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Climate justice in the UK

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The impacts of climate change will not be equal or fair and, without action, could increase existing disadvantage.

This message was reaffirmed in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth assessment report, which said: “Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development”.

Leading health professionals in the UK have also described climate change as the biggest threat to public health this century.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has been examining climate justice issues in the UK to understand which people and places may be most disadvantaged. We have teamed up with the University of Manchester, the Environment Agency and Climate UK to develop a free, publicly available website, Climate Just. It provides evidence for practitioners on climate disadvantage across the country and helps support responses that assist vulnerable communities.

A range of personal, social and environmental factors create social vulnerability, meaning the impacts of extreme weather such as flooding and heatwaves will hit some groups harder than others.

Those people more prone to problems in extreme weather include the very old, the very young and people in poor health, who are less able to cope with high temperatures and who may be more reliant on others during floods.

Where you live also matters. It’s not just whether you live in a floodplain, but also the nature of the built and natural environment; people living in basement and ground floor flats are more likely to suffer during a flood than those who have accommodation at higher levels. In a heatwave, people at the top of high rise flats suffer the worst effects. The natural environment is also important; so-called green and blue spaces such as parks and lakes have a cooling effect in heatwaves and potentially store excess water.

Supporting responses to weather events requires joining up expertise and knowledge across professional and organisational boundaries, bringing together those with a role in responding to climate change and extreme weather, with those involved in supporting vulnerable communities.

Social policy solutions may be as important as environmental responses in the long term. Yet while individual characteristics and the environmental context are better considered in current risk assessments, the wider social factors which affect people’s ability to respond to and recover from extreme weather are less well understood.

Being on a low income, for example, not only means you have fewer resources with which to support property-level flood protection measures but also that you are less likely to take up flood insurance.

Tenure is also important. There is a split incentive for action on flood resilience between tenants and landlords, with landlords often responsible for building insurance and tenants for contents insurance. Landlords thus have an important role to play in protecting their properties but also supporting tenants by encouraging use of affordable contents insurance with rent in areas at high risk of flooding. The design and management of the built environment is also critical in supporting resilience in a heatwave; for example, to ensure appropriate ventilation in hospitals, schools and people’s homes.

Social isolation is another important factor. In the European heatwave of 2003 it was often older people living alone who lacked social support who died. In the Chicago heatwave of 1995, Latino communities suffered less than other communities because they had more vibrant social networks.

To improve responses to climate change we need not only to consider exposure to particular hazards but also the wider social, economic and environmental context, the nature of communities at risk and whether there are particular factors which may make them more vulnerable.

The evidence on which people and places may be most affected can be found on the Climate Just website. For the first time, we can also see areas of flood and heat disadvantage mapped across England at a neighbourhood level using the Climate Just mapping tool. Examples of