Seeing climate justice through a multispecies lens

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Building upon decades of environmental justice work, those confronting the immense and highly uneven impacts of climate change have been organizing to ensure that global and national-level responses are informed by climate justice ethics. Through this concept and the institutional forms that might deliver it, activists seek to put firmly on the negotiating table the ethical demands that follow from the gross disparities in contributions to climate change and the resulting vulnerabilities and impacts. As we are still witnessing in the ongoing battles, climate justice remains—at best—aspirational, and even in this form, the discussion has stopped at the edge of justice for humans. 

Given that until very recently, all dominant Western systems of law and governance systematically excluded other animals and ecosystems as subjects of justice, their exclusion at the site of climate justice might seem perfectly natural. If, however, one pauses to consider the massive harm that climate change and climate-driven disasters are causing non-human animals and ecological systems, their vulnerability to such harms, and the reality that they in no way contributed to this state of affairs, their marginalization might start to occur as at best odd, and at worst unjust. What happens when climate justice is interpreted and applied through the lens of multispecies justice

This is a complex question, so here I approach it through some reflections on the 2019–2020 Black Summer wildfires in Australia, which killed an estimated 3 billion (vertebrate) wild animals and an unaccounted-for number of farmed and companion animals. An estimated 44 humans were also killed, a grave number but incomparable with the scale of other animals’ deaths and displacement. 

“Bushfires,” as they are known in Australia, are an intrinsic part of Australian ecologies, with both plant species and animals adapted to them. In 2019–2020, though, the intensity and scale of the human-caused conflagration comprehensively exceeded and undermined wild animals’ survival strategies. Even those who were able to escape into already fragmented and damaged habitats found themselves in shelter, food, and water deserts. At the same time, the slow and fast violence of domestication eroded the capacities of—or opportunities for—other animals to navigate any form of escape. 

Despite being at the exposed frontline of deadly fires, animals—other than those whose status as commodities within animal agriculture conferred “value” on them—found no succor from the state or those agencies charged with providing safety in the face of “natural” disasters. Save incidental advice on where to place cats and dogs in the event of a fire approaching a private residence and the tolerance afforded to people who wished to bring small companion animals to evacuation centers, the state relegated animals to their assumed status within its existing regimes. They were either private property—making them the responsibility of “owners”—or “wildlife” and thus legible only in terms of their function within ecological systems. Even those iconic or keystone species who, because of their endangered status, might have managed to show up as meriting state intervention under some legislative regimes fell on the wrong side of disaster protection. Add to this the bitter irony of how dominant conceptions of “nature”—defined as that space outside culture to be “left alone”—play out in an era when “nature” has been infused with human violence in the form of untrammeled development and the flow-on effects of carbon emissions. 

Yet, this official institutional picture only tells part of the story. On the ground, thousands of people in fire-affected communities (and beyond) mobilized according to their understanding that other animals—companion, farmed, and wild—are members of their communities of concern and the social networks within which their lives are made possible. As the fires approached and burned, people across the east coast from different walks of life—some of whom already cared for animals, but also others—spontaneously organized, transporting, offering temporary pasture to, and caring for domesticated animals, trying to rescue wild animals, and providing food and water for survivors re-entering denuded landscapes. As interviews conducted by our team at the Sydney Environment Institute with animal carers have revealed, they did so at risk and cost to themselves and with virtually no support from, if not in defiance of, state agencies and official regulatory regimes. 

There are two major disjunctions at play here. The first, with which I led this article, is between the reality that other animals are victims of the lethal effects of certain human forms of life (in this case, through climate-driven disasters) and the complete abnegation of responsibility for those impacts on the part of formal human institutions. Yet there is a second issue, and here we might discern the seeds of a radical transformation. This disjuncture reveals how formal institutions conceive of other animals and the practices of the informal institutions that we see emerging at the community level—those that might be considered both in tension with and embedded in structures of human exceptionalism and the treatment of animals as commodities, property, or remote nature. By the lights of these emergent discourses and institutions, other animals are subjects of climate justice.

The existence of such impulses, actions, and forms of organization suggests a path for challenging the dominant institutional logics that normalize multispecies injustice—a potential that more and more people are seeking to realize as the violence against other animals and the more-than-human worlds within which they exist intensifies. One might even go so far as to say that they are fulfilling what is often considered the most fundamental condition for state legitimacy: the affordance of security to those within its jurisdiction. The radical departure from the classical theory they are suggesting, however, is that the security pact also extends to other animals. 

Nevertheless, for these alternative understandings of climate and, indeed, political justice to become more than a site of counter-practice will require some radical discursive and institutional shifts. This means recasting forms of action typically regarded as “private,” “voluntary,” and “care-related” as “public,” “justice,” and “political.” At the same time, it means insisting that the institutions that render any state legitimate during the climate crisis era take seriously their responsibilities to afford security to those beings whose capacity to survive, let alone flourish, they have systematically undermined. The first step may be to acknowledge that the networks emerging in times of crisis are more than “admirable” or indicative of the volunteer spirit—they are prefiguring a legitimate state that acknowledges its debt to multispecies climate justice.