Who Decides What Constitutes ‘Knowledge’ on Climate Change?

August 31, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Thanks to Irene Guijt for sending over her 2021 chapter (gated, sorry – boooh!) on ‘The urgency for epistemic and political climate justice’, co-authored with Jacobo Ocharan and Velina Petrova for an edited volume, Knowledge for the Anthropocene. Don’t worry about the slightly intimidating title (confession: I always find ‘epistemic’ sending me scuttling back to the dictionary, along with ‘ontological’, ‘teleological’ etc), because the content is really thought-provoking. Some extracts:

The chapter ‘describes how climate justice and inequality are currently framed. It highlights that these framings emerge from two injustices that deserve more attention: epistemic and political injustice. Climate change policies are rooted in a particular body of knowledge that ignores invaluable complementary understandings. The global climate justice endeavour is held back further by the fundamental political injustices of climate change policy processes and economic systems.’

First a handy introduction to the concept of ‘climate justice’

‘Until quite recently, climate inequality and, in particular, its inverse – climate justice – were not well-established concepts. Climate justice is a young, twenty-first century idea that highlights the political and ethical nature of the climate crisis and its impact. It unequivocally links the breaching of climate change boundaries with the breaching of the rights of affected people.

The concept challenged the status quo in two ways. First, it called out the false neutrality of the term ‘climate change’ that focused on environmental or biophysical processes, ignoring the role of political and economic systems that gave rise to the climate crisis. Second, it challenged simplistic environmental movements that have, at times, quite profoundly failed to recognize the unequal distributive impacts of environmental degradation on people.

To date, there is no agreed definition of climate justice. A clear overview (internal, unpublished) from Oxfam’s Ruth Mayne argues that its multiple facets can be described in terms of four aspects of justice and three forms:

Dimensions of Justice:

1. Intergenerational justice i.e., between generations, notably ensuring a safe climate for future generations

2. International justice between countries, including equal distribution of the remaining carbon budget between countries, and providing financial, practical and technical support to lower-income countries and groups of people who have contributed the least to climate change, by high-income countries who cause the most climate damage

3. Intranational justice within countries, i.e., pro-poor carbon mitigation and adaptation policies and programmes that reduce poverty and inequality, with respect for people’s and, in particular, women’s rights

Types of Justice

1. Distributional justice – relating to the distribution of responsibilities, capacities, costs and benefits of climate action

2. Procedural justice – relating to who is at the decision-making table

3. Recognition justice – recognizing and taking action to address structural constraints

4. Corrective justice – providing remedies for past injustices’

Next the case for ‘epistemic justice’:

‘Where there is epistemic justice, different kinds of knowledge contribute fairly to critical decisions. In the world of climate justice, however, epistemic injustice prevails. Epistemic injustice extends beyond elevating one body of knowledge over another, such as scientific knowledge over experiential knowledge. It includes ignoring knowledge sources due to their identity, for example not accepting an Arabic farmer’s experience due to their skin colour. It means ignoring some knowledges because their vocabularies or values do not fit with those that are privileged. It also, most fundamentally, means ignoring or devaluing what sort of questions about climate change and humans’ relationship to their natural environment are asked, and the various ways of knowing with which they can be answered.’

Finally, what’s holding back epistemic justice?

‘Disconnecting climate science from local climate knowledge is exacerbating non-inclusive climate policies. Three epistemic problems exist:

(1) an inaccessible science,

(2) the scientific rejection of local knowledge, and

(3) the technical impossibility of including local knowledges.

Climate science has created a body of knowledge about the climate crisis that is abstract, a specialized area of scientific knowledge that has no cultural meaning. This body of knowledge is inaccessible to precisely those people who should be using the evidence to influence decision-making and governmental action to fight the climate crisis, whether global and local. One criticism of dominant scientific representations of climate change is the separation of scientific facts, statistics and models from the very geographies and timescales that people can understand and act on…..

