Overline: Justice in Sustainability
Headline: Climate Mobility Justice: Reparations, Kinopolitics and Mobile Commoning

Justice in Sustainability is the RIFS focal topic for 2022/23.
Social justice is the RIFS focal topic for 2022/23. Shutterstock/Lightspring

What do reactive border closures and the de-nationalization of undocumented populations around the world have to do with the climate crisis-mobility nexus? As part of the RIFS public lecture series `Justice in Sustainability’, Dr Mimi Sheller recently examined the interconnections of the climate crisis, unsustainable mobilities, and migration through the lens of the politics of movement, also known as kinopolitics. Based on this analysis, Sheller argues for a reparative approach to climate mobility justice that recognizes the wider coloniality of dominant mobility regimes and green energy transitions. This blog picks up on and further traces Sheller’s line of reasoning.

Drawing the line from the climate crisis to climate mobilities

We live in a contingent world of high risks and threats. Loss and damage are being caused by the climate crisis and related extreme weather events, sea level rise and droughts. These effects are not only economically harmful, but they also contribute to humanitarian crises and reinforce existing injustices. While some of the most serious perpetrators of the climate crisis are located in the relatively less affected Global North, smaller per-capita-contributors are located in the far more severely affected Global South. Changing climatic conditions and their consequences displace millions of people from their homelands. This phenomenon is referred to as climate migration. But, as Sheller argues, the terminology of climate migration is too narrow. Sheller describes the movements instead as climate mobilities, which occur within complex constellations of various mobilities as well as immobilities; in other words, contexts that do not allow people to migrate.

Contextualizing climate mobilities in the coloniality of climate

As Sheller explains, these (im)mobilities, be they human or not, are embedded and linked across scales in ongoing patterns and histories of movement, informed as they are by material and political conditions. In Mobility Justice – The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes (2018), Sheller describes how power and inequality form different constellations of governance and shape patterns of unequal mobility and access to mobility. Control over (im)mobilities is a form of power that has deep historical roots in capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, and imperialism. This power enables nations to prevent migration, deport people, and leave people de-nationalized.

The capitalist economic order and colonialism created the conditions that have resulted in climate crisis in the past and they continue to do so today. Many everyday practices and more general societal orientations depend on the perception that resources are available in infinite abundance, including ecosystems, sinks and cheap labour. As a result, capitalism and colonialism simultaneously shape and reinforce unevenly distributed mobilities and vulnerabilities to climate impacts. Furthermore, industrialized nation states in the Global North tend to better withstand climate impacts and recover more quickly from climate disasters. As Yarimar Bonilla notes, “vulnerability is not simply a product of natural conditions; it is a political state and a colonial condition”. Climate mobilities are therefore not just about movement in space, but are also loaded with meanings, values, and forms of justification. In essence, climate mobilities must be seen in the context of kinopolitics, i.e., the presently emerging age of movement, in which borders are constantly in motion and where the politics of movement become relevant as some groups of people benefit from the dominant mobility system, while other do not, thereby strengthening existing global injustices.  

Climate mobility justice through mobile commoning

As a starting point to address strongly interwoven climate mobility injustices, Sheller refers to the term commoning (based on Elinor Ostrom’s work). It describes socially produced rules for sharing and moving together with others. Commons are not just shared territories, natural resources, or products, but a radical way of moving together in the world, sharing spaces, and resisting the privatization of property; thereby actively recognizing our entanglement with others. In Sheller’s view, migrant caravans are mobile commons and even a form of mobility resistance to the dominant mobility regime. People are sharing knowledge about, for example, transit routes, shelters, and border crossings. Sheller further stresses the need for mobility sovereignty, which refers to the ability to freely decide upon when, where, how, and for what purpose one wants to be mobile. The ongoing struggle for decolonization is a central to mobile sovereignty. It includes indigenous understandings and mutual responsibility.

Towards reparative climate mobility justice

Sheller concludes that any appropriate response to the contemporary climate crisis must first acknowledge and critically engage with its heritage. This includes the coercive transatlantic system of slavery, the genocide and displacement of indigenous peoples, as well as present forms of uneven global development, violent border regimes, and ideologies of exclusion that continue to influence access to resources and safety.

Sheller stresses the need to reduce the excessive consumption of fossil-fuelled lifestyles, including the mobilities of so-called kinetic elites (i.e., those who are extremely mobile). Simultaneously, the injustice of uneven mobilities needs to be rectified and prevented in future. This includes the right to remain in place as well as the prevention of ongoing global resource extraction that contributes to the perpetuation of climate colonialism, even in those instances where this promotes so-called green energy transitions. An example is lithium mining in the Global South for electric automobility in the Global North.

Instead of reactive border closures and wall building, the Global North must instead acknowledge climate debt, climate reparations, mobile commons, and mobility sovereignty to enable a restorative justice approach. Sheller’s lecture concluded with a clear political statement: “The growth of a system of deadly corridors, detention camps, and spaces of confinement at our borders is an illegal, ineffective, and dehumanizing response to complex climate mobilities that needs to be subjected to feminist, decolonial, critical Black and Indigenous analysis to develop and advocate for alternative frameworks for reparative and epistemic justice”.

You can watch Mimi Sheller's talk below.

Climate Mobility Justice: Kinopolitics, Reparations and Mobile Commoning with Mimi Sheller

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