Climate change: social workers’ roles and contributions to policy
debates and interventions
Durham University, UK
Running title: Climate change and social work
Key words: climate change, sustainable communities, carbon trading, equitable carbon
sharing scheme, Kyoto Protocol, community social work, Copenhagen Conference of the
Parties (COP15), Gilesgate Project, Misa Rumi
Accepted for publication October 21, 2010
School of Applied Social Sciences
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Climate change is seldom discussed in mainstream social work. Its first presentations on the
world stage occurred in Copenhagen during the Conference of the Parties (COP15). This
article argues that the profession has an important role to play in: helping people understand
the issues; promoting sustainable energy production and consumption; mobilising people to
protect their futures through community social work; and proposing solutions to greenhouse
gas emissions as indicated in two case studies, one based on a community initiative in the
Global South, and the other in the Global North. The article also demonstrates that social
workers can foster climate change endeavours that are equitable for all, for example the
Equitable Carbon Sharing Scheme.
Climate change has become shorthand for one of the most important challenges facing
contemporary societies. It encompasses the idea that the world’s climate is changing as a
result of greenhouse gas or carbon emissions caused by human activities. Greenhouse gases
include water vapour, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons.
These gases trap infrared radiation and cause air temperatures to rise. Significantly elevated
concentrations of these gases through fossil fuel consumption, deforestation and industrial
processes contribute to changes in air temperature, precipitation patterns, ocean acidity, sea-
levels and melting glaciers. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests
that natural processes account for only 5 per cent of climate change (IPCC, 2007). Measured
in parts per million (ppm), carbon emissions have risen from 280 ppm before the industrial
revolution to 430 ppm by 2005 and are growing (IPCC, 2007). Climate change is expected to
have a differentiated impact on countries as extreme weather events increase in frequency,
produce climate change refugees and subject people in the poorest nations to increased risk of
flooding when sea levels rise as weather gets wetter (colder in some places) or drought where
it becomes warmer and drier (United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], 2007,
The science of climate change is contested with people lining up along a continuum
while media discourses revolve around two opposing camps: the ‘sceptics’ and the ‘greens’
(Giddens, 2009). People experiencing disasters induced by climate change will require social
work support to deal with the aftermath. Social work has a remit to work with the ‘person in
the environment’ from a human rights and social justice perspective (www.iassw-aiets.org).
Access to social justice by those affected by climate change is difficult, as the unproductive
discussions in Copenhagen in 2009 revealed. Social workers, the professionals charged with
enhancing human-well-being from a human rights and social justice framework (Ife, 2003),
are well-placed to contribute to climate change policy discussions and interventions
(Dominelli, 2009, 2010). Although the profession has been relatively silent in these debates, I
argue that social workers must engage effectively in these by learning about the science
behind climate change; speaking about policies; developing resilience amongst individuals
and communities; mitigating losses caused by climate change; helping to resolve conflicts
over scarce resources; and responding to devastation caused by extreme weather events
including floods and droughts. Social workers have to engage with the complex arguments
and realities around climate change if they are to counsel effectively people suffering loss and
grief in these circumstances and help build their resilience in preventing and/or adapting to its
consequences. Within a future contextualised by climate change, the roles of social work
educators and practitioners range from advocacy to community mobilisation. I draw upon two
case studies, one from the Global South and the other from the Global North, to examine
these because climate change affects everyone, everywhere.
Greenhouse gas emissions: scientific arguments about human induced
To respond appropriately, social workers ought to understand the science of climate change.
Climate change refers to that complex articulation of greenhouse gas emissions, including
carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that have caused temperatures to rise. Known as
carbon emissions, these are associated with the processes of industrialisation, especially the
use of fossil fuels to produce energy for domestic and industrial processes connected to
urbanised living (IPCC, 2007). Knowledge about climate change is not new. In 1865 in the
UK, John Tyndall suggested that gases like water vapour and CO2 retain heat (Ungar, 1992).
