Winning over hard-pressed families to the climate revolution
By Brieuc Van Damme, CEO, King Baudouin Foundation and fellow at the University of Brussels
Leaders will talk at COP28 about a net zero future but fret that voters, stuck in a grim economic present, won’t buy it. Yet they can win over ‘gilets jaunes’ and hit climate targets – if they make time to listen.
Climate doubters top the poll in the Netherlands. The German government’s ratings plunge over a ban on oil and gas boilers. Downing Street vows to defend petrol-powered motorists. As COP28 opens in Dubai, six months ahead of the European Parliament elections, today’s stories of popular and populist backlash against “elitist” green ambitions revive memories of five years ago, when France’s ‘gilets jaunes’ took to the streets and forced President Macron to scrap a hike in fuel duty.
Those protests prompted a group of European charitable foundations to seek answers to the question – what kind of green transition can secure buy-in from those who stand to suffer the most from climate change, yet who have the least capacity to adapt their lifestyles or pay higher bills?
Belgium’s King Baudouin Foundation and our partners in the Fair Energy Transition for All – or FETA – project have undertaken an unprecedented, grassroots listening exercise across the continent. We have demonstrated, first, that, whatever some politicians may believe, there are few “climate sceptics” among Europe’s most hard-pressed and disadvantaged citizens; and second, that putting in the time and effort to hear them out can produce policies which will not only help the planet but also help heal our divided, unequal societies.
We can move past this perceived polarisation between a green-thinking “elite” and an apparently sullen and obstructive “people” and launch a truly collaborative climate transition by making the most vulnerable in society actors and partners in change that works for them.
Sounding out the views of those who feel left out takes a degree of creativity and investment, in time and resources, that has proven a barrier for public authorities struggling to fathom what people want. Over two years from 2020, FETA organised focus group discussions around cutting emissions from homes and transport that involved 1,000 people living in hardship in nine EU countries. By discarding lazy assumptions, and going beyond group opinions marshalled by community organisers, to hear directly from those who feel unheard and left behind we showed their concerns – and constructive ideas – to be diverse, original, and ripe with solutions.
Reaching out to the jobless, the poorly housed, those struggling with old age or poor health, single parents, in cities, towns, and villages, takes patience. To form views on complex issues requires clear explanation with real world examples and building confidence among people who have grown to mistrust many who claim to speak for them. Meeting in familiar spaces, sharing meals, including families, offering vouchers, travel and childcare expenses, and other compensation for their time and commitment are all helpful tools to giving people a voice.
What emerges is an awareness that climate change, and efforts to combat it, pose serious risks to those on tight budgets for heating (and cooling) often poorly maintained rented accommodation or for feeding a family, but also a determined willingness to do their bit. “Saving energy is a good thing,” was a typical comment to FETA researchers. “But I don’t want to limit my kids by cooking less or telling them to take a cold shower.”
Also clear is a sense society is already unfair and that costs of change should be borne by governments and those who cause more of the problem. One participant told us: ““Poor folk are better climate activists than rich people – because they can’t afford to buy much stuff.” Another said: “Everyone should benefit, but those with broad shoulders should carry more.”
And what goes down very badly is being talked down to – “You can’t run a tractor on pedal power,” one Spanish small farmer retorted it in a swipe at urbanites swapping their SUVs for two wheels.
Listening to Europe’s unheard voices has lent credibility to policy recommendations worked out with FETA “citizen forums” and we are pleased to see both the Commission and national governments taking our ideas on board. Belgium has made “inclusive transition” a keystone of its Council presidency.
Our facilitators saw enthusiasm grow throughout the process. “The fact that someone’s asking their opinion – and that this opinion is being noted down and passed up to the authorities - that matters to people,” one said. “People in the focus groups have said ‘Something’s really happening after all’.”
FETA generated proposals as varied as its participants. They range from mandatory, landlord-funded insulation and free buses to cheap loans for heat pumps or for cleaner cars. Local energy cooperatives are also popular, as would be curbing the carbon footprints of limousines and private jets.
To world leaders at COP28 in Dubai, to those running against climate sceptic lists for seats in Strasbourg, the message from hard-pressed Europeans is that they, too, fear for the state of the planet tomorrow and they are willing to get behind leaders who seize the opportunity today that the green transition offers to make our societies more inclusive and fairer for all.