Friday, March 19, 2010 - 11:19

Climate change isn’t just about the weather – it will blow in a fundamental and potentially stormy change to our social climate as well.

The effects of climate change – and our responses to it – will transform every part of our lives from work to travel, from health to wealth. In fact, that’s already beginning to happen. Yet most of the talk is still about Arctic ice and rising temperatures.

The Eden Project is working with the influential Carnegie UK Trust to help throw that debate open as widely as possible. To accelerate it up through the gears from being regarded as solely the concern of environmental activists, to involving all ‘civil society’ groups - all those organisations which aren’t government or business, such as charities, church, faith and community groups and social enterprises.

Their participation – and their knowledge, experience and expertise - is crucial; particularly in trying to protect the poor or disadvantaged from losing out as we struggle to deal with the social and economic fall-out from tackling climate change and the increasing scarcity of natural resources.

Tony Kendle, Director of the Eden Foundation, says: ‘This is not just an environmental issue. It is so important that this huge range of people recognise that it will have impacts on whatever their concerns are. Whether it is charities concerned with ageing or with poverty, for instance, there will be a lot of issues for them to get engaged with and we desperately need people who know their way around those territories to help find the solutions.”

To that end, Eden has made a major contribution to the Carnegie UK Trust’s Commission of Inquiry report into the future of civil society, ‘Making Good Society’, published on 15 March. On the Commission’s behalf, it investigated how to encourage these non-environmental groups to include themselves in the efforts to make a rapid and just shift to a low carbon economy, through a range of research, workshops and interviews across England and Scotland. Eden has now launched the findings as a separate, satellite ‘Climate and Scarcity Guide’.

This covers the ground across the problems – and opportunities - we all face, the possible means of dealing with them, the potential roles of civil society organisations and the practical difficulties they’ll encounter.

Eden’s aims in this are quite simple – but extremely important. It wants to increase the depth and spread of people looking at the challenges and ratchet up the pressure to find answers. It wants to improve the level of understanding, so that those answers are the best that can be found. And in particular, it wants to ensure that non-environmental groups understand why and how these issues are going to have such big repercussions on their future work.

Why? Well, while we can’t actually predict the weather in 40 years time, we do know that the Climate Change Act commits the UK to an 80 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That’s a massive ask – to achieve it tomorrow, the country would have to shut down and hibernate for more than nine months of the year. While it seems a long way off, today’s students will still be at work and raising their own families then.

And the effects are quietly biting well ahead of changes in the weather. For instance, insurance companies are raising premiums or even bailing out of covering flood-prone houses altogether, eroding their values long before any rising waters might threaten to.

Tony Kendle says: “There are all sorts of issues like this that we are trying to tease out and give people a heads up on. Legislative frameworks and policies are already being put in place that are determining winners and losers even as we argue whether climate change is real or not.
“For a lot of vulnerable groups, the solutions we introduce are going to have as big an impact as the problem we are trying to deal with – and more quickly.”

If personal carbon allowances are introduced, that throws up even starker questions. Someone who is old, poor and living in low-quality housing out in the colder northern countryside far from shops and other services has a much bigger carbon footprint than a well-off southern urban professional. It is becoming increasingly clear that how we approach climate change is often going to spark arguments about social justice, rather than environmental ones.

As well as helping to defend the weak, by joining forces civil society organisations also have the campaigning clout to change the face of the whole response to this threat. Currently, much of the public information is couched in terms of personal behaviour, such as changing lightbulbs, recycling and limiting travel.

Tony Kendle says: “It’s very easy to wag your finger at somebody and say drive less. But actually, very few of us do huge amounts of arbitrary driving; it’s all to do with years of planning systems that have put homes in one place, shops in another and work somewhere else. So the real answers are a shift in planning, or, if we can’t change that, looking at things like service distribution, so people don’t have to go so far to find a doctor, for example.
“Those kinds of things are going to be the ones that make the big differences.

“Tackling climate change is ultimately a cultural problem. We have no hope of taking the steps that we need to unless we relearn the nature of community action and how a society works together to get the big, difficult things done, and done in a way that protects vulnerable people.”