Differential Social Impacts Of Climate Change In The UK

Published on 23 November 2009 in Climate, water and energy , Food, health and wellbeing



The Stern Review highlighted that ‘the impacts of climate change are not evenly distributed – the poorest countries and people will suffer earliest and most’.

Evidence shows that  not only are the poorest people often more exposed to specific climate change impacts, they are also more vulnerable to those impacts, and find it harder to recover when they occur. Climate change will widen existing inequalities, globally and locally, unless social impacts are actively addressed across the range of adaptation and mitigation measures.

Key Points

Changes in the weather, and more extreme conditions, such as heat waves, heavy rainfall, flooding and storms will have significant social impacts on UK society. In particular, climate change will affect physical, as well as mental health and wider quality of life. It will also affect people’s access to, and the quality of, basic goods and services such as water, shelter and food, as well as other key priorities for human wellbeing such as education, employment and crime, therefore worsening social deprivation.

Poverty and social inclusion

Climate change will disproportionately affect the poorest in society.  The people who are likely to be most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are those:

  • living in places at risk;
  • people who are already deprived by the health, level of income, the quality of their homes and mobility; as well as
  • people who lack awareness of the risks of climate change, the capacity to adapt, and who are less well supported by family, friends and agencies.

Impacts on health and wellbeing

According to consultees to the EU Green Paper: Adapting to Climate Change in Europe – Options for EU action, the most severe social, environmental and economic impacts of climate change are likely to be the impacts on human health, migration, social inequality and food security (CEC, 2008) Indeed, climate change will more severely affect people living in developing parts of the world (IPCC, 2007), and therefore indirectly affect UK citizens through resulting migration to the UK, and effects on trade and food security.

Impacts on access to, and quality of, goods and services

Climate change is very likely to negatively affect access to basic resources such as water, food, shelter and essential services such as energy, transport and communication

Deprivation often increases vulnerability to climate change, and climate change increases deprivation.

Research Undertaken

To inform UK climate change adaptation responses, the Scotland & Northern Ireland Forum for Environmental Research (SNIFFER) commissioned CAG Consultants to:

  • identify the social impacts in the UK which are forecast to increase under climate change projections;
  • identify the differential impacts, for example, based on exposure and sensitivity and the capacity to adapt; and
  • identify adaptation measures that will need to consider these differential social impacts.

This research was undertaken in partnership by SNIFFER with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Government, Scottish Natural Heritage, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Environment Agency, Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action and The Forestry Commission.

The research produced a comprehensive literature review, a social impacts framework to draw links between the social impacts of climate change and the necessary policy responses and a series of case studies as a more detailed examination.

Policy Implications

Action is needed at all levels: international, national, within devolved administrations and within regions; at a local level by councils and local agencies; but also at a community level, through voluntary and community groups, and with individuals.

The report finds that climate change adaptation policy within the UK recognises the social justice implications of climate change but offers little in terms of action. There is a myriad of mechanisms and tools which can be used to examine the differential social impacts of climate change within policy and practice. Sector-specific plans, such as in the health sector, are starting to consider these issues but more work is needed to ensure that adaptation responses involve, engage, empower and ultimately build the adaptive capacity of vulnerable people.

The report identifies a number of gaps for further exploration and action. In particular, more work is needed to understand the impact of global climate change on immigration to the UK and greater focus is needed to promote community-led adaptation.

In line with the principles of the UK Adaptation Programme, socially responsive climate change adaptation policy needs to be delivered within the context of sustainable development; action should be proportionate, and integrated with climate change mitigation; and involve collaboration with the people who are most vulnerable to climate change.


Ruth Wolstenholme, SNIFFER ruth@sniffer.org.uk


Climate, water and energy , Food, health and wellbeing

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