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Poverty: Friend or Foe of the Global Environment?

By John McKendrick, Glasgow Caledonian University


This article has been republished with permission from Poverty Alliance. You can read the original article here.


In April of 2019, Scotland’s First Minister declared a “climate emergency” in a keynote address to her own party’s annual conference.  Although this declaration was attributed to young climate campaigners who had gone on strike from school the previous month, the Scottish Government has a track record of acknowledging the climate problem. In 2010, the portfolio of the Minister for Environment was extended to embrace climate change and in 2016 the portfolio of Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform was upgraded from Minister to Cabinet Secretary.  The incumbent made a statement to the Scottish Parliament on May 2019, outlining Scotland’s response to the “global climate emergency”. By the end of 2019, the majority of Scottish local authorities had declared a climate emergency, with mainstream political parties following the lead of the Green Party in outlining bold plans to shift toward a sustainable green economy in their manifestos for the UK election of 2019, albeit that those with the boldest plans were not elected to govern.  According to the Scottish Household Survey, the proportion of adults in Scotland in agreement that “climate change is an immediate and urgent problem” has risen from under one half (46%) to two thirds (67%) in the last five years.

Does climate change matter to the most disadvantaged in Scotland?

There is some evidence to suggest that the most disadvantaged in Scotland consider that climate change is an urgent and immediate problem (Figure 1).  Using the same Scottish Household Survey data as before, it is found that a majority (albeit a very small one) of adults living in Scotland’s most deprived areas think that climate change is now a problem (52%).  This majority has been reached because there has been an increase in recent years in the proportion of residents in Scotland’s most deprived areas who think that climate change is a problem (from 39% in 2013 to 52% in 2018) (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Percentage of adults in Scotland perceiving that “climate change is an immediate and urgent problem”, by area deprivation, 2018
Source: Source: Scottish Household Survey 2018 (Figure 10.3)

However, far fewer of those living in Scotland’s least deprived areas think that climate change is an immediate problem, compared to those from the least deprived areas (52%, compared to 75%, respectively).  And, as Figure 2 suggests, the realisation that climate change is a problem has grown more rapidly in the least deprived parts of Scotland (from 52% in 2013 to 75% in 2018).  It might be reasonably be concluded that just as Scotland has an attainment gap that it wants to tackle, it also has a climate change awareness gap that is widening and needs to be addressed.

Figure 2: Percentage of adults in Scotland’s Most Deprived Areas, perceiving that “climate change is an immediate and urgent problem”, 2013-2018
Source: Source: Scottish Household Survey 2018 (Figure 10.3)

Do the most disadvantaged in Scotland want to take responsibility for action to tackle climate change?

There is evidence to suggest that Scotland’s most disadvantaged are concerned for the environment. The black bars in Figure 3 advise that, of those from the most disadvantaged areas in Scotland: (i) two thirds disagree that there is no need for them to worry as climate change will only impact of other countries; (ii) the majority disagree that it is not worthwhile doing things to help their environment if others don’t do they same; (iii) only one in ten don’t understand what actions they should take to tackle climate change; while (iv) twice as many disagree, as agree that their behaviour and everyday lifestyle does not contributes to climate change (45%, compared to 24%). 

Figure 3: Attitudes toward tackling climate change in Scotland in 2018: comparing responses from within Most Deprived Areas and Least Deprived Areas
Source: Scottish Household Survey 2018, data kindly provided by SHS analysts

On the other hand, those from Scotland’s least deprived areas seem to be relatively less likely to express commitment to tackle climate change. For example, while two thirds of those living in the least deprived parts of Scotland disagree that their behaviour and lifestyle contributes to climate change (67%), less than one half of those from the most deprived parts of Scotland think likewise (45%). In addition to a ‘climate change awareness’ gap, it might be concluded that there is an ‘inclination to take climate action’ gap.

Making sense of the numbers

These data are estimates from the Scottish Household Survey, with (unreported) confidence limits around the reported findings. Furthermore, these data describe results for people living in deprived areas, rather than people experiencing poverty.  Nevertheless, with careful and cautious interpretation, they do raise key points for us to consider.

It could be speculated that there is nothing untoward in the differences reported between those living in more deprived and less deprived areas. For example, being less inclined to believe that their own personal behaviour and everyday lifestyle impacts adversely on climate change and being less likely to consider that it is not worth doing things to help their environment if others don’t do the same, may be no more than a robust and sober appraisal on the part of those from more deprived areas.  That is, these ‘gaps’ might simply reflect their belief that those with greater means have a bigger adverse impact on the environment, which could be borne out from evidence of higher levels of consumption from the least deprived.  Indeed, this might be more than a rational and robust comment; it may reflect a degree of despair at the inability of the most deprived to impact positively on this global challenge, given the environmentally damaging behaviours of others. On the other hand, the differences might reflect disinterestedness in wider global environmental problems among Scotland’s most deprived; perhaps understandable when concerns with ‘getting by’ and fending off destitution are more pressing.

Clearly, there is a need to engage those with lived experience to find out why these differences exist.  The concern to better understand the poverty-environment nexus is more pressing than a matter of passing academic interest.  As experience of the years of Austerity have demonstrated, it tends to be the most economically insecure who are the most vulnerable in a crisis. If we accept that we are now dealing with a climate emergency, then we should expect that our the most deprived and our poorest will be hardest hit.  Dealing with environmental crises should of be more than a passing concern to those who aim to tackle poverty. For those primarily interested in tackling complex environmental challenges, positive conclusions might be drawn from what people think in Scotland’s most deprived neighbourhoods.  Rather than focus on difference and gaps, it might be reassuring to acknowledge that the majority of those living in deprived areas recognise these global environmental challenges and their responsibilities in taking action to address them.

As for the gap between least and most deprived Scotland, it might be worth considering that if deprivation was less disabling and poverty was addressed, then Scotland might have even more energy to invest in tackling the climate emergency that now confronts us.


About the author: John McKendrick is a Professor in Social Justice at Glasgow Caledonian University. John’s primary research interests are on poverty (with a particular interest in children) and children’s play and has published for academics and practitioners. He is particularly keen that his work is of use to practitioners and campaigners beyond the academy who seek to tackle poverty in Scotland, the UK and the EU.

Suggested further reading

Gray, L. & Moseley, W. (2005). A geographical perspective on poverty–environment interactions. The Geographical Journal, 171, 9 – 23. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4959.2005.00146.x.

Boyle, P., Exeter, D. & Flowerdew, R. (2004). The role of population change in widening the mortality gap in Scotland. Area, 36, 164 – 173. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0004-0894.2004.00212.x

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