By John McKendrick of Glasgow Caledonian University
The world awaits in the hope that the 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) delivers the transformation that the vast majority of climate scientists, activists and citizens desire. Although some may be sceptical that impactful action will result from the deliberations, the annual gatherings have a track record of bringing together nations and reaching agreement on global action to tackle climate change, as evidenced by the Kyoto Protocol (adopted in 1997 and effective from 2005) and the Paris Agreement (negotiated in 2015 and entered into force in 2016).
Globally, there are grounds for optimism. The pandemicinflicted delay since COP25 in 2019 has given the world time to reflect on the environment low-points that were reached prior to the pandemic. For example, as reported by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, 2019 was the second warmest year of record, the decade 2009-2019 was the warmest ever recorded, and CO2 levels in the atmosphere rose to new records in 2019. Optimism may also be found in the adversity of the global COVID-19 pandemic. For some it may be found in the immediate environmental improvements resulting from economic slowdowns and travel restrictions. Decline is not inevitable. For others it may be found in a renewed quest for systemic changes to achieve sustainable economies and more just societies as we build back (differently) and better. The Biden Presidency’s reversal of the USA’s recent aversion to global environmental action is also a positive sign.
Locally here in Scotland, there may never be a better time to ‘think environment’. Our interest is super-charged simply by virtue of Glasgow being the host city. All manner of specialist interest groups in the UK – including, as evidenced by this edition of the Scottish Anti-Poverty Review, ours with an interest in tackling poverty – are taking the opportunity to assert their environmental credentials and question their professional practice, e.g. across housing, accountancy, and tennis, among many others. Furthermore, the Cooperation Agreement of the Scottish Green Party Parliamentary Group Business as Usual and Beyond: Positioning Poverty and the Environment for Scotland and the Scottish Government (approved by the Scottish Green Party), with the sharpening of focus on existing 2030 targets, will provide political focus on environmental issues like never before.
What about poverty? In some respects, we should welcome ‘business as usual’ in relation to thinking about poverty and environment in Scotland.
As Jamie Livingstone of Oxfam Scotland explains in Poverty in Scotland 2021, the global climate crisis is fuelled by the world’s rich industrialised countries – such as Scotland – and Scotland must deliver on its global responsibilities for tackling climate change. Business as usual means doing what is right at home and abroad. But if this responsibility is to be met, there is a need to ensure that the rebalancing does not further impoverish those who are just ‘getting by’ and those who are already struggling. Just as credit to the UK Government for advancing a solution to the funding of social care may be undermined by concerns at the cost to be borne by low paid workers, so there is a need to ensure that any future global or national environment settlement does not impoverish or further impoverish citizens in Scotland.
We should also focus on the ‘business as usual’ of articulating how poverty is bad for the environment at home and how an impoverished environment impacts more on those vulnerable to poverty. This is the familiar turf of antipoverty campaigners in Scotland and is a line of argument that regrettably but predictably also applies to health, education, transport, housing, etc… Living in poverty makes us less able to consume ethically, heightening environmental vulnerabilities. Buying cheap is not always a bargain for the environment. Similarly, a bad environment is bad news for people experiencing poverty. Just as the impoverished in industrial cities lived among the noxious industries that polluted their environs in the 19th and 20th Century, and their ancestors to endure the toxicities and dereliction of deindustrialising environs in the early part of the 21st Century, so we might expect the poorest to be most affected by climate change now.
There is also a risk that the taxation and income-raising tools that could be used to change behaviour and/or raise funds to address climate change are ones that most regressive and draw more from the pockets of those with the least. On the other hand, as we progress into a phase in which we manage COVID-19, attention will turn to public finances, how they have been impacted by COVID-19 and what must be done to manage our burgeoning public debt. In the likely event of more radical solutions being deemed unpalatable, optimistically, there may be more willing ears to listen to arguments to tackling wasteful and ineffective spend that perpetuates poverty and environmental damages.
But, there is also a need to move beyond business as usual.
