Climate justice philosophies in dialogue with Christian theology

Amy Ross

Lecture for NZ Christians in Science
Wellington lectures, July 10th 2021

Moral theories underpinning approaches to justice
Approaches to energy and climate justice
Outline of Biblical justice
Biblical critique of moral theories
Biblical critique of energy and climate justice approaches


In recent years I have been involved in research around climate, energy and environmental justice, with a particular focus on procedural justice. As a research assistant, masters student, postgrad tutor and PhD student, I enjoyed the opportunity of participating in some fascinating discussions at the University of Leeds Sustainability Research Institute. Home to the Priestly Centre and SRI, the Leeds School of Earth and Environment is a major international powerhouse for environmental research, which includes an interdisciplinary focus on environmental governance and management of natural resources.
During my time at SRI I encountered a range of competing visions of justice currently within energy and climate justice literature, which aim to inform attempts to embed a ‘just transition’ to the new, low carbon economy, into policy. These justice theories usually have human-nature wellbeing at the centre of their concerns, but there is no consensus about what ultimately constitutes such wellbeing and what policymakers should be aiming to achieve during different scenarios of the energy transition. Some are ancient, harking right back to Aristotle, and some are modern concepts, from universal human rights to measures of wellbeing with social justice elements devised within the last 30 years (e.g. capability theory, by Nussbaum and Sen,). These concepts inform assumptions that are incorporated into modelling future scenarios for the transition to economies with net zero GHG emissions, which is the direction that many middle income countries are taking.
Trade-offs will be made, and costs and benefits of the net zero transition will not be evenly distributed across time, space (that is, geographical area) and society. Scales are important too, and we see for example a shift in focus from international climate adaptation and mitigation responses to city or local authority scale responses, embodied in the declarations of climate emergency that many councils around the world made in 2019. Social justice can be seen in the energy justice and sustainable consumption discourses– from individuals constructed as citizens, equal players with equal responsibility and opportunity to make behavioural changes to respond to climate change (like choosing to buy locally-sourced food or travelling by bike instead of car) to structural facets controlling the ability of individuals to respond (like the fact that cycling is culturally unacceptable for some social groups or there is a lack of experience or ability to afford and maintain a bike, or single parents who have to transport children around).
Into these conversations and plans how do Biblical conceptions of justice dialogue with the triumvirate and principled approaches to energy/climate justice? And as the former two approaches are influenced by liberalism, capability theory, utilitarianism, and Aristotelian virtue ethics, how might a Biblical theology of justice critique these?
Western Christian guiding principles of justice that often inform modern scholars can become so divorced from faith that they reach the point where they are not effective in policy analysis or development. I became frustrated that while scholarship has drawn on a diversity of moral theories to develop conceptions of energy and climate justice there is not consistency, and the challenge of addressing systemic and pervasive injustice is not matched by the thoroughness of the underpinning secular moral theories. Following Keller, the problem I am interested in addressing is that all forms of modern secularism have “inadequate moral sources to support their high moral ideals” see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard, 2007, chapters 15-19 pp. 539-773.
In addition, although a pluralistic understanding of moral theory allows for socially constructed differences and healthy political contestation, problems arise when at times the differing justice theories when applied can lead to startlingly different outcomes. There appears to be a cherry-picking of energy justice theories applied by scholars to different real-world example scenarios, guided by the personal preferences of the scholars. Sometimes these come into conflict. I became frustrated at what increasingly felt like a futile endeavour to unearth the perfect secular philosophical and moral underpinning to achieve the kind of energy and climate justice that so many scholars desire. Due to the nature of Western scholarship, many justice theories are informed indirectly by Biblical values which have been woven into the fabric of Western philosophy over time, but whose Christian origins are now completely obscured in the secular academy. In the end I experienced an increasing desire to examine a Christian theological understanding of justice in order to articulate the deeper underpinnings of the whys of climate justice.
I am still at the beginning of this journey so I can only offer you some initial ponderings.
Although I have had some undergraduate training in theology I am still new to the field and am aware that there are many scholars whose work I have not yet explored, who can inform us on this journey of justice in the environmental space. Examples of scholars who have written about the philosophical intersection of justice and theology are William Stringfellow, Alisdair McIntyre, Chris Marshall and many more.
I am greatly indebted to Dr. Timothy Keller whose overview of Biblical justice (focussing on racism) in a series of online articles proved foundational content for this talk. On the justice theories front, it was a recent article by two of my former colleagues that stimulated my thinking, Drs. Nathan Wood and Katy Roelich.
Disclaimer: This talk will be a very broad, introductory conceptual overview and will necessarily summarise some complicated theories in simple ways in order to keep to time. So let us consider some moral theories which inform justice debates:

