three commitments: 1) the company will become carbon negative by 2030; 2) it will take responsibility for removing its historical carbon emissions by 2050; and 3) it will invest $1 billion over the next four years into new technologies and expanded access to capital for those working around the world to solve climate change.

National Wildlife Federation

As the U.S. confronts the cascading impacts of a changing climate, advancing environmental justice must be central to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, boosting resilience, and revitalizing communities. Low-income and communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the effects of a changing climate—and the National Wildlife Federation has a responsibility to empower frontline communities to enact transformative change by providing resources and tools. To achieve this vision, for both people and wildlife, NWF is working to ensure that equity and the principles of environmental justice are institutionalized into its climate work. One way is through Revitalizing Vulnerable Communities Institute, which is empowering communities to implement holistic solutions to environmental and economic issues. The Federation is also undertaking a Climate and Communities Project that works to help communities heavily dependent on fossil fuels feel more prepared for, and engaged with, national climate policies. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the National Wildlife Federation is engaged in climate change issues unfolding in the Columbia River basin and the Snake River. Hotter water temperatures are pushing cold water fish—including salmon—toward extinction, greatly impacting the inland and coastal Native American communities, and as well as rural fishing communities that depend on them.

Oxfam America

Oxfam America believes that the injustice of climate change is also the injustice of inequality – those who have done the least to contribute to global emissions are the hardest hit. Climate justice requires that we rapidly shift towards low-emissions economies that leaves no one behind, and promote resilient development by building capacities and leadership of communities & womenon the frontlines. The climate crisis is already impacting the world – wildfires in Australia, locusts in Africa, and communities in the global south are often the hardest hit with extreme weather events like droughts and floods taking a heavy toll. Oxfam’s vision and value add in the fight for climate justice centers these communities unlike other organizations that focus on wildlife preservation or more narrowly on environmental impacts. Through its work, Oxfam is committed to reducing climate change by tackling the structural drivers of the crisis often rooted in unequal economic models, which requires holding governments and big business accountable. Oxfam works with a range of partners to help communities adapt and become more resilient, and are committed to elevating the voices and leadership of communities – especially women who are on the frontlines. Oxfam also believes that policy and advocacy have key roles to play to advance climate justice. Oxfam works to defend the Paris agreement and engage the US government to push for a robust global framework to tackle the climate crisis. Oxfam engages food and beverage companies to tackle the hidden emissions in their supply chains; advocates with international finance institutions to channel more investment towards pro-poor clean energy; works toward greater transparency in the oil and gas sector; and encourages governments to invest in the rights and livelihoods of small famers, especially women farmers.

Remote Energy

Remote Energy (RE) believes that access to reliable sources of sustainable energy is a fundamental requirement for the advancement of education, healthcare, economic opportunity and quality of life.  It is also a critical step in mitigating the effects of climate change. The climate crises has fostered significant growth in the solar energy industry worldwide, and has fueled the fast growing need for a trained solar workforce. RE has responded by developing and implementing regionally appropriate, customized technical capacity building programs and developing hands-on, practical learning opportunities for solar technicians and instructors in marginalized communities worldwide. RE’s scalable programs, methodology and mentorship opportunities provide the knowledge, technical skills and support network for inspiring people and communities to move towards energy independence and sustainable development. RE is also committed to gender equality and supports the belief that women’s talents and leadership are vital to maintain a diverse, sustainable PV industry and critical in the fight against climate change. RE’s Women’s Program is designed to develop women decision-makers, end-users, technicians, and educators and offers customized, women’s-only courses and mentoring opportunities with professional female instructors.

Rise Beyond the Reef

Rise Beyond the Reef bridges the divide between remote communities, government and the private sector in the South Pacific, sustainably creating a better world for women and children. There is no reason not to value the inherent intelligence and resilient nature of Pacific Island cultures that have self-sustained for thousands of years. Rise Beyond the Reef believes that if leadership in remote communities can be cultivated and strengthened, if these fire-keepers of traditional knowledge can have a place where they are protected, ignited and supported to grow sustainably in the 21st century, if women have an equal voice that’s heard and respected in their communities, if their experiences and insights are valued, if children’s rights are protected, then the entire community will rise. It’s not about helping the poor or just focusing on the environment, it’s about creating value around the important role remote communities play in our world’s whole picture, including creating a stable climate. It’s about valuing rather than extracting. It’s about supporting rather than directing. It’s about seeing our collective future. That’s when we all rise together.