Svante Arrhenious in Sweden warned in 1896 that CO2 from burning fossil fuels would lead
to global warming (Sample, 2005). Its genesis in the industrialisation of Western countries
has labelled the West responsible for climate change and, as polluter, liable for the costs to
deal with its consequences and limit temperature rises. In this scenario, the rest of the world is
portrayed as the victim of the West’s intransigence, i.e., failure to limit its own emissions and
share renewable energy technologies (Third World Network [TWN], 2010). Sharing green
technologies developed primarily in the West (Löscher, 2009) can play key roles in reducing
emissions. Social workers can mobilise communities to facilitate technology sharing and
emission reduction by using their mediation skills to bring groups in dispute together.
Industrialisation processes treat the atmosphere as a carbon sink by emptying gaseous
pollutants straight into it. Population growth, sedentary materialistic lifestyles associated with
industrialisation, centralisation in cities and commuting communities associated with
urbanisation have added pressure on the earth’s finite fossil fuel resources. Global demand for
energy is predicted to increase by 60 per cent between now and 2030 (Löscher, 2009) while
the atmosphere is rapidly approaching its limits in absorbing emissions. Scientists on the
IPCC calculate that to keep temperature rises within 20C, a total of 1,400 billion tonnes of
carbon emissions can be absorbed by the atmosphere between 2000 and 2050 (IPCC, 2007).
There were 280 ppm of carbon emissions in the air before the Industrial Revolution. Today,
this figure stands at 430 ppm and is likely to rise to 550 ppm by 2035 if reduced emissions are
not forthcoming (Stern, 2006). Environmental stress will be exacerbated if methane currently
locked in the permafrost of Siberia and Northern Canada is released because methane causes
more atmospheric heating per unit than carbon dioxide (Löscher, 2009). The world is
warming at an alarming rate. Most of the rise has occurred since 1970. There is 40 per cent
more CO2 in the atmosphere now than 200 years ago.
Addressing climate change has to take account of the physical limit to the amount of
carbon emissions that can be spewed into the air. The threatened growth in carbon levels
makes it imperative for individuals and countries to reduce emissions and become carbon
neutral. Unless urgent action curbs greenhouse gas emissions, the planet and all living things
will be seriously endangered along with legitimate demands amongst industrialising countries
to eradicate poverty (TWN, 2010). This means that the polluter-victim analogy has to be
replaced with a problem-solving approach that supports all nations in a common purpose,
namely that of addressing climate change for the benefit of all peoples and their
Failure to reduce carbon emissions impacts substantially on everyone and has resulted
in 1998 being the hottest year in the warmest decade in the warmest century for one thousand
years. A heat wave in Europe in 2003 killed over 30,000 people. A drought in the Amazon
region in 2005 turned the Amazonian Rainforest – a natural carbon sink absorbing carbon –
into a source of carbon emissions and endangered indigenous livelihoods. By 2007, Arctic ice
had melted by significant amounts; 2009 was the fifth warmest year since 1850; and 2010 has
broken a number of records for extreme weather events. The earth’s natural defences are
eroding because rising carbon emissions have impacted deleteriously upon natural carbon
sinks – rainforests and oceans. Both tropical and temperate rainforests lose capacity to absorb
carbon emissions as temperature rises. Additionally, rainforests are being destroyed for crops,
wood and biofuels at alarming rates, except for places like Costa Rica that are reforesting. The
oceans are losing capacity to absorb carbon, becoming more acidic as water temperature rises.
Greater acidity threatens their flora and fauna with extinction.
Shifting patterns of energy consumption
Binary discourses of ‘Polluters’(West) and ‘Non-Polluters’ (Global South) position the West
as the perpetrator of catastrophic events and the others as victims bearing a disproportionate
share of the effects of climate change. The West is blamed for unfairly consuming fossil fuels,
extensively polluting land, air and water and producing climate change. These constitute a
historical legacy and moral obligation to reduce its own emissions and pay for industrialising
nations to ‘catch-up’ in their development by funding clean air technologies (Averchenkova,
2010). Unfortunately, the blame game has produced an intractable impasse in negotiations
about who caused the damage, who will pay for undoing it and who is suffering and resulted
in an impasse in negotiations around the Kyoto Protocol (TWN, 2010).
