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In het kader van het project ‘Rechtvaardige stad’ heb ik een lezing gegeven over klimaatrechtvaardigheid en stedelijk beleid op We Make The City festival, Up Close and Livable, Schouwburg Amsterdam, 21 juni 2019.

What does it mean, to be a just city? And how does the focus on justice translate to specific policies and different domains? Here’s a philosophical perspective.

I want to talk about two topics. First, how different conceptions of justice can help analyze the current policy aiming to make Amsterdam carbon-neutral, relying on more sustainable sources energy, and reducing the CO2 emission.
The second topic I want to discuss is why, based on the arguments we can find in philosophy, environmental justice, or maybe ecological justice should be an integral part of the aspiration to become a just city.

And obviously, I want to talk specifically about what philosophy can bring into policy making, and what not. Because, philosophy is not going to solve policy issues for you. What philosophy has to offer is found on another level than readymade answers to tough questions and wicked problems.
Moreover, if you had any dealings with philosophers, you probably noticed that we tend to disagree. Philosophy is not like science. You don’t have this field of knowledge you can go to, and find out what the current consensus is. If you ask questions to philosophers, you will get very different answers, depending on whom you asked.

Having said that, let us see what we can take from philosophy.

A very basic conception of environmental justice is that it is a fair distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. And this very often boils down to the question of whether the transition to more sustainable energy sources or means of transportation is socially just. To determine what such a just distribution entails, philosophers usually turn to John Rawls, who wrote a famous book in the 70’s, called A Theory of Justice, where he introduces the concept of justice as ‘fairness’. Back then, there was very little talk about justice – people saw it as something belonging to the past societies with a common shared conception of the good. But Rawls points out that it is still possible to aim for a justice society in a pluralist, liberal society, where there are many visions of the good life. It’s possible to have different visions on that, and still reach an agreement on justice. He proposes an ‘philosophical experiment’, where people would agree on basic principles, and distribution of basic goods in society. In order to agree this agreement, people are placed behind a co-called ‘vail of ignorance’ – the don’t know which position in the society they are going to have. Male or female, young or old, rich or poor, smart or not. So their private interests are bracketed out. In such a setting, says Rawls, it’s reasonable to agree on equality in basic rights. But there can be some inequality in distribution of material goods or oncome, justice does not amount to egalitarian position. However, Rawls adds, these differences should benefit those who are most disadvantaged.

To translate this to climate justice, we can look, for example, at the policy of providing government subsidies for electric cars. By lowering the threshold of buying an electric car, more people buy them, the CO2 emission is lowered, and the individual ‘burden’, i.e. cost is lowered. Most people are better off, but not all. If you look at the distribution of the benefits and the burdens, the electric cars are still unaffordable poorest people, so, from Rawlsian perspective, even though such a policy is helping the energy transition, it is not fair.

What Rawls does not say, of course, is: how does it work when you’re on the clock. And when it comes to environmental justice, we are on the clock. It does matter that policy speeds up the energy transition. Maybe such a process demands some amendments in the conceptions of justice for which Rawls theory cannot account. This is a new question that needs to be addressed when we talk about climate justice.

And as we will see, there are many more new questions that environmental justice arises, and the answers are not readily found in this theory of justice as fairness, of a just distribution of goods. Notwithstanding how important this approach to justice is, maybe it is not well suited to respond to these issues all on itself.

One of these issues is scale. The idea of a fair distribution pertains to a particular community in which these goods are distributed. There is a collective effort to produce certain basic goods (also rights!) and that the members of the community should partake in sharing those goods. Climate change, however, is a problem at the planetary level, and the policy of the energy transition is intended as a local contribution to this planetary problem. And there are many scales in between that need to be abridged. If we say: ‘we need to do something’, who is this ‘we’? ‘We need to do something as humanity’ is a very different ‘we’ from: ‘we need to do something in my backyard’. Maybe that explains the discrepancy that exists between the more principled acceptance of the urgency of the climate problem and the necessity to do something about it, and the lower readiness to act upon it. This is also a question of scale. I think this signals the difficulty to address this problem merely as a distributive problem.