Moral theories that inform approaches to energy and climate justice

Definition: The aim of liberalism is to maximise human happiness. It is based on the concept of fairness, believing that a just society promotes fairness for all.
“This view, more recently argued by John Rawls, greatly expands the idea of human rights into (what Libertarians would call) entitlements. Liberals add to freedom rights (right to speech, property, religion) also social or “economic rights” (right to an education, to medical care). Rawls’ justification for such rights goes like this. He argued that if people had to devise a society from behind a “veil of ignorance”—not knowing where they would be placed (not knowing what race, gender, social status, etc. they would be)—that everyone would, out of pure, rational self-interest, design one in which there were significant legal measures to redistribute wealth to those who were born in poor communities and to establish many other economic and social rights. Only that kind of society would be fair and rational. Once it is established that economic and social rights are valid, then, in the Liberal view, there is no need in society for any consensus on moral values–no need to all agree on what the Good is. Rather, honoring individual human rights becomes the only necessary moral standard (and denying them the only sin). Then people will be free to live their lives pursuing whatever they believe is their good.
This provides justification for the State to redistribute wealth through taxation and government control of the market. Nevertheless, Rawls and liberals still believed that some kind of free market was the best way to grow the wealth of a society that then can be shared justly. The reason that Liberals are basically still friendly to capitalism is that ultimately this view is still highly individualistic, giving individuals freedom to create their own “good” and meaning and morality. So Liberalism aims not for equal outcomes but equal opportunity for individuals to achieve their happiness. Individual outcomes are still seen as determined by individual efforts and work ethic.”

Originally this was developed by Bentham and later, John Stuart Mill. Definition:
Bentham argued that the right thing to do in any given situation is the action that will maximise overall pleasure, or human happiness, in society and minimise pain. This is termed ‘utility’ and justice should ensure that utility is maximised for the greatest number of people. Although this theory is considered somewhat outdated and has been heavily criticised for its lack of attention to individual rights, it is nonetheless is still alive in the governance of marginal utility theory, which informs decision making for infrastructure development . Infrastructure projects and their governance have an enormous impact upon the nature and trajectory of the low carbon transition. Utilitarianism also makes a great deal of intuitive sense in the secular worldview.
Example: Imagine the construction of a hydro-energy dam, which has the potential to yield a high output of low emission, renewable energy and to manage flooding in vulnerable areas yet which involves the mass displacement of local populations and extensive ecological damage. The Hirakud Dam in Orissa, India, is one such example. Evidently such a project yields both substantial costs and benefits. Following a Benthiam utilitarian perspective, if the overall contribution to utility outweighs the loss then the project is worthwhile.

The capability approach
Definition: This was developed originally by economist philosopher Amartya Sen and has informed discourse in the sphere of international development for more than 35 years. Martha Nussbaum added to this theory and entered into dialogue with Sen to further try and refine it. Instead of the birds eye view of examining the aggregate costs and benefits of an energy project, the capabilities approach probes and examines justice impacts on a personal level. Nussbaum created a centralised list of what humans are able to do and be, and considered it an injustice if each or any of these ‘capabilities’ was compromised. For example, these include
Bodily Health.
Bodily Integrity.
Senses, Imagination, and Thought.
Practical Reason.
Other Species.
Control over one’s environment.

This approach to human well-being emphasizes the importance of freedom of choice, individual heterogeneity and the multi-dimensional nature of welfare.
Energy poverty has been conceptualised through a capabilities lens. This allows consideration of which important aspects of a persons life might face deprivation because of limited access to energy. This can broaden traditional European conceptions of fuel poverty, which are limited to thermal comfort and health, to encompass wider impacts of energy poverty including loss of social respect and the ability to maintain relationships .
With regard to the dam project cited above, an evaluation of its worth would be made based on consideration of how peoples capabilities were compromised through the processes of resettlement, bodily health of the most vulnerable, elderly, women and children for example. And of course, how their capabilities were enhanced, through protecting core capabilities through the avoidance of floods. Generation of electricity would lead to heating and lighting at night, allowing children to study more, enhancing the capability of practical reason. The capabilitarian approach would be opposed to the way that some people’s threshold levels of capabilities were traded to the benefit of others, as the approach only favours such a trade off if the people who are being limited have capabilities well above the sufficient threshold (ie. They can ‘afford’ to lose some capabilities).

