“Inside the word “emergency” is “emerge”; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibility are sisters.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark
We are not living within the planet’s natural resources. Last week’s extreme heat – which delivered yet another summer of ‘record breaking’ temperatures across the UK and a surge in fires that destroyed homes and woodlands – confirmed that the impacts of climate change are here, now.
Climate justice has too often been perceived as a problem for future generations. We have delayed action and ignored the voices that warned of the existential threat that this presents for half a century and more. But even in the summer of 2022, the High Court has ruled that the UK’s Net-Zero Strategy is inadequate and unlawful – that we are just not taking the climate emergency seriously.
Despite all that we know about climate change, these extreme weather events still have the capacity to shock. Watching footage of wildfires ablaze in England, we were filled with sadness and fear. These are feelings that have been present in our own conversations about environmental wellbeing over the last two years. As an endowed foundation which owes its very existence to wealth generated by the extractive and energy-intensive 19th century steel production industry, we perhaps feel a particular sense of responsibility. However, we know these feelings of anxiety are shared by millions of others and we are thoughtful about how we can, collectively, channel them into action.
Over the last few months we brought Carnegie UK staff and trustees together to talk about how we can contribute to improving ‘environmental wellbeing’. For us, environmental wellbeing means that we all have access to a quality local environment, that we live within our planetary boundaries, and that we look after the environment for both current and future generations.
We navigated these recent conversations using our Wellbeing Tests, which are a set of conditions and practices that our own evidence tells us are critical to improving wellbeing. Thinking in this way, it became clearer to us that the challenge and vision of environmental wellbeing is not a separate endeavour. Rather, it is tangled up with all of the other issues that affect whether or not we all have what we need to live well together.
Here are three examples of those Wellbeing Tests in action:
Climate change is an issue of our past, with roots in colonialism and systemic racism. This endures today, with low-income communities of colour less likely to access green spaces and more likely to experience pollution. We know that people cannot flourish when there is inequality between people: recognising the intersection between climate justice and racial justice demands that we advocate much more clearly for targeted action for communities that are and will be most affected by the impacts of climate change.
We know that enabling conversations and interactions between diverse communities is important for wellbeing. And although it is sometimes portrayed as a divisive issue, recent research, including a paper published this month by IPPR, shows that there is real consensus around the urgency of climate change and a collective desire to take care of our environment for our children and grandchildren. Creating spaces to discuss climate action could, then, offer a common cause for people to unite around, to build community cohesion and to reduce political polarisation.
People need to have their basic needs met before they can improve other aspects of their lives. Tackling poverty and environmental justice go hand in hand and the rising cost of living is a poignant reminder – and reality – of that. Our conversations took place at a time when many households were having to make difficult choices between heating their homes, or putting food on their tables. People at risk of poverty are increasingly struggling as a result of rising energy prices, inflation, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And for those that were already living in poverty, this inequality has deepened.
At Carnegie UK, we see these ‘wellbeing tests’ as the essential foundations of better collective wellbeing. The foundations become weak when they’re ignored, putting wellbeing at risk. Though we’ve only articulated three of the tests here, those lenses make it clear how such threats to our wellbeing are interwoven. Solutions to the climate emergency also have to respond to the other crises of our time.
There are moments when the urgency and complexity of these emergencies feels overwhelming. But by identifying where environmental wellbeing intersects with other wellbeing issues, we begin to see the possibilities for many “new things to come forth”, and this should inspire decision makers at all levels to take much bolder action on climate change.
Over the next 6 months, we will challenge ourselves to make climate action much more present in shaping what we say and what we do; and we will use this commitment to enhance our work to improve relationships and build trust, to tackle poverty, and to advance racial justice and inclusion. We look forward to learning from and sharing our experiences.