So, for example, as Amsterdam makes the transition from gas to other sources of heating for housing, private owners need to make certain investments. A lot of people say: ‘Why me, why do I need to do this?’ And their readiness to do it is low. How to deal with this? Some people say, ‘This is unjust, why should I be forced to make investments?’ What can we say about this from the perspective of justice?

One of the questions to be asked is: How much participation is needed in order for this to be a just policy? There are many bottom-up initiatives in Amsterdam, but the ‘big’ policy issues are top-bottom, and there is not much deliberation about them (Although there is deliberation on implementation). Reducing CO2 emission is part of the climate agreements, taking Amsterdam off the gas is a top down policy, as is the commitment to have only electric cars by 2030. Does this mean that these policies are unjust?

Not always. Participation is needed for justice in order to prevent that some people are completely excluded from the political process, that their interests do not count. That’s a strong claim to make in the above case. Moreover, disagreeing on a specific policy does not amount on disagreeing on the idea of justice. A consensus is not a given, it is a result of a long process, where different visions are debated, rationalized, weighed against one another. How strong does this consensus needs to be, depends on the issue. Justice isn’t about making everybody happy with a solution, but being able to legitimize a decision based on underlying principles we do agree upon.

Moreover, the question is not only who participates in the process, but also how. Participation is about citizens taking part in a political process. In Netherlands, private individuals often defend their private interests when disagreeing with the policy – ‘not in my backyard’. Even if people are prepared to make concessions, they are not more than that: concessions. Their thinking isn’t transformed. They do not see it as their true interest. The debate focusses on what kind of compensation municipality should offer, and to whom, and this makes the perception that this is a kind of a trade-off stronger. The municipality finds itself in a position of being the sole defender of public interest against all kinds of private parties. Such a process is not beneficial for realizing justice, which demands a certain commitment to the public interest and public values. Is it possible to involve people in a different way? The majority of citizens of Amsterdam do recognize climate change as an urgent problem, and think it is necessary to act on it. The task of climate justice, then, would be to translate such commitment to a local level, without losing sight of the public interest.

Yet another philosophical approach to justice puts the emphasis on the quality of life, not just the fairness of the distribution. Considering the fairness of the distribution, one can say, for example: poverty is unjust, because this person gets so much less than another. But poverty is also unjust because it is so damaging. It leaves you with a very little freedom of choice, space and time for development, it’s bad for your mental health and devastating for your social relations. Or, mutual recognition and respect are just, not only because they make us equal, but also because they enable flourishing of individuals and communities.
Form such a viewpoint, discussion about justice and the energy-transition should not only focus on the just distribution of the benefits and the burdens, it’s also about developing a different quality of life, at individual level as well as for communities: cleaner air, possibilities for improvements of the neighborhoods. Indeed, one could argue that sustainability is an integral part of quality of life, not because of consequential health benefits, but because it is itself an aspect of the quality of life. Because it enables us to flourish. Just as precarity, as a kind of opposite of sustainability, is detrimental to the quality of life as well. This is another aspect of justice that comes into climate justice, and that cannot be reduced to the question of just distribution.

That takes me to my second topic, that is, why, based on the arguments we can derive from philosophy, environmental justice, or maybe ecological justice should be an integral part of the aspiration to become a just city.

In the past few decades, many social and environmental movements have already integrated their agenda’s – social justice and environmental justice are addressed as a part of the very same problem. Look up, for example, how Black Lives Matter became involved in environmental justice as well. In this process, these different aspects of justice I discussed were taken along. Maybe this did not lead to a complete new theoretical framework, but it does contribute to an emergence of a new consciousness about the issues these movements care about and fight for, making environment interwoven with the framework of social, racial, and economic justice. Caring about environment means caring about social environment as well as about pollution and the healthy life, for example. This is a paradigm shift. New questions arise: Can we apply the same conceptions of justice to environmental risks in human populations and the relationship between human communities and nonhuman nature? How can the conception of justice be enriched to imply doing justice to nature, to the interdependence of species, to the complexity of life, to the planet itself?

In order to develop this new consciousness, we need also to think anew what a city is. Because if we think of a city as buildings, and streets, and people, then nature is always already extraneous to it. But if we think of a city as a habitat and a co-habitat of many sorts and kinds of life, human and non-human, then we open the door to new and more inclusive ways of thinking justice as well.