The West’s dominance as polluter is changing as emissions from industrialising
countries in the Global South rise. For example, South Korea’s emissions nearly doubled
from 298 million tonnes in 1990 to 594 tones in 2005. Emissions in China rival those of
Germany at 6.4 tons of HCU per capita GDP. China’s use of energy is less efficient because
3.5 times more energy than the global average is consumed to generate each unit of GDP
(Löscher, 2009). The largest consumers of energy in 2005 included industrialised and rapidly
industrialising countries (percentage in brackets): USA (20.5%); China (15.0%); Russia
(5.7%); Indonesia (4.7%); Japan (3.0%); Germany (2.4%); France (2.4%); Canada (2.4%); the
UK (2.0%); South Korea (1.9%). China emits 6.1 billion tons of CO2 yearly, while 250
million people live in poverty. Its emissions are set to rise to 10 billion by 2020 (Löscher,
2009). China overtook the USA as the single largest polluter in 2006 and is likely to retain
that position for the foreseeable future. Together, they produce 40 per cent of global carbon
emissions to be absorbed by the same atmosphere and biosphere inhabited by all living things
(Löscher, 2009). China’s emissions will continue to rise because it is opening a coal-fired
power station every few days to feed its industrialisation drive. Coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel,
could be substituted by renewable energies if the green technologies associated with them
were better shared and emissions recycled more effectively. More global technological
cooperation would enable the Chinese government to expand its existing renewable energy
programme and accelerate the search for alternative solutions, a development its policymakers
are keen to progress. Rapid population growth, highest in the Global South, will intensify
pressures on resources available to meet ever growing needs (UNDP, 2009). The changing
picture in energy use requires a more equitable sharing of resources and clean energy
technologies than is occurring. Social workers can advocate for this to happen.
Individual contributions to climate change are differentiated according to class and
geographic region. Rich individuals contribute most, if lifestyle activities are counted. These
include private jets, consumerism and, if Sir Richard Branson succeeds, day trips to outer
space for US$200,000 per passenger (Allen, 2009). These decisions are made privately.
Individuals can disregard carbon footprints and their impact upon the earth’s entire
population. In contrast, a homeless person in a rich country would have a small personal
carbon footprint. Wars and terrorist bombs contribute carbon emissions that are usually
discounted. The ‘good-time toys’ that people enjoy in groups, for example fireworks to
celebrate New Year, or Guy Fawkes Day, add to the total carbon emissions that planet earth
has to absorb. When do we think of the consequences of these behaviours and ask if
alternatives are available or can be created?
The impact of climate change will be variable as weather events become more
extreme. Some countries will sink. Small island nations in the Pacific like Tuvalu might
disappear altogether. Others might rise. Climate migrants will pose another issue to be
addressed (UNDP, 2008). The 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees does not apply to
climate migrants (Meo, 2009; Sanders, 2009). New protocols are necessary to cover their
needs (UNDP, 2008). Humanitarian aid currently cannot meet demands for food, shelter and
medicines by climate refugees in drought stricken Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia. Social
workers can advocate for increases in aid and help develop appropriate services and policies.
These complex realities are compelling the West to rethink its strategy towards climate
change, reject the Polluter–Non-Polluter binary and tackle barriers in negotiations. However,
its ambivalence in reducing emissions is impeding progress (TWN, 2010).
Public responses to climate change
‘Sceptics’ claim that people play a minimal role as Mother Nature causes climate change. The
‘greens’ emphasise people’s contributions and call for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions
to limit temperature rises to 20C, stabilise the world’s climate and reduce damage caused by
humans. These debates have been distorted by media assertions that data collected by British
scientists at the Centre for Climate Change at the University of East Anglia were fabricated.
The veracity of these allegations has been discredited by three enquiries (Adams, 2010;
Russell, 2010). A substantial amount of other evidence supports the view that people induced
climate change is real and having deleterious effects on the livelihoods and well-being of
countless people (Dessler & Parsons, 2009).
One-half of British voters are sceptical about the relevance of climate change to their
lives (Hennessy, 2009). Their numbers encompass distinguished persons, including Nigel
Lawson, former Chancellor in the UK, who deems policies to reduce carbon emissions
‘extremely damaging and harmful’. The twofold categorisation of participants in the climate
change debate as ‘sceptics’ and ‘greens’ is crude. A DEFRA study in the UK refined this
classification in a survey that clustered people’s responses around:
•Positive greens: They comprise 18 per cent of respondents and will do as much as
possible to limit their impact on the environment;
•Waste-watchers: Covering 12 per cent of respondents, this group considers thrift part of
their lifestyle and recycles extensively;
•Concerned consumers: Forming 14 per cent of those replying, they felt they were
already doing a lot and unlikely to do more;
•Sideline supporters: Making up 14 per cent of those surveyed, they acknowledged
climate change as a problem, but refused to alter current lifestyles;
•Stalled starters: This group has little information about climate change, wanted an
affluent lifestyle, but could not afford it;
•Honestly disengaged: These respondents lacked interest in the issue, seeing it as
irrelevant to them.
