Climate Justice: the fairness test


How to build public support for tackling climate change in the UK



This one-day London conference was a major intervention on the social justice issues involved in tackling climate change. Over one hundred policy makers from the worlds of climate change and social justice alongside journalists and politicians gathered together to consider who is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and how to respond to the challenge fairly while building public support for action. The day marked the launch of Fabian and JRF research as well as a keynote speech from the Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Rt Hon Caroline Flint. For a full list of attendees see Appendix 1.

Event Report

The day was started with an introduction from Julia Unwin CBE, CEO of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Andrew Harrop, General Secretary of the Fabian Society. Both outlined the key vision behind the day; the challenge in proving that social justice and environmentalism are not mutually exclusive – the poorest bear the brunt of climate change effects and indeed often the attempts to prevent such change.

Session 1: Sustainable lives: What changes public behaviour?


  • Natan Doron (Fabian Society)
  • Louis Lemkow (ICTA)
  • Dr Tom Crompton (WWF)
  • Ed Matthew (Transform UK)
  • Chair: Faye Scott (Green Alliance)

Key Questions:

  • What is the current opinion of the public on sustainable living? What sacrifices are they willing to make and what are the ‘red lines’?
  • How is public behaviour influenced and changed? Does ‘nudge’ work or are more strident measures needed? What role has the government got in this?
  • What are the key policy decisions and priorities that need to be decided upon to achieve sustainable living in the UK? Can there be room for negotiation or is climate change too serious to compromise on?

Contributors to this session explored key issues surrounding public opinion and how fairness instincts could inform public support for combating climate change by adjusting individual and community behaviours to more environmentally sustainable models.

Some panellists explored the notion of social justice as being key to constructing a wide movement to change attitudes and behaviour, noting that environmentalism alone appears to be an elite project.

Discussion moved on to look at the concept of ‘free-riding’ and how fairness was fundamental to ensuring the burden of climate change avoidance did not fall disproportionately on the poor. Cooperation was agreed to be central to building consensus, the need for individuals to live sustainably could only be achieved by allowing leeway for the poorest in society and not simply letting the richest ‘pay their way out of’ the burden of regulation.

Session 2: Climate risk: Vulnerability and fair responses


  • Julia Unwin CBE (Joseph Rowntree Foundation)
  • Professor James Goodwin (AgeUK)
  • Paul Cobbing (National Flood Forum)
  • Chitra Nadarajah (Hampshire County Council)
  • Chair:  Alexandre Seron (CNCD)

Key Questions:

  • Which social groups and areas are likely to suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate? How can we best identify these?
  • What are the biggest challenges in mitigating against the impact of climate change on the most vulnerable? Can these be overcome, and if so how?
  • What are the best approaches to making social vulnerability a politically and publically salient issue?
  • Are environmentalism and social justice mutually exclusive aims or are they reconcilable as part of a general progressive agenda?

This session opened with a presentation of JRF research by Julia Unwin CBE. Informing the discussion this led to panellists looking at issues surrounding who is vulnerable to the direct impacts of climate change.

After the presentation speakers told about the Climate Risks in their relevant policy areas for example, the risk of excess heat and cold to the older population (with particular focus on the problems with cold and the older population that already exist in Scotland) and the significantly higher occurrences of flooding in the north and south west.

Session 3: Keynote speech from Rt. Hon. Caroline Flint MP


  • Rt Hon Caroline Flint MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change)
  • Chair: Andrew Harrop (General Secretary, The Fabian Society)

Speech summary

I have a simple rule of thumb for everything in politics: our starting point should always be where the public is. That doesn’t mean we finish in the same place as we start, or that there’s no role for government leadership. With the Climate Change Act we proved that with bold, ambitious, decisive action, we could lead the debate and shape public opinion. But unless we start in the same place as the public, we will never be able to lead them to where we need to get.

The BBC’s Frozen Planet might pull in viewing figures of nearly 8 million, but the proportion of the public that ranks climate change as a priority is not just low, but falling. In 2007, 19% of people told Ipsos Mori that the environment was one of the most pressing issues facing the nation. In December 2011, just 4% still thought so. We cannot close our eyes to the realities of the world.

Every opinion poll shows that the economy, jobs and the cost of living are the most important issues for the public – and the young people I meet are no different. So if we want to build public support for tackling climate change, we have to speak about climate change in a way that addresses people’s day-to-day concerns about prices, jobs and security.

Prices – because energy bills top the list of the public’s concerns, and people need to know there is fairness in the way energy is bought and sold.

Jobs – because at a time when growth in our economy is flat-lining and unemployment is rising, the transition to a low-carbon economy has the potential to be a major source of wealth and employment for our country.

And security – because the health of our economy and the functioning of our society depends on us having an energy policy which can keep the lights on.

For too long, the case for tackling climate change has just been about polar bears and melting ice caps. But it needs to be about bills, not bears.

Politics is about improving people’s lives – and there is nothing wrong with a politics that appeals to people’s self-interest. We have to be clear that cutting our carbon emissions and preventing climate change is in everyone’s interests.

The only sort of politics that will be able to build public support for tackling climate change is one which talks to both people’s self-interest – what’s in it for them and their families – and to the common good.

Couching climate change as a problem affecting other people, elsewhere, at some unspecified time in future, true though all those things might be, will never be enough to win hearts and minds.

We have to explain that relying on highly volatile imports of fossil fuels, often from unstable parts of the world, is not just bad for the carbon it produces, but because it’s hitting people in the pocket through higher energy bills.

Simply hectoring from the sidelines turns people off. If all people hear about climate change is they need to stop using their cars to get to work, or cut back on foreign holidays, or stop eating meat, they will switch off.

So we have to be optimistic too, and show that a low-carbon economy has the potential to be a huge source of jobs and growth for the UK. When millions of people are out of work, and millions more are worried about their jobs, the transition to a low-carbon economy is a good news story.

Unless we address people’s concerns about prices, jobs and security, and show that cutting our emissions and tackling climate change will leave them and their families better off, the same old voices will carry on peddling the same old rubbish about the transition to a low-carbon economy being a burden on bill-payers and a threat to jobs and growth. In the end, if we’re serious about building public support for tackling climate change in the UK, it has to be about bills, not bears.

Session 4: Environment Question Time


  • Barry Gardiner MP (Climate Change Envoy, Labour)
  • Joss Garman (Greenpeace UK)
  • Professor  Andrew Dobson (Keele University)
  • Adam Ramsay (People and Planet)
  • Chair: Fiona Harvey (Guardian)

This was a ‘question time’ format (no speeches, just a panel question and answer session) with a panel of differing voices that sought to answer how we can best establish public support and campaigns for a greener and fairer society.

The discussion focussed on how we can influence society towards sustainability and fairness and the best ways to campaign for change. Many of the points of tension arose when the discussion turned towards aviation capacity in the South East of England. While in Government the Labour Party approved a third runway at Heathrow, albeit with high environmental standards, but now appear to be reversing this position. There was broad agreement on the need for consistent cross-departmental policy making to tackle Climate Change in future.

Appendix 2: Blog: Next Left – The Green Imperative

By Richard Speight

Give the Green Investment Bank real power. Now.

When it comes to crises, this generation is spoilt. I’d like to talk about 3 in particular. The climate crisis, the public attitudes to climate crisis and the economic crisis. There is one thing that could go someway to addressing all of these crises: A Green Investment Bank with real power. George Osborne should use the budget to give it real power. Immediately.

The climate crisis has been well documented and evidenced. The threat of dangerous climate change is immense and real. Thanks to a powerful anti-climate PR machine and some hacking of University of East Anglia computers, we also have a public attitudes to climate crisis. Evidence from upcoming Fabian Society research has further confirmed this. Our focus groups on aviation policy have shown that public attitudes towards climate change are increasingly characterised by suspicion of exaggerated climate science.

This means that how the Government acts and deals with climate issues is of great importance not only for policy outcomes, but also for public perceptions.

We also have an economic crisis. Large infrastructure projects are an effective economic stimulus. Keynes has taught as us much. Rachel Reeves also makes very good arguments for this in her Left Foot Forward article. 

The urgency of both the economic and climate crises mean that we cannot afford to delay the investment in green infrastructure. And what is worse, failing to do so only exacerbates the public attitudes to climate crisis. Why? Because if climate change is, as David Cameron states, one of, if not the greatest challenge facing our generation, then why is the Green Investment Bank something that can wait a few years before it becomes effective?

Let us give the Green Investment Bank real power and send the message out that the UK will not tolerate sluggish growth, and furthermore, this country is taking the climate challenge seriously. Responsible capitalism needs responsible Government. Right now we have neither.

At next week’s Climate Justice conference, we’ll be talking in more depth about how to win the public argument on climate using notions of fairness and responsibility. What will you be doing to play your part Gideon?




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