The paradox of climate justice in Brazil: what is it and who is it for?

COP 26

The paradox of climate justice in Brazil: what is it and who is it for?

por Andréia Coutinho Louback
13 de novembro de 2021

Although still little known in Brazil, the concept of climate justice is defined by the connection between human rights and climate change.

There are a multitude of tests, case studies and definitions that illustrate the concept of justice. Among all these abstractions, its interpretation allows us to welcome a guiding panorama of moral, political and humanitarian principles. It is like a compass that allows us to estimate whether we are on the correct path towards the preservation of rights and equality for everybody. In its essence, it sharpens our individual and collective sense in the perception of what is “fair and correct” in the perspective of the common good.

First of all, it is important to align our expectations for this text. This is not a legal analysis, based on archetypes of laws. What I propose, effectively, is an attentive, honest and realistic look at one of the most important agendas in the global scenario, which is inserted in a strong field of political and social disputes. The complexity of the subject of climate change for me is one of an inconclusive paradox, which challenges us to rethink the representativeness and the contradictions of the concept of justice in the climate agenda.

What, in fact, is it? And who is it for?


Concept and context: climate justice

Although still little known in Brazil, the concept of climate justice is defined by the connection between human rights and climate change. One of the main exponents of the movement that discusses the agenda by the logic of the law and the inclusion of the population most affected by the climate extremes is the Mary Robinson Foundation. The definition of the conceptual principles is defined as follows:

“Climate justice links human rights and development to achieve a human-centered approach, safeguarding the rights of the most vulnerable people and sharing the burdens and benefits of climate change and its impacts equitably and fairly. Climate justice is informed by science, responds to science and acknowledges the need for equitable stewardship of the world’s resources” [1]

Talking about climate justice, therefore, provokes – and invites us – to the impossibility of discussing a perspective about the future without peripheral participation, black men and women, the quilombola population, traditional communities and other marginalized groups said to be “vulnerable.” The paradox we see today is a white and homogeneous composition of the climate community, self-engrossed in its diplomatic debates with the same actors, spokespersons, negotiators, leaders and exclusive clubs that dare to speak of the climate without speaking of social and racial inequalities. They dare to discuss the rise in temperature and international treaties without the participation of black women. They dare to extol enigmatic themes, such as “carbon pricing” and “green economic recovery,” without even reflecting on privileges.

Among these principles of climate justice, I would like to highlight the pillars of the community, the marginalized groups, popular power and equality. As the recently launched publication entitled “What can the anti-racist movement teach the field of climate change?” [2] explained very well, it is unethical to treat the population directly affected by climate extremes only as vulnerable. Mitigation and adaptation – two crucial terms in the climate discussion – cannot reinforce climate racism. The study proposes that we need an anti-racist perspective for decision-making on the climate. After all, anti-racism is part of the fight for (climate) justice.

Quilombo do Mesquitá, a bicentennial community located 50 km from Brasília, whose territory is threatened by the interests of local agribusiness. (Credits: José Cruz/ Agência Brasil)

What about black women?

It was not so long ago that a very symbolic and flagrant act appeared on social media. Who still remembers the episode of the young activist Vanessa Nakate, from Uganda, who had her image cropped out of a photo by Caro David Ake, the director of photography for the Associated Press (AP)? The argument: “It was only to improve the composition of the image.” An empty and meaningless justification, especially if we consider the fact that there were four other young white people in the same image. In other words, invisibility not only occurs in the arena of participation, but also in the representation in decision-making processes. The climate debate involves so many variables that it becomes invalid when there is no intersectional perspective in the proposition and the formulation of climate policies.

Another point discussed this week, in a webinar [3] organized by the Climate Observatory, the Institute for Climate and Society and the Ethos Institute, was the approval of the United Nations Gender Action Plan for the next five years. Although we must recognize the importance of this document [4], which was one of the main achievements at the last global climate conference (COP 25), it has a very serious defect. In its five priority areas of propositional actions for gender equity, it does not mention black women.

The Plan universalizes the experiences of all women, as if the starting points were the same. As if racial equality was already a reality inserted into the relationship of the gender-climate debate.

Embarking on the Brazilian reality, one diagnosis published by the Mulheres Negras Decidem [Black Women Decide] movement indicates that we are over 27% of the population of Brazil [5]. This makes us the largest population group in the country. In addition, the research also shows that data produced by official bodies often does not include details of race or gender, which makes it difficult to ascertain the obvious: the invisibility, exclusion and the under-representation of black and female voices in the decision-making agendas – such as climate.


Social and environmental justice

There is currently significant debate about the struggle for territories. It is a perennial question, particularly in the United States, about how poor and vulnerable communities – black and mixed race – as well as traditional communities have been invaded by industries that only damage the environment and increase greenhouse gas emissions. No group should suffer disproportionately from the effects of the climate crisis, because the root of environmental degradation is a matter of social justice.

According to the 2020 Map of Inequality [7], published by Casa Fluminense, 1,279 deaths due to disasters were recorded just in the city of Rio de Janeiro, while 390 deaths were recorded in the metropolitan region of Rio (SES-RJ 2010-2019). The map also indicated that, between 2010 and 2018, the Ministry of Health registered 1,774 deaths from disasters in Brazil, with over two thirds (1,263) occurring in Rio de Janeiro. We are talking about victims resulting from landslides, cataclysmic storms and floods, among other movements of the land surface.

When encountering socioeconomic data like this, from a perspective of climate justice, there is an avalanche of reflections and urgent matters in check. In the midst of an era of so many political setbacks, the denial of science is one of the strongest symptoms of anti-democratic governments. Therefore, in the midst of a fierce dispute of narratives, we also question the facts and the evidence in front of us. This only reiterates the need to discuss climate change from the perspective of the issues of gender, race and territories.

We need more black women in climate negotiations and in the leadership of civil society organizations that have climate agenda as a theme. We need more black women to participate in the formulation of public policies with racial profiles. We need more black women to translate the complexity of the climate agenda to vulnerable communities, because the climate impacts have gender, color and a social place.

We need more black women to question a United Nations Gender Action Plan that does not fully represent us, even though it is a significant advance in the field. We need more black women to have the decision-making power to reaffirm with their bodies and voices that both inequality and climate injustice are both absurdly lethal pandemics, which must be combated every day and every hour. Only in this way, will we put into practice what the manifesto of the Coalizão Negra por Direitos [Black Coalition for Rights] [8] tells us: “as long as there is racism, there will be no democracy”.




[2] Publication by PerifaConnection:

[3] How to tropicalize the United Nations Gender Action Plan:

[4] The Gender Action Plan:

[5] Myths and diagnosis | Black Women Decide:

[6] United Nations 2030 Agenda:

[7] 2020 Map of Inequality:

[8] Manifesto:

This text was originally published on the website of Le Monde Diplomatique on July 31, 2020.


Andréia Coutinho Louback is a journalist from PUC-Rio, with a master’s degree in Ethnic Racial Relations from CEFET/RJ and a specialist in climate justice. She is currently a fellow of the professional development program at Fulbright called the Humphrey Fellowship (2021-22) at the University of California, Davis. She worked as a communication coordinator at the Institute for Climate and Society and also at the Climate and Socioenvironmental Justice project of the Alana Institute. Her main areas of work and passion are: climate and socioenvironmental justice, inclusive urbanization and racial inequalities.

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