Interview with Sean Marshall on how ENGOs can authentically engage frontline communities in discussions of just transition

In this interview, climate researcher and documentary practitioner Sean Marshall discusses the research and findings of his recent article published in Environmental Politics: ‘Reading the room: developing a practical justice politics of regional energy transitionco-authored with Rebecca Pearse. We discuss engaging overlooked communities in conversations about the just transition, and the importance of authentically engaging in difficult conversations with these groups.

Congratulations on your recent article! What’s the key take away from this publication?

Thank you so much! It’s a real treat to be published in Environmental Politics. For me, the key lesson from this paper is that building engagement with subject areas related to the climate crisis should be prioritised in communities which have historically been overlooked by ENGOs and that this work needs to be started sooner rather than later as it takes considerable time. When undertaking that sort of engagement work, campaigners need to be very considerate in the messaging they choose and to be sure that they are doing so in an authentic manner. Frontline communities in developed countries are often rural, working class, and reliant on emissions heavy industry. These are not the demographics that ENGOs have historically sought to engage and, in doing so, they have left their flanks undefended from potential critique that they do not care about the needs of these communities.

These demographics have seen relatively little engagement because they do not fit with the ‘business model’ of ENGOs. The engagement campaigns that ENGOs run are largely in pursuit of manifesting support in the form of petition signatures or direct donations. These new demographics, lacking any historical relationship with ENGOs, are unlikely to provide this form of support within the time frame of a standard campaign and as such make for a less promising pathway. Engaging with them is, regardless, of vital importance if all communities are to be brought along in the process of transitioning our systems and economies. Crucially this engagement must be undertaken in an authentic manner and with a long-term vision in mind.

The issue of ‘climate change’ is “bracketed out” in much of the conversations you report. This resonates with similar research findings. Why do you think this is? Is it that climate is too big? Too intangible?

It’s not so much that this topic is too big or intangible but rather that there are other topic areas that are more immediate and more tangible. To contrast, it is a relatively straightforward decision for people living in urban areas to transition their source of electricity to renewable and for it to result in relatively little change to their lifestyle and, in this way, make a helpful contribution to decarbonisation. However, it is a far more significant prospect for families who are reliant on emission heavy industry to have that industry completely overhauled in the name of climate change as this results in very immediate economic challenges to them and their broader community. These economic changes are directly related to ‘climate change’ but the avenue of discussing them does not involve (or even benefit from) any explicit discussion of the broader issue or the inherent cultural value of nature.

This research was conducted in a part of Australia which has historically been underserved by the centre left Labor party and instead has been dominated by the centre right Liberal party. The media of the local region is also overwhelmingly owned by Rupert Murdoch. These facts both reflect and inform local political opinions across all topic areas.

What our research found was that the only mention of climate change in the conversations that were observed was to deny its immediate relevance to the challenge at hand and to instead focus on the economics of the situation. Multiple times the phrase ‘it doesn’t matter if you believe in climate change or not’ was used by both council officials and ENGO representatives. Whilst the issues of economic stability and service provision are in many ways linked to the climate, mentioning that connection was deemed divisive and unnecessary. Instead, the economic challenge that the community was facing was presented as an inevitability and the agency that was afforded to the community was how well they might prepare for the coming changes.

Similarly, you speak of using language of ‘managing transition’, not the more familiar climate term ‘just transition’. What’s the helpful difference here?

The difference is, again, a question of authenticity. For communities in North America where the term ‘just transition’ originally arose, that phrase makes sense and feels like it has relevance. For communities in Australia who have only heard the phrase ‘just transition’ in academic or official documents, it seems alien and, given the lack of faith in the institutions using that syntax, hollow. Allowing space for affected communities and union groups to discover the language that feels right for them has resulted in this phrase ‘managing transition’. It may fundamentally relate to the same phenomenon, but it has come more authentically from the community.

You identify three principal tensions to a just transition: inclusivity, recognition, and equity. What’s the relationship between the three?

This triumvirate of tensions was initially proposed by Ciplet and Harrison (2019) and it provides a cohesive framework for assessing engagement strategies. There are certainly overlapping considerations between these three tensions but the consideration that is fundamental to all three of them is authenticity. Fundamentally this takes the form of not imposing any particular framing or narrative onto the messaging that is being presented and not having any assumptions as to where a campaign might go. Deep commitment needs to be made visible and apparent to historically underserved communities to help navigate all three of these tensions.

You focus mainly on rational concerns about the transition, for example effects on the economy and jobs, but you also alluded to the ‘culture war’. How important a consideration is this tension of belief systems, or identity?

The culture war that is present in this discussion is largely through association of collective identities and a lack of exposure to differing identitarian groups. We found it to be easily navigated by direct human interaction and a clear display of ongoing commitment to seeing the town thrive and succeed. There is no inherent predisposition from community members against people who are from urban centres, but rather there is a desire to be heard and to have their concerns validated and addressed. When it became apparent that the ENGO we were following was going to operate in this manner, doors were more readily opened for discussion. It is an important consideration in that any group seeking to engage a new demographic, needs to be conscious of not condescending to that community.

The opposition that was more present was from the large coal industry organisations and associated union groups that worked with them. The multinational mining organisations did not respond to requests for their participation in the community engagement project and instead pointed to work they had already done with the local council on the topic of energy transition and their own emissions reduction targets. Similarly, the largest union group associated with the industry also refused to participate in the project. They suggested that it would be unproductive for their relationship with their employers and that they had little faith in the longevity of the ENGO’s commitment to the project. These rejections were the clearest examples of a ‘culture war’ being present in the area but they can be explained through the risk averse nature of both the multinationals and the precarious position that the unions have found themselves in as they are fighting to protect jobs in an industry that is shrinking around them.

Finally, are you still working in Gladstone? What more research is to come?

I’m no longer working in Gladstone but it very much has a special place in my heart. I have recently relocated to London and am exploring opportunities to involve myself with climate communications here, ultimately with an aim to move towards further research in this area of expanding the climate conversation away from those who are already aligned with it.

Bio: Sean Marshall is a climate researcher and documentary practitioner based in London. He is interested in the process of re-learning our relationship to the natural world in the era of the climate crisis and expanding the conversations we are having about the environment. He holds a Masters in Climate Change from the Australian National University and his most recent paper has just been published in Environmental Politics. For the past two years he has also been working as the Impact Coordinator for Regen Studios, an impact and documentary production company focused on telling positive stories of the climate crisis.

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