Between a rock and a hard place?

climate change, personal finances, welfare

Author(s):  Clare McNeil
Published date:  20 Jan 2012
Source:  Joseph Rowntree Foundation

‘Weird weather’ around the world saw in 2012, according to the Guardian. This winter has seemed more like spring in some parts of the country, while last year we experienced one of the coldest UK winters in 300 years. The debate about whether this is due to natural variability in UK weather patterns or is consistent with climate change predictions continues.

Perhaps in part because of this, there is little public awareness about the impact of more extreme weather events and who will be most vulnerable to the risks. But will it stay this way?

We know there are likely to be strong links between existing poverty and deprivation and vulnerability to climate change. Recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showed that the most vulnerable will not simply be those most exposed to hazards like extreme weather events, but those least able to recover from them. This includes those on low incomes, disconnected from social networks and the least mobile or able to access services – all groups which are already among the most socially excluded in our society.

Those looking to support and defend the interests of the climate vulnerable face a tough challenge. Climate change and social exclusion are both issues which have struggled to attract strong and lasting political constituencies, due in part to public ambivalence.

The most recent British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey suggests that the number of people showing an active concern about climate change and the environment has been steady or declining over the past two decades. Though the percentage of people belonging to environmental groups has stayed the same (at around six per cent) the numbers either donating to environmental causes or joining campaigns has dropped significantly. The environmental movement has so far struggled to generate widespread interest and concern beyond a committed core, though the recent forests campaign suggests broader coalitions can be formed given the right opportunity.

Concern about social exclusion among the public has always been mixed with an equal concern for the role of personal responsibility .There are signs however that the desire for a ‘something for something’ approach to welfare is getting stronger. Again, the latest BSA survey shows that in the space of just twenty years the number of people who believe the government should spend more on benefits has halved. Only just over a third think the government should redistribute income from rich to poor, compared with over half in 1989.

It is possible that we are witnessing the rising influence of the Thatcher generation as the baby boomers make way for their offspring.  Though generally liberal on issues such as minority rights and probably greener than their parents, this cohort is decidedly illiberal on issues concerning entitlement and tax.  This trend is coinciding with the toughest period for living standards since records began and an unprecedentedly long squeeze on public spending. Making the case for any kind of redistribution of resources to protect the most vulnerable is likely to be harder in the future.

Policymaking is therefore more likely to be supported and maintained if it can demonstrate a ‘something for something’ approach or a contribution to a more sustainable future. In the context of climate vulnerability linking winter fuel payments to energy efficiency upgrades is one example, as are pooled insurance schemes to protect those most vulnerable to flooding . Community programmes that can  improve adaptation while building social inclusion are also likely to be supported.

In a new and contested politics of distribution, where the urgent and pressing are likely to trump the longer-term and preventative, the goal must be to show how action taken now can lead to a fairer, more affordable and sustainable future.


Our people

Clare McNeil, Senior Research Fellow