Ambitious climate action and social progress must go hand in hand. The instruments and policies necessary to limit the climate crisis are anything but wishful thinking. They are already part of everyday reality for thousands of people in cities, regions, and countries across Central and Eastern Europe and around the world. There are a great many positive co-benefits of ambitious climate policies for social justice, health and gender equality—to name but a few. If we don’t act on the climate crisis, however, global heating will continue to undermine the social progress and democratic development achieved over the last decades.
In this manual of arguments, we scrutinize the seven most important topic areas, in which social and environmental concerns are often – mistakenly – played out against each other. We present arguments showing that ambitious climate policies can, in contrast, help us build fairer and more social societies – arguments you can use in your work and everyday life!
How we communicate, not only what we communicate influences the reaction of our conversation partner —their readiness to change their mind, or even to change their behaviour. By taking this into account, in recent years we have changed the way we communicate about the climate crisis—for the better. This manual offers you both: It is a guide on how to communicate about this urgent matter, and it is a reservoir of facts and information that are »ready to use« for our readership.
Worldwide, there is overwhelming public support for ambitious climate policies. Within Europe and beyond, an ever-growing group of citizens is acknowledging that global heating is a problem.
However, many of them still don’t see the climate crisis as a top priority—either because the impacts of the climate crisis on their own life and work are not evident to them, or because they fear the—alleged—social consequences of ambitious climate mitigation measures. This applies to thousands of progressive individuals working in trade unions, ministries of social affairs, city governments, media, and NGOs focused on social issues.
If you feel you belong to this group, then this manual has been written for you. You will find numerous arguments why global heating is not only an important topic for you to tackle from a »social« perspective, but also many examples of how social and climate policies can be linked— for the benefit of each and every one of us.
In recent years, the number of people enjoying a sustainable way of life, and highlighting the many benefits of such a behavioural change, has grown considerably. Activist groups such as »Fridays for Future« mobilised millions of people calling for more ambitious climate action.
If you are someone who has »already been won over«, you can use this manual to strengthen your arguments towards other members of our society.
Our manual is based on the best practices of climate communication:
First, each of the chapters opens, and concludes with a positive vision of a socially just and ecologically sustainable society. When talking about the climate crisis, it is essential to tell the truth—that we are facing global heating and a climate crisis, some would even say a climate catastrophe. However, we also have to take care that we do not overwhelm people and make them feel helpless in the face of those facts. Instead, we need to highlight that transformation is possible, that it is already happening the world over—and that this is a change for the better for all of us. This is why, wherever possible, we opted for a positive framing in this manual, and why we refer to a whole host of best practice examples.
Second, we focus on Central and Eastern Europe, showing that global heating is affecting each and every one of us, not only those living in the Global South—and that we all have the capacity to act. Instead of constantly showing pictures of polar bears, melting ice caps or complicated graphs, our focus is on us, the people facing this challenge. The main aim of this manual is to strengthen our feeling of self-efficacy.
Third, we are more likely to change our views and our behaviour if we feel that a certain challenge affects us directly, if we feel that we can make a difference, and if we feel that this change is in line with our core values. As progressive individuals, we have a lot of values in common: social justice, solidarity, equality and the wish for a liveable future for our children are convictions we all share. This is why we frequently refer to these core values throughout the manual.
Fourth, progressive individuals do not take structures for granted, but strive to deconstruct and change them. We reflect this in our wording, for example by speaking of citizens »being marginalised« (which is something society does), rather than of »poor people« (which sounds like a hard-to change fact).
And last but not least, we are careful not to play social and environmental concerns off against each other. The social and environmental challenges of our times have a common root cause—and the climate crisis is the most important social challenge of the 21st century. By focusing only on »one side of this coin«, social democrats can only lose, while presenting solutions aiming at both more social justice and ecological sustainability is a winning combination. Nevertheless, we take the often-heard concerns regarding ambitious climate policies seriously. We address these arguments in the »But what about…« sections at the end of each (sub-)chapter, offering an alternative view on how to make climate action socially just.
Ambitious climate action is an essential tool to fight growing injustice—both globally and at home. Social democrats have always fought for social justice. They have successfully dealt with fundamental transitions in a socially just manner, and they can draw on an extensive repository of inspiring concepts for environmental and social sustainability.
The climate crisis is a social crisis: Global heating exacerbates inequality in many dimensions: between generations, between nations, between men and women. Less privileged groups endure a triple burden of growing injustice:
Ambitious climate policies also help us to protect the social progress we have achieved over the past decades or even centuries—the reduction in the number of people suffering from hunger, water scarcity or extreme poverty, for example.
So, if we want our children to live a happy life, we need to transform our societies and economies according to social and environmental principles–in other words, we need to change them for the better, right now.
