Today’s guest blog comes from Professor Rich Pancost, Head of School for Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.
This is Bristol:
Numerous green businesses and voluntary organisations, a multitude of cyclists,
recyclers and circular economists; ethical banking and a local currency; a
Council-owned windfarm, Energy Company and low-carbon investment strategy;
local food production, community energy, sustainable housing developments. The 2015 EU Green Capital and the owner of
the most rapid and extensive decarbonisation ambition of any city or nation in
This is also
Bristol: Congestion, polluted air and a polluted harbour, heat-inefficient
Victorian homes, fuel poverty and food deserts. Economic inequality magnified
by environmental inequality.
Bristol has been
a leader in the environmental movement for decades, and it has been a leader in
tackling climate change. I’ve been studying climate change for 30 years but am
still in awe of the Bristol spirit. And
since arriving in Bristol, I’ve tried to help my small bit: I was with George
Ferguson in Paris when he pledged carbon neutrality by 2050; I also
collaborated on the Council’s Resilience Strategy and, more recently, Marvin
Rees’ One City Approach, and especially its environmental theme.
was enthused to see Bristol pass a motion of intent, declaring a Climate
Emergency and a desire to become carbon neutral. Carbon neutral across all
sectors. By 2030. This is the ambitious Bristol that I love.
And yet I am
wary. I am wary that in our fear of
catastrophic climate change and in our urgency to declare a Climate Emergency, we
fail to build a genuinely inclusive movement.
And such a movement is needed to achieve the tremendous change that is
We must drive our society towards
sustainability, circularity and carbon neutrality. It is necessary to protect
our civilisation, to protect all of us and our planet. But most of all, we must minimise climate
change because climate change is unjust.
It will affect all of us, but it will affect some of us more. It will affect children more than their
parents. The young more than the old.
And it will
affect the poor, the vulnerable, the isolated – and it will do so not just
because of the unfortunate coincidences of geography but because of the
structural inequalities in that same society that we are fighting to save. Heat
waves kill the poor, they kill outdoor labourers, the working class. Sea level
rise will trap, drown and infect the poor, those without the means and wealth
to freely move among nations. The volatility of food production will be
particularly devastating to those who already struggle to feed their families,
who already lean on food banks and charity. Hurricanes and storms will continue
to devastate the communities with the least recourse to escape, who likely
already live in flood-prone areas, who can be sacrificed, like those in Puerto
Rico, with minimal political repercussions.
is an affront to our putative ideals of fairness and equality. It is
classist. It is racist.
But if climate
action is a question of social justice, then those marginalised groups must be
part of the movement. They must set the
agenda of that movement. They must lead
the movement. And if they are not, those
of us who claim the title ‘environmentalist’ cannot ask why they are not
engaged, and instead must ask how we have failed. We must challenge ourselves, our privilege,
our dialogue and our institutions and understand how we have excluded them.
Have we invited marginalised groups to participate in our events and our agenda? Or have we honestly co-created an open space
for multiple agendas? Have we recognised
that destroying inequality is a legitimate starting point for fighting climate
change? Have we recognised that many of
our proposed solutions – entirely rational solutions – can be implicitly racist
If we are going
to prevent catastrophic climate change, then we must act fast and with
unrelenting persistence. But at the same time, we must be patient, check our
privilege and listen to those who have been marginalised by past environmental
movements. This is especially true because it is those same marginalised
groups who will most likely bear the greatest burden of climate change. We assault
these groups doubly if we do not centre their voices in our common cause. And because the environmental movement is
unstoppable – technologically and socially inevitable and therefore
economically inevitable – exclusion from these opportunities is yet a third assault.
I am by no means an expert on
co-creating powerful social movements, fuelled by equality amongst the
participants and effective in achieving change.
But I have been lucky enough to work and learn from those who do. They
have shown undeserved patience and understanding and trust.
They taught me that it is vital
to recognise not just your own privilege but the economic, historical or social
privileges of the institutions one represents. In my case, a world-leading
university. In other cases, a business
or a trust – even a small green business or cash-starved charity. And even a
movement, especially a movement perceived as being by and for the white middle
Having recognised that privilege
and in many cases the structural racism, sexism and wider inequalities that
come with it, it is our obligation to decolonise those institutions rather than
to plead for yet more labour from those our institution oppresses. It is our obligation to do our own research
and to commit our own emotional energy and labour. And when we do work with
marginalised groups, we are compelled to respect their expertise by paying them
for their services. Major institutions
will pay consultants 100s of thousands of pounds for a re-brand or governance
review but ask marginalised groups to help address our diversity challenges by
serving for free – by serving on our Boards, attending our workshops, advising
on our projects. It is insulting to imply
that the privilege of entering our institutions and projects is adequate
compensation for their time, their re-lived trauma or their expertise.
Of course, a recognition of the
limitations of our institutions, our organisations and our movements is only
the start. The next steps involve a fundamental reckoning with the word ‘our’
in those projects – who has owned these, who owns them now, who will own them
in the future? And given those answers,
are they fit for the challenge at hand? Are they projects capable of becoming
genuinely co-owned, co-creative spaces, where not just new members are welcomed
but also their new ideas, challenges and perspectives? Or are these projects that must be completely
deconstructed, making way for the more energetic ones to come? Do we ourselves have the humility to
deconstruct our own projects and cede our labour to those of someone else?
These are challenging questions
and the answers are not as simple as I imply.
Those of us who have been fighting climate change, plastics in the
ocean, toxins in our soil, pollution in the air, and the non-sustainable
exploitation of our planet are deeply invested in the struggle and in the
solutions we have forged. It is not trivial to patiently draw in new
perspectives nor to have our ideas questioned – we have been fighting an
establishment for five decades that has been guilty of predatory delay and
manipulation of public understanding. We
are right to be wary of anything that delays action, right to be uncivil,
impatient and intemperate.
But it is also time to concede
that a thousand ripples have yet to become a wave. Certainly not the wave needed to dismantle
the environmental degradation that has become a near-inextricable feature of
In Bristol, we have the potential
to create this wave together. We have a
Partnership, a One City Approach and a cross-party ambition without precedent.
This is the time to re-invigorate our environmental movement, to align it with
our other challenges, to become genuinely inclusive and diverse. It will not succeed with a simple majority,
with a mere 52% of the vote. It will
have to be a new political project but with an apolitical community that
rejects the discourse of division and embraces new and unexpected
It will be a community that makes
use of all of our talent and is united not with a single strategy or action
plan but a common cause and shared values. It will be a community that thrives
through a multitude of equally respected agendas.