Equally Ours blog: Embedding equality and human rights into climate action 

Equally Ours’s Lukia Nomikos on the importance of acknowledging the unequal impacts of climate breakdown and taking a rights-based approach to climate action.

We all have a right to a clean, healthy and safe environment. The air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, indeed, our health, wellbeing and survival all depend on this. We, our children and future generations, all deserve a life where we are free from harm, and that allows us to contribute and flourish, whoever we are. 

Climate breakdown poses an existential threat to all of this. It endangers our ecosystems and undermines the effective enjoyment of an array of human rights, including the rights to food, water and sanitation, housing, health, development, self-determination, and life itself.  

While climate breakdown and extreme weather events affect all of us, their impacts are not felt equally. Climate change disproportionately impacts people who are socially, economically, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised. And in doing so, it deepens existing structural inequalities and creates new forms of injustices. Yet, it is these communities, those who are most affected, who tend to have the least say in decisions around policies and measures to address climate change.  

It doesn’t have to be this way. While time is of the essence, it’s not too late to avoid or limit the worst effects of climate change. We know its main drivers and we know the solutions. By putting human rights and equality before profit and political divisions, we can build a society that protects and nurtures the wellbeing of people and the planet.  

Responding to climate breakdown involves a two-tier approach: mitigation and adaptation. The former refers to making the impacts of climate change less severe by preventing or reducing the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The latter can be understood as the process of adjusting to the current and future effects of climate change.  

Climate justice must underpin both. But not enough is being done yet to put equality and human rights at the heart of climate action. Equally Ours, alongside other organisations, including many of our members, are determined to change this. Which is why climate is one of the three key priorities in our ten-year strategy, ‘Together for social justice’.   

We’re calling for a human rights-based approach to climate action. This will ensure a holistic and intersectional approach that treats climate breakdown not only as an environmental issue, but also addresses its structural, economic, social, cultural, political, and historical dimensions. This approach will empower the most affected people and communities and facilitate a green transition that leaves no one behind.   

Climate breakdown doesn’t affect us all equally and deepens inequalities 

The detrimental effects of climate breakdown and extreme weather events vary greatly between groups of people and communities, both between and within countries. Central to the concept of climate justice is the recognition that the most marginalised people and those who have contributed the least to climate change, are now bearing the brunt of its impacts.  

Because of pre-existing structural inequalities, climate breakdown disproportionately affects Black and Global Majority people, women, Disabled people, older people, children, refugees and migrants, marginalised LBGT+ people, working class and poor people. And yet, mitigation and adaptation policies rarely consider the rights and needs of these groups.  

In July 2023, Equally Ours hosted our bimonthly Human Rights and Equality Strategy Group meeting, this time focusing on climate breakdown. We considered ways in which we can coordinate our efforts and take collective rights-based action on this.  

Our members, the Women’s Budget Group, UNISON – the public service union, and the Runnymede Trust all highlighted the uneven impacts of climate breakdown and emergencies on their communities and the work that they are doing to tackle climate change.  

To give a few examples from them and other members, in the UK, as elsewhere, women are more likely than men to live in poverty and to be heads of single-parent households, which makes them much more vulnerable to the costs of climate change. 

Systemic racism means that Black and Global Majority communities are more likely to be in low-paid, precarious jobs and live in poor, urban areas in the UK. These neighbourhoods tend to have high levels of air pollution, a high concentration of waste facilities, and a lack of access to green spaces.  

Disability Rights UK has highlighted that Disabled people are frequently unable to leave their homes and reach safety, in the event of evacuation due to extreme weather, leading to the loss of many lives. Disabled people are twice as likely as any other group to die in disasters. 
Climate change also impacts different sectors to varying degrees. It increasingly affects the work and working environment of UNISON’s members whether it’s in the health service managing the increased health impacts of excess heat or pollution, or the Environment Agency (or equivalent in the devolved nations), where their members’ role is to respond to increasingly frequent floods, droughts and other environmental emergencies. 

