Delivering climate justice means reaching beyond the usual environmental circles to acknowledge – and tackle – the question of social class, writes Fraser Stewart
I grew up in assorted rough and wonderful housing schemes in Forfar, outside Dundee. My mum, a nurse, raised me and my brother as a single parent. I’ve never met my father. My granda worked days in the factory my gran cleaned at nights. At 16 I was politely asked to leave high school. By 17 I was on the brew.
Through various twists and turns – stints as a musician, in an architect’s office, as a job-centre adviser – I fumbled my way onto a political-science degree at the University of Strathclyde, won a scholarship to study for a Masters and a PhD.
I am now a doctoral researcher in energy policy, focusing on social justice, equality and making low-carbon technologies work for people. It’s been quite the transition. Not many kids from schemes in Forfar end up here.
Most of my old mates are still back home, plying their trades and raising their kids. Some are in prison for the second or third time. Others have passed on through battles with drugs, drink and mental health.
I love Forfar, a place of community and closeness. But like any working-class area of high deprivation, it’s layered with psycho-social and economic complexities.
Folk like me, working-class people from places like Forfar, don’t often end up having pointy-headed conversations in management-speak with academics and policymakers about how best to design energy systems.
We don’t often end up in academia at all, certainly not in high-fallutin’ fields like climate change and energy policy. And boy, do I know it.
I often feel out of place when I compare my own accent – naturally brash northeast/Dundonian – to that of others in the field; generally middle class, English. Like a bottle of Buckfast at an organic wine-tasting.
Over the years, I’ve caught myself cleaning up how I talk to fit in, something I hate and now battle against. But I cringe when I imagine what my friends back home would think to hear me schmooze over decarbonisation and the “just transition”, in the neutral twang of a Scottish weather reporter.
To feel both an imposter in the field and a class traitor is maddening.
Energy and climate change have been dominated in the UK by the white middle classes; smart people, rightly concerned about the breakdown of our ecological systems and the urgent work we need to reduce emissions, less immediately familiar with the realities of poverty, inequality and injustice that are intrinsic to this.
More radical activist spaces are occupied mostly by people a click or two removed from sustained social or economic hardship. This has created an unnecessary rift between the perceived privileged climate concerns of middle-class luvvies and the “real” concerns of social injustice and poverty that so many people struggle with every day.
These are not separate issues. The causes of and solutions to the climate emergency relate to socioeconomic justice. Although they generate a fraction of the emissions of wealthy individuals and corporations, the poorest people face the worst health outcomes from air pollution, pay more for energy and are exposed to fuel poverty and exclusion due to dirty, inadequate public transport.
This is particularly true for women, people with disabilities and people of colour.
As industry evolves and declines to meet new emissions-reduction targets, communities and workers are pressured to rethink careers and local prospects. The people at the sharp end of these socioeconomic impacts and systemic injustices are far less represented within climate spaces. This is a tragedy.
Equity and justice are inseparable from climate change. We talk about a “just” transition, about avoiding worsening inequalities as we clean up our act to leave nobody behind. People across academia, policy and activism are pushing this perspective, because our work to clean up our energy and industry and transport also offers real social potential.
Creating a clean, expansive public-transport system can reduce emissions and connect excluded communities, creating jobs and leisure. Insulating houses and adding solar panels will shrink our carbon footprint – and slash energy bills for the most vulnerable low-income families, alleviating poverty.
New green jobs won’t just clean up industry; they will reduce unemployment and build relationships between industry and community to keep places alive. Bringing down emissions creates a formative moment to reimagine social and economic systems, to redress historic injustices and to tackle “real” social issues.
We have the opportunity for one of the world’s biggest issues work for another. Creating a whole new set of policy tools to battle “real” issues of poverty and inequality should excite and engage both social-policy people and poverty campaigners. It’s what excites me.
And yet the rift lives on. We haven’t reconciled luvvie and “real” concerns. People at the sharp end of poverty and systemic injustices remain underrepresented, excluded from designing and campaigning for climate solutions.
