Heating up environmental debates: climate justice and social policy combined

by the SPA Climate Justice and Social Policy Group

Image by Kevin Snyman from Pixabay

The impacts of climate change have significant potential to heighten inequalities across society. As such, fundamental policy transformations are required to ensure just processes of adaptation and mitigation. However, while there is a good level of knowledge about climatic changes, and potential technical solutions, less is known about the lived experiences of households, nor which groups are likely to be negatively impacted by climate change and climate policy.

To address this gap, the Social Policy Association’s new Climate Justice and Social Policy Group (CUSP) will track and critically assess climate-related policies, placing an emphasis on groups that may be under-recognised during this period of policy change, in order to help explain and address inequities. From eco-social policy and sustainable welfare states, through to the Green New Deal, and radical de-growth debates, CUSP will critically combine social policy and climate justice to support progress towards truly just, fair, and equitable societies.

What is climate justice and why does it matter?

Climate justice is a concept and a movement that recognises the uneven impacts climate change will have on vulnerable groups and communities. This includes both recognising the role climate change has in exacerbating pre-existing conditions for individuals and groups who are already vulnerable (including those who marginalised, mis-recognised or not recognised at all), and recognising new groups who may become vulnerable either through the increasing impact of climate change or strategies to mitigate or adapt to it. This notion of climate justice – which at its core speaks for social justice in the face of climate change and climate action – is mobilised across local, national and international levels and across timescales, often including the consideration of future generations. It is an inherently political issue and one in which Social Policy can play a key and critical role in helping us to understand how challenges relating to climate change can be faced and those most vulnerable protected.  Moreover, Social Policy has a key role to play in ensuring that policy making and implementation leaves no one behind, recognising that different groups and communities are affected differently by both climate change and policies put in place to address it.

‘Get rid of all the green crap’: the sad reality of UK climate policy

A little over 7 years, Prime Minister David Cameron famously ordered aides to remove policy measures like green taxes from energy policies, signalling abandonment of the desire to be the ‘greenest government ever’. Since then, climate policy in the UK has mainly centred on the transition to a low carbon economy, a focus that is likely to intensify in the run up to the Conference of Parties (COP) 26 in Glasgow during November 2021.

The UK was the first major economy to legally commit to a target of net zero emissions by 2050, followed later by a corresponding target across EU countries. But even accepting this goal leaves open a clutch of ethical and justice arguments about what that goal means and how we get there. Key questions include how to rethink social policy and social action so that they become sustainable in the face of approaching climate and ecological breakdown, and how to rethink environmental policy and action so that it embraces the values of equality and well being advocated by Social Policy.

The housing sector provides a good example of these challenges.  A recent special committee inquiry on the parliamentary Business, Energy and Industrial Energy (BEIS) concluded that this 2050 goal would be impossible to achieve without significant improvement in energy efficiency in buildings. The UK government has initiated a number of policies in the past related to emission reductions in buildings, including the Green Deal, energy standards for homes, and zero carbon homes target for new builds. Yet, energy use in buildings still accounts for about 20% of the UK’s carbon emissions and about 28 million homes are waiting for retrofit. As such, we are faced with the colossal task of decarbonising heat in UK homes. However, we need to work towards ways of decarbonising domestic heat that does not benefit some at the expense of others, and which does not lock in patterns of energy production and consumption that are detrimental to the poorest and most vulnerable across society, especially those that may be underrepresented or unrecognised in the process of policy formation.

On the CUSP of climate justice

Decarbonising the economy is a multifarious challenge, which will involve cooperation and coordination across housing, health, energy, welfare, and skills domains. CUSP will provide a vehicle at the intersection of energy justice, climate justice, and social policy for examining and analysing this challenge, allowing us to obtain a clearer picture of the potential injustices of climate policy as well as identifying how we can better work together to generate policies that better foreground the needs of households at the ‘edges’ of society.

Our work is arranged across four intersecting work packages:

  1. Conceptualising climate justice – Policy mapping exercise to analyse under-recognised groups in climate change and climate policy.
  2. Understanding data infrastructure – Methodological focused analysis of key social surveys to determine if they are fit for purpose or are reinforcing inequalities..
  3. Setting new research and policy agendas – Drawing together theoretical and policy debates (for example, discussions around eco social policy and sustainable welfare states, green new deal), and producing guidance for policymakers and practitioners.
  4. Planning and networks – Event facilitation (including policy roundtables and SPA symposiums), network management and consultations, horizon scanning for future funding to ensure continuity of the network.

We will initially be focusing our efforts in addressing the issues of key underrepresented groups such as: people with disabilities, women, gypsies and traveller communities, refugees, care homes, care leavers, BAME groups, and people on ‘cliff edges’. Over the course of our initiative, we will work on how policy and practice can support underrepresented households across Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England, and will be developing case studies to further understand these issues. For this, we need to create a wide and diverse network of collaboration in order to make sure no one is left behind. We urge you to join us by contacting us via e-mail (cuspspa@gmail.com) or Twitter @CUSP_SPA.

Founding members:

Carolyn Snell (University of York)

Matt Scott (National Energy Action)

Helen Stockton (National Energy Action)

Harriet Thomson (University of Birmingham)

Kirsten Jenkins (University of Edinburgh)

Komali Yenneti University of Wolverhampton)

Kelli Kennedy (University of York)

Ian Gough (London School of Economics)

This blog gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Association.