Only 23 per cent of Britons deemed climate change the world’s most worrying
problem; 58 per cent think it is one of several serious issues. Low levels of outright support
hinder the removal of 20 billion tonnes of carbon from Britain’s atmosphere by 2020
(Hennessy, 2009). Getting everyone on board is crucial as 40 per cent of emissions in the UK
come from domestic sources (Giddens, 2009). Engaging sceptics in well-informed dialogues
about climate change could be part of these efforts. Social workers can contribute to this task
by raising awareness and mobilising communities through community social work if they
understand the science behind these debates.
United Nations initiatives
United Nations (UN) initiatives involve international negotiations among governments
primarily through the Conference of the Parties (COP) with national governments ensuring
that firms and individuals within their borders comply.
Kyoto and beyond
The Kyoto Protocol, signed by 184 countries in Kyoto, Japan in 1997, forms the basis of UN
actions and came into force in 2005. It required 37 of the richest industrialised countries,
known as Annex 1 countries, to reduce carbon emissions by 5 per cent below 1990 levels
between 2008 and 2012. Kyoto was one of several international initiatives on climate that
began in 1992 with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro where the participating countries
agreed on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The Rio Accord
committed governments to prevent dangerous climate change which was defined as limiting
rises in the earth’s temperature to less than 20C. The COP met first in 1995 and annually
subsequently to consider climate change. Copenhagen was the 15th such meeting, hence
COP15. The next one in Mexico became COP16.
The West’s acceptance of culpability in initiating climate change underpinned the
Kyoto agreement. In it, rich industrialised countries agreed to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions and help industrialising countries financially and through technology transfers.
Industrialising countries could participate in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)
Projects to reduce emissions. These were to be funded through an Adaption Fund that levied a
2 per cent charge on CDM Projects. Casting industrialising countries as ‘victims’ meant that
targets were not set whereby industrialising countries could industrialise and keep emissions
low instead of rising substantially like those of China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Korea.
Progress was hindered from the beginning. The American Senate refused ratification
and George W Bush withdrew the USA from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001. Australia also failed
to ratify that year. Other countries have not met their commitments. For example, Canada’s
emissions have risen by 25 per cent above 1990 levels despite committing itself to a 6 per
cent reduction because in 2006 Prime Minister Harper decided to develop Alberta’s oilsands.
A recent report by McKinsey Consultants criticised the UN for poor administration of the
CDM and not monitoring adherence to the Kyoto Protocol. Its implementation was tardy.
Agreement on the methodology for monitoring Kyoto was not reached until 2001 in
Marrakech. Two years later, the Bali Climate Conference established the timetable for
agreeing a successor to the Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012. The Poznan Climate
Conference of 2008 proceeded slowly as politicians waited for American President Obama to
support decisions that tackled climate change and agree on a new Protocol at the Copenhagen
Summit on Climate Change in December 2009. While no binding targets materialized in
Copenhagen, Obama succeeded in getting China to agree to reduce its emissions
(Averchenkova, 2010). Under the ‘Copenhagen Accord’, each country would set its own
limits and politicians discussed these at the COP16 meeting in Mexico in 2010 (Cryderman,
2009) without reaching a legally binding agreement.
Compliance mechanisms proved problematic. Carbon ‘credits’, intended to incentivise
private firms to reduce emissions, were developed in the USA to reduce industry’s price-tag
for becoming less polluting. Carbon trading schemes (CTSs) set up a market whereby
polluting industries and firms could purchase ‘carbon credits’ held by non-polluting ones.