The best solutions from an environmental perspective are often those contributing to more, not less, social justice—a carbon pricing system with a strong redistribution effect, affordable and convenient public transport, or the transformation of concrete courtyards between high-rise buildings into blooming community gardens, for example.
Based on the experience of successful transitions and environmental policies of previous decades, more and more social democrats, trade unionists and other progressive actors are working towards this vision of a life that is socially and environmentally better for everyone.
The decarbonisation of all sectors of the economy is an opportunity to create many new jobs in emerging industries and through new circular economy business models.
With more and more countries announcing their aim of becoming carbon neutral within a few decades, the trend towards a fossil fuel free economy is gaining momentum. This is an opportunity to create many new and secure jobs, to strengthen new business models and to shift investments, making them economically, ecologically and socially sustainable.
Decarbonisation will lead to a shift in the structure of employment. The success of this transition will rely on effective management, political leadership and the right economic incentives for production and consumption. We will still produce and consume—but we will produce different things and consume in different ways.
The huge investment necessary over the coming decades will boost the development of a broad set of climate protection technologies: renewable energy technologies, green mobility and energy efficiency technologies and solutions. For example, we are going to need an expansion of the existing train network, new heating systems, insulation materials, wind turbines, to name just a few. All this is going to create many more jobs across the different economic sectors and geographical regions. This is especially the case for the move from a linear to a circular economy.
However, many »green« sectors are not yet strongly represented in traditional trade union structures. To develop stronger lobbying power and to make sure the »green« jobs are also decent jobs, the organisation of these sectors is essential.
Several European countries have a tremendous amount of experience in managing structural and occupational changes—providing support for research and new universities, retraining, transition-related short-time work arrangements, early retirement programmes and many more. An ambitious climate agenda is a window of opportunity for struggling regions to attract the attention and money they need to create new economic prospects. With support from EU funds or international banks, opportunities are opening up for these regions.
In the next 10 to 20 years, a large percentage of installations in energy-intensive industries, such as steel production and chemical processing, will be up for reinvestment anyway. These new installations will be operational for several decades. That’s why it is crucial that they employ the technologies with the lowest carbon footprint. This transformation can be particularly onerous for highly developed countries that might have just recently invested in updating the existing fossil infrastructure that is now facing decommissioning, modernisation etc. In contrast, countries with an older infrastructure that has to be updated anyway (e.g. power plants, roads, etc.), can »leapfrog« to the next level of modern technology.
With international investment being withdrawn from fossil fuel-based industries, and governments setting targets for carbon neutrality, the big question is not whether environmentally harmful industries will be able to continue with »business-as-usual« or whether they will shrink, but rather whether employees and communities will face a market-driven phase-out without a safety net or whether we put political frameworks for a just transition in place now, allowing citizens to participate in shaping their future.
Critics of ambitious climate policies often forget: unchecked global heating could cost a lot of jobs, and not only in tourism and agriculture. International trade unions are right to highlight that there are no jobs on a dead planet. The biggest challenge from an enmployment and economic perspective would be an unmitigated climate crisis. Thus, ambitious climate policies help to limit job losses.
Compunding megatrends are additional drivers of structural change. Decarbonisation is not the only transformation that we are currently witnessing. Digitalisation and demographic change, as well as the reduction of working hours will significantly affect how and when we work.
New digital services and technologies turn many aspects of our lives, societies and economies upside down. But it is not a foregone conclusion that digitalisation is good for us or for the climate. We need prudent policies and regulations to steer the process towards sustainability. If well managed, digitalisation can create more and better jobs, and help us to achieve carbon neutrality—for example by simplifying the management and distribution of renewable energy.
Demographic change is anticipated to reduce the size of the available workforce in the near future, so ultimately there may very well be more jobs than workers. Already today, unemployment rates differ substantially across Europe. Many Central and Eastern European countries are close to full employment. These populations are also rapidly ageing and shrinking. Therefore, the biggest question will not be how to ensure a »just transition« for those formerly employed in fossil fuel-based industries, but how to make sure there are enough workers for emerging sectors.
In addition, the nature of employment is changing. Two trends emerging independent of climate policies, but which could be easily linked to decarbonisation efforts, are a strengthening of the care sector and a reduction of working hours. Even proponents of »degrowth« agree that, while some (!) industrial sectors need to shrink, we need more people working in the care sector, to educate our children, and to look after the weakest members of our societies, the elderly, the sick and the socially marginalised. A reduction of working hours, making sure that we work to live, not live to work, is another trend, particularly among younger generations. This increase in quality of life also leads to a significantly lower carbon footprint, for example, because we have more time to produce things ourselves or to repair consumer products.
In order to take maximum advantage of the opportunities presented by these three megatrends, we need forward-looking, progressive, collective and political action. None of these megatrends will produce a more sustainable and fairer future on their own: We must steer and shape the inevitable transformation, and we must do this together.
