Courage and justice: key ingredients for responding to climate change

Karen E McNamara (The University of Queensland) & Ross Westoby (Griffith University)
Published in Social Sciences
Courage and justice: key ingredients for responding to climate change

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Much has been written about the need for hope in the face of climate change (Cunsolo & Landman 2017; Head 2016; Westoby & McNamara 2019). As the antidote to grief, hope is a powerful and important emotional response. But is it enough when faced with the scale and magnitude of the climate crisis? Is it enough to de-couple our governments from their deep ties with the fossil fuel industry? Is it enough to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected? Is it enough to prevent our younger generations from feeling despair about the future?

The concern with pinning our prospects on ‘hope’ is that is can be blind hope whereby it is simply a thought or an aspiration, not necessarily an action or change. And so, how do we structure our responses to climate change that inspire action and change in our everyday lives, with intent and purpose? We propose courage, and we propose justice.

Acts of courage can be small, large, spectacular, or part of the everyday. They send a signal that the people undertaking these acts are seeking change and are living that change. First, we want to note that it takes courage to acknowledge the enormity of the climate change problem in the first place; ignoring it is easier, denial and ignorance are easier still, and so to truly and deeply recognise the impact we are having on the planet, others and our collective future, and to actively do something about it, takes courage.

To the thousands of people from over 100 countries who took to the streets in early 2020 to demonstrate your discontent over climate inaction, as part of Youth Strike 4 Climate and Fridays for Future, you showed great courage and took empowering steps to demand climate action. To those making positive steps to change their individual behaviours to become waste-free, carbon-neutral or self-sufficient, you show immense courage to transform your everyday and inspire others to do the same. To those on the frontlines fighting for strong climate action and climate justice, your courage and stealth is awe-inspiring. Indigenous activists from around the world have been courageously at the forefront of this fight for decades and continue to lead the charge for a just and sustainable future.

Alongside courage, we also need justice. This then helps to ensure that both inequities and the causes of such inequities can be addressed. Climate change disproportionately affects people across both time and space. There are disproportionate impacts amongst nations, within nations, and between generations. This is a form of slow violence and it is, and always will be, unacceptable. No nation is too small, no one is too poor and no generation is too abstract to be, or become, collateral damage when it comes to climate change. Additionally, understanding and addressing the root causes for these differentiated impacts is critically important in our response to climate change. In this vein, we must acknowledge that there is no climate justice without gender justice (Terry 2009), and there is no climate justice without justice for First Nations people (Seed nd).

The world is on track for 3-4 degrees Celsius of warming before the end of the century (Dagnet & Anderson 2019). How we act as humans in the coming weeks, months and years will influence the future viability of life on earth. Acting with courage and placing justice at the centre of our responses is critical.


Cunsolo A & Landman K (editors) (2017) Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss and Grief, McGill, Queen’s University Press, Montreal.

Dagnet Y and Anderson J (2019) ‘How will the Paris Agreement’s Global Stocktake work?’, World Resources Institute,

Head L (2016) Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene, Routledge, New York.

Seed (nd) ‘Indigenous Youth Declaration for Climate Justice’, Seed,

Terry G (2009) ‘No climate justice without gender justice: an overview of the issues’, Gender and Development, 17(1), 5-18.

Westoby R & McNamara KE (2019) ‘Fear, grief, hope and action’, Nature Climate Change, 9(7), 500-501.

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