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Opinion

Class matters if we want to tackle climate change

If we’re going to succeed in addressing our many environmental issues we need to tackle the problem of social inequality at the same time, says Karen Bell

Earth Day should also be considered People Day since environmental and social justice go hand in hand. To successfully address the ecological crises, we also need to be tackling inequality, poverty and mental distress.

In particular, the solutions should not further burden working-class people. Yet, as my research shows, environmental policies, services, improvement programmes and transition processes – locally, nationally and internationally – have often forgotten about working-class people and low-income groups, sometimes making their lives more difficult.

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These solutions include ‘lifestyle environmentalism’ – encouragement to buy expensive green products and consume organic food; carbon taxes – expecting people to pay more for their use of energy, transport and goods; renewables funded by costs added to consumer energy bills; ‘green jobs’ that are not available to working-class people and recycling schemes that involve burning waste in working-class neighbourhoods.

Environmental policy should not increase income or health inequalities but should make life better for everyone. As we have seen with the gilets jaunes or ‘yellow vest’ protests in France, sparked by a planned rise in ‘green taxes’ on petrol and diesel, struggling people do not respond well to additional pressures. As the protesters argued: we can’t worry about the end of world when we are worrying about the end of the month.

In general, too much focus on individual behaviour can create hostility towards environmentalism while allowing companies and governments to continue to engage in their own proportionately far more harmful practices. The greatest polluters are big corporations and state-funded military operations. Focusing on individual behaviour and sanctions may be counterproductive.

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Environmental programmes that tackle class inequity and sustainability issues together are the way forward. For example, a pilot project which was launched in London just this month, Greener Together, aims to address environmental inequality linked to social and racial injustice.

Working-class people need to be involved in developing socially just environmental policy, as the French government did following the yellow vest protests, setting up a Citizens’ Climate Convention specifically to search for solutions based on social equity 
nd fairness. If everyone is to have their needs met within the limitations of the planet, we will need a significant redistribution of wealth and much greater income equality.

Working-class organisations, through trade unions, already mobilise for greater equality. Global studies show that unionisation has a significant equalising effect on national income distribution. Since the environment cannot sustain everyone enjoying private luxury, we also need to press for more shared public goods.

Working-class communities have a proud history of, often unrecognised, environmentalism.

For example, free-at-the-point-of-use swimming pools, parks, playgrounds, sports centres, galleries, allotments, tools libraries, and public transport. Covid-19 has taught us all that we cannot live well if others do not.

Despite many environmental policies and debates being, at times, harmful to working-class people, we should not fall into the trap of believing that working-class people are not environmental activists.

Working-class communities have a proud history of, often unrecognised, environmentalism. Through the trade union health and safety movement and local community activism, there are numerous environmental issues that have been exposed and addressed through working-class activism. For example, in the UK, the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) led a campaign against the use of lead in the manufacture of pottery, leading to its eventual banning. The lead used in the glaze was causing blindness, convulsions and death among the mostly female workforce.

On Earth Day 2021, we should learn from this rich history of working-class environmentalism and build our campaigns around both social and environmental justice. Environmental policy must both address the ecological disaster and tackle our social problems if the transition to sustainability is going to be supported and embraced by the majority.

Karen Bell is senior lecturer in environmental management at the University of the West of England

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