By promoting an energy transition and scaling up renewables in a just and equitable manner, four goals will be achieved in moving our societies forward. 1. Renewable energy will democratise our electricity systems. 2. This will help us to ensure affordable access to cheap reliable energy for all: businesses, workers and consumers. 3. This will clearly also help to combat the climate crisis and the associated social distortion. 4. Renewable energy will improve individual and public health.
Most countries in Eastern and Southeast Europe have tremendous potential for solar and wind energy, which can already be used cost efficiently today. The dependence on fossil fuel exporting countries can therefore be reduced.
The shift to renewable energy sources is a precondition for energy democracy: Instead of depending on a small number of large energy companies producing electricity from non-sustainable sources, communities, cooperatives and even individual households are enabled to produce and consume their own electricity. This gives them the opportunity to create local income, instead of relying on the (often less transparent) pricing systems of a few large energy providers, or even a monopolist. Fossil energy sources and nuclear energy have been subsidised by governments for decades—only this doesn’t show up on our electricity bill because it is paid for by overall tax revenues. Even if this isn’t factored in, energy from solar and wind is already cheaper in most regions than energy from fossil fuel and nuclear sources.
What is more, renewables also have the potential to fight poverty and inequality. In many regions of the world, access to stable and affordable energy is still a privilege. A decentralised renewable energy infrastructure integrated into local added-value chains has the potential to electrify remote rural areas, bring affordable energy to the citizens and benefit local businesses. Besides, rolling out the renewable energy infrastructure is going to generate many new jobs—often local and for the most part healthier and safer than in the old energy system.
The energy sector and energy-intensive industries will be significantly affected by global heating. For instance, water scarcity is becoming a real problem for many countries, presenting a threat to hydropower, but also to coal-fired or nuclear power plants, as well as large factories depending on cooling water. Thus, limiting the climate crisis and switching to renewables is a risk reduction strategy for our societies and economies.
Protecting our health and that of our children is one of the most valuable advantages of an energy transition. The switch to renewables significantly reduces pollution of the air, water and soil. The immense resources in the public health system which today are dedicated to treating respiratory and cardiovascular diseases caused by air pollution could be reallocated and used for better purposes. And up to seven million people worldwide could be saved from premature death.
A mobility transformation provides tremendous opportunities to improve our quality of life. Given the sector’s continuously increasing CO2 emissions, a transformation is undoubtedly needed—and it is already happening, as hundreds of cities start to implement smart and sustainable mobility concepts. These initiatives are making the lives of their citizens healthier, urban spaces greener and more community friendly, local economies stronger, people’s time management smarter, societies more just, and the environment cleaner for us and for the generations to come.
A mobility transformation fosters social justice and equality in many respects:
To live a healthy life today and in future, we need a transformation of our mobility systems for five main reasons: to reduce air pollution, traffic accidents and noise pollution, to tackle people’s lack of exercise, and, last but not least, to limit the climate crisis. Most of these negative effects hit marginalised groups harder (for example, poorer neighbourhoods being located close to major roads or elderly pedestrians being run over by SUVs). Besides coal-fired power plants, fossil fuel mobility is one of the major threats to public health.
Looking at mobility patterns, there are two essential ways of contributing to a better urban quality of life, and to more social justice for all: First, we need to allocate more space for people and less for cars. Why should a citizen who cannot afford, or has decided against purchasing a car subsidise an affluent car owner, whose parked car takes up 11m2 of public city ground (often without paying very much in parking fees)? Many citizens around the world call to »reclaim our streets« instead, to create more space to meet, talk and get to know one another, thus contributing to more social cohesion and cooperation. Second, we can substantially reduce the need for mobility from the outset so citizens have to spend less time using or being stuck in (any kind of) traffic. Teleworking or city districts with all the essential infrastructure within a short distance would be a relief, especially for commuters.
It’s in the interests of the lower and middle classes to have good, reliable, affordable public transport, as well as a safe and convenient infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians. Our mobility systems have been optimised for individual car transportation for decades—thereby neglecting the needs of all those citizens who cannot afford a car, or who are too young, too old, or physically unable to drive. A growing group of city officials and politicians is starting to consider sustainable transport a public good, as necessary for a functioning society as the police, health services and schools. Their projects range from the improvement of zero- or low-emission public transport (trains, underground, e-bus fleets running on renewable power) and the development of a better infrastructure for cycling to intelligent multimodality schemes providing a flexible combination of different transport types within one route. Most citizens welcome a mobility transformation including affordable and comfortable public transport, and many civic initiatives around the world help to make sure that citizens have a say in shaping the towns where they live.
