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Illustrated portrait of Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is building a theory of justice for a warming world

The tangled nature of climate change and colonialism means justice has to account for both.

Oshan Jarow is a staff writer with Vox's Future Perfect, where he focuses on the frontiers of political economy and consciousness studies. He covers topics ranging from guaranteed income and shorter workweeks to meditation and psychedelics.

As climate change intensifies, so too does the risk that it will sustain and solidify injustices from the past well into the future. Rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events disproportionately affect populations who continue to suffer the legacies of colonialism and slavery, and global warming is worsening economic inequalities between the Global North and South.

The depth of the problem makes devising adequate solutions tricky, but if we succeed, we can make lasting progress in addressing both climate change and systemic inequality.

That’s precisely what the work of Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, helps us think through. Across his first two books, Reconsidering Reparations and Elite Capture, and a series of public discussions, Táíwò’s work has been described as a “theory of everything” that weaves an idea of justice where climate and colonialism come together. The connection is now being recognized by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which wrote in its 2022 report: “Present development challenges causing high vulnerability are influenced by historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism.”

For example, desertification and wildfires are far more common in communities where colonizers banned land-use practices such as subsistence farming and controlled burns. Patterns of pollution exposure that disproportionately affect marginalized groups can also be traced back to colonial practices.

Táíwò’s vision draws past and future into an account of not only the injustices of our ancestors, but our own roles as ancestors to future generations. Will we leave them a world in perpetual need of Band-Aids to mitigate structural harms, or can we build a world that is just by default?

In Reconsidering Reparations, Táíwò challenges the theory of justice developed by the American philosopher John Rawls. The Rawlsian idea, which has been described by my colleague Dylan Matthews as “the most influential work of political philosophy in the last 50 years,” argues that justice is achieved through principles that everyone would agree to from behind a “veil of ignorance,” before knowing the actual circumstances of their lives.

Táíwò argues that there are two major problems. First, those principles were to be agreed upon primarily by “societies,” but Rawls’s definition of a society reads much like a domestic state. Some forces of injustice — like the consequences of colonialism, or the patterns of global wealth accumulation set in place by the industrial revolution — operate outside what states alone can regulate. In Rawls’s theory, Táíwò writes, “domestic justice takes precedence, and global justice plays second fiddle.”

Second, deliberating behind a veil of ignorance lends itself toward what Táíwò calls a “snapshot view” of justice. This view, he argues, fails to recognize the processual role of history in creating the present circumstances against which we judge what justice means. With a snapshot, he writes that we’re viewing “a moment in the unfolding of a process, a glimpse of the system becoming what it will be tomorrow.” That process could convert what looks like justice today into a source of injustice in future generations.

This is the threat Táíwò argues climate change poses to certain forms of reparative justice, like cutting checks as a form of reparations. Cash transfers, for example, could be rendered moot by the additional costs recipients might incur from the disproportionate impacts of climate change.

“I propose something called the ‘constructive view,’” Táíwò told Nonprofit Quarterly. “We need to build different institutions, rebuild some institutions that exist already, and change who has power — not just money.”

Philosophies of justice can lean abstract, but Táíwò doesn’t shy away from engaging with the particulars of getting from here to there. He’s written about establishing a publicly owned carbon removal authority in the US, detailed how the IMF’s “Special Drawing Rights” can serve as a step toward global reparations while supporting the urgent need for climate adaptation, and co-authored a report on how restructuring and canceling the debt that locks poor countries in a “doom loop” can help achieve climate justice.

While global warming demands urgent action, “remaking the entire planetary system of human social relations in the direction of justice,” as Táíwò puts it, is a generational project. We’re born into a world that will continue to be made over centuries, he argues: “If we think in that way, the scale of the thing that we’re trying to accomplish won’t scare us away from doing what we can in the time that we have.”

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