I grew up in assorted rough and wonderful housing schemes in Forfar, just outside of Dundee. My Mum, a nurse who trained during my early years, raised my brother and I effectively as a single parent. I’ve never met my father. My Granda worked his days in the factory that my Grandmother cleaned at nights. At 16, I was politely asked to leave high school and by 17, I was on the brew.
Through various twists and turns (including stints as a musician, in an architect’s office and as a job centre adviser), I fumbled my way through college, onto a political science degree at the University of Strathclyde, won a scholarship to do a masters and PhD and now spend my days as a doctoral researcher in the field of energy policy, with a focus on issues of social justice, equality and making low-carbon technologies work for people.
Safe to say, it’s been quite the transition. Not many kids from schemes in Forfar end up here. Most of my old mates are still back home, plying their trades and raising their kids; some are in prison for the second or third time; others have passed on through various battles with drugs, drink and mental health. I love Forfar, it’s a place of community and closeness (for better or worse), but like any working-class area of high deprivation, it’s a place layered with complex psycho-social and economic issues.
So, folk like me, working class people from places like Forfar, don’t often end up where I am now; having very pointy-headed conversations in management-speak with academics and policymakers about how best to design energy systems. We don’t often end up in academia at all, but certainly not in high-fallutin fields like climate change and energy policy. And boy, do I know it.
When I hear my own accent (which is naturally quite brash North-East/Dundonian) compared to others in the field (generally quite middle class and English), I often feel out of place, like a bottle of Buckfast at an organic wine-tasting. I’ve caught myself over the years cleaning up how I talk to fit in, which I hate and now actively battle against. When I imagine what my friends back home would think if they could hear me shmooze over decarbonisation and the “just transition” in the twang of a neutral Scottish weather reporter, I cringe a lot. I feel like an imposter in the field and a class traitor all at once. It’s maddening.
Perhaps more so than most, the realms of energy and climate change in the UK have been traditionally dominated by the white middle classes; very smart people who are rightly concerned about the breakdown of our ecological systems and the urgent work we need to do to reduce emissions, but who are less immediately familiar with the realities of poverty, inequality and injustice that are intrinsically wrapped up in it. Even more radical activist spaces remain mostly occupied by people who are perhaps a click or two removed from sustained social or economic hardship, giving the wider field of combatting climate change the image of a middle class preoccupation. This has in turn created an unnecessary rift, between the perceived privileged climate concerns of middle class luvvies and the “real” concerns of social injustice and poverty faced by people every day.
Of course, these are not separate issues. Both causes and solutions to the climate emergency are fundamental matters of socioeconomic justice. Despite accounting for a minuscule fraction of actual emissions compared to wealthy individuals and corporations, poorer people face significantly worse health outcomes from air pollution; pay disproportionately more for their energy bills and are at much greater risk of fuel poverty; face higher levels of exclusion due to dirty and incoherent public transport (particularly women, people with disabilities and people of colour). Communities and workers are pressured to rethink careers and local economies as industry evolves and declines to meet new emissions reduction targets. Yet, the people at the sharp end of these socioeconomic impacts, and systemic injustices in general, are far less abundantly represented within climate spaces. This is a tragedy.
We are not totally neglectful of these justice issues, however. Our worry often extends beyond emissions into the realms of equity and justice that are categorically inseparable from climate change. We talk at length about a the “just” transition, about making sure that inequalities aren’t made worse as we clean up our act and that nobody is left behind in the process. We have a bustling plethora of people across academia, policy and activism alike pushing valiantly to centre this perspective. We also know that the work we’re doing to clean up our energy and industry and transport has not only social implications, but that it also has very real social potential too.
It’s not just that creating a clean and expansive public transport system can reduce emissions; it can connect previously excluded communities and create new employment and recreational opportunities. It’s not just that insulating houses or adding solar panels can shrink our carbon footprint; it can shrink energy bills for some of the most vulnerable and lowest income families, alleviating some of the pressures of poverty in the process. It’s not just that new green jobs can help clean up industry; it can reduce unemployment and help keep those important relationships between industry, community and place alive.
Bringing down emissions — which we ultimately have to do — is thus a formative moment to also reimagine social and economic systems to address some historic injustices positively, to make climate change work for “real” social issues. This is what drew me to the field in the first place; the opportunity to make one of the world’s biggest issues work for another. It’s a whole new set of policy tools to battle “real” issues of poverty and inequality that social policy people and poverty campaigners alike should be able to get excited about too.