Entrepreneurs favour CTSs because millions of dollars can be earned by selling carbon
‘credits’. CTSs are ineffective because they reward polluters, enable certain groups to profit
from selling carbon credits without reducing overall emissions, ignore those who pay if
nothing is done and allow fraudsters to profit from their operation. For example, the scheme
established by the EU rewarded heavy polluters in Eastern Europe when they sold carbon
credits to Western companies that then lacked incentives to lower emissions. Fraudsters have
targeted the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) worth around 90 billion Euros per
year by claiming and reclaiming VAT.
In Canada, the provincial government in BC paid CDN$14 million in ‘seed’ money to
the Pacific Carbon Trust (PCT) and a further CDN$869,000 to offset the 34,370 tons of
carbon emissions it was expected to produce. The scheme subsidises firms using clean, green
technologies by paying an undisclosed amount per tonne of carbon reduced. The scheme is
funded by charging public sector agencies, especially schools and hospitals, $25 per tonne of
carbon emitted. The money collected goes to private firms and earns them profits (Bader,
2009). To save tax dollars, Bader suggested that public firms use the Chicago Climate
Exchange Scheme which charges only $0.14 per tonne to off-set carbon emissions, as this is
cheaper than the government’s scheme! Most private firms would not deem 14 cents an
incentive to reduce emissions, but if calculated over substantial tonnage, it becomes a
considerable amount. Despite these limitations, during COP 15, the then UN Executive
Secretary Yvo de Boer (still in office at time of publication – he was replaced by Christiana
Figueres at COP 16, but I think my reformulation is OK now?), assumed that the market is
more efficient than the state and supported market-based mechanisms rather than taxes and
regulation for reducing emissions. This view is shared by large polluting private companies
like Exxon Mobil and was the prevailing view at COP16 (Khor, 2010).
Another important and contested hurdle is agreeing on the costs of cutting emissions
globally and who would pay them. The Stern Report of 2006 informed rich countries that
tackling climate change now would cost less than 1 per cent of Gross Domestic Product
[GDP], but would rise to 20 per cent of GDP if significant responses were not forthcoming.
Lamumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, Sudanese chief negotiator for the G77 (group composed of
poor industrialising countries and rising superpower China) and covering 132 of the 192
countries attending COP15, argued that the IMF and World Bank should not run the proposed
‘climate fund’ and that lack of a deal at COP15 in Copenhagen meant ‘certain death’ for
Africa. He derided Gordon Brown’s budget of $10 billion yearly to fund climate change
adjustments in industrialising countries as even insufficient to buy ‘poor nations the coffins’
they would need if climate change was not halted (Gray, 2009).
To advance action in curbing carbon emissions, the EU proposed that contributions to
the 100 billion Euros needed annually until 2020 were paid annually as follows: $30 billion
by Europe; $25 billion by the USA; and the rest of the industrialised world the remainder. The
EU considered this allocation, comprising less than 0.3 per cent of the annual overall income
of rich countries, affordable. The EU’s calculations were based on the size of GDP connected
to the level of carbon emissions (Hayden, 2009: 28). Extensive dissent over this proposal
caused Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke, presiding at the time of COP15, to suggest ‘one
agreement, two steps’. Under this, COP15 negotiators would agree on the outline of a Treaty
in Copenhagen and finalise details at COP16 in Mexico. This strategy nearly won the day
after two weeks of heated deliberations. It fell apart when the USA, China, India, Brazil and
South Africa brokered the deal known as the Copenhagen Accord. Some small, island nations
in danger of being submerged by sea level rises refused to sign it, for example Tuvalu.
Despite being a party in reaching the Copenhagen Accord, South Africa’s opposition dubbed
it the ‘Hopelesshagen Flop’. The Copenhagen discussions disappointed the ‘greens’, as the
ambitions of Kyoto were not realised. Carbon emissions globally are now 25 per cent higher
than in 1990 with 37 countries covered by Annex 1 of the Kyoto Protocol producing 25 per
cent of global emissions. This figure overestimates progress because it excludes the USA
which withdrew from the list.
These responses indicate that bringing together reductions in greenhouse gas
emissions with sharing technological developments requires a political will that seems absent.
Social workers, with their skills in seeing the whole picture and mediating between
conflicting groups, can facilitate implementation discussions at international policy and
community levels. The International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), the
International Council of Social Welfare (ICSW) and the International Federation of Social
Workers (IFSW) hold consultative status at the UN and can use their positions to suggest
alternative policies. They can use mediating skills and interventions to move people beyond
the impasse epitomised by negotiators’ failure to reach a legally binding agreement at COP15
(Averchenkova, 2010) and COP16 (Khor, 2010).
