Twenty years after their adoption, Meena Raman discusses the Bali Principles’ ongoing relevance for global climate justice movements.
The Bali Principles of Climate Justice were developed in Bali in the summer of 2002 by a broad coalition of movement organizations including CorpWatch, the Third World Network, and the Indigenous Environmental Network during the final preparatory negotiations for the 2002 Earth Summit, where they were formally codified on 29 August 2002. Encompassing 27 principles to guide international activist movements, they sought to redefine how we think about climate change as primarily a social and human rights issue, rather than a logistical problem to be solved with a few technical tweaks.
A lot has transpired in the fight against climate injustice since then. In some ways it feels like the movement has made progress, while at the same time, concrete climate action on the part of national governments and multinational corporations remains woefully inadequate. Two decades after the Bali Principles were first adopted, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s David Williams spoke with Meena Raman of the Third World Network about their origins, intent, and ongoing relevance in the world today.
Meena, could you briefly outline where the concept of “climate justice” originated?
We drew heavily on the concept of environmental justice, with a significant contribution from movements in the United States, and recognized that economic inequality, ethnicity, and geography played roles in determining who bore the brunt of environmental pollution. We saw this in climate change, with poor communities worldwide, indigenous peoples, and the Global South facing disproportionate impacts from global warming. That provided the baseline for articulating the concept of climate justice.
What was the socio-political atmosphere like in 2002 when the 27 principles were established?
Well-resourced, well-organized conservation and environmental groups from the Global North had a strong voice on climate policy and in which direction it should go. While they were critical of Northern governments, there were overlaps in terms of class, ethnicity, and geographical perspective that reinforced exclusions of the climate suffering of more marginalized communities. There was a need to articulate positions on climate change from a standpoint that would push back against unjust solutions, especially carbon markets.
How were those kinds of positions received? How were they covered in the media, and how did policymakers and civil society respond?
From the first Climate Justice Summit in 2000 at COP6 in The Hague to the first climate justice protest in New Delhi in 2002 during COP8, the climate justice movement has been international, visible, and an important reminder that climate change is intrinsically linked to fundamental issues of distributional justice. While society shares a common responsibility to stabilize the climate, that responsibility needs to be differentiated, taking into account the historical responsibility of the Global North for greenhouse gas emissions and capability they have to act on them.
Unless there is a counteracting effort, big historical polluters will seek to shift burdens and responsibilities to more vulnerable countries and communities. We now see climate justice being taught in university courses and a greater consciousness of the issues climate justice seeks to raise.
Have there been any significant milestones since 2002 that were either particularly beneficial or damaging to realizing the Bali Principles?
The equity principle of common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities is foundational to the concept of climate justice in international negotiations, and is embedded in the 1994 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This principle has been under attack from rich countries led by the US, who refuse to accept their historical responsibility and ecological debt. They tried hard to undermine this equity principle in the Paris Agreement in 2015, but were prevented from doing so.
The climate justice movements have been articulating a fair-shares approach in the mitigation of emissions that seeks to advance distributional justice. However, this has been hard to advance in international negotiations, given the strong resistance of developed countries and their corporate-led, unjust economic systems.
Would you say the Bali Principles contributed to the formation of a global climate justice movement?
The Bali Principles played a role, but the issues they articulated came from communities and campaigns that already existed and continue to struggle for recognition and justice. Throughout the years since, we can see climate justice banners in protests around the world, we see it discussed at the UN, and even senior global leaders such as Mary Robinson have published books and dedicated foundations to the promotion of climate justice.
The movement is healthy, but its work remains unfinished and its success is by no means guaranteed. What do I mean? Every climate conference continues to be a battle to defend a distributive justice approach based on the principle of common but differentiated responsibility under Article 3 of the climate convention.
How relevant are the Bali Principles of Climate Justice today, particularly as entry-points for local climate justice struggles?
The Bali Principles of Climate Justice remain just as relevant and probably even more important today given the climate crisis the world is facing, which is largely due to lack of adequate action by developed countries in urgently reducing greenhouse gas emissions and not supporting developing countries adequately through finance, technology, or capacity building for their climate action. Local climate justice struggles must make use of the Bali Principles, and demand their governments avert the climate catastrophe staring the world in the face.
If the principles were reformulated today, would they be different?
The principles remain highly relevant and we need to keep advocating for them and continue fighting the right fights — against developed countries’ climate inaction and their constant efforts to transfer the burden of real action to the poor people in the Global South, corporate capture, false solutions such as distant net-zero targets and carbon-offsets, continued reliance on fossil fuels, and so on.
The Bali Principles are comprehensive, and a new generation of activists must be educated and made aware of these principles because they safeguard the right of the poor, including women, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized and vulnerable groups.
Why should climate justice movements from the Global North also be acquainted with the Bali Principles of Climate Justice? How could they be popularized outside of English-speaking regions?
Developed countries remain the biggest stumbling blocks in ambitious climate change action. They are historically responsible for causing the climate crisis, and yet fossil fuels continue to form a share in their economic growth and development. They, especially the US government, continue to believe that their lifestyles remain non-negotiable.
This means the poor in developing countries continue to remain poor and suffer the consequences of something that they have not caused and sometimes pay with their lives. It is for this reason that climate justice movements from the Global North must be acquainted with the Bali Principles, with effective communication tools in all languages. This requires greater understanding and discourse on why the Bali Principles matter.
How do you foresee the principles being upheld? Are they most likely to be achieved through multilateral processes such as the UNFCCC climate negotiations, through judicial processes in courtrooms, or on the streets?
A combination of all of the above. The multilateral negotiation space is crucial because what one country does in its national space affects the rest of the world.
We have increasingly seen climate litigation on the rise. This is important for holding governments to account. Movements on the streets, with the appropriate narratives, are very impactful in putting pressure on policymakers as well as facilitating education, and are important for awareness.
How can we prevent having to have the same conversation in 20 years?
Twenty years since the Bali Principles, backed by scientific evidence, the climate crisis has become far more urgent. At the same time, there is very little space to secure the sustainable survival of the planet and its peoples. It is not so much about having to have the same conversation, but about understanding how unjust economic systems are so deeply entrenched in perpetuating the problems set out in the Bali Principles.
What this therefore requires is much more powerful climate justice struggles and movements across the world, working together more effectively and in mass numbers in countering the powerful forces across all sectors, spaces, and levels. The movement to “mobilize, resist, and transform”, as we say at Friends of the Earth International, must continue with greater vigour if we are to translate the Bali Principles into action for the just, equitable, and sustainable world that we want.
Meena Raman is Head of Programmes at the Third World Network and President of Friends of the Earth Malaysia. She previously coordinated the Third World Network’s Climate Change Programme and has been involved in international climate negotiations since 2006. This interview includes inputs from past and present colleagues of Meena Raman in the Third World Network, in particular Yin Shao Loong and Indrajit Bose.
Photo: Meena Raman at a Friends of the Earth International Press Conference in COP26, 2021 (source: Twitter @SobrevivenciaPy)