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How can a better understanding of social justice help us to adapt to climate change?

‘Social Justice’ is gradually becoming a vital component of the local, national and global climate change adaptation, resilience policy-making and strategies.


The UNFCC states: "Adverse effects of climate change" means changes in the physical environment or biota resulting from climate change which have significant deleterious effects on the composition, resilience or productivity of natural and managed ecosystems or on the operation of socio-economic systems or on human health and welfare.

Climate change impacts are not just associated with the physical environment; in practice they encompass socio-economic operations, health and welfare.  Social factors, such as income inequalities, norms, gender, household/neighbourhood characteristics and societal interconnections are integral aspects in the evaluation of social vulnerability and implementing social justice.

The Shortfall

Despite a gradual increase in addressing the physical impacts of climate change, there is a lack of understanding in tackling the social dimension of this phenomenon. Individuals or communities will respond differently to the effects of climate change, depending on socio-economic factors such as age, gender, employment status, population size, social mobility, health status and access to financial assistance. In some cases, this could trigger different patterns of behaviour or lifestyle. For instance an area with increased flood risk could see the migration of people to other regions or localities, which subsequently could stimulate indirect secondary issues, such as isolation of the affected area or reduced land prices.

The Solution and Adaptive Tools

As communities are important component of social justice, it is essential to understand the needs of societies within the social vulnerability context early in the process. Developments could play a major role in creating climate resilience opportunities and mitigating the social risks. This can be done by including the affected parties at the heart of the process; clearly understanding the socio-economic structure and status of an affected community and investigating climate strategies and solutions that correspond to community needs. Lastly the establishment of Community Investment Programme (CIP) to provide financial or social assistance to the affected people particularly the disadvantaged and marginalised is a critical action to mitigating social risks/impacts resulting from climate change.

 Bita Rais is WSP principal consultant and social specialist with its Strategic Advisory Services group.