Two melting icebergs.

Why we need to stop relying on the environment sector to solve the climate and nature crises

By Leah Davis 29 August 2023 5 minute read

This blog is part of a series drawing from the work of our Everyone’s Environment programme. You may also be interested in our most recent blog which explores the strategic implications of the environmental crises for social charities and funders. 

The trouble is, they have not been communicating the threat loudly enough or in the right way.

So said the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland last month, to explain why the environmental movement is being outmanoeuvred by the oil and gas lobby.

In many ways the statement resonated. Environmental organisations aren’t always great with language. ‘Climate justice’ is too abstract and ‘net zero’ and ‘decarbonisation’ too technical. ‘Climate change’ and ‘global warming’ are too timid to express the urgency of the threat we face, although they were a pragmatic choice in a political environment that was, at the time, hostile to mentions of environmental change.

But rather than focus on the specifics of language, there is a much bigger question we should be asking: Is it right to rely on environmental advocates alone to counter the doubt spread by the fossil fuel companies with their huge budgets?

As the impacts of the climate and nature crises become ever more real, we need to stop relying only on the relatively small army of people working in the environment sector to solve these problems, and stop blaming them when there isn’t enough action or when they get the language slightly wrong. It’s simply unrealistic to think that they can do it on their own. These crises are caused by all of us, their impacts will be felt by all of us and the solutions demand action by all of us.

Organisations from all sectors should make it a priority

More organisations in other sectors, including social charities, need to recognise their responsibilities in supporting people who are going to experience the worst effects of the environmental crises, and start campaigning alongside green groups for urgent change.

The health, development and economic benefits of reducing air pollution, stopping further climate breakdown and improving nature are pretty well evidenced now, yet they don’t appear to be very well known.

NPC’s recent evidence review, part of our Everyone’s Environment programme, showed that young people, those on low incomes, from ethnic minority communities and disabled people are more likely to experience the worst impacts of the environmental crises here in the UK. How they are affected will differ, and of course few people will fit neatly into one of these groups.

Young people are likely to experience greater impacts now, but also over the long term as they will live longer. Such impacts include premature birth, lower birth weights, poor lung and brain development and harm to future fertility. It also includes mental health impacts, increased risk of respiratory and cardiovascular issues and cancer. There is also evidence of damage to education, including missed school days and lower academic performance.

Impacts on people from ethnic minorities were different. As most of these communities are more likely to live on low incomes, they have a greater likelihood of living in poorly adapted housing. This makes them particularly vulnerable to hot weather, flooding and damp. Research by the Runneymede Trust and Greenpeace found that many people from ethnic minority communities live in ‘air pollution sacrifice areas’, known to be permanently affected by pollution. Well known consequences include asthma, some cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Babies of women from ethnic minority communities already have poorer birth outcomes and exposure to air pollution may be a factor. People from these communities are also less likely to live near green spaces and so miss out on the mental health benefits of nature.

The evidence showed a whole host of impacts on older and disabled people. Their health and medication are often affected by heat, for example exacerbating symptoms of conditions like multiple sclerosis. Heatwaves also increase excess deaths most amongst the over 65s and air pollution is linked to schizophrenia and other psychotic conditions.

Across all groups, the evidence shows that if you are on a low income, which disabled people and those from certain ethnic minority communities are more likely to be, then you’re more likely to experience the worst impacts.

Little is known about the impacts of green policy on people

It is baffling that, with all this evidence of impact, there is very limited assessment of who does and doesn’t benefit from government environmental policies. Where people are mentioned in government assessments, it’s often limited to little more than a few sentences. We found almost no assessment of how policies on food and farming, climate adaptation, and water and land pollution affect people.

Where we did find evidence, it seems that there is a mixed picture. People who were disabled, from certain ethnic minority communities or on low incomes were most likely to benefit from fuel poverty, insulation and clean air programmes. But, along with young people, they were probably far less likely to have benefited from the billions of pounds worth of subsidies for electric vehicles and solar panels.

These inequalities aren’t just a moral issue. As the recent reaction to the ULEZ in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election showed, even when the outcomes of these policies, like cleaner air, will most benefit those on the lowest incomes, if there’s a perception that the costs of environmental policies fall disproportionately on those same people, it can be used as a political tool to try to stop or roll back environmental policies.

That’s why social charities need to step in and play their part. These are the organisations working directly with the most affected people. They can help to advocate with and for them, to create better designed policies. Some charities are already starting to do this through the Everyone’s Environment programme, and we’re always open to more charities joining.

And environmental groups must make space for these organisations to campaign alongside them, so all groups can learn from and support each other.

Environmental groups can’t and shouldn’t be expected to shoulder the enormous challenge of these urgent issues that affect us all. We are all in this together.


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