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Justice in Urban Climate Governance: Status, Theories, and Gaps

Digging Theories in Environmental Policy and Management Seminar

Sarah Hughes

National Center for Atmospheric Research  


Climate change is, and will continue to be, an important policy and planning concern for cities around the world. Even as action at the federal level stalls in many countries, cities are taking steps to reduce carbon emissions and adapt to the consequences of climate change. Given the variability of capacities and exposures in urban populations and existing development challenges in cities it is critical that the processes and outcomes of urban climate planning are just – meaning they include and provide benefits for urban disadvantaged communities. However, previous research has shown that there are a range of mechanisms that inhibit the advancement of justice in cities. In this paper I examine four mechanisms – the political economy of poverty, thick injustice, technocratic governance, and institutional capacities – and the role they may play in urban climate planning. I then identify some of the critical gaps in our understanding of what these mechanisms of injustice mean for urban climate planning and present opportunities for research moving forward.

Cities and Climate Change

Climate change can be defined as, “a significant change (such as a change having important economic, environmental and social effects) in the mean values of a meteorological element (in particular temperature or amount of precipitation) in the course of a certain period of time, where the means are taken over periods of the order of a decade or longer (National Snow and Ice Data Center 2012)”. The drivers of climate change are in part anthropogenic and include increased carbon dioxide levels from fossil fuel consumption, the release of atmospheric aerosols and ozone depletion, and shifts in the carbon cycle due to deforestation. Climate change policy and planning, therefore, is aimed at addressing the causes and consequences of long-term shifts in temperature and precipitation patterns – shifts that will significantly affect our economy, environment, and communities.
Cities are important players in climate change for several reasons. First, more than half of all people on the planet live in urban areas (UNDP 2010). The patterns and drivers underlying urban growth, and the ability of governments and public organizations to respond to this growth, vary greatly between and within cities (UNFPA 2011). Still, the dominance of cities as human habitat now means that cities are responsible for consuming nearly 70% of the world’s energy supplies (International Energy Agency 2008), making cities significant contributors of carbon dioxide emissions. Cities are also sites of climate impacts such as sea level rise, flooding events, and heat waves and heat islands. For example, in the city of Rio de Janeiro sea level rise is predicted to affect around 400,000 people (Young 2011).
Perhaps most importantly, cities are also the site of innovation and policy action for climate change (Bulkeley and Betsill 2003; Satterthwaite and Dodman 2009). Thousands of cities, around the world, are developing ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change such as incentivizing green buildings, funding energy efficient transportation, and reducing residents’ exposure to climate hazards. I refer to these efforts as urban climate planning, or the tools and processes cities use to manage their carbon emissions and adapt to the possible consequences of climate change.
A critical trend in urban climate planning is the increasing number of cities in developing and newly industrializing countries that are developing climate plans. For example, in the Mexico City pact, an agreement among mayors from 208 cities around the world to address climate change, nearly 95% of the cities represented are from developing and newly industrializing countries. For many of these cities – such as Dhaka, Delhi, Mexico City, and Cairo – climate change is likely to exacerbate existing developing challenges of poverty and environmental stress (Bicknell, Dodman, and Satterthwaite 2007).  It is therefore critical that urban climate governance generates local and equitably distributed benefits. However, a recent review has shown that our understanding of the consequences of urban climate governance for equity and justice is severely lacking (Bulkeley 2010).

What is “Just” Urban Climate Planning?

Justice is a contested concept. John Rawls, a prominent political philosopher, saw justice as fairness, meaning that the terms of allocating benefits and burdens are such that a reasonable person would accept them and expect others to do the same. He reasoned that even if all people are given equal liberties and opportunities, differences in position and power will still arise. These social and economic inequalities are just, Rawls claims, only if they work to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (Rawls 2001). In contrast, Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen is interested in finding ways to identify just outcomes – outcomes that, when compared to the status quo, enhance people’s freedoms (Sen 2009). While Sen does not specify what these freedoms are, Martha Nussbaum proposes the following: life, bodily health, bodily integrity, senses imagination and thought, emotions, practical reason, affiliation, other species, play, control over one’s environment (Nussbaum 2003; Nussbaum 2000).
In the urban context, Susan Fainstein, an urban justice expert, proposes that the presence of democracy, diversity, and equity make for a just city (Fainstein 2010). Julian Agyeman argues that equal protection and meaningful involvement of all people in decision making and implementation and the equitable distribution of benefits are the necessary components (Agyeman and Evans 2003).
While each perspective is unique, there is shared emphasis on the need for processes and decisions that benefit the disadvantaged. I therefore propose three metrics for identifying justice in urban climate planning: (1) representation of disadvantaged groups in planning, (2) priority setting and framing that recognize the needs of disadvantaged groups, and (3) benefits and their distribution that enhance the freedoms and capabilities of disadvantaged groups.

Why would people be left out?

Despite our long-standing interest in justice, some people continue to be left out of decision making processes and outcomes; injustice continues. Research has shown that there are a variety of mechanisms that contribute to injustice in cities. I have categorized these mechanisms as: the political economy of poverty, thick injustice, technocratic governance and institutional capacities.