Approaches to energy and climate justice

These moral theories feed into the formation of the most influential approaches to energy/climate justice in the literature. Two of these are the triumvirate approach and the principled approach.

Triumvirate approach
This was developed by Heffron and McCauley et. al. within the energy justice field but was influenced by Schlossberg, a foremost figure in the field of environmental justice, which was established earlier. Definition: This theory is used in energy and climate justice, but draws heavily on approaches developed in the older literature on environmental justice. It understands justice as comprising of the three parts -distributive, procedural and recognition justice.
Distributive justice – refers to where injustices emerge, be this spatially or temporally. An example would be air pollution, which in the UK is located where socio-economically deprived populations live more often than in wealthier areas. There is some debate regarding the causes of this phenomenon, for example do rich people move out of areas where air pollution exists, i.e. near factories and busy roads? Or are factories and busy roads sited in areas of higher deprivation because the communities do not have the social or financial capital to object to the sitings? The interaction between these processes is a key concern for town planning regulators.

Recognition justice draws heavily on the scholarship of Nancy Fraser, who also elaborated the difference between recognition justice and representation justice. Recognition justice is, to put it bluntly, recognising the rights of different groups/individuals to justice claims-making based on their unique identities and representation justice is when such identities are equitably and fairly represented in decision-making processes. A focus on this element of justice led me to spend time researching participation in climate governance, town planning, and deliberative democracy. The latter includes tools such as citizens’ juries, which take a representative sample of a local population according to demographic factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, disability, economic status. The jury is then given teaching by experts in relevant areas e.g. local finance, energy governance, transport management etc and are also facilitated in discussion, debate and deliberation to generate together recommendations on the best course of action.

Procedural justice refers to the embodiment of recognition and representation justice within decision making processes. Are the voices and interests of all different affected groups heard and equally accounted for in planning for the great energy transition? If there is procedural justice, it is argued, then there will more likely be distributive justice – fair distribution of the costs and benefits of the transition.
This view also views all humans as “world citizens” who are of equal moral worth and standing. It aims to provide all individuals, across all areas, with safe, affordable and sustainable energy. It is not uncommon for energy and climate justice scholars to inform their work with similarly high ideals, yet provide no deeper justification for why they believe in universal human equality. Or they fail to recognise that there is not consensus across and between societies on these goals. As mentioned, some scholars such as the historian Tom Holland attribute this emphasis on equality between humans as coming from the influence of Christianity in Western philosophical thought. More on the Biblical references for this later.

Principled approach
This has been primarily developed in the energy justice field by Sovacool and Dworkin, then taken up by a variety of other scholars. Definition: This approach consists of the development of a set of principles which were developed from an original survey of literature, and have then been refined since through research, evaluation and scrutiny among justice scholars.
The principled conception seeks to connect energy policy and technology to eight philosophical concepts: virtue, utility, human rights, procedural justice, welfare and happiness, freedom, posterity and fairness.
From these concepts comes an output of eight values which should be embraced by decision and policy-makers in the great energy transition: availability, affordability, due process, transparency and accountability, sustainability, intergenerational equity, and responsibility. These are supposed to act as a universal, normative check-list for energy decision making.
The framing of many environmental governance decisions is that there are competing visions of justice that should be held in tension and dialogue with one another. Each decision can then be assessed for justice via several different lenses. This approach is known in the literature as plural moral theory. This also leads to agonistic politics (Chantal Mouffe, debate over consensus), and a focus on representative participation (deliberative democracy).
For example, Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book shows that behind every understanding of justice is a set of philosophical beliefs about (a) human nature and purpose (b) morality, and (c) practical rationality—how we know things and justify true beliefs. In his book he traces out four basic historical traditions of justice. There is the Classical (Homer through Aristotle), the Biblical (Augustine through Aquinas, whose accomplishment was to incorporate some of Aristotle), the Enlightenment (especially Locke, Kant, and Hume)—which then set the stage for the modern Liberal approach, which has fragmented into a number of competing views that struggle with one another in our own day.

