Climate change threatens 'double injustice' for the UK's most vulnerable people

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change in the UK may be those who have contributed least to the problem, according to climate change experts.

The social justice implications of climate change for those living in the UK are outlined in 'How will climate change affect people in the UK and how can we best develop an equitable response?' This booklet highlights the views of academic experts on climate change and its implications for the UK as presented during a Public Policy Seminar jointly organised by the Economic and Social Council (ESRC), the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and the Local Government Association (LGA).

According to new UK climate change projections published in 2009 [1], science suggests that the impacts of climate change are likely to be very significant for the UK within the next few decades. The projected impacts range from rising sea levels to more winter rainfall and drier summers for much of the country.

As yet, understanding the likely consequences of climate change for people living in the UK is at an early stage. In this booklet, academic and policy experts consider the social impacts and the social justice implications of climate change in a UK context, and how society needs to respond.

Tim Allen of the LGA says: "Climate change will not impact equally on society: some communities or particular groups are likely to be more vulnerable and hence disproportionately affected. This point has been increasingly recognised but insufficiently discussed or systematically researched. Now, the urgent priority is to understand these equity and social justice issues as we plan for mitigation and adaptation measures so that we ensure that no-one is either disproportionately or unfairly affected."

In terms of who is most vulnerable to climate change impacts in the UK, the JRF is commissioning research to examine this question. The JRF's research will examine how different climate impacts, from flooding to heatwaves, might affect different groups. Katharine Knox of the JRF points out: "Vulnerability is complex and is likely to vary according to the type of climate impact, individual characteristics, location factors and issues such as levels of poverty and disadvantage as well as resilience and adaptive capacity." Policy responses and interventions will also be critical in how far vulnerable groups are protected and supported.

As seminar speaker Prof Gordon Walker of the Lancaster Environment Centre points out: "If we take the example of flooding, which is expected to become significantly more severe and frequent under climate change, there are various reasons why future flood impacts will be unevenly experienced. On the coast there is a strong bias towards deprived populations living in areas at risk of storm surge flooding - of the population living in coastal flood risk zones in England 35 per cent are from the most deprived quintile, only 4 per cent from the least deprived [2]. "

Less than half of the population in deprived areas typically have insurance cover, Prof Walker continues. Studies of flood recovery in deprived areas such as Hull have demonstrated the severed and long lasting ways in which lives can be disrupted and serious social and psychological impacts experienced.

Adds Katharine Knox adds: "We hope that the JRF's current research programme and other initiatives arising from this Public Policy Seminar will help to inform policy and practice responses to ensure that we do not compound injustice, particularly for those already facing poverty and disadvantage but rather tackle environmental, economic and social concerns in a fairer way."

ESRC Chief Executive, Prof Ian Diamond says: "While many of the issues raised at the seminar have received comparatively little public attention to date, they demand attention, something that the ESRC, the JRF and the LGA 'coalition of interest' will pursue. The JRF is already conducting research on the social impacts of climate change in the UK, and the issues raised are mirrored in the ESRC's strategic objectives. Furthermore, local government is only too aware that local public services will be at 'the sharp end' in meeting the challenges of climate change impacts on people in the UK. Hence, for all three of us, opening up debate, instigating a new conversation around the social justice dimension of climate change and starting to shape a collective agenda for future research are clear priorities.

For further information contact

Joseph Rowntree Foundation:

Local Government Association:

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors

  1. The ESRC/JRF/LGA Public Policy Seminar booklet, 'How will climate change affect people in the UK and how can we best develop an equitable response?' highlights some of the key points made by speakers and the ensuing discussion during a one day seminar held on this theme in London on 30 November 2009. This seminar was the first one jointly organised by the Economic and Social Council (ESRC), the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and the Local Government Association (LGA).
  2. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.
  3. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) is one of the largest social policy research and development charities in the UK. Working with the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT) it aims to influence policy and practice by searching for evidence and demonstrating solutions to help overcome the causes of poverty, disadvantage and social evil. See more details of the JRF's climate change and poverty work programme.
  4. The LGA is the single voice for local government. As a voluntary membership body, funded almost entirely by the subscriptions of over 400 member authorities in England and Wales, we lobby and campaign for changes in policy and legislation on behalf of our member councils and the people and communities they serve. We work with and on behalf of our membership to deliver our shared vision of an independent and confident local government sector, where local priorities drive public service improvement in every city, town and village and every councillor acts as a champion for their ward and for the people they represent.

References:
  1. UK Climate Projections UKCP09 (UK Climate Impacts Programme)
  2. Walker, G., Burningham, K., Fielding, J., Smith, G., Thrush, D. And Fay, H. (2006) Addressing environmental inequalities: flood risk. Science Report SC020061. Bristol: Environment Agency.