Political Economy of Poverty

Not only do political-economic factors lead people into poverty, they also work to keep them there and exclude them from decision making processes. The poor often have few opportunities to participate in policy making processes and little influence on elections. For example, in Dhaka, Bangladesh the large election wards provide elected officials with little incentive to represent the interests of the poor (Banks, Roy, and Hulme 2011). There is no government agency, department or ministry with the responsibility, administrative programs, or funds to address the needs of the urban poor. In addition, policy efforts that do recognize urban poverty often have very different approaches and priorities and incomplete understandings of the problem. This line of research would argue that the inability of disadvantaged groups to participate in and influence the policy process and the inaction or uncoordinated action of governments to address their needs will combine to create an injustice in urban climate planning. 

Thick Injustice

Thick injustice refers to injustice that is “deep, densely concentrated, and opaque (Hayward and Swanstrom 2010)”. Scholars argue that injustice in the distribution of burdens and benefits in cities is rooted in historical processes and policy legacies (Boone et al. 2009). Policies put in place decades ago may still affect the participation opportunities, engagement, and outcomes of decisions surrounding land use planning and public services. Economic restructuring and suburbanization can also lead to urban injustices by fostering a spatial mismatch between where people can live, where people can work, and their connections with decision making processes and outcomes (Morello-Frosch 2002). In this sense, whether or not the outcomes of urban climate planning are just may be determined by historical and structural features of cities that are difficult to see.

Technocratic Governance

Technical information can often be a dominate source of information in environmental policy decisions. Scholars argue that this dominance marginalizes groups that are not using, familiar with, or encompassed by this information (Jasanoff 2005). Particular epistemologies can become institutionalized such that the way information is produced and used results in decisions that do not account for the needs of disadvantaged groups if they lie outside the dominant accounting methods. For example, Eden and Tunstall (2006) found that ecological restoration projects often do not account for the needs and motivations of the communities in which they are developed, which results in poorly planned and marginally beneficial restoration projects. Even the way we analyze policies can lead us to different conclusions about their distribution of costs and benefits is just (Hajer and Wagenaar 2003). Like other areas of environmental policy, urban climate planning can often use and produce information that does not incorporate the needs or perspectives of disadvantaged communities. For example, large-scale climate models and aggregate statistics are often used to develop climate scenarios without accounting for finer-scale determinants of vulnerability. Therefore, some scholars would argue that an over-reliance on western-style science in urban climate planning will lead to unjust planning outcomes.

Institutional Capacities

Research has shown that local governments often lack the administrative, financial, or technical capacity to be successful. Cities in low and middle income countries may be particularly lacking in the qualities of good governance: decentralization and autonomy, transparency and accountability, and responsiveness and flexibility (Dodman and Satterthwaite 2008). In some cases a single local government may actually lack the authority it needs to reach its climate goals due to complex institutional networks and jurisdictions, such as the case of Mexico City (Romero-Lankao 2007). Cities may also lack the necessary financial resources due to an inability to generate and collect tax revenue or have limited control over their financial resources if they are in a highly centralized country. Further, decision makers and bureaucrats may lack the technical capacity and awareness to address the needs of the disadvantaged. From this perspective, cities may lack the institutional capability to address the needs of the disadvantaged even if the city – and its climate plan – desired to do so.

Gaps Remaining

The discussion above presents an overview of the mechanisms that have the potential to inhibit the advancement of justice in urban climate planning. A remaining gap then, I argue, lies in our understanding of whether urban climate planning produces or exacerbates injustices and, if so, the conditions under which different mechanisms of injustice are most likely to be influencing the urban climate planning processes and outcomes. For example, in a given city can we determine whether institutional capacity or technocratic governance is contributing to the marginalization of communities in climate planning? Both? Or something new? If we look across a number of cities which factor(s) seem to be most important?
Different components of urban climate planning may engage different mechanisms of injustice. For example, in mitigation planning the political-economic conditions may prevent disadvantaged groups from benefiting while in adaptation planning institutional capacities have a greater influence on the outcomes. Similarly, we may expect to observe differences in the operation of the mechanisms of injustice in different political and cultural contexts.
Finally, the institutional features and context within which urban climate planning takes place may mediate the relationship between the mechanisms of injustice and outcomes (Figure 1). Institutional features may provide different opportunities and incentives that allow particular mechanisms of injustice to dominate decision making. For example, we could ask whether different mechanisms of injustice are at play in top-down (city-led) and bottom-up (mandated) processes of urban climate planning. Or are there internal institutional features of cities that allow thick injustices to be obscured or technical information to dominate? Which is more important for determining climate change planning outcomes, the internal features of a city or the city’s position in a broader governance setting?
 Figure 1_Hughes.bmp

Figure 1: Conceptual framework for understanding the intervening effects of the institutional context of urban climate planning on whether and how potential mechanisms of urban injustice are responsible for urban climate change planning outcomes

Moving Forward

It is critical that we develop a greater understanding not only of whether urban climate planning is just but also why it is or is not. In this paper I have identified ways of measuring justice in urban climate planning processes and outcomes and four mechanisms through which injustice may occur. Understanding the conditions under which these mechanisms – or others – are inhibiting justice in urban climate planning is an important task, especially for cities in developing and newly industrializing countries. While we know that in many cases these cities have a poor track record of addressing the needs of the disadvantaged, their decision to take on the relatively new policy area of climate change is an opportunity for learning. Research can contribute to this learning by uncovering the mechanisms of injustice in urban climate planning, the obstacles and opportunities for greater justice in different contexts, and, more generally, the relationship between where and how climate planning occurs and the benefits that are experienced.


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