“First Do No Harm: Climate Migrations, Reparations, and the Guarantee of Non-Repetition,” Maxine Burkett, Professor of Law, William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawai’i

By Anna Bruce ‘21

On November 17 2020, the Center for Environmental Studies welcomed Maxine Burkett ’98 for a Class of 1960 Scholars Program Zoom lecture entitled: “First Do No Harm: Climate Migrations, Reparations, and the Guarantee of Non-Repetition.” Burkett is a Professor of Law at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai‘i, and a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  She is also the Co-Founder and Senior Advisor at the non-profit Institute for Climate and Peace and an expert in the law and policy of climate change, focusing on climate justice, climate-induced migration, and climate change, peace, and conflict.


Burkett’s lecture addressed the relationship between environmental degradation and racial hierarchy, that are “inextricably intertwined,” and looked at the disparities between the global north and south in terms of who is causing harm and who is facing the consequences.  Organized into four parts, her lecture included: Mapping Climate Justice and Climate Migrations, Miracles of Theory and Justice, Climate Reparations and the Guarantee of Non-Repetition, and lastly, Root and Branch: Climate Catastrophe, Racial Hierarchy, and the History and Future of Climate Justice.  The following is a summary of Burkett’s remarks on each:


Mapping Climate Justice and Climate Migrations

Political maps have the ability to define national interest, yet climate change is indifferent to our political borders.  In terms of equity and climate justice, the top cumulative and per capita polluters in the world, the United States, Europe and China, are polluting at rates disproportionate to the size of their populations.  Humans have always been on the move, migrating to new places, but climate change is now dictating our movement in all corners of the globe.  Within the legal and political system there are so many groups that have the potential to take legal climate action, but no one agency or group has taken a leadership role,  no one entity has taken accountability for climate change, and no one entity is to blame for the failure to respond to climate change.  For the law to be effective in mitigating climate change it must be able to: see itself as complex, make meaning/sense of challenges, align around next best action, and test/prototype, learn and adapt.


Miracles of Theory and Justice

We are facing complex climate problems with complex solutions and historically the law has had structural complicity in uneven outcomes.  When we contemplate systemic transformation, we are still in the stage of figuring out what a transformation might look like.  Climate migration exemplifies this struggle because it presents novel problems in the realm of law and power.  The legal system, which is essential to the fight for climate action, has been historically complicit in the lack of climate justice and climate action.


Climate Reparations and the Guarantee of Non-Repetition

Reparations and non-repetition are an example of climate justice.  There is a need to understand how we got here and ensure that it does not happen again.  Racial hierarchy and environmental disruption are intertwined as mutual accelerants of climate change.  Since the 15th century, human actions have had an impact on the earth’s systems.  Reparations seek to respond to these wrongs and forge better relationships between communities. The relationship between the global north and south needs to be repaired in order to enable a global climate action response.  Uneven contributions to climate change are linked to the emissions of industrialized nations who make up a small proportion of the global population. Those facing climate change tend to have much lower emissions and face harm due to climate change at disproportionate levels compared to industrialized regions.  These disproportionate climate causes and consequences affect the ability of communities to adapt to the effects of climate change.  The ability to adapt is linked with systemic disadvantages and wrongful accumulation of wealth by key global politicians and companies who are inhibiting climate action.  Money may not have the ability to address all of the underlying needs of communities, and that is why non-repetition is essential to forging better relationships between communities that are the cause and communities experiencing the consequences of climate change.


History and Future of Climate Justice

Lastly, Burkett utilized the work of Jason Hickel, who informs us that the narrative of the global west developing the global south is uninformed and in fact the opposite is true.  Poor countries are not in need of aid, but are in need of wealthy countries to stop impoverishing them.

In terms of the law and thinking about the future of climate justice, Burkett remarks that Klaus Bosselmann suggests compartmentalization and fragmentation of the law has to do with the conceptual isolation of the environment from other policy areas that have the potential to have a greater contribution to climate action, such as commercial law.


Burkett ended her lecture with a hopeful quotation from Bill Mckibben: “It’s not the end of the world…The end of the world is the end of the world.”  Another world and a different future are possible, and we have the ability to push for systemic changes that fight for climate action.


A recording of Burkett’s November 17th 2020  lecture is available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1_InmdURT4FgfRJhWc_F96EPsRsirxcrN/view


Maxine Burkett appears in the film “Confronting Climate Change” with Elizabeth Kolbert, Van Jones, James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Rob Nixon, Stephen Gardiner and Mark Tercek. Produced by Sarah Gardner and Directed by Dave Simonds, created for the 50th anniversary of the Williams College Center for Environmental Studies in 2017.