Biblical view of justice

What is a Biblical view of justice and how might it critique and/or endorse some of these ideas?
Tim Keller argues that “all the secular political options and justice theories… are grounded in reductionistic worldviews. Christians should not ignore any of the rightful concerns that they raise, but also should not wholly align themselves with any of them. Only biblical justice is comprehensive enough to address the needs of the human condition.”
Through studying the Scriptures we can see that:
Justice has its roots in the very character of God. God’s justice does not create new oppressors – it breaks the cycle of victim and perpetrator due to the sacrifice of Jesus. Injustice is rooted in a complex mixture of structural failings due to the falleness of the world and human sin (which energy and climate justice theories rightly illuminate), as well as human sin. The latter is addressed only through a relationship with God through Christ and the ongoing work of discipleship. Despite this, because of the Fall and human sin, no matter how hard we try to create the perfect structural conditions we will not complete the task of eliminating injustice, however nor are Christians free to give up trying. It is an integral part of our calling as believers to strive to fight injustice and safeguard the integrity of creation, including the non-human environment. Finally, God’s justice exceeds temporal limitations – it extends across generations even into eternity.
Keller captures these principles as:
“1. Community: Others have a claim on my wealth, so I must give voluntarily.
2. Equity: Everyone must be treated equally and with dignity.
3. Corporate responsibility: I am sometimes responsible for and involved in other people’s sins.
4. Individual responsibility: I am finally responsible for all my sins, but not for all my outcomes (experiences).
5. Advocacy: We must have special concern for the poor and the marginalized.”

Biblical critique of moral theories that inform justice debates

“As much recent scholarship has demonstrated, Liberalism’s beliefs in human rights and care for the poor are grounded in Christianity. The scholars argue that these beliefs depend on a view of the individual as having infinite dignity and worth and of individuals as being equal regardless of race, gender, and class. This belief only arose in cultures influenced by the Bible and marked by a belief in a Creator God. They also show that these Judeo-Christian beliefs do not fit with the modern secular view that there are no moral absolutes… The conclusion is that these older beliefs in human dignity are essentially smuggled into secular modern culture. This means that Christians can agree with much in this justice theory. Nevertheless, as MacIntyre showed, there are contradictions and fatal flaws in Liberalism’s approach.
First, the freedom of the individual has become a de facto absolute that vetoes all other things and, unlike in more traditional societies, liberal societies have not been able to balance individual freedom and obligation to family and community.
Second, if justice is just honoring individual rights and entitlements and there are no higher moral absolutes, how can we adjudicate matters when rights-claims conflict and contradict as they so often do?
Who is to say that exploiting the poor might not be, in a cost-benefit analysis, more practical than not? There are, then, no real guardrails to keep a liberal society from moving toward oppression.”

Utilitarians argue that people should be free to pursue whatever makes us happy as long as it doesn’t harm others. It is obvious, however, that there will be inevitable clashes over what makes people happy and so the final arbiter for Utilitarians is majority rule.
First, without a doctrine of creation, this view does not honour individuals as having a dignity that must not be violated. Could the majority of a national populace define their happiness in such a way that it can only be achieved if a minority of the population is abused?
Second, without a doctrine of sin, it naively assumes that what will make a majority happy can’t be something evil. Just because something makes a person happy, it doesn’t mean it is right to do it. Lots of foolish and cruel things can make us happy.
Without any moral absolutes—who is to say what is good for a minority? The majority–not the minority–gets to define it.

Capability theory
This shares some similarities with the postmodern view of justice and critical social theory, informed by Marx, who saw human beings as inherently good or blank slates. Evil is seen as instilled in us by society, by social systems and forces. So pathology (poverty, crime, violence, abuse) is due primarily to wrong social policy. It aligns with the fact that “Biblically we know we are complex beings–socially and morally (both sinful and fallen, yet valuable in the image of God). The reasons for evil and for unjust outcomes in life are multiple and complex.
The restoration of a poor community will require a rich, multi-dimensional understanding of human flourishing. There certainly is a need for social reform and the dismantling of systemic injustice. But people also need meaning in life, and strong families, and ways to grow in character, and healthy, functional communities, and moral discipline as well. “
The capability approach provides a useful analytical framework to understand the connections between the opportunities people have to flourish, how well – or not – the institutions in which they live function (social competences), and how human action (agency) shapes both social competences and people’s opportunities to flourish. However, on its own, the capability approach falls short to consider that sometimes, ‘agency’ can divert rather than promote the flourishing of others. In this respect, theology offers some valuable insights.
By introducing the theological idea of ‘structural sin’, we can provide an in-depth analysis of social in-competences. … argue that such in-competences can be transformed, hence human flourishing be promoted, when agency is exercised beyond self-interests and in view of the good of others.