We must therefore make sure that plans for emergency-preparedness and emergency response recognise the uneven effects of climate change and take into account everyone’s rights and needs – without sowing division or setting one community against another. Without a conscious effort to address structural inequalities across society, these will only deepen, particularly in times of crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic and its ongoing impacts demonstrate this clearly.  

Solutions must involve the people who are most affected 

So, why has climate justice not been adequately embedded into climate action so far? Quite simply, it’s because the people and communities who are most affected do not have a seat at the table. Unfortunately, decision-making processes are currently dominated by northern and corporate interests, and representation of marginalised groups is largely tokenistic.  

To once again draw from examples by our members, the Runnymede Trust reports that perspectives on the climate crisis from professionals, activists and leaders in the global South are consistently left out of media reporting and academia in the UK. Climate change research and reporting continues to be driven by richer countries focusing on narratives of suffering facing white-majority communities. 

According to the Women’s Budget Group research, women are also consistently shut out of and underrepresented in decision-making spaces that affect them. They hold 35% of seats in the UK Parliament (25% globally) and 33% of decision-making roles under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. Grassroots women’s organisations in the UK say they feel shut out of the conversations around climate policy. 

Research has shown that the global Disabled community will be one of the hardest hit groups as the climate changes. Yet the UK Government has acknowledged that very little work has explored issues around Disabled people and resilience-building in the context of longer-term climatic and environmental change. This means that Disabled people are still excluded from conversations that will significantly impact them, as Disability Rights UK has pointed out in their work on climate breakdown.  

Real representation is crucial for getting concerns heard and addressed. Responses to climate change can only be truly fair, just and inclusive if the affected communities are able to participate and have a say in these. Only in this way can we make sure that climate solutions take everyone’s rights and needs into account and don’t deepen existing inequalities.  

A right-based approach recognises this. It calls for affected individuals and communities to have not just a voice but an active role in the design and implementation of mitigation and adaptation measures and policies. This will not only ensure that plans for emergency-preparedness and emergency response adequately address everyone’s rights and needs but also guarantees a just transition to a green economy that leaves no one behind.  

Taking climate action 

Unless we act, national and local policies to mitigate and adapt to climate breakdown and its effects will ignore the rights and exacerbate the unmet needs of people and groups who are already marginalised.  

Equally Ours is committed to working with and supporting our members and the wider equality and human rights field to prepare for and respond to climate breakdown and extreme weather events in the UK through a rights-based approach, and to embed climate justice into local and national strategies and policy on climate adaptation.  

We’re currently conducting a scoping exercise to identify how best to focus our role and collaborate as a network to drive positive action on climate. The discussions we had with our members at our annual meeting of member CEOs and Chairs in June and our Human Rights and Equality Strategy Group meeting in July were a starting point for this. Initial suggestions from members on what Equally Ours could do in relation to climate breakdown included: 

  • Raise awareness of the fact that climate change disproportionately impacts people and communities affected by long-standing structural and intersectional inequalities. 
  • Support members and communities in developing thinking and taking policy action and practical action on climate breakdown and extreme weather events at UK and local levels, coordinating with action led by sister organisations in the devolved nations.  
  • Provide opportunities to learn from other members who have made progress in this area, and from work happening in some local authorities. 
  • Provide support with message framing to ensure we are all pushing towards a similar direction, not inadvertently disrupting what we are trying to do, and effectively tackling negative messaging. 

It’s up to all of us to take action on climate change, and we’ll be more effective if we work together.  

Climate breakdown goes beyond both party politics and identity politics. We all share one planet, and this global challenge threatens each and every one of us. It’s vital that we put aside any differences and disagreements and come together to take collective rights-based climate action. 

Get in touch to share what your organisation is doing to tackle climate breakdown. And let us know your thoughts about how Equally Ours can best support you and where we should focus our efforts. 

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