Local and indigenous people have been largely portrayed as victims of climate change with limited agency to know and respond. This misrepresentation pervades all aspects of society, including science and policymaking. Research on printed media representation of indigenous people and climate change in four Anglo-Saxon countries over a 20-year period found that:

Indigenous knowledge was mainly documented where it easily corroborates scientific knowledge, or when the impacts it identifies are sociocultural, and thus beyond the purview of “scientific” research. In such interpretations, complex knowledge systems are reduced to simple observations, valuable because they originate from regions where scientific data is sparse or confirm scientific findings. A focus on Indigenous belief systems, cosmologies, and alternative ways of knowing and interpreting climate change, are largely absent from the articles reviewed. (Belfer et al., 2017, p. 67)

Quantitative rigor, or the lack of it, is a key technical requirement that leads climate science to avoid incorporating local knowledge. Despite some efforts around epistemic complementarity, the majority of climate scientists and policy makers believe that indigenous knowledge lacks quantitative rigor as it is transmitted verbally over generations living in a particular environment.

Another technical difficulty is diversity. Many thousands of ‘local knowledges’ are in a stand-off against one dominant paradigm of Western scientific knowledge. In the rare cases where climate scientists consider some form of local knowledge, only a select few are included.

But possibly the greatest obstacle comes from the perception that local knowledge should be folded into climate scientific understandings, instead of a more open-minded approach of mutual co-learning.’

Finally, here’s a paragraph I’m really going to have to think about:

‘Stubborn barriers exist that hinder local knowledges from informing climate decision-making. Cartesian-based science is appropriate when uncertainty is low, controllability is high and the rate of change slow. It is based on assumptions of equilibrium and controllability so conditions of high uncertainty and low controllability, such as climate, call for additional ways of knowing.’

Lots more in the full chapter – please take a look!

August 31, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. The lack of ‘epistemic justice’ – I love how the global north has now used language professionally to white wash the way in which white supremacy in development has silenced the voices of the people of the global south with knowledge of ecology, from the onset – something activists like Vandana Shiva was talking about in the 1960s no less, and that too with a gated chapter!!! At IWRAW AP ( we were having this conversation at our Global South Women’s Forum on Environmental Justice in 2021 ( where partners also challenged the epistemology of the solutions – green solutions, blue solutions etc and pointed out that they were not based on the lived experience of communities experiencing the worst of the climate crisis, but on the potential for tech companies to gain profit! I would add that this could be the fourth epistemic problem!

    This post raises many questions about what actually IS science – a conversation that we were having in golden era of appropriate technology, where there was so much excitement about indigenous knowledge that spawned an Indigenous Knowledge Monitor (FAO?) and many other resources. What happened? who squashed them?

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      1. I’m not sure what happened or who squashed those good movements, but it might be because they did not commercialise their solutions through markets; northing to sell. In contrast, things that are sold through markets have replaced them: solar over treadle pumps, NPK over manure. (I see that Priyanthi said this already). Also, maybe, a thing in a packet like a hybrid maize seed is easier to push than a practice like the selection and storage of a wide variety of indigenous seeds to ensure resilience in the face of rainfall variability. And finally, tentatively, is it just a lot more satisfying to promote whizz-bang, new solutions than recognise and appreciate those that already exist.

  2. Excellent introduction thank you. Not being part of the academic community, I can’t access the full article, which is a shame, considering its subject matter! Is there a way of seeing it?

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      Not as far as I know, which is why I hate gated papers! Open Access is coming, but veeeery slowly, and with lots of unintended consequences. Sorry Kim.

  3. Pervasiveness of neo-liberal solutions, perhaps? supremacy of the ‘market’? Coming back in the form of ‘just transitions’ in the renewable energy sector, but still far from achieving justice for the structurally excluded. Question should be directed at UK organisations like IIED, Practical Action and the like.. used considerable tax payers money noh?

  4. climate change is gradual holocaust if not well handled could lead to ultimate end of planet earth …those who control global resources structurally and victims need to rethink globally management of ecosystems with more resources for mitigation of effects.

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