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Maxine Burkett

Navigating Climate Justice

Date:March 2017
Location:United States

Maxine Burkett, law professor at the University of Hawaii, who strives to anticipate climate change impacts on the small island nations of the Pacific – islands which will shrink so dramatically that their entire populations may need to migrate. Her mission: find ways for humanity to negotiate this crisis in a spirit of fairness, justice and generosity.

Maxine Burkett is a professor of law at the University of Hawaii and passionate advocate for climate justice, which essentially addresses how the most vulnerable human communities should be treated with dignity and fairness in the era of climate change. Through her work she explores the issue of climate-induced displacement and how already vulnerable communities in the US and globally—ironically those that have contributed the least to greenhouse gas emissions—will disproportionately feel the impacts of climate change. In this exclusive Green Interview, Burkett speaks with Silver Donald Cameron about how she both studies and serves the vulnerable Pacific island nations, such as Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands, and about how we as a society need to start addressing the daunting reality before us.

Pacific Islands and Transitional Justice

Small island nations like Tuvalu, The Maldives and the Marshall Islands will shrink dramatically or even disappear as sea levels rise so that entire populations may need to migrate. Burkett’s proposals for dealing with such disasters draw heavily on the concept of transitional justice, the mechanisms by which South Africa pulled itself past the bitter conflicts of apartheid.

“We have seen a disproportionate use of the global commons from wealthier industrialized or industrializing economies and that has, whether or not it was intentional to have harmed others, it has harmed others. And unless we address that we are continuing the initial injustice of having those who have polluted the most having the least amount of damage or impact and conversely those who polluted the least suffering these kinds of futures that we can only imagine, where you don’t have a territory or if it’s there, it’s not livable.”

Burkett says the process tries to imagine a “different kind of future where you co-create it in a post-disaster scenario and are able to build relationships and trust in the process.” She argues that responding to climate change is an “ongoing and dynamic event” and that “how we address being both prepared for future damage and how we repair after that damage is one we could be doing in harmony.”

Climate Reparations

Burkett says that climate justice is “really understanding the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color, poor communities throughout the globe whether or not they’re within countries or entire countries themselves that are suffering.” She says communities that are climate-vulnerable should receive reparations in order to meet the scale of climate change. Her approach to reparations are based on three main elements: an apology; compensation; and a guarantee of non-repetition. She envisages reparations claims as coordinated efforts between a vulnerable country or group of countries in collaboration with a major greenhouse gas emitting country or group of countries. Burkett says the ultimate aim of the reparative process is to “build trust and solidarity.”

To speak your truth to let everyone know what you need and what you’re experiencing but also to suggest that we are in this together and those solutions tend to be more enduring over time because everyone has had an opportunity to craft that future. And again recognizing that it may not have been intentional but there have been differential inputs into the current crisis.