Comment Writer Harry Grace argues how the recent heat waves affecting Europe have shown just the beginning of continent-wide environmental injustices

A Part-Time MSc student at the University of Birmingham studying Environment, Development and Politics. Interests include music, books, films, international and national politics and environmentalism.

On 27th September, six Portuguese individuals ranging from children to young adults achieved their first hearing at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) against the major governments of Europe. Exactly what they were arguing was simple; the economies of Europe had impoverished them of a safe and stable future. They believed this was due to the negation of net zero and ever-increasing global and national temperatures. They cited the wildfires and insufferable heat that had caused untold damage to their mental and physical health, not to mention the increases in school absences. In short, national governments were being accused of waging an intergenerational war against young people, forgetting about the most powerless. 

National governments were being accused of waging an intergenerational war against young people

I think that it is important to acknowledge these activists, who demonstrate the varied levels and concerns of environmental justice across the movement, and show differing approaches in response to increasing environmental challenges. With the UK experiencing its own heatwaves and environmental unpredictability, we should consider how younger generations, and the most vulnerable in society, can and should be shielded from climate change.

Environmental justice, the idea of equitable access to the environment and safety from the worst of it, has already been a problem in the UK for years. Biodiversity is reaching critical levels with the UK sitting in the ‘bottom 10% globally’ for biodiversity, and biodiverse areas. When related to the matter of environmental injustice and inequality, this issue causes further untold side effects. For example, a recent Friends of the Earth report found that trees and green space reduce up to 5 degrees of excess heat. Moreover, as plentiful biodiversity is typically absent from lower-income areas, it is implied that further down the pay bracket will be hit the hardest when climate-related problems inevitably occur. 

It is not just wealth that determines protection from the natural elements. Those from ethnically diverse areas and backgrounds typically suffer from discrimination or cultural obstacles that separate them from green spaces and environmentally protected areas. With ethnically diverse areas such as Newham and Redbridge in London having some of the worst biodiversity in the UK, it prompts questions regarding the protection of these at-risk areas. In other nations such as Hungary, Roma communities were left to fend for themselves during climate disasters, with heavy heatwaves in 2017 bringing denied access to flowing water. For governments across Europe, fixing this problem is reduced to a side-effect of the net zero initiative or one to be dismissed altogether.

Some governments have recognised this with Australia granting citizenship to Tuvalu residents facing the extinction of their homes due to rising sea levels. While controversial Clean Air Zones in many of the UK’s cities, most notably London with the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), do raise air quality and ensure a breathable city for their inhabitants.

Therefore, the question being raised is this: What can be done to change the direction of these environmental ‘bads’ and shield the endangered from climate change? The introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) intended to point governments in the right direction, particularly SDG 11 which focused on fair and secure environments. But as only 15% of the targets have been hit and none are on track to being completed, other radical measures are needed to be envisioned. Unprejudiced environmental policies are to be discussed at COP 28, though it is sceptical how in-depth these discussions will be. 

Grass-roots pressure groups are ideal for shifting public imagination and pressuring transnational corporations and governments

What I think can be said for sure is that there is no one-size-fits-all response to both climate change and environmental justice, throughout the UK and the international community. Arguably, what is needed is an overhaul of the current economic system in favour of a green transition, through an incorporation of political ecology into the dominant ideological narrative. In this sense, grass-roots pressure groups are ideal for shifting public imagination and pressuring transnational corporations and governments. Just Stop Oil, though being a contentious topic, has shone a light on how exactly we could transition through just means. By advocating for these policies and supporting grass-roots networks, we can alter discourse and promote sustainable, environmentally just ethics alongside net-zero targets. 

Not everyone has the same access to legal routes as the Portuguese adolescents had. This is to be expected. Instead, we must all play a part in promoting inclusive and equitable projects through constant visibility of the environmental justice movement. The scourge of climate change is going to disproportionately affect the marginalised and poorest of nations and if governments are not going to help, it is up to us to direct change.

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