While the ecological and infrastructure impacts of climate change are becoming ever more self-evident, what about the social impacts? Do the impacts of climate change show that "we are all in this together", or are its impacts unevenly felt across society? Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) recently published a report called Climate Change and Social Justice: an evidence review which looked at this in more depth (as did a recent Oxfam report). It coins the term "climate injustice" and offers some very useful insights on community resilience in the face of climate change, and what that means for different communities. We talked to Katherine Knox, Programme Manager at JRF, who co-ordinates the Foundation’s work on climate change issues.
From your research and from the recent floods, who can we argue will be most impacted and affected by climate change?
There are going to be impacts in many ways across the country. We’re looking at the UK in particular rather than internationally, and obviously there are different issues that might apply internationally from in the UK. What we’ve been thinking about is the multidimensional nature of vulnerability. If we think about flooding specifically, it’s easy just to focus on who lives in the floodplain areas, but not to think about the nature of how peoples’ wellbeing might be affected by the impacts. What JRF research has suggested is that there are particular factors that may make people more vulnerable and affect their wellbeing more.
There are some personal factors, so if you’re very old or very young you might struggle for particular reasons, ability and dependency on others might be an issue, if you’re in a care situation obviously you’re dependent on the care institution to support you in the context of a problem. But there are other factors. If we think about the environmental factors, it’s not just a case of whether you live in a floodplain, but also the nature of the built environment and natural environment around you.
If you’re in a basement flat you’re obviously going to be worse off than someone who’s in a highrise flat in terms of the impacts it might have upon you. Then there are questions about whether there are green spaces or “blue spaces” that might absorb water within your environmental surrounds which might make a big difference in terms of flood impacts.
Then if we think about the social factors which are perhaps the least well thought about at the moment, there are a range of things. We know for instance that people on low incomes are much less likely to take up flood insurance and so they might be particularly affected. Not only because they are affected in terms of the loss of their possessions, but also because they have less ability to then recover from those problems because they don’t have insurance and less of a safety net.
Other social concerns would be things like peoples’ social networks and if you’re isolated that you might be particularly at risk and more vulnerable, whereas if you’ve got social networks or people who can support you in the context of a crisis and help you recover from the event. We think vulnerability relates peoples’ ability to prepare for flooding and to respond and recover, as well as some of those other things that might be more familiar in terms of thinking about the impacts.
What does resilience to climate change look like, in particular for poorer communities?
It’s something that’s not really very well understood at the moment, and actually it’s the focus of work that we’ll be taking forward more in the next phase of our research here, but we do think that there’s a question of understanding how the social context and social fabric works in an area, so social links might be really important in terms of people’s ability to then get support from each other as well as thinking about some of the other provisions in place.
We’ve been doing some work in York in an area called New Earswick, initially first developed by Rowntree to provide housing for some of the workers in his factory. Over the years it’s an area that has grown and new housing has come on stream, but it remains a predominantly low income social housing area and we’ve been trying to work with people about some of the issues. What we found was that to awaken peoples’ interest in terms of what might be going on, in an area where there’s not a context of a threat from flooding or anything particular that’s happening at this point in time, people need to be connected through their local interests, rather than wider questions about sustainability and climate change.
The issue there was about tapping into local interests in nature and the natural environment, so there are lots of fruit trees that have been put in peoples’ gardens in these areas, which were not actually really well used, so one of the activities was done with the community was to support fruit picking and getting people working together in a natural environment.
There were some big initiatives to support tree planting and other activities in the environment that brought people together who didn’t necessarily know each other previously. The people we worked with were also very actively working in the schools in the area to support schoolchildren to start thinking about these issues. Those things that connected into peoples’ wider activities were really important in terms of getting people to start making links. So we think that might be a really important part of resilience to climate change, but again it’s not something that necessarily might be a focus, and it might need to take different forms in different places in terms of what you can actually do to engage people.
It sounds like research that very much supports and validates the approach that Transition groups have been taking for the past few years…
Yes indeed. In a context where there wasn’t a Transition group in that area. We were trying to support similar ideas I think.
Your recent report talked about the ‘Triple Injustice’, where people on low incomes pay more and benefit less from certain policy responses, especially energy bills, and are those responsible for the least emissions. In the context of that observation, was the government right recently to cut back on what it called ‘green taxes’, claiming that they were socially regressive?
That raises lots of questions actually. The general position here at JRF is that we recognise that we need to have a transition to deal with the consequences of climate change, and therefore we do need to provide funding to enable that change to happen. What’s happened is that some of the monies that are being raised to make that transition to a low carbon economy are being applied through peoples’ energy bills, rather than perhaps through general taxation. So, as a general principle, it’s more regressive to putting costs onto energy bills than paying things through taxation because lower income households pay a higher proportion of their income towards energy bills than people on higher incomes.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to take the steps to make the transition happen, and indeed fund them. There are questions about how you pay for things, and that can be done in different ways. What is also interesting is what are different measures that have been put on peoples’ energy bills, and there are a range of different things that are being applied, and actually some of the levies that are being put through are actually being applied to fund measures that many people will benefit from, and others are being applied and will only benefit a smaller number of people, people on higher incomes.
