Climate harm reduction: Equinox takes action on the environment

Posted by on 26 November 2012 | 0 Comments

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How does climate change affect some of the most vulnerable people in society? In this feature article, Equinox Trustee Catherine Max writes about the innovative work at Equinox in this area. This includes news of a grant from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), awarded to Equinox in October 2012, as well as Equinox’s previous credentials in this specialist field...

Equinox is one of only two charities nationally to be awarded a grant by the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to improve knowledge of how the most vulnerable groups in society will be affected by climate change and develop strategies for dealing with its impacts. The Equinox project will focus on the effects of climate change as we are experiencing it already (i.e. more frequent extreme weather such as heatwaves, severe cold snaps and flooding).  These can be devastating to the lives of people with mental health needs, alcohol and drug dependence, people on low incomes, in poor housing, and especially those who are homeless – and Equinox has identified some risks specific to our service user groups. 

The Defra grant recognises the commitment and achievements of Equinox in engaging with climate change as an issue where we all have responsibilities and we can all make a difference.  Led by service users acting as peer mentors, the Equinox project will engage with service users across London to raise awareness of climate change and consult on tools and support for people with drug, alcohol and mental health needs.  It will also give Equinox a platform to influence national policy and local government, especially emergency planning. 

Former Director of Operations, Sharon Bye, explains the scope of the Defra grant award further and how it ties in with Equinox’s strategic commitment to personalise our services:

“Equinox are keen for people with mental ill health and those who use drugs and/or alcohol to tell us what would help, rather than to assume we know. Involving a wider group of people will add quality to the information through peer-led consultation events within both the substance misuse and mental health sectors. A group of peer facilitators (supported by the Equinox Service User Involvement Manager), will hold workshops throughout London to raise awareness amongst service users of the potential impact of severe weather events and to gain ideas about practical ways that resilience can be built amongst these vulnerable groups. The information gathered will help develop a series of advice leaflets, specifically created for people with mental ill health and people who use drugs and / or alcohol. These leaflets will help them and their key workers to cope with severe weather such as extreme heat or cold. Our experience is that when severe weather hits, local authorities issue helpful guidance leaflets to voluntary sector organisations for distribution to the vulnerable. This is commendable but presents an issue for Equinox – this vital information is not always relevant to our service user groups, more often it is aimed at the elderly. The Equinox leaflets will provide an added value to the consultation as there will be a practical impact long after the funding ends. These leaflets will be made available to as wide a range of organisations as possible and via the Equinox website.”
 
How Equinox got started with climate harm reduction work
Around the same time Equinox began to develop its Service User Involvement (SUI) Strategy in 2008, we also got involved in the exciting Big Response initiative about the impacts of climate change on society, and the role of voluntary sector organisations in responding to it.  This was the perfect opportunity to model our emerging SUI principles, and a working group of service users, staff, directors and trustees came together to think and act upon what climate change means to Equinox.  It soon became clear that everyone, whatever their role, wanted to relate the Big Response to what is important to Equinox.  This meant Equinox as a sustainable “business” in the long-term, the efficiency and resilience of everyday operations, and the place of Equinox in the wider community, as well as the wellbeing of service users.  In one of a series of workshops, facilitated by the Big Response team and involving people from across the whole organisation, we coined the term “climate harm reduction” to link our commitment to tackling climate change with the “harm reduction” concept familiar to people in our sector.

             Equinox service user artwork for The Big Response

Reducing carbon emissions
For most people, action on climate change means taking steps to reduce its likelihood, particularly reducing carbon emissions which contribute to global warming (“mitigation”).   We think of recycling more, wasting less, shopping locally, walking or cycling instead of using a car, and switching off lights and computers when not in use.  There are “win wins” in this kind of behaviour change, as being more active is good for physical and mental health, and contributing to the community engenders a sense of purpose.  Energy efficiency is also good for our pockets.  Equinox committed to a number of actions in this category, with service users taking a lead in important areas like recycling and also vegetable growing at some services, like Equinox Aspinden Wood and Equinox Southampton Way.

Adaptation and resilience
Action to reduce the impacts of climate change (“adaptation”) has received less public attention, although the government’s Climate Change Risk Assessment  published in January 2012 may help change that.   With the Big Response, Equinox was ahead of the curve.  We began to think about what actions in this category we could take as well, including thinking more about our emergency planning so that services could stay open whatever the weather, and the kinds of messages for service users to share, including: the importance for people on medications like methadone to keep hydrated during heatwaves; the possibility that extreme weather could cause or increase side effects for people taking medication; the increased risk of food poisoning due to scavenged food spoiling more quickly; and service users on benefits being less likely to be able to purchase bottled water when fresh water is not available.

Life experience and life skills
The grant from Defra is part of its National Adaptation Plan (NAP), which includes a section on health and wellbeing, and Climate Ready which is part of how the NAP will be implemented.  The Equinox information leaflets, with practical suggestions to help manage the risks identified, will be shared with the NAP team, with local authorities and the NHS, and groups like the London Climate Change Partnership so that they can be promoted more widely.  Within Equinox itself, we will feed our learning into service user support planning, for example, coping with severe weather as an essential “life skill”.  Last but not least, our project will demonstrate the know-how and creativity of our service users, who are so often marginalised.  We hope this will help combat stigma in general and give people with drug, alcohol and mental health problems the confidence to work alongside commissioners and decision-makers on a global challenge which affects us all.

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