The climate crisis is playing out on a landscape of global and national inequality. Countries, and communities, that lack the resources and capacity to build resilience will suffer from increasingly intense and frequent climate impacts. Equally, those with limited opportunities to benefit from the climate transition will likely be left behind.
Social and economic structures must be put in place to enable people to participate equally in the design, planning and implementation of climate action and to share the benefits and burdens arising from the transition to a stable climate society. To achieve this, people-centred climate action must be enabled through robust regulation, appropriate governance structures and the provision sufficient resources where to they are needed.
In the absence of such measures, both the impacts of climate change and the unintended consequences of climate action will drive inequality. This not only risks the wellbeing of people living in vulnerable situations but it also risks a successful transition to a safe and stable climate. In the words of Frans Timmermans, EU commissioner with responsibility for the European Green Deal, “without a just transition, there will simply be no transition”.
However the practical application of people-centred climate action is, as yet, not well understood. We have too few examples of successful transitions that are inclusive, enduring and just. Those that do exist highlight the complexity of the challenge ahead and, for the most part, these transitions did not occur under the emergency conditions which we now face with the climate crisis.
We are fast running out of time to put in place measures that will consistently enable meaningful participation and allow for the systematic consideration of structural issues within climate policy making. If we don’t act now, efforts to reduce emissions will follow a business-as-usual approach and risk continued alienation from decision making of low income communities and others on the margins of society. Sadly, we do not have to look too far to find an example of how emergency conditions can cause us to lose sight of issues like inequality and, in turn, undermine response measures.
We are in the same storm but not the same boat
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the challenges of responding to an emergency against a landscape of inequality. Internationally, this has been brought into sharp relief by the inequality in access to vaccines between developed and developing countries. Canada has reserved enough doses to vaccinate their entire population four times, yet last week Trócaire warned that many of the poorest countries will not be able to provide vaccines to their people until 2022 or 2023.
Within countries, we are witnessing how the impacts of the virus are worse for low-income communities and people living in vulnerable situations. In the United Kingdom and the United States, there is evidence emerging that social and racial inequalities increase susceptibility to the worst effects of virus due to social vulnerability and health risk factors. Since the first wave of the pandemic in Ireland there has been evidence of a higher incidence of cases in poorer households.
Perhaps more concerningly is the growing body of evidence that the pandemic in increasing and entrenching existing inequalities. An Oxfam report published last week highlighted that, between n 18 March and 31 December 2020, the world’s 10 richest people have seen their wealth increase by $540 billion, while the wealth of all billionaires has increased by $3.9 trillion. The wealth of Ireland’s billionaires has grown by over €3.3bn. Meanwhile the ILO estimates that the pandemic has cost workers around the world $3.7tn in lost earnings. The pandemic is exacerbating inequality in more ways than health and earnings. In Ireland, there is evidence that the pandemic is worsening gender inequality as women see care roles increase and there are concerns regarding the impact of home schooling inequality in educational attainment.
Preparing for the great leap forward
We can only hope that the lessons learned from the pandemic will reinforce the importance of response measures that put community needs and priorities at the heart of decision-making. In anticipation of a greater political willingness to enable participative and community-led approaches in the wake of COVID-19, the TASC Climate Justice Centre will be launching two new climate justice projects in February 2021 that aim to enhance understandings of people-centred policy making.
TASC will be embarking on a new pan-European project with FEPS, the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and The Fabian Society. The project is focused on designing and communicating climate policy which aims to enhance the wellbeing of working-class communities. Called Talking Green, the project aims to understand the substantive, argument and emotional approaches that ensure that climate policy includes working class communities and addresses alienation from politics.
Significantly, TASC, in association with AIB, will also be announcing a pilot project to build on the FEPS-TASC report launched last November titled The People’s Transition: Community-led Development for Climate Justice. The pilot will test a model for participative decision making on climate action which seeks to enable local development, give people and communities ownership of the transition to zero carbon societies, and enhance public support for a Just Transition by tackling inequality and raising standards of living through the delivery of climate solutions. Final arrangements for the launch of the pilot project are being made. It is hoped that the lessons learned from these pilot projects will help to inform recommendations that can advance people-centred climate action in Ireland and across Europe. Watch this space!
Sean holds an B.Sc in Applied Physics from Dublin City University and an M.Sc. in Development Practice awarded by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. Prior to joining TASC, Sean worked as a Policy Officer with the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice for five years. During this time he engaged with the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. He also led the Foundation’s work on intergenerational equity. Sean spent five years working in the private sector, as a catastrophe risk analyst with Renaissance Reinsurance. He also spent 2 years working in a hospice in Kolkata, India, and worked with the Environmental Protection Agency in Sierra Leone building the agencies capacity in Geographic Information Systems.