All is not gloom and doom. Copenhagen 2009 has demonstrated that politicians and
environmentalists agree on the nature of the problem and the physical limits to ongoing
pollution that the world can sustain, while disagreeing strongly about how to contain it. Many
politicians favour market-based solutions rather than state regulatory ones. These are usually
associated with carbon trading schemes (CTS). But markets seem unreliable instruments that
cannot be trusted with the delicate and crucial problem of reducing carbon emissions to limit
temperature rises to no more than 20C between now and 2050.
In December 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA ruled that
carbon dioxide is a health hazard. Consequently, the US Senate, which vetoed the Kyoto
Protocol, no longer has to approve any carbon trading scheme that President Obama signs
(Mason, 2009). Lack of national government action has prompted local responses. British
residents formed the 10–10 campaign to reduce emissions by 10 per cent during 2010.
Individuals, companies and local authorities sharing this aim can join. Over 100 local
authorities have done so. Social workers can help people understand wider global concerns
from their local context and mount consciousness-raising campaigns to engage them in local
actions such as the 10-10 initiative.
People can seek equitable solutions, using and sharing green technologies and limiting
the amount of greenhouse gases that enter the air, water and soils of the planet. Clean
technologies make good business sense. They create jobs, can alleviate poverty and help
people realise their human rights and claims for social justice. Bolivia, at the climate change
discussion in Bonn in the summer of 2010, argued for such an approach and included social
workers in advocating for them (TWN, 2010).
Concern about these failures in reducing greenhouse gas emissions led me to develop
the Equitable Carbon Sharing Scheme (ECSS) as a way of transcending the binary divide that
pits one group of interests against another. Originally presented at the seminar organised by
the IASSW, ICSW and IFSW during COP15 in Copenhagen on 10 December 2009, it was
adopted unanimously. I discuss it below.
Social workers’ roles in climate change endeavours at individual and
Dealing with climate change requires personal and collective action at the local, national and
international levels. The political and contested nature of climate change debates and potential
solutions raise questions about social work’s contributions. What can social work educators
and practitioners do about climate change, other than support people who are flooded out of
their homes or seek humanitarian aid as they escape droughts? Is their role simply about
adapting existing skills to address a new social problem?
Social workers as community development workers can mobilise people around
initiatives that do not destroy the environment nor produce ill health among people. Below, I
demonstrate that social workers can and do play additional roles through community social
work, advocacy and community mobilisation around green technologies to enhance the
quality of life in disadvantaged localities and reduce carbon emissions. They can promote
clean, renewable energy to enable people’s living standards to rise without increasing
greenhouse emissions at the unsustainable rates set by carbon-based technologies.
Industrialisation based on carbon neutral or green technologies can benefit people and the
planet, as exemplified by the following case studies. One is from the Global South, the other
from the Global North.
Case Study: Indigenous approaches to climate change in Misa Rumi, Argentina
Indigenous peoples are amongst the poorest of the world’s inhabitants, live in fragile
ecosystems and have low carbon footprints because their lifestyles are communal and
respectful of their surroundings through a holistic approach to the world and their place within
it. They also seek to safeguard the future for their children, are adversely affected by climate
change and have many examples of mitigating risk and building resilience in their
communities, as illustrated here.
In Misa Rumi, Argentina, an indigenous community that herds llamas sought renewable
energy sources for cooking, heating their homes and cutting back on firewood consumption.
Over-demand had caused deforestation and soil erosion and was jeopardising livelihoods. The
villagers teamed up with a local NGO, the EcoAndina Foundation, which had community
workers working with them since 1989. Through this partnership, they acquired solar-power
to run their stoves, including one used by the communal bakery; heat water for showers; heat
the school; and operate water pumps to irrigate vegetable plots.
Now producing energy, the community does not require carbon-offset trading schemes,
collect firewood or purchase expensive natural gas. Their solar energy strategy reduced
pressure on a scarce commodity – firewood derived from the yareta tree that took hundreds of
years to grow. This benefited their reforestation initiatives.
