The justice thread continues. We were invited to think about environmental justice. Is environmental concern the privilege of those who don’t have to worry about oppression, poverty and the daily grind? Or are environmental problems yet another way in which the privileged dump on the poor?
And who gets to ask and answer these questions?
The questions drew me back to connections between justice and climate change, and my own role as a facilitator of public and stakeholder engagement.
Climate change is having a disproportionate effect on the poorest people in the poorest countries
I met Maria Tiimon there. She’s from Kiribati - one of those stunningly beautiful Pacific nations that cartoons of desert islands are based on. All coconut trees, blue skies and silver sand.
But it won’t be for long. Here’s Anote Tong, President of the Republic of Kiribati, addressing the 106th session of the Council of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
Why the IOM? Because it seems likely that migration is the future for Kiribati. President Tong said in 2013 "For our people to survive, then they will have to migrate. Either we can wait for the time when we have to move people en masse or we can prepare them—beginning from now ..."
Andrew Teem is the senior policy advisor on climate change to the Kiribati government. See him interviewed here.
When people talk about climate justice, it’s forced migration and the creation of refugees due to extreme weather and chronic climatic changes that they have in mind.
It’s not just small island states. Another country where people are suffering now is Bangladesh.
The Environmental Justice Foundation has gathered witness testimony and data showing how flooding is displacing farmers. EJF talks about “significant damage to vital infrastructure, widespread devastation to housing, reduced access to fresh water for drinking, sanitation and irrigation, and rising poverty and hunger caused by increasingly extreme weather events and the gradual but sustained deterioration in environmental security”.
Establishing that the impacts of climate change have a human rights dimension was very important to this group of lawyers, and the idea is gaining traction.
Poorer people are hit harder
Closer to home, the UK has been inundated by flooding, likely to be caused by extreme weather exacerbated by climate change.
Over the last five years, much of my stakeholder engagement work has been on UK flooding and the best ways to reduce the risks to people from flood events.
There are a couple of distinct “justice” issues here, which come up in workshops and public meetings, and add to the emotional heat.
One is that people who are already disadvantaged (poorer, disabled or caring for small children) tend to suffer most when there is a flood and find it harder to get back on their feet. It could be as simple as not having insurance like some people in Kendal, or a car to transport you to a safe place, or savings to tide you over so you don’t have to get a loan at sky-high interest.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has done a lot of work on this. They say that people's vulnerability to the impacts of climate change is mode worse by “income inequalities, social networks and social characteristics of neighbourhoods."
In the case of heatwaves, social factors include: social isolation; loss of public spaces; fear of crime, which leaves people unwilling to leave their homes or open their windows; and inflexible institutional regimes and the lack of personal independence in nursing homes. A variety of social factors affect the capacity of households to prepare for, respond to and recover from flooding. Low-income households are less able to make their property resilient, and to respond to and recover from the impacts of floods. The ability to relocate is affected by wealth; so also is the ability to take out insurance against flood damage. Social networks affect the ability of residents to respond to flooding – for example, through providing social supports.”
Elsewhere, JRF says:
“A mix of socioeconomic and geographical factors also create spatial distributions of vulnerability: lower-income groups living in poorer-quality housing in coastal locations are disproportionately affected by coastal flooding, while disadvantaged groups living in urban areas with the least green space are more vulnerable to pluvial flooding (flooding caused by rainfall) and heatwaves.
Tenants are more vulnerable than owner occupiers because they cannot modify their homes, so are less able to prepare for and recover from climate events.”
The second kind of justice is the “just deserts” aspect. “The wealthiest 10 per cent of households are responsible for 16 per cent of UK household and personal transport emissions, while the poorest 10 per cent are responsible for just 5 per cent.” Also according to the JRF. It’s not just ironic, it’s unjust. Like the people of Kiribati and Bangladesh, in the UK it’s the historically low-emitters of greenhouse gases who are getting the harshest impacts of climate change.
Who goes to public meetings?
Another aspect of (environmental) justice which people in my field can’t ignore - although the solutions are hard to find - is the unequal access to decision-making or decision-influencing processes like consultations or public meetings about environmental questions like transport strategies, pollution, waste, development, flood defences, emergency planning for extreme events, protection of wildlife and wild places.
I’d like to find out more about this (your comments with links to demographic studies are welcome). What are the demographic patterns and what are the effective ways of engaging people who are typically less likely to be engaged? In my partial and anecdotal experience, public meetings or community workshops during the working day are most likely to be attended by retired people, ex-professionals with a high level of confidence in and familiarity with formal decision-making processes. Whatever time of day the meeting, people with caring responsibilities (who are more likely to be women) are less able to come along. People working three part-time jobs to get by? I’d be surprised.
As public bodies embrace social media and the “digital first” approach, a new set of people may be engaged (at a guess, younger, busier) but another set (older, poorer, with less access to e-communications) are systematically excluded.
It’s the responsibility of those who are convening the engagement, to notice these patterns and make efforts to hear the perspectives and preferences of those who seem to have been unwittingly excluded. To do otherwise would be unjust.