City centres around the world are being turned into low-emission or completely car-free zones, with the formerly car-centric Paris one of the leading examples. Reforms like this can make cities much more attractive for tourists, residents and small businesses alike. All of these groups can profit from enhanced productivity, for example through less traffic congestion, more effective energy consumption and also from lively city centres with people strolling around and spending money with local vendors, instead of in online shops.
Railways must increase in importance to connect metropolitan areas to rural regions, and to enable people to traverse the European continent in a convenient, fast and affordable manner.
The mobility transition would create a large number of new, sustainable jobs in a variety of spheres, such as in infrastructure for trains, bikes and public transport or in carsharing or bike-sharing businesses. Green mobility will also lead to just and local growth: Instead of paying for imported fossil fuels, e-mobility in a decentralised energy system based on renewables will be a source of income for local electricity producers.
All the necessary political instruments to combat the climate crisis are already available—they simply need to be applied. Preferably in the form of an effective mix of supranational, national, subnational and individual tools.
With the Paris Agreement, the international framework has been set for nation states to act on the climate crisis. The state now has to play an active role to protect especially marginalised groups from threats such as global heating. In applying an effective mix of all the available instruments, states can also become a »visible hand« countering social injustice:
First, necessary investments must be beneficial from a social and ecological point of view. Investing in public transport makes much more sense than investing in the car infrastructure, for example. Without investments in alternative mobility, energy or organic agriculture options citizens could not follow a sustainable lifestyle, even if they wanted to.
Second, tax systems have to promote, not hinder, social and ecological progress. A carbon pricing system with a strong redistribution effect would be an important step in the right direction.
Third, the ultimate goal of protecting the fundamental rights that are threatened by the climate crisis, can, in some cases, only be achieved through regulations. This is also often the most »social« way of designing climate policies because regulations prevent the wealthier parts of society from simply »buying their way out«.
Fourth, government officials should lead by example, showing that climate-smart behaviour is the »new normal«.
While international attention has been focused on the state level for many years, subnational actors have increasingly become drivers of ambitious climate policies: Progressive networks of municipalities connect local governments with the aim of supporting them in an exchange of best practices within and across borders. Cooperatives play an important role especially as enablers of an energy transition from below.
The number of individuals changing their behaviour to contribute to the fight against global heating is impressive, and has increased considerably in recent years. This is very good news because ambitious climate policies cannot be carried out by national governments and community leaders alone—they need to be implemented and filled with life by all of us. People tend to mimic other people’s habits, particularly those of neighbours and friends—so, with more and more of us travelling by train instead of by car, or becoming vegetarian or vegan, even more people will be inspired to follow suit, thus generating an upwards spiral towards a greener future.
During the Covid-19 crisis we have seen that societies are extremely flexible and that the majority of citizens are capable of rapidly adopting new routines. If social distancing and wearing masks can become an—albeit unpleasant and inconvenient—»new normal« within just a few weeks, why should it not be possible to get used to biking through a car-free city centre to a community garden, where you can enjoy a sunny Friday off work with friends and family?
Democracies are best suited to ensure effective and just climate policies. And conversely, with ambitious climate policies, we can also protect our democracies.
In times of crisis—when forest fires rage across a country, when electricity production fails on a large scale because of water shortages, or when massive storms devastate cities—the executive has to take swift decisions, with no time to discuss countermeasures in parliament, to prepare expert hearings or to conduct opinion polls among citizens. Thus, to preserve the democratic and pluralist systems we fought so long to establish, it is vital we act on global heating. Our pluralist systems will not survive a permanent crisis mode that lasts for centuries to come.
The good news is, however, that democratic systems are best suited to develop and implement ambitious climate policies.Statistics show that there is a strong correlation between democratisation and sound environmental policies. This can be explained by three features of democratic systems:
First, thanks to our right to freedom of expression, citizens around the globe are pushing their governments to act on the climate crisis. In contrast, people living in autocratic states depend on their leaders recognizing global heating is a problem or not.
Second, owing to inclusive policymaking procedures, national governments can rely on the best practice projects of CSOs or communities, which were designed according to the needs »on the ground«, and successfully implemented. In contrast, authoritarian states have fewer best practice examples which could be scaled up—simply because the freedom of subnational actors to develop such projects in these countries is restricted.
Third, with a higher degree of transparency, there is a better chance of ambitious climate policies being implemented. In contrast, higher levels of corruption and inefficiency in authoritarian regimes often render climate strategies obsolete on all levels.
Thus, even if authoritarian leaders could impose climate action more easily and even if these policies look good on paper—their implementation will certainly be hampered.
Democratic, participatory decision-making is simply more effective in the long run and is certainly an element we want to enshrine in a social-ecological future.
Instead of the climate crisis undermining the foundation of our democracies, let us empower citizens and communities to shape our common future together.