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Climate change and social justice – developing the future UK agenda for action

By Chris Shaw on July 26, 2017

Justice is a powerful concept in human affairs – our reaction to injustice is so strong and the wish for the world to be fair so widely felt, that it seems appropriate to talk of justice as an instinct.

Climate change discussions have from the very beginning at heart been discussions of justice, most notably in concerns that the world’s poorest, who have done the least to cause climate change, are the first to suffer from its impacts.

In 2009 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) began funding a programme of research under the banner of Climate Justice. The goal of the programme, led by Katharine Knox, was to bring the concept of justice into climate policy decision-making in the UK. JRF  recently announced it was closing the programme, and in June 2017 a one day workshop was held at the JRF offices in London to review the programme’s achievements and explore opportunities for continuing to take climate justice themed research and engagement forward.

Climate Outreach were asked to produce a report summarising the day’s discussions. As the report makes clear, the twenty seven attendees shared a sense there was much to celebrate about the programme’s achievements – achievements that were hard won given the programme’s lifespan was characterised by the aftermath of the financial crash of 2008, increasing polarisation around climate change science and an entrenched policy of fiscal austerity. Most notably, the programme has generated capacity for work on climate justice to happen, brought together researchers, practitioners and civil society organisations from diverse backgrounds, and created a vocabulary around climate justice which would otherwise never have been developed.

Whilst the programme has created the space and possibility for people to talk about climate justice in relation to adaptation and mitigation planning, it was also noted that there had been little transfer of ideas and approaches between social justice and climate justice: the climate justice work had not successfully engaged those working on more traditional social justice themes, whilst social justice had not firmly entrenched itself within the climate justice work.

The absence of a sustained cross-fertilization of ideas between these two areas of concern highlights a key challenge for those working on climate justice. Despite the heartfelt desire most people have for a  just, equitable and fair future, our wider work has shown that this frame does not work for centre-right audiences. Indeed, the term ‘climate justice’ doesn’t connect with people outside the small circle of the population who are already deeply engaged with progressive social issues. This is not only a problem in the UK. As we found recently in our work with the public in India, the concept of climate justice did not get traction with the people who attended our workshops. While the Indian government has consistently argued rich nations must pay for their carbon pollution, most participants agreed with the statement: “We cannot wait for help to arrive from the West; India is in the unique position to be the first emerging economy to take action.”

This is not to argue that broad public support for ambitious climate policies can be anticipated if the ways in which that is brought about are seen to be unfair. Rather, it is to recognise that when campaigners, politicians and other communicators talk about a low carbon future as a fairer and more just future, they do so skilfully, with reference to the research, and not under the banner of slogans which the public cannot relate to or understand.

A Linkedin page – called Climate Change and Social Justice – has been set up for attendees and others to share the ongoing work being done in this field.


Photo by Ashley Cooper (©) 

By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris was part of Climate Outreach’s research team from 2015 – 2023. In that role, he focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work was driven by a belief that successful climate policies are ones that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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