Seattle Foundation

Seattle Foundation ignites powerful, rewarding philanthropy to make Greater Seattle a stronger, more vibrant community for all. As a community foundation, it works to advance equity, shared prosperity, and belonging throughout the region while strengthening the impact of the philanthropists they serve. Founded in 1946 and with more than $1.1 billion in assets, the Foundation pursues its mission with a combination of deep community insight, civic leadership, philanthropic advising and judicious financial stewardship. The Climate Justice Impact Strategy is Seattle Foundation’s comprehensive approach to ensuring that communities of color and low-income communities are leading and shaping efforts to reduce the effects of climate change, which they experience disproportionately. To reduce the risks of climate change, we address its root causes, identify and adapt to its impacts, and strengthen community resiliency to those impacts. Justice and equity are at the core of this approach, which uses community-based research while building diverse coalitions and increasing the capacity of nonprofits to advance local solutions to this global challenge.

Snow Leopard Trust

The Snow Leopard Trust (SLT) seeks climate justice through its mission to protect snow leopards in partnership with local communities that share the cat’s habitat. For nearly four decades, SLT has worked to empower herding families across Asia to take action for their local ecosystems and secure a prosperous future for both humans and wildlife. With programs and staff in five countries in Asia and support from around the world, SLT coordinates programs that promote sustainable development, green livelihoods, and climate-smart planning, including environmental education camps, livestock insurance and vaccination programs, ranger trainings, and a handicraft program called Snow Leopard Enterprises. Using approaches from both natural and social sciences, SLT researchers endeavor to understand the complex dynamics between people, predators, and the environment. SLT has been a key partner in the Global Snow Leopard & Ecosystem Protection Program (GSLEP) and rallied the governments of 12 countries to support programs that link conservation with sustainable development. As humankind expands its reach to the most remote areas of snow leopard habitat, SLT strives for climate justice through community involvement and multilateral partnerships.

Tearfund USA

In 1992, Tearfund became the first large international development NGO to focus on the climate crisis after seeing how it affected the organization’s partners across the globe. The rate and impact of environmental degradation are hitting people living in poverty the hardest – the very people who have done the least to cause it. To combat this issue, Tearfund supports communities with programs related to waste management, renewable energy, climate-smart agriculture, and climate resilience. Through Tearfund’s training and equipping programs, vulnerable communities are able to produce enough food for everybody using environmentally responsible farming methods. This way they become part of a sustainable future. Tearfund also calls on governments and companies to change harmful practices that contribute to climate problems. Currently, Tearfund is working in more than 24 countries to address the challenges caused by the climate crisis, furthering its efforts in advocacy, campaigning, and supporting environmental sustainability programs.


To address climate change Vulcan philanthropy funds projects and investments in research, innovation, and policy change. One innovative project for example is improving researchers’ ability to understand sea ice in response to climate change. Through the Foundation and personal philanthropy, Paul G. Allen and Vulcan have provided more than $50 million for forest preservation, research, education, development and management, protecting key land and habitats in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. In addition, Vulcan Production films, such as Racing Extinction and Pandora’s Promise help audiences understand the effects of climate change and spark a dialogue about solutions. On the policy front, Paul G. Allen and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation joined a lawsuit to require the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management to prepare a programmatic environmental impact statement for the federal coal leasing program. In a blog post, Allen said “It is time for our government leaders to make informed decisions on how to best manage our public resources to meet our nation’s energy needs.”

Woodland Park Zoo

More than a million vulnerable species need humans to take action for their survival. Meaningful reductions in carbon emissions to avert the worst impacts of the climate crisis require behavioral, organizational and policy change. Woodland Park Zoo has joined The Wave, a coalition of more than 100 Pacific Northwest organizations pledged to fight for 100% clean energy, zero waste, and clean air and water for every living creature. Through exceptional animal care and sustainable practices such as solar panels, eliminating single-use plastics, investing in green infrastructure, and converting our animals’ waste into ZooDoo compost – Woodland Park Zoo continues to inspire our community and nearly one million unique visitors a year to make conservation, and sustainability, a priority in their lives.

World Vision

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the root causes of poverty and injustice. World Vision works directly with communities to identify context-specific solutions with a focus on food security, clean energy, natural resources management and climate adaptation and mitigation. Projects include interventions like reforestation, agro-forestry, climate-smart agriculture, clean energy and access to carbon markets. World Vision Australia is also a world leader in promoting Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) in rural communities, a process that naturally regenerates trees on farmland and forest areas to improve agricultural productivity and reduce the incidence of droughts, floods and landslides. A number of communities in Ethiopia have also benefited from the Clean Stoves Project, which reduces the health risks associated with smoky open fire stoves, and reduces the need to cut down trees. Finally, World Vision has worked with communities in South East Asia and the Pacific region to better prepare them for tropical storms and other natural disasters, which are becoming increasingly frequent and violent as a result of climate change.