The winners and losers from the clean-energy transition mirror historic inequalities, favouring capital and corporations, leaving communities, workers and people who experience injustices on the margins yet again. This is systemic – but we must take responsibility for it.
The uncomfortable truth is this: new tools for justice can only do so much, as long as the building site is manned by people with no experience of injustice. Our sector remains very white, very middle-class. This colours the solutions we design and accept. This is how we’ve ended up with so much focus on green consumer choices.
And so we talk about decisions for middle-income householders rather than press for systemic change and seize the social and economic opportunities for working-class people and communities that come with transitioning to a net-zero economy.
Because middle-class voices dominate climate discussions, we focus on middle-class solutions.
Yet I repeat; we understand the justice issues. We know where socioeconomic inequalities and vulnerabilities lie, how they feed and are fed by the net-zero transition. We’ve listened to communities, heard their concerns and worked them into our models and studies and campaign material.
This is all well and good and valiant. It is by no means enough. Understanding this hasn’t redistributed power and resources. We can’t deliver solutions that enable all sections of society to prosper if the discussion includes only one section.
A fair transition to a net-zero society means more than understanding what justice is: it means bringing more people who have lived with injustice into policy design, academia and activism.
We can’t bridge the gap to fix climate justice from a distance, even with the best intentions. Putting communities under a microscope can only get us so far.
Systemic change on the scale we need to combat the climate emergency – and to do so fairly – will not happen if the conversation includes only the beneficiaries of the current system. We need to bring in people who have had to choose between heating and eating, between clothing and leisure and addiction.
We need to hire people from excluded and under-represented communities, even if they aren’t “qualified”. To mitigate climate change successfully, we need to make it viable for working-class people who feel its worst social effects and injustices to pursue careers in mitigating it.
I don’t mean listen to lived experience: I mean bring people with lived experience into high-level spaces and make space for them to lead.
From there we can better agitate for real redistribution and justice and design solutions, not just to address working-class concerns, but with working-class people at the table. This isn’t a new idea, and it’s certainly not exclusive to climate, but it’s something we need to do to challenge the luvvie image problem and to seize this opportunity for social and economic good.
We can also work harder to branch out, building alliances outside traditionally middle-class climate, energy and environmental circles.
Climate organisations and researchers can be insular. We like to talk amongst ourselves. When we collaborate, it’s mostly with other climate and sustainability campaigns, with ministries for energy and environment and the like.
And because these spaces are middle-class-dominated, this perpetuates the exclusionary cycle and deprives us of important insights and collaborations.
We need to do better to build collaborations with lifelong anti-poverty campaigners, non-sustainability community groups, social-justice activists and trade unions and all of civic society. We need to sell the social-justice vision to “non-climate” and climate people alike.
Big changes demand co-ordinated action from a broad church. If we want to take seriously a just transition, we first have to get serious about justice.
The good news is, making these changes doesn’t require massive effort – apart from the whole systemic-change thing.
We can easily hire people without traditional qualifications for climate research or policy design. We can easily reach out to social justice campaigners. We can easily centre those diverse perspectives for a richer, more expansive, prosperous and equitable transition.
This is why I cling to my accent, even as the waves of imposter syndrome and class betrayal wash over me.
Accents are important. We need more accents – mine and so many other accents – to deliver the transition to net zero in a way that also tackles poverty and inequality and creates new opportunities.
If we reconcile these things, they become a much greater sum than their parts.
I’m still a working-class kid at heart, working in a middle-class field. But my two sides are not in conflict. When I go back to Forfar now, I notice different things. I see a few more solar panels each time. I spot a few more turbines in the hills.
I see my friends and their wonderful families and feel that anti-nostalgic pang from knowing some of the old gang aren’t there any more, lost to deprivation.
At the heart of all of that lies a disconnect that should not exist. A rift between exciting new technologies and a cleaner planet on the one hand, and the people who would benefit most from them on the other.
These aren’t disconnected. Quite the opposite. These are new sources of power, just waiting to be plugged in.
Fraser J Stewart is an applied researcher at the University of Strathclyde. Follow him @fraserjstewart
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