Climate change and social justice: an evidence review

Are poorer UK communities treated fairly when it comes to climate change?

Project duration: April 2013 to March 2014

What are the effects of climate change on social justice in the UK? This is a topic that is not well understood. There is less research on procedural aspects of social justice (i.e. whose voice is heard in decisions) than distributional aspects (i.e. who will be affected by climate change). CSE worked with the Universities of Manchester and Oxford to carry out an evidence review for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. We aimed to look into the evidence and support the development of socially just responses to UK climate change.

Main findings

The review discovered several forms of climate injustice in the UK:

  • Lower-income and other disadvantaged groups contribute least to causing climate change but are likely to be most negatively affected by it.
  • They pay, as a proportion of income, the most towards implementing certain policy responses and benefit least from those policies.
  • Their voices tend to go unheard in decision making.

We found that vulnerability to climate change – and policies designed to mitigate and adapt to it – is determined by a combination of personal, social and environmental factors, alongside institutional practices such as planning rules, consultation processes and the distribution of the costs and benefits of policy measures. This suggests the need for cross-sector policy responses, along with detailed and localised assessments of vulnerability.

Climate change can compound poverty and disadvantage and, conversely, poverty increases vulnerability to climate impacts. There is also evidence that some adaptation and mitigation policy can widen inequality. These compounding effects and interactions make a strong case for policy solutions that integrate social justice considerations into climate change policy and vice versa.

You can read the full review here.

Topics explored in the review

Climate injustice 
Climate injustice relates to how the impacts of climate change will be felt differently by different groups and how some people and places will be more vulnerable than others to these impacts. But vulnerability is not innate to some groups – it is determined by a mix of socio-economic, environmental and cultural factors and institutional practices such as planning rules and housing policy as well as people’s own capability to respond. There is also climate injustice in the way the costs and benefits of climate change policy are distributed. For example, lower-income groups tend to pay proportionally more for policy and benefit less from some carbon reduction measures, despite contributing least to the problem through their emissions.

The factors that make people vulnerable to the impacts of climate change are most acute amongst particular groups, such as older people, lower-income groups and tenants. Older people are physiologically at most risk of health impacts from extreme heat and cold; tenants cannot modify their homes, so are less able to prepare for and recover from climate events. A mixture of factors also creates geographical hotspots for vulnerability: lower-income groups living in poorer-quality housing in coastal locations are disproportionately affected by coastal flooding, while disadvantaged groups living in urban areas with the least green space are more vulnerable to pluvial flooding (flooding caused by rainfall) and heatwaves.

Social networks and vulnerability
Social networks can influence vulnerability in complex ways. Well-networked neighbourhoods and communities have been shown to respond better in emergency situations, while social isolation can increase vulnerability. However, social networks may not always mitigate risk; networks around elderly people have in some instances been found to downplay the significance of climate impacts on their welfare, which can increase their vulnerability. These varying influences on social networks have implications for adaptation policy, particularly for engagement strategies.

How socially just are climate change adaptation responses?
Research assessing the justice of adaptation responses is still in its infancy. However, a number of initiatives at the local level are beginning to address questions of climate justice in adaptive planning, offering valuable lessons for socially just adaptation.

Carbon emissions and transport policy
The wealthiest 10 per cent of households are responsible for 16 per cent of UK household and personal transport emissions, while the poorest 10 per cent are responsible for just 5 per cent. Little consideration has been given to how responsibility for emissions might inform responsibility for mitigation responses. Policies to mitigate emissions from transport through fuel duty and vehicle excise duty (VED) also appear regressive. The cost of fuel and VED represents 8.1 per cent of the budget of the poorest 10 per cent of car owners but only 5.8 per cent of the 10 per cent with the highest incomes.

How socially just is carbon reduction policy?
Much of the cost of the UK’s domestic sustainable energy policies is paid for through levies on energy bills rather than taxation. Consequently, lower-income households pay more for mitigation policy as a proportion of their income than higher-income households. Overall, higher-income households also benefit more from current government policy than lower-income groups: by 2020 the richest 10 per cent should see an average reduction of 12 per cent on their energy bills compared to a 7 per cent reduction for the poorest 10 per cent. So everyone is expected to gain under current policies, but the lowest-income groups gain least.

Mitigation and adaptation policies as levers for greater social justice 
‘Transformational’ adaptation – constructing physical and institutional infrastructure which generates long-term resilience to climate change impacts – could be an opportunity for new economic activity and a fairer society, but local authorities need resources to enable them to incorporate climate justice into their duties. The economic benefits of mitigation activity, such as green growth and jobs, could also bring social justice if they are fairly distributed.

Policy implications

  • Climate change policy is largely developed and conducted separately to policy that aims to tackle social vulnerability, poverty and disadvantage. Adaptation and mitigation policy need to be integrated into activities to reduce material deprivation, and climate justice issues need to become more closely aligned with other core government agendas, such as green growth. The tools and procedures for doing this need development.
  • To encourage policy that works across sectors, climate change policies should use broader definitions of vulnerability, understanding it as multi-dimensional and not just related to individual circumstances or location.
  • Policy must also move beyond emergency planning and build the institutions and infrastructure needed to create permanent resilience across all social groups through transformational adaptation. This could be seen as an opportunity to create a fairer society and stimulate economic activity.
  • Governance and the policy design process need to change so that those most affected by climate change and climate change policy have more say in shaping responses. This will require new procedures and tools for engaging communities in more collaborative planning processes.
  • The rebalancing of planning powers to local levels presents opportunities for tackling climate change and social justice issues. However, local authorities need sufficient resources for this purpose and their activities should be coordinated within national frameworks to ensure best practices are shared and supported.


Disadvantaged groups are disproportionately affected in many ways by climate change and associated policy. However, emerging examples of adaptation and mitigation practice at the local level show that it is possible to achieve adaptation objectives and carbon reduction targets in socially just ways. Climate change policies integrating social justice don't just have a moral imperative; it is also easier to achieve resilience and mitigation targets with the political and social acceptance that results from fair policy. Furthermore, developing just responses to climate change is an opportunity to develop systems and infrastructure that will create a more resilient and fairer society as a whole.

This evidence review used a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) methodology to systematically collect and analyse literature on different aspects of climate justice, sifting several thousand articles and studies to generate a shortlist of around 70 studies for detailed review.

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