Yet the rift between the two lives on. We haven’t effectively reconciled luvvy and “real” concerns. The people at the sharp end of these socioeconomic impacts, and systemic injustices in general, remain hugely underrepresented and excluded in the designing of and campaigns for climate solutions. Meanwhile, inequities in who wins and loses from the clean energy transition mirror those historically unequal trends in favour of capital and corporations, with communities, workers and people who experience injustices left largely on the margins again. This is a systemic issue, but it is also one we have to take some responsibility for.
A fundamental, uncomfortable truth thus remains: there’s only so much that new tools can do for justice when the building site is still manned by people who don’t know what injustice feels like. We are a very white, very middle-class group (not to overlook the crucial work being done by non-white, working class people and communities, of course). That fact necessarily colours the solutions we design and accept. This is at least partly how we’ve ended up with popular climate discussions focussed on green consumer choices. We’ve let the popular discourse devolve into a conversation about decisions to be made by mid-income householders, rather than emphasising the need to organise for systemic change or seize the social and economic opportunities for working classes and communities that transitioning to a net zero economy presents. We’ve dominated climate discussion with middle class voices, which has in turn allowed that discussion to be dominated by middle class solutions.
Yet I repeat: we understand the justice issues. We know precisely where the socioeconomic inequalities and vulnerabilities lie and how they feed and are fed by the net zero transition. We’ve listened to the communities and heard their concerns and worked them into our models and studies and campaign material. This is all well and good and valiant. But it is by no means enough. Understanding hasn’t led to the redistribution of power and resources we ultimately require. We can’t come to solutions that are genuinely prosperous for all sections of society if only one section gets to have the discussion. Transitioning to a net zero society in a fair way thus means more than understanding justice issues: it means bringing more people who have lived them intimately into the realms of policy design, academia and activism.
We can’t bridge the gap to fix justice issues from a distance, even with the best intentions, and putting communities under a microscope can only get us so far. Systemic change on the scale truly necessary to combat the climate emergency — and make it fair — isn’t likely if only beneficiaries of the current system are party to the conversation.
We need to do better to bring people who have actually had to make the choice between heating and eating (and clothing and leisure and addiction all the rest) onto the playing field; to hire people from excluded and under-represented communities, even if they aren’t “qualified”; to make it viable for working class people who feel the worst social effects of climate change and injustice to pursue careers in mitigating it, if we are to mitigate it successfully. I don’t mean “listen to lived experience”. I mean bring people with lived experience into high-level spaces and make space for them to lead when they get there. From there we can better agitate for real redistribution and justice, and design solutions not just with working class concerns in mind, but with working class people at the table. This isn’t a new idea, and it’s certainly not exclusive to climate, but it’s something we need to do if we are to challenge the luvvy image problem and truly seize this opportunity for social and economic good.
We can also do better at branching out to build alliances outside of those traditionally middle class climate, energy and environmental circles. Climate organisations and researchers can, at times although not always, be quite insular. We’re bad for talking amongst ourselves. When it comes to collaborating, we work primarily (although not exclusively) with climate and sustainability campaigns and build bridges with ministries for energy and environment and the like. This makes sense but, knowing that those spaces are largely middle-class dominated as it is and knowing that climate affects a whole lot more than climate, this can also perpetuate the exclusionary cycle and deprives us of important insights and collaborations.
To rectify this, we need to do better to build collaborations with life-long poverty campaigners, non-sustainability community groups, social justice activists and trade unions and all of civic society in between. We need to sell the social justice vision to “non-climate” and climate people alike. Big changes take coordinated action from a broad church. If we want a just transition to be taken seriously, we have to first get serious on justice.
The good news for all of us is that, in reality, making these changes doesn’t actually require massive effort (apart from the whole systemic change thing). We can easily hire people without the traditional qualifications required for climate research or policy design. We can easily reach out to social justice campaigners. We can easily centre those diverse perspectives for a richer, more expansive, prosperous and equitable transition overall.
This is why I remain resilient and cling to my accent, even when the imposter syndrome or waves of class betrayal wash over. I know that accent is important. I know that the need to transition to net zero can be a tool for tackling poverty, inequality and opportunity with more accents like mine and plenty of others in the mix. I know that these things can be reconciled for a much greater sum of their parts. I’m a working class kid at heart, working in a middle class field. These two sides of me are not in conflict.
When I go back to Forfar now, I notice different things. I see a few more solar panels each time. I spot a few more turbines in the hills. I see my friends and their wonderful families and then inevitably feel that anti-nostalgic pang that comes with knowing some of the old gang aren’t there anymore, lost to the clockwork of deprivation.
At the heart of all of that, I see a disconnect that doesn’t need to exist. A rift between exciting new technologies and a cleaner planet on the one hand, and people who could undoubtedly benefit from them on the other. But these aren’t disconnected things. Quite the opposite, in fact. These are new sources of power, waiting to be plugged in.