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True democracy would mean paying people to engage with politics

OPINION: It’s not fair to ask the most disadvantaged to give up their time during a cost of living crisis

Zack Polanski
13 January 2023, 3.18pm
Londoners keep cool in the 2022 heatwave:
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I-Wei Huang / Alamy Stock Photo

The wisdom of the people in communities most affected by the climate crisis is going to be key to solving it. But at a time when many are struggling to afford basic necessities, is it fair to ask them to give up their free time to engage in politics?

Millions dreaded this winter, which has brought far more than simply discontent. The soaring cost of living has shattered communities and it is difficult to see how families will be able to cope, especially with so many already falling behind on rent and bills.  We know that systemic thinking demonstrates that the solutions to the cost of living crisis are often the same as solutions to the climate crisis – insulating homes, for instance, reduces both energy bills and energy usage

In April 2019, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan established the city’s first Green Spaces Commission for the delivery and management of green spaces in the UK capital. Membership was made up of 14 commissioners. Half were women, and only 29% were Black, Asian or from minority ethnic backgrounds. Not only is this unrepresentative of London’s diversity; 12 of the 14 members did not receive compensation for their time, effort and hard work.

Reconciling the grassroots with local government to achieve climate justice on an urban municipal level is integral, and letting the experts of their communities lead the process and provide a space for ideas to be exchanged and supported is crucial. However, when I suggested as a member of the London Assembly that their work and time deserved recognition and compensation, the mayor dismissed it, saying he “can’t commit to even more expenditure”.

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Informed policy through grassroots expertise that is recognised, valued and compensated is the fairest way to conduct community engagement. This model is already in place in the form of the Mayor’s London Housing Panel (LHP) and could be replicated to achieve climate justice through a Climate Panel for London. LHP members are London-based organisations, providing services, representation or carrying out advocacy work in relation to housing in London and are encouraged to bring the voices and experiences of those directly affected by the issues into the discussion. Crucially, they are paid for their time. 

There are amazing coalitions of grassroots campaigns and organisations that have been doing the hard work against climate injustice in London for years, and their expertise and knowledge is invaluable in making sure policies reflect the different and unequal vulnerabilities to climate change that Londoners face.

It’s disadvantaged Londoners who have been and will be made vulnerable by climate breakdown

The London Business Climate Leaders (LBCL) sees the mayor of London and businesses working together to reduce carbon emissions in London. It is facilitated by global sustainability leaders. This is a business-oriented and top-down, corporate approach to mitigation. If profit is in the foreground of climate solutions, interventions will be skewed in commercial favour and will reproduce climate injustice. If businesses have a seat at the table, at the very least, communities should too. 

We know the damage that corporate influence and greenwashing have done to climate policy over the years, from fossil fuel company cover-ups to developers pushing against higher housing standards. 

It’s disadvantaged Londoners who have been and will be made vulnerable by climate breakdown. We need to listen to them to ensure climate policies, and the direction that wider policy making is going reflect their needs. Diverse recruitment goals and application processes will have little meaning in this crisis if people are still giving up their time with no remuneration. 

Whether it is protesting on London’s streets or taking part in strike action to secure the pay and standards workers deserve, all around the world people are recognising that a united voice is the loudest. 

People’s voices are a vital part of any political conversation that is aimed at bringing about change, and climate justice is only possible through diverse, intersectional and inclusive engagement. Initiatives that compensate for and value the unique perspectives of citizens could lead the way for truly fair and democratic representation. 

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