Biblical critique of widely employed energy and climate justice theories

Keller makes three key assertions that I believe apply here:
“First, only biblical justice addresses all the concerns of justice found across the fragmented alternate views.
Second, biblical justice contradicts each of the alternate views neither by dismissing them nor by compromising with them. (a) Biblical justice is significantly more well-grounded. It is based on God’s character—a moral absolute—while the other theories are based on the changing winds of human culture. (b) Biblical justice is more penetrating in its analysis of the human condition, seeing injustice stemming from a more complex set of causes—social, individual, environmental, spiritual—than any other theory addresses. (c) Biblical justice provides a unique understanding of the character of wealth and ownership that does not fit into either modern categories of capitalism or socialism.
Third, biblical justice has built-in safeguards against domination. How? (a) Christianity does not claim to explain all reality. There is an enormous amount of mystery – things we are simply not told (Deuteronomy 29:29). We are not given any ‘theory of everything’ that can explain things in terms of evolutionary biology or social forces. Reality and people are complex and at bottom mysterious. (b) Christianity does not claim that if our agenda is followed most of our problems will be fixed. Meta-narratives have a “we are the Saviours” complex. Christians believe that we can fight for justice in the knowledge that eventually God will put all things right, but until then we can never expect to fully fix the world. Christianity is not utopian. (c) Finally, the storyline of the whole Bible is God’s repeated identification with the wretched, powerless, and marginalized. The central story of the Old Testament is liberation of slaves from captivity. Over and over in the Bible, God’s deliverers are usually racial and social outsiders, people seen to be weak and rejected in the eyes of the power elites of the world. (d) Biblical justice, in contrast with the Liberal, gives us a profound account of power and its corruptions, but in contrast to the Postmodern, gives us a model for changing how it is used in the world. Because it is rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus, Christianity neither eliminates nor merely reverses the ruler/ruled binary—rather, it subverts it. When Jesus saves us through his use of power only for service, he changes our attitude toward and our use of power.


There is nothing in the world like biblical justice!
David McIlroy in his book, ‘A Biblical View of Law and Justice‘, says: “There is authority given to human institutions to maintain social order, but the social order is only truely secure when it is administered according to God’s standard of justice.”pp. 205-206
I have spent a long time searching for a secular vision robust enough to embed justice in the massive energy transition that we are about to undertake in response to climate change. I have found underdeveloped and conflicting views, and although I acknowledge that those do capture some Biblical principles as part of common grace, I have argued today that there is a depth and wisdom to Biblical justice that could offer a lot to deepen and develop such arguments, for the believer in Jesus, at least.

Selected references

Cotton, M.D. 2014. Environmental Justice Challenges in United Kingdom Infrastructure Planning: Lessons from a Welsh Incinerator Project. Environmental Justice. 7(2), pp.39–44.
Deneulin, S and Davies, AZ. 2016. Theology and development as capability expansion: original research – engaging development. HTS: Theological Studies, 72 (4). Accessed 09 July 2021 at:
Keller, T. 2020. A Biblical critique of secular justice and critical theory. Accessed 09 July 2021 at:
Keller, T. 2020. Justice in the Bible. Accessed 09 July 2021 at:
Mccauley, D. and Heffron, R. 2018. Just transition: Integrating climate, energy and environmental justice. Energy Policy. 119, pp.1–7.
Middlemiss, L., Ambrosio – Albalá, P., Emmel, N., Gillard, R., Gilbertson, J., Hargreaves, T., Mullen, C., Ryan, T., Snell, C.J. and Tod, A. 2019. Energy poverty and social relations: a capabilities approach. Energy Research and Social Science. pp. 227-235. ISSN 2214-6296.
Nussbaum, M. 2003. Capabilities as fundamental entitlements: Sen and social justice. Feminist Economics. 9(2–3), pp.33–59.
Shrader-Frechette, K. 2002. Environmental Justice: Creating Equity, Reclaiming Democracy. Oxford University Press.
Sovacool, B.K. and Dworkin, M. 2015. Energy justice: Conceptual insights and practical applications. Applied Energy. 142 pp.435-444,(
Thew, H. 2018. Youth participation and agency in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics. 18(3), pp.369–389.
Watt, G. 2006. Book Review: A Biblical View of Law and Justice. Studies in Christian Ethics, 19(2), 25. Accessed 09 July 2021 at:
Wood, N. and Roelich, K. 2019. Tensions, capabilities, and justice in climate change mitigation of fossil fuels. Energy Research & Social Science. 52, pp.114–122.