We have noted how poverty and environmental damage are evils that are linked, and that there is a tendency for one to exacerbate the problems of the other. It is also very likely that these – tackling child poverty and making significant progress to tackle the climate crisis through sustainable and inclusive development – will be the twin priorities for the Scottish Government for the remainder of this term of office and the one beyond. There is an urgent need to align these challenges, rather than risk this becoming a perverse competition for public attention (and public monies) in the years ahead. In effect, we need a Scottish equivalent of the United Nations Poverty-Environment Initiative, which aims to position ‘pro-poor, pro-environment objectives into the heart of government by mainstreaming povertyenvironment objectives into national development and sub-national development planning, from policymaking to budgeting, implementation and monitoring’. The UK cofunds the programme, but it must also embrace it at home. More challenging for the anti-poverty sector might be consider the possibility that poverty might be good for the environment.
Although this might run contrary to our experiences, and may appear to promote poverty, it is a line of thinking that needs to be considered. Three Chinese economists have modelled the inter-relationship of poverty alleviation, environmental protection and healthcare in China, concluding that – from a consumption perspective – poverty alleviation could be a substantial threat to the environment. Put simply, as people leave behind poverty, so people consume more, which could have adverse impact on the environment (with, for example, more polluting gases generated). We in the anti-poverty sector need to engage this argument. We need to make clear that there is no need to advocate poverty to protect the environment. Indeed, as the Chinese economists themselves conclude, there is a need to promote green production and green lifestyles, as an integral part of strategies to reduce poverty, which of course is very much the thinking that is promoted by proponents of wellbeing economy. There might also be some potential to challenge our existing approach to behavioural change and poverty. Notwithstanding the work across Scotland that is ‘giving voice’ to lived experience of poverty, there remains a prevailing tendency in policy and practice to preach to people living on low incomes. Solutions to poverty and the problems it presents all too often imply what those experiencing it are doing wrong; well-intended they may be, but strategies to enable households to cook with fresh produce, to budget effectively, to prepare themselves to re-enter the labour market perpetuate an idea that people experiencing poverty are the problem. We need to challenge this thinking, and two ways are possible
First and foremost, we need to assert that everyone is entitled to a decent standard of living and to live in dignity, and not to believe that in order to address climate change we must leave millions living in poverty. However, when some to choose to focus on individual behaviours – blaming individuals for the circumstance in which they find themselves – then there is a need to present an alternative narrative – promoting learning from people experiencing poverty. If the difficulties of getting by on a poverty-income are forcing people to manage some resources in ways that are good for the environment (wasting less, being less reliant on central heating, being more sustainable in transportation), then there is a need to share these lessons with those who are more wasteful. Let me be clear – I am not valorising or promoting poverty. I am not underplaying the adverse impact of poverty on people’s lives. Neither am I trying to deflect attention away from the need to address wealth inequalities, which I would argue are the root cause of the problem. However, there may be opportunities to challenge misperceptions that prevail about people in poverty by sharing lessons that all could learn.
In a similar vein, we might consider how a ‘bad environment’ might be good for poverty. Here, I am thinking of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These 17 Goals to transform the planet by 2030 include Goal 1 (No poverty) and Goal 13 (Climate action). Progress toward achieving each of the 17 Goals is monitored regularly. Interestingly, each Goal currently describes a ‘COVID-19 response’. The COVID-19 response for poverty recognises the immediacy of the challenge and encourages governments to increase efforts to challenge poverty – in effect, more of the same. In contrast, the COVID-19 response for climate action calls for transformative action. While there is a need for more of the same, our anti-poverty strategies need to be as bold as those being proposed to tackle climate change.
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.C. and Moseley, W.G. (2005) A geographical perspective on poverty–environment interactions. Geographical Journal. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4959.2005.00146.x
Waitt, G, and Harada, T. (2019) Space of energy well-being: Social housing tenants’ everyday experiences of fuel poverty. Transactions at the Institute of British Geographers. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12320