Differential Social Impacts of Climate Change in the UK
January 2009



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 adaptation1  and mitigation2  measures.

To inform UK climate change adaptation responses, the Scotland and Northern Ireland Forum for Environmental Research (SNIFFER) commissioned CAG Consultants to identify how climate change affects different people within the UK, and how adaptation measures should consider social impacts to help build the capacity of vulnerable groups to adapt to climate change.

1 Adaptation to climate change refers to adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or  expected changes in the climate or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities (IPCC, 2007).
2 Mitigation is an anthropogenic intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of greenhouse gases (IPCC, 2007).


The specific objectives of the research were to:
The research involved a literature review to identify the differential social impacts of climate change, analysis, a workshop and research into adaptation responses.


The climate is changing and is expected to result in warmer temperatures, with hotter, drier summers, milder and wetter winters, more extreme weather events, such as heat waves, and rising sea levels. Different parts of the four regions of the UK are likely to be affected differently, and more detailed UK Climate Projections will provide smaller-scale data projections and insight into localised climatic conditions.

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.

The people who are likely to be most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are those:
Deprivation often increases vulnerability to climate change, and climate change increases deprivation.

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.

There are two distinct ways to consider the differential social impacts of climate change – existing climate change adaptation measures should be tailored to the needs of vulnerable people; and work building the capacity of vulnerable people should consider the impacts of climate change.

This final project report identifies three types of strategic adaptation responses: (i) policy, (ii) management and operational, and (ii) community-led adaptation.  It concludes that action is needed at 3 levels within the UK: nationally and regionally (e.g. by government, agencies, regional bodies etc.), locally (including by local authorities), and, most importantly, by and with communities.  The Social Vulnerability to Climate Change Adaptation Framework sets out the adaptation measures that might be adopted to address specific social impacts of climate change, such as the impacts on health, crime or access to water and the natural environment, with a focus on vulnerable people.

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.

Key words: climate change, social impacts, differential, exposure, vulnerability, adaptation.

Outputs from the Project:
Final Report
Literature Review
Case Studies
Workshop Annex: Details of small group sessions
are available from the Foundation in electronic format on CDRom at £20.00 + VAT or hard copy set  at £50.00, less 20% to FWR members

N.B. The reports are available for download from the SNIFFER Website