Citizens’ Assemblies are having a bit of a moment in the UK, with Extinction Rebellion calling for them, and national governments, parliaments and local authorities commissioning them on subjects including the future of social care, air quality, transport and climate change. But what exactly is a Citizens’ Assembly?
If the IPCC’s Special Report on climate change made you want to do something – anything – to calm the climate, swiftly followed by a sinking feeling that you just don’t know what is both doable and meaningful, and you’d rather not think about it…. You can do something meaningful! Here’s a great way to find your contribution.
In the fourth of my series on business and the Sustainable Development Goals, I found out about how Nestle and Mondelez are working to secure their long-term supply of cocoa, about how companies are calling for greater action on carbon emissions and how the pension fund of England's environment regulator is divesting from fossil fuels. This part of the series looks at Goal 13 Climate Action and Goal 15 Life on Land.
Sustainability types were discussing the Sustainable Development Goals (aka Global Goals) in London last night, at a regular meeting of The Crowd. If you are twitter-enabled, you can search for the #crowdforum tweets to follow that way.
I've got very interested in the SDGs, since being asked to write a series of articles about how business is responding, for The Environmentalist.
There was some great conversation, and I was particularly struck by Claire Melamed's view that businesses can cherry pick (or have strategic priorities) among the SDGs, as long as a business doesn't actively undermine any of the goals or targets. That seems a pretty clear minimum ask!
How would you tell if a goal is being actively undermined?
So how would you tell? Perhaps the easiest is to do an audit-style check against all 169 of the targets, and spot the krill oil which is staining the otherwise spotless business practices. Some will be easier to test than others, so the views of stakeholders will probably be useful in helping see the business's practices from a variety of angles.
What are the sanctions and disincentives?
The people who spoke about this seemed to be relying on good old fashioned campaigns to bring the undermining to public attention and turn it into a business issue for the company concerned. Which seems pretty familiar to me. One person used the Greenpeace campaign against the use of unsustainable palm oil by Nestle's Kit Kat as an example. And that campaign was way back in 2010. Friends of the Earth was launched in the UK with a mass bottle dump outside Schweppes headquarters, which became a well-known photo at the time. Social media ensures that campaigns like this can become viral in a few hours. But in essence they are nothing new.
Another person said "you'd have to be not in your right mind, to actively undermine any of these goals." And perhaps she's right. But it's clear that either lots of people haven't been in their right minds, or perhaps it's been perfectly rational to undermine social and ecological life support systems, because we are here and here isn't a great place for many of the critical issues highlighted by the global goals. Once again I find myself wobbling between irrational optimism and chronic unease.
But let's give this optimist the benefit of the doubt, and assume that it is now rational to avoid actively undermining the goals.
The claim was made, with some strength of feeling, that COP21's agreement in Paris has made a tangible difference, with analysts using climate and fossil fuel exposure to make investment recommendations. And there seemed to be general agreement in the room that this was new and significant. And today, two days after the Crowd forum event, comes the news that Peabody Energy (the world's biggest privately-owned coal producer) has filed for bankruptcy. So that's one of the 17 goals accounted for.
Other voices suggested that the 17 goals will set a broad context for action by policy makers and government, helping business decision-makers have more certainty about what the future holds and therefore being more confident to invest in goal-friendly products, services and ways of doing business. On the other hand, people noticed the apparent disconnect between the UK Government's pledges in Paris, and its action to undermine renewables and energy efficiency, and support fossil fuel extraction, in the subsequent budget and policy decisions.
Another change was the rise of the millenials, who make up increasing proportions of the workforce, electorate and buying public. Their commitment to values was seen as a reason for optimism, although there was also a recognition that we can't wait for them to clear up our mess. (As someone who still clears up her own millenial children's mess, while said young people are jetting off and buying fast fashion off the interwebs, I am perhaps a little cynical about how values translate into action for this generation.)
And the final bid for what's changed, is the recognition and willingness of players to collaborate in order to create system-level change. And the good news on this is that there is a lot of practical understanding being shared about how to make collaboration work (Working Collaboratively is just one contribution to this), and specialist organisations to help.
So has there been a tipping point?
Lots of people were insisting to me that there has. There were few negative voices. In fact, some contributors said they were bored and in danger of falling asleep, such was the level of agreement in the room. I was left with the impression that we're getting close to a critical mass of business leaders wanting to do the right thing, and they need support and pressure from the rest of us to make it in their short-term interests to do so.
So is it back to the placards, or sticking with the post-it notes?
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.