In our latest guest blog Alan Budge discusses his feelings about the climate emergency, sees some rays of hope, and offers some ways forward.
I am worried. The climate crisis is, to my mind, very real, and very scary. In the final analysis (hopefully not too prophetic a term) it matters more than anything else; If we don’t address this, all other bets are off.
Apart from the profound personal and cultural changes that will be required, regarding our seemingly endless appetite for growth, spending and the rest, any technical or political solutions are complex at best, and, at worst, often seemingly unachievable.
I don’t have many answers, but I do know a fair amount about participatory budgeting in particular (where local people vote directly on spending priorities in their communities), and community engagement strategies more generally, so from a personal perspective, that seems to me the best place to focus my energies. Hence the following blog…
There is – at last – a definite sense that the climate crisis has finally gone mainstream
All UK political parties, to some extent or other, featured environmental issues in their recent election campaigns. We might argue that some of this might be window-dressing at best, but compared to the campaigns of a decade ago, the relative prominence given to the climate crisis is unarguable. This has been due, in some part at least to the campaigning activities of ‘new’ green players, such as Extinction Rebellion, and the work of Greta Thunberg.
The climate itself, though, seems to be having a say, from out of control wildfires in Australia and the USA, to the recent flooding closer to home in Yorkshire and elsewhere. These events, as well as, for example, a greater shared awareness of the damage our untrammelled use of plastics is causing the natural environment, can be seen as definite contributors to the growing prominence of – once highly marginal – green issues in peoples’ thinking and lives.
In spite of all this, there is major concern that any and all actions being taken so far, individually or politically, will simply be ‘too little, too late’
There is a shared sense that the climate crisis is somehow intractable, and that effective responses to it are beyond the reach of ‘ordinary people.’
What seems clear is that people are crying out for action, and that Local Authorities, and in particular those (some 200+ and counting) who have declared a climate emergency, are in a position to respond to that need, even in these cash-strapped times.
There are ways forward. The strategic (political) response is perhaps best exemplified in the work currently being done around a ‘Green New Deal’
This phrase, coined by the UK Green party a decade ago, and more recently adopted in the USA by the senator Alexandra Octavia Cortez, refers to a raft of measures designed specifically to create jobs and infrastructure at a national level which will result in carbon neutrality within the next ten to twenty years.
In the last months, the Green Party UK have produced reports which attempt to put flesh on the bones of this basic idea. These papers, The Green New Deal in the North West and another for the South East were commissioned by the areas respective Green MEPs, Gina Downing and Alexandra Phillips.
As well as outlining detailed proposals for an infrastructure revolution, with the concomitant creation of thousands of new green industry jobs, both reports are clear that, in order for any new initiative of this type to have real traction, there has to be community involvement and support. The Green New Deal for the North West document states that one key aim is:
‘Localising Democracy: Devolving more powers to local areas, enabling participatory decision-making and encouraging new forms of public ownership’
The GND South East report goes further, making specific reference to Participatory Budgeting: ‘In the 21st Century, one of the ways the public could be involved in a meaningful and powerful way, is through a process called ‘Participatory Budgeting.’
This approach has its origins in Brazil, where local citizens were keen to directly engage with spending decisions, against a background where local government was facing financial challenges, and decision-making had been centralised. More recently cities such as Lisbon have put specific resources into a ‘green PB’.
The basic process is that citizens meet at a neighbourhood or locality level, and determine their spending priorities (for example, a new play area). Delegates from these groups meet at the city level, and debate and vote these proposals into a list of projects to be funded by the local government. There are lots of ways to adapt the process to reflect local power dynamics and to ensure participation and consent from marginalised groups.
Many participatory budgeting schemes have run in the UK over the past two decades
As communities develop their use of participatory budgeting, neighbourhood groups could draw up their priorities around local improvements, for example parks, youth clubs, local energy and employment. And then these priorities could be debated and voted on as part of a budget across the district.
Similarly, a district-wide assembly could also draw up citizen-led priorities for the whole area on issues like strategic transport, economic development, waste and recycling – and feed into a local participatory process for infrastructure and strategic spending.
This ‘direction of travel’, from small scale, local initiatives (which can be funded and supported relatively easily) to a larger-scale engagement around more strategic issues, is precisely the route outlined in the report ‘Our Money Our Planet’, produced in November 2019 by Shared Future, which was based on findings from a series of workshops held across the UK earlier that year.
Starting with small scale, and relatively inexpensive PB initiatives, Local Authorities, in partnership with other statutory and voluntary agencies, could develop a programme of action around climate change, which would involve local people throughout, and really connect local action with strategic responses – an essential twin track approach if we’re serious about addressing the climate crisis.
In the current economic climate, cash-strapped local authorities will often, and understandably, say that, whilst this all sounds great in theory, in practice, it will prove unaffordable. My argument is very simple. Can we afford not to?