The EcoAndina Foundation believes that villagers can earn carbon credits for reducing
carbon emissions because each solar-powered stove saves 2 tons of carbon dioxide a year. As
the scheme covers 40,000 people in the region (Stott, 2009), the considerable amount
involved can generate income for other activities. Sustainable lives and environments lie at
the heart of this project which honours indigenous ways of thinking, doing and living.
This example involved community social workers linking villagers with EcoAndina to
promote dialogue around the wisdom of embracing a technology that could readily
accommodate their aspirations without undermining their social and cultural traditions. It also
demonstrated the importance of local people owning the change process and of outsiders
being culturally sensitive and locality specific.
Case Study: A white working-class initiative on climate change in Gilesgate, England
Gilesgate, located in northern Durham, has around 6,000 residents. A small part of it, the
Sherburn Road Estate, covers a disadvantaged community of people either in low paid work
or on benefits. Juggling money to pay energy bills is a normal routine. Fuel inequalities are
exacerbated by pre-payment meters whereby the costs per unit of energy are double those
charged to middle class consumers paying by direct debit (Bachelor, 2009).
Community social workers from Durham University have a long-standing relationship
with these residents. Several problems to be addressed were identified in public and individual
meetings. All were responded to, but two resonated with climate change discussions –
unemployment and fuel poverty. Traditional endeavours rooted in reducing energy
consumption and ensuring all benefits were claimed had been unsuccessful. New thinking was
Seeking innovative solutions, a community social worker initiated discussions on
renewable energy sources, their sustainability and importation into the community at minimal
cost to the environment and residents. Various stakeholders were brought together to address
fuel poverty and develop a self-sustainable energy community. Social scientists from the
School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University, physical scientists developing
renewable energy technologies associated with the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience
Research and Durham Energy Institute contributed scientific expertise on climate change and
renewable energy sources. Other players included local representatives from housing
associations, civil society organisations, policymakers and businesses interested in renewable
energy production and creating jobs in the locality. Private enterprise saw the opportunity of
using government subsidies to provide renewable energy technologies without charge to a
community that could not otherwise engage in climate change initiatives, despite being aware
of the issues.
The stakeholder group provided energy audits for private homes, advice to housing
developers on reducing energy consumption in new-build homes and retrofitting existing ones
in less energy-hungry ways; distributed free low energy light bulbs to residents; and equipped
several public buildings with low energy consuming equipment to reduce energy bills and
carbon emissions. The manufacture of renewable energy sources, particularly inflectors, was
to create jobs and counter high levels of unemployment. These renewable materials have the
potential to develop long-term prospects for the area through the export of goods to other
communities as part of the strategy of becoming self-sustainable in energy.
The Gilesgate Project faced the challenge of addressing fuel inequalities (fuel poverty)
without adding to carbon emissions. It used community social work to include a marginalised
and normally excluded white working-class community in a major issue – tackling climate
change whilst resolving their own pressing social problems, including creating sustainable
jobs, building community and individual resiliences and addressing fuel inequalities. The
Project demonstrates the value of involving community social workers in climate change
initiatives for both the short and long haul. Community social work (Hadley and Hatch, 1980)
is not new in England. It was advocated as a holistic response to community issues by the
Barclay Report of 1982.
The initiatives considered above reflect in microcosm global problems faced in
climate change debates. They involved poor people who have lower carbon footprints than
their richer counterparts, but would not normally access renewable energy products to cut
energy consumption, meet their needs and care for the environment. Social workers were
crucial in making that possible. The Gilesgate Project reveals that private industry can provide
services for poor people in the short-term and make profits in the long-term by bringing
renewable energy technologies to local communities. Large companies like Siemens argue
that investing in renewable energy technologies is the future for business (Löscher, 2009).
Social workers can and do facilitate activities by individuals, communities and nation-
states to reduce carbon emissions. The case studies portray how collective actions can solve
individual problems and contribute to addressing global social problems like climate change.
Each individual can cut their personal carbon footprint by consuming less energy, for example
using energy saving light-bulbs, insulating homes, lowering heating temperatures by 10C,
having renewable energy sources like solar panels and heat pumps in the home, not having
electrical gadgets on ‘standby’ and using public transport. Social workers can raise awareness
about these issues, linking solutions to personal problems like reducing fuel bills to climate
change initiatives and bringing people and resources together, as the case studies exemplify.
