Is a belief in climate change protected under the Equality Act?

Climate change is becoming an increasingly important issue within society. Many employees also now want to know that their beliefs align with those of their employer, and be confident that the organisations they work for are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint. According to the Guardian, when searching for a new place to work, job seekers are increasingly drawn to green organisations that take a strong environmental stance. A PWC survey of 10,000 members of the general population based in China, Germany, India, the UK and the US found that 65% of people want to work for a company with a ‘powerful social conscience’.

Aside from corporate social responsibility and reputation, can an employee’s strong belief in climate change be protected in terms of discrimination by their employer? The answer is yes, but only if the belief is strong enough to satisfy the requirements of a “philosophical belief”, as set out in case law. This test is very fact specific and, as set out below, does not apply a blanket approach to all who hold similar beliefs under the same theme.

The Equality Act 2010 provides protection for those in employment in the UK from discrimination in the workplace. It does so by making discrimination of specific aspects of a person (protected characteristics) unlawful. One such protected characteristic is religious or philosophical belief. It is unlawful to discriminate against, harass or victimise an individual because they hold a religious or philosophical belief.

Climate change as a philosophical belief

The leading case relating to climate change is Grainger Plc and Others v Nicholson. This case pre-dates the introduction of the Equality Act 2010 but established the legal test for what constitutes a “philosophical belief” worthy of being protected from discrimination.

After being made redundant from his role as Head of Sustainability in 2008, Mr Nicholson raised a claim for discrimination on the grounds of philosophical belief. He did so on the basis that his belief that mankind is under a moral duty to prevent climate change was not merely an opinion but rather a philosophical belief and therefore protected from discrimination under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003 (“2003 Regulations”). The principles in these regulations are now law in the Equality Act 2010.

Initially, the Employment Tribunal held that Mr Nicholson’s belief was a philosophical belief for the purposes of the 2003 Regulations. On appeal, the Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld the Tribunal’s decision and set out the test to determine which opinions amount to a philosophical belief:

  • The belief must be genuinely held;
  • It must be a belief, not an opinion or viewpoint based on the present state of information available;
  • It must be a belief as to a weighty and substantial aspect of human life and behaviour;
  • It must attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance; and
  • It must be worthy of respect in a democratic society, not be incompatible with human dignity and not conflict with the fundamental rights of others.

This test not only applies philosophical belief that an employee may seek to establish; it can cover religious or other fundamental beliefs such as veganism, or even political belief if it is "worthy of respect in a democratic society". The key point to note is that this case and other notable cases on philosophical belief are all very fact specific. Just because, in the Grainger case, it was held that a strongly held belief in climate change was sufficient to be a philosophical belief, it does not mean that this applies to anyone who shares a similar view. In each instance, the criteria in the Grainger case must be established.

Employers therefore need to be mindful of the changes in society at the moment and the movement towards inclusivity and equality. Strong views on climate change or another topic which forms a serious part of their belief system could be a basis for that employee to be protected from discrimination.

How can we help?

Our specialist Employment team can provide further advice in relation to the Equality Act 2010, so please do not hesitate to contact us.

This article was co-written by Jenna Alexander, Trainee Solicitor.

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