Climate change: Debate dominated by white men say Bristol academics

The sun rises over the city Bristol
The sun rises over the city Bristol

A year-long study conducted in Bristol revealed just 5% of participants at meetings to discuss transition to a net zero future were men of colour

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Policy experts have warned there is a worrying lack of diversity in climate change decision making, after a study found the voices of people of colour make up just 3% of discussions on the issue.

A year-long study conducted in Bristol revealed just 5% of participants at meetings to discuss transition to a net zero future were men of colour, and they spoke only 1% of the time.

The voices of women of colour accounted for just 2% of debate time, despite making up 14% of participants.

People of colour account for 16% of Bristol’s population, according to Bristol City Council.

The study, which was led by academics and the University of Bristol, found white men and white women were almost equally represented – making up 40% and 41% of participants respectively.

But discussion time was dominated by white males, with this group speaking almost twice as much as their female counterparts.

White men spoke on average 64% of the time, while white women spoke 33% of the time.

Published in the run-up to the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow, the study’s authors warn the findings undermine Bristol’s pledge to make a “just” transition to net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

“Fairness” is listed as one of the key principles of Bristol’s One City Climate Strategy which was published in February last year.

It states: “Achieving a just transition is central to our strategy and critical to it achieving successful outcomes.

“This means maintaining a democratic mandate, ensuring there are opportunities for all to participate in the benefits of change with its costs shared fairly.”

Policymakers are increasingly aware how important it is to include marginalised groups in discussions around climate resilience.

Those from poorer backgrounds are more vulnerable to climate change because they are likely to live in lower quality housing and lack the resources to move to escape extreme weather such as heatwaves or flooding.

Disabled people are also vulnerable, as they often need specialist housing, making it difficult to relocate.

The study, which was funded by the university’s Cabot Institute for the Environment, focused on six organisations spanning the public, private and third sectors looking at climate change in Bristol.

It involved 12 interviews with policymakers and nine hours of observations of closed-door steering groups and public meetings.

But the researchers found that many of the participants were aware of and concerned by the fact the climate change debate is dominated by white, middle-class people, and it was discussed at meetings.

They said there was a general sense of confusion “about how to include and engage” people of colour, and also disabled people, both the young and the elderly and working class people.

Dr Alix Dietzel, who specialises in climate justice and climate policy at the University of Bristol, said: “From what we know from global negotiations, which is what I studied prior to this research, this is quite common – certain voices dominate the discussion and it tends to be the most privileged in society and obviously in our case that would be white men.”

She said it would be unsurprising if the results were to be replicated elsewhere, but that the Bristol study was the first conducted at city scale.

Dr Dietzel continued: “It’s not just speaking, it is getting people in the room and to feel that they want to be part of these processes, to feel the trust to engage and perhaps to feel that they can make a difference and that they belong.

“I think there is a lot of mistrust maybe, not just in Bristol but between marginalised communities and the privileged communities and it is not something that is unique to climate change.”

Dr Dietzel added there had been a strong sense among almost all participants that there was an issue of fairness and inclusion, but also a feeling of confusion and frustration about how to achieve it.

She cited the pace of many meetings as a possible barrier to participation.