Personal action alone is insufficient. Collective solutions, achieved by consensus at all levels
in all societies can solve global problems. The Equitable Carbon Sharing Scheme (ECSS),
which transcends the binary whereby rich nations and poor nations blame each other and fail
to reach a legally binding treaty as occurred in Copenhagen, could be one such initiative.
A collective response: the ECSS
The Third World Network’s (TWN’s) daily summaries of discussions at Copenhagen 15 and
since reveal that the ‘rich’ country (polluter)–‘poor’ country (victim) binary cannot achieve
consensus because none dare taking action before another. The ECSS reduces this risk by:
building consensus around the assumption that there is only one world that every person on
earth is responsible for; using the scientific insight that a finite amount of carbon emissions
can be absorbed by the planet if temperatures are not to rise by more than 20C, that is, 1,400
billion tonnes by 2050 (Stern, 2006); linking an equitable sharing of the earth’s resources with
technical know-how; and bringing into the equation the world’s future inhabitants. The
earth’s population is expected to surpass 9 billion by 2050 (UNDP, 2009), so finite emissions
have to be shared equitably amongst current and future inhabitants. An equitable distribution
requires that pollution associated with each individual’s carbon emissions covers all their
needs including manufacturing processes, transportation, housing, heating, lighting, growing
food, and the provision of services like health, education and defence. The earth’s limited
capacity to absorb carbon emission necessitates the curbing of polluting approaches to
industrialisation, whether perpetrated by industrialised or industrialising countries, and rapid
deployment of shared renewable technologies. Ultimately, each individual will have the same
allocation of greenhouse gas emissions regardless of status or residence. Mathematical models
can forecast consumption for each individual. Social workers can liaise with mathematicians
to get data into public domains and translate these into information that people can understand
Implementation of ECSS
The implementation of ECSS on an equitable basis would result in rich people and high fossil
fuel energy consumers in the Global North reducing their carbon emissions considerably over
present levels. Poor people in the Global South whose current consumption is low would be
able to increase it and rise out of poverty through sustainable development. This approach has
the advantage of taking account of the historical privileging of the West while including
consumption by the emerging economies and enabling the living standards of the world’s
poorest people to grow.
The money currently being spent on polluting the earth could be used to promote clean
technologies while running down polluting ones, including declaring a moratorium on the
construction of environmentally damaging forms of energy production and consumption. The
implementation of ECSS includes the free transfer of clean or green technologies so that
everyone in the world can meet their energy needs in less environmentally destructive ways.
Companies could still make profits even if they initially make these technologies available
free and charge for the end product rather than research and development costs as these have
often been subsidised by the public purse. The need for developing new approaches to this
intractable problem is great: ECSS offers a new way forward. Social workers can advocate for
this as they are doing when engaging in mitigating natural and human-made disasters the
world over (Desai, 2007). An Economic and Social Sciences Research Council (ESRC)
funded project based on the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami (Internationalising Institutional and
Professional Practices) that I head at Durham University has also exposed the dangers of
short-term thinking when responding to those surviving disasters and highlighted the
importance of long-term solutions and capacity building in disaster interventions like those of
climate change. Social workers from around the world can emphasize this message along with
the importance of working in egalitarian partnerships with disaster survivors.
Climate change debates can benefit from social workers’ involvement. They have important
roles to play in reducing carbon emissions, promoting clean energy consumption and
protecting vulnerable populations from the deleterious impact of climate change by enhancing
individual and community resilience and helping residents access green technologies. They
can be at the forefront of initiatives like those occurring in Misa Rumi and Gilegate. More
generally, their activities could include:
•Consciousness-raising whereby they discuss possible scenarios about reducing
•Lobbying for preventative measures taken at local level, for example house
construction, to take account of local conditions, traditions and resources; national and
international levels by advocating policy changes that facilitate access to green
technologies and equitable sharing of resources;
•Mobilising communities to reduce carbon emissions;
•Dialoguing with policymakers and using the media to change policies at local, national
and international levels;
•Developing curricula that cover climate change and interventions that build individual
and community resiliences.
I conclude by paraphrasing a well-known statement made by Obama during his
election campaign, can social workers be involved in climate change? ‘Yes we can’.
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