Is it possible to suggest whether the current austerity programme is helping or hindering communities’ ability to build resilience to climate change?
I think in general, JRF’s work is indicating lots of problems with the emerging picture on that side. We are concerned about how peoples’ incomes are being reduced in general, in such a way that will also affect their ability to deal with things like their fuel bills. There is a wider problem really. We perhaps haven’t looked at the detail of how those things connect, in terms of austerity and the links to climate change. In general, peoples’ ability to deal with a wide range of challenges they face is being affected, economic and social questions as well as environmental questions.
What’s your sense of the balance between adaptation and mitigation?
Clearly there is a question about the need to mitigate as a first priority to reduce emissions. What’s concerning is that the scientists are basically suggesting we need to peak our emissions within the next 10+ years, so there’s not a huge window of opportunity to peak global emissions now. There are really big questions around what international agreements can deliver, and then how those play out down at different national scales and within countries.
The question then becomes how are we going to adapt as well, because we know already that there are so many emissions in the atmosphere that we are going to have the consequences of those emissions in terms of climate change already happening. We’ve already seen the devastating floods that we’ve had recently here, even though the attribution is difficult in terms of climate change we can expect to see more frequent flooding, so we are going to have to adapt.
There are really big questions about how we are going to protect different communities, who has a voice in decisions that are going to be made, which resourcing is going to be put in, which are getting more focused now than perhaps they have been in the past, but are really important questions nationally. There are real issues there about smaller and more rural communities and how they will be protected in the future.
Our theme this month is ‘living with climate change’. Can you give us a sense of what living with climate change will look like for the poorest communities in the UK? What would it look like if we responded adequately, and what would it look like if we didn’t?
Some of our work already indicates that the poorest and lowest income households, the most disadvantaged groups, are already likely to be among those worst hit, both from climate impacts themselves but also the consequences of policy responses as indicated in our energy work. There are potentially very negative outcomes unless action is taken.
The alternative is to try and engage people now and use processes that we have, whether that’s Neighbourhood Planning, or community action through Transition groups and other opportunities to try and galvanise people to understand what the implications might be, and try to engage them in developing responses. However, I think that’s not just an issue for disadvantaged communities, that’s a national issue that really need attention from central government and from different stakeholders and from local government and others too, rather than just being an issue for disadvantaged groups.
In Transition, one of our conclusions is that local economies are key to building community resilience. That localisation is a powerful part of that. To what extent do you think that appropriate localisation could have a role to play in building community resilience?
I think it’s a really valid question and I’d be really interested to see how the learning from the Transition movement can help us in that. There is a wider debate at the moment about the need for more sustainable prosperity, the question of how growth creates prosperity, or what the limits are to the current economic model nationally, and so it relates to some of those questions. There are opportunities to have more of an asset-based approach locally, where we think about what skills and opportunities exist within an area and how those can support local economic development. That’s a really interesting area.
If you had the ear of the current government, what would be two or three things that you would recommend them to do in terms of helping low income communities to build more resilience to climate change?
There’s something about looking at what the impacts are more effectively. Our work has highlighted where think some of the most disadvantaged communities might be across the UK in relation to both flood and heat, but I’m not aware of this kind of thinking being taken up nationally in terms of thinking about preparedness and how we respond and how we prioritise responses. There’s not enough fine grain thinking about which people and places we need to support most effectively, there’s more of a general approach being taken.
So I would suggest that first we need to have a better understanding of vulnerability, and how that might inform what we do. That’s the vulnerability to the direct effects of climate change. Secondly we need to look at the current policy position, and try to create a more fair policy approach. What tends to happen is that policies aren’t really considered in terms of their distributional impacts very effectively. So if you look at energy policies, what should be happening when they’re being put in place is that there’s a proper understanding of how those policies will impact on different types of households, and where we know there are going to be negative impacts on particular groups there should be steps take to prevent that, or remediate it in some way or to design policy differently so that those things aren’t so regressive.
Thirdly I think there’s something about a process of engagement and trying to bring peoples’ voice into this discussion. I don’t think at the moment there’s enough communication from centre to communities themselves to actually understand peoples’ views and to try and bring people on a journey of understanding collectively as to what climate change might mean for them and then what the opportunities are for action.
Some of that action needs to be driven from communities themselves and needs to more of a kind of dialogue really, from central government and down through local government and other organisations, and the voluntary sector to make those links and start saying “what do we do”, “what are we going to where the impacts may be really acute?”