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Written By

Hannah Gray


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

1 June 2021

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An eco-social approach to equity

When we think about the people fighting to protect our natural world, we often look at environmental activists, conservation organisations, celebrities, political parties, or everyday people at protests and rallies. But JCU’s Dr Peter Jones belongs to an unexpected group on the frontlines of the fight against climate change: social workers.

Peter is a senior lecturer in Social Work with over 25 years’ of experience in social work education, research, and practice. He has watched as “overwhelming evidence”  has emerged about the urgency of the climate crisis and the scale of its impacts. Being familiar with many of the areas of his field, Peter recognised that this crisis would have far-reaching and potentially devastating effects on people who were already in need of help. People who needed social workers to stand in the gap for them.

Peter says his fellow social workers have been slow to respond to the issue of climate change. “In part at least, this is because of a traditional binary that exists within the profession where matters to do with the natural environment have been seen as someone else’s concern, with social issues being the proper focus of social workers,” he says.

Peter says there have always been voices that call for greater attention to the interrelationship between social and environmental issues. It is only recently that these voices have begun to be heard.

“The profession has begun to recognise the ways in which a dramatically changing climate will directly impact on human wellbeing, and the ways in which these inequitably distributed impacts create issues of social justice and for the protection of human rights,” Peter says.

This fresh recognition has led to calls for the development of an eco-social approach  to social work education and practice.

Social Workers for Climate Action

Peter explains that as interest in this area of eco-social practice has increased, the need to provide social workers with clear information and tools is vital in supporting them to learn about climate change and to integrate that knowledge into their own professional practice.

This need is met in Social Workers for Climate Action (SW4CA), an alliance of social work academics, practitioners and students at JCU. SW4CA has a focus on creating change through supporting social workers and engaging with the community.

SW4CA has four main aims:

Their first aim is to provide a repository of easily accessible information about the nature and scale of the climate emergency. The group’s website hosts a range of reports and articles that define climate change, breakdown its impacts, and explain why it should be of concern to social workers.

Their second aim is to support social workers in translating this knowledge into their workplaces, organisations, and professional practice. “We’ve conducted a number of workshops for professionals in the community,” Peter says. “We also offer a service whereby such training can be brought directly to social welfare organisations and tailored to meet their particular needs.”

Their third aim relates to what social workers most frequently ask for: practical resources and ideas that embody an eco-social approach and that can be implemented in their practice.

“We’re currently developing a set of guides that suggest ways that practitioners can implement an eco-social approach, paying greater attention to the ecological and climate crises and their impacts,” Peter says.

These guides will cover strategies at a number of levels, from the personal and individual practice to working within organisations to coordinate and support broader social action.

The fourth aim focuses on that last strategy. SW4CA encourages social workers to become actively involved in efforts to mitigate climate change. “This often takes the form of building alliances with existing social and community movements, making a unique social work contribution to these,” Peter says.

Information, support, resources, and action. In the fight against a climate crisis, these are the tools that Social Workers for Climate Action will use to make an impact in the lives of those most affected by climate change.

Imbalanced impacts

The motivating factor for this group of dedicated social workers is the inherent imbalance within this crisis.

“While no one will be able to completely escape the impacts of climate change, they already fall, and will continue to fall, most heavily on the people, families, communities, and societies already struggling with disadvantage or oppression,” Peter says.

“This is the case whether we look at issues such as energy and food security in Australian cities, increasing droughts and natural disasters in rural areas, or even globally, with the impacts we can already see of flooding and rising seas for nations in the global south.”

“This clearly then becomes an issue of social as well as environmental justice.”

Dr Peter Jones

The social justice aspects of climate change involve equitable access to the positive services that a healthy environment can bring. It also includes the way environmental costs are distributed within our local and global communities.

“We can see examples of this in our local communities,” Peter says. “As our climate heats and summers become increasingly intense, with a higher proportion of days over 35 degrees, people on low and fixed incomes struggle to meet the costs associated with air-conditioning their homes.”

Another example that Peter gives is the recent Townsville floods. With more flooding predicted to occur more frequently in that region, lower income renters are more likely to find themselves homeless with fewer housing alternatives, which would then exacerbate their existing disadvantages.

People and cars struggle through flooded street
A man carries his dog through waist-high floodwater

A responsibility to the people

The areas that social workers are involved in – such as health, disability, housing, domestic violence, income security, and child protection – engage with people in vulnerable and at-risk circumstances. Peter says that none of these fields of practice, and likely none of these people, will escape being impacted by the consequences of climate change.

“This places social workers on the frontline of responding to the human costs associated with a changing climate.”

Dr Peter Jones

Peter says that for some, this will mean business as usual. But for others, they will face increased workloads and more complex, interrelated issues to address.

However, Peter says that this is an opportunity for social workers to bring their skills and knowledge to bear in effective, impactful ways.

“Supporting individuals, families, and communities to adapt to the changes that are coming is an important area of practice,” he says. “Social workers bring skills and perspectives that are useful in mitigation strategies – particularly in groups and organisations that are advocating for urgent change at corporate and government levels.”

Skills in engagement, communication, and inclusion as well as a strong commitment to social justices are some of the attributes that Peter says will be vital to social workers in the coming days.

“This is the time for social workers to engage in collective action that may extend beyond their individual practice,” Peter says. “But such actions are aligned to their ethical responsibilities to issues of social justice and human rights.”

As we face a future with challenges on the horizon, people like Peter and those working with Social Workers for Climate Action show how it is possible to make a difference.

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Featured researcher

Dr Peter Jones

Senior Lecturer

Dr Peter Jones is a senior lecturer in Social Work and Human Services at JCU with over 25 years of experience in social work education, research, and practice. He is a multi-award winning educator, with two National Citations for Outstanding Contributions to Student Learning.
Peter has a particular interest in the application of transformative learning theory in social work education and is currently a Fellow of the Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA). His research and practice interests include social work education, eco-social work, sustainable community development, international social work, and international student exchange.