This blog is adapted from a speech which Nick delivered at NPC Ignites 2023.
The climate and nature crises risk creating irreversible harm, globally and here in the UK.
Things are going to change, and probably sooner than we’ve previously thought. They could change for the worse – if we don’t manage to halt runaway climate change and biodiversity loss. Or they could change for the better– but only if we collectively take urgent action to shift our economy and society onto a different track.
That means, if nothing else, the operating environment for all charities – whatever their purpose – will be different, one way or another. Our future strategies will have to be deeply intertwined with whatever transformation lies ahead.
But it also has implications for the purposes that charities strive to fulfil – for their missions. The changes we’re making to our planet don’t just affect nature. They affect people. By definition, that makes the environmental crises a social issue.
Whatever your mission, the people your charity helps will be affected by climate change. This isn’t an issue that you can dismiss as out of the scope of your work.
All charities need to work on sharing the benefits of climate action, making change fair, and taking mission-related climate action that goes beyond cutting your carbon emissions.
The social benefits of climate action
Recent floods are just the latest example of how the climate crises are already affecting us in the UK.
Most shockingly, the UK Health Security Agency reported in the region of 3,000 excess deaths in England last year as a result of five extreme ‘heat events’. (One of which saw the country’s highest ever recorded temperature, 40.3°C.)
And the effects will be worsened by a depleted natural environment less able to buffer, absorb and mitigate against them.
But taking action on the environment is not just about reducing harm by limiting global heating or reversing nature loss. There’s growing appreciation of the health, social and economic benefits that reducing air pollution, stopping further climate breakdown, and improving nature will bring.
This positive case for action can get drowned-out as attention focuses on the short-term costs or inconvenience caused by climate- and nature-friendly policies. Yet these benefits are precisely the kinds of thing many social charities will be working for:
- Charities whose work relates to unemployment, education or training will be interested in the transition to more green jobs to provide long-term employment in a sustainable economy.
- Those fighting poverty will be interested in more energy efficient homes that cost less to heat, and better, cheaper public transport.
- And those working in health will be interested in cleaner air, active travel and more access to greenspace.
Change is coming – charities need to help make it just and fair
However, there is a risk that the policies we introduce to drive the changes we need place a disproportionate burden on those in society least able to bear the costs, or compound existing inequalities.
It’s people living in poverty or experiencing disadvantage, exclusion or marginalisation who will be least resilient to the effects of the change we can expect – either the change that the planet will inflict on us, or the change we choose to implement to ensure a more liveable future.
So, there is a role for all charities to get involved in responding to the environmental crises and ensuring that we do so in a just and fair way.
Mission-related climate action is about more than reducing your carbon emissions
We need to be clear this is about much more than reducing the environmental impact of our own operations as organisations.
It’s true, the easiest way to draw a line between most charities’ activities and the environment is to look at their direct contribution to carbon emissions. (The prominent focus on reaching net zero encourages this perspective.)
But for most charities, reducing their own carbon footprint is the least important contribution they can make to tackling the climate emergency.
Instead, charities’ biggest contribution will come from acting on the threats and opportunities associated with climate change where these intersect with their own missions. From playing to their strengths in terms of their capabilities, relationships, reach and voice.
- Helping people, places and communities adapt to the changes in our climate that are already locked-in: providing information, advice and practical support to those who are most vulnerable, and promoting resilience in the people, places and communities we serve.
- Engaging people so they understand what needs to change to secure a sustainable future, motivating them to take action, empowering them and campaigning alongside them to demand the policies we need.
- Preventing some people being unfairly disadvantaged or harmed as a result of the changes to our economies and places that we need to make, and ensuring that they have a voice and influence over plans and decisions that affect them.
The social sector and environmental charities need to work together
Critically, if we are to achieve a sustainable future that is fair and does not compound existing inequalities or create new ones – then the social sector – not just the environmental brigade – must step up.
It’s social charities that are working directly with the most affected or vulnerable people. They can support them, and help to advocate with and for them, to create better designed policies.
Equally, environmental charities cannot ignore the social dimensions of both the causes, effects and solutions of climate change and nature loss. To ensure the success of their own missions, they will need to consider how they work with people and communities to ensure the wider benefits of a post-carbon, nature-rich future are fully achieved and felt equally within society.
At root, the environmental and social problems we face are interconnected. We must adopt holistic approaches that consider both the social and environmental factors that led us into these crises and provide the solutions to get us out.
This creates fertile common ground for alignment, collaboration and partnership between environmental and social charities, both in their own actions, and the demands they make of business and government.
Those of us working in charities and civil society believe this sector is a critical part of how we achieve progress towards a better future. There are many examples from the past of how civil society was the catalyst for political action that secured lasting change.
If we are going to meet the enormous challenge of successfully transitioning to a sustainable, post-carbon, nature-rich future, then civil society surely needs to play its role to the full, engaging, supporting and mobilising all groups in society.