Why climate change is an inequality issue

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the results of its Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change. The report, which was authored by hundreds of climate scientists and takes into account the results of thousands of peer reviewed articles on the physical basis of climate change, could hardly be more stark in its warning for humanity.

In short, human activity is ‘unequivocally’ driving unprecedented changes in the planet’s climate (no small statement from the usually conservative IPCC). Anything but the most severe of emissions cuts will see the planet heat beyond 1.5C above pre industrial levels, possibly as soon as the 2030s, with the world likely to soar past 2C of warming by the end of the century. As a result, many weather events that had up to now been considered rare or unprecedented; wildfires, marine heatwaves, droughts and extended monsoon seasons, will become ever more common and ferocious in their intensity. Even under the IPCC’s most optimistic scenario, summertime sea ice atop the Arctic Ocean will vanish entirely at least once by 2050.

It would be easy to look at this and surmise that both humanity and our planet are beyond saving, that we are victims of our own nature, of our need to keep consuming even when that consumption undermines the very basis of human (and non-human) life. Indeed, the idea that some or all of humanity is beyond saving is foundational to some of the most repellant responses to the climate crisis, from the climate ‘doomerism’ of Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen to the eco-fascism of Garrett Hardin and Pentti Linkola. 

Alternatively, we are offered a combination of small lifestyle changes and hair shirted austerity, which in some way add up to us ‘doing our bit’; changing to LED lightbulbs, flying less or giving up meat all feature heavily. What is ignored here is that the effect of any individual action is sure to be outweighed by the power of companies and governments to shape how production and consumption takes place. One oft quoted statistic is that just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988. To conclude from this that individual consumers are not implicated in climate change would of course be misleading: these emissions were produced in order to provide products to consumers. The point is rather that the locus of power here, the point at which changes could be made most effectively is at the level of the company, especially when these companies spend millions of pounds every year on advertising and on holding back climate change legislation. 

The error of both of these ways of approaching the climate crisis is their failure to see the problems we face as systemic, as a product of a particular way of organising our economies, of the pursuit of profit for a select few over the wellbeing of the vast majority and the world we live in. When we acknowledge this vital point, it becomes clear that the questions we should be asking when we confront climate change are fundamentally questions of (in)equality: Who benefits from an economic system which causes climate change? Who will bear the costs of a radically changed climate? How should the costs of mitigating and adapting to climate change be met? And, if climate change requires systemic change, how should the system we create be different from the one we currently have? Questions like these reveal the deep connections between issues of social and economic inequality.

We are perhaps most used to hearing these questions asked in terms of the international dimension of climate change, and rightly so: an equitable approach to tackling climate change would of course take into account the globalised dynamics of the current economic system, histories of colonialism, racism and purposeful underdevelopment in the global south, as well as the fact that the world’s poorest are also the most vulnerable to climate disruption. But it is also important that we think through these issues at national, regional and local levels. 

Take, for example, the energy system. The UK will need to rapidly expand its renewable energy capabilities if it is to meet its climate commitments, and although the country has steadily increased the amount of power it generates from renewables, it is still generating massive amounts of its electricity from fossil fuels (around 43% in 2019). Government funding has been key to this expansion, but the prevailing model has been to provide initial funding and tax breaks to energy companies who have continued to hike up energy prices for families at the same time as providing huge dividends to their investors. 

Instead, we could see large scale investment in renewables,an unprecedented opportunity to move towards decentralised, community-led and democratically owned energy systems. In the process, such systems can reduce fuel poverty, provide green jobs and improve resilience in some of the UK’s poorest communities. Examples of these systems already exist throughout the country in the form of community owned wind farms, which on average generate community benefit payments at a rate of more than 34 times of their commercially owned counterparts. One community-owned turbine on the Orkney island of Westray has returned to the community approximately £299,057 per MW per annum and is expected to contribute £6.8 million to the community over its 25-year lifespan. At the same time, workers in the fossil fuel sector should not simply be abandoned as renewables replace fossil fuels in the UK’s energy mix: an equitable approach would provide training and local investment to ensure that workers can transition to low carbon jobs, a category which includes not only jobs in renewable energy, but also socially reproductive jobs such as health and social care and teaching. This is just one example of the complex ways in which issues of inequality and climate change intersect. 

As the IPCC report makes all too clear, a climate changed world will be a major factor in all of our lives over the coming decades. If we want to mitigate the worst effects of climate change and to arrive at a fairer, more sustainable and more just society,  we must recognise the interconnections between issues of equality and climate change now and begin setting out how such a society would work. The one thing we do not have time for is despair.

Danny Magill (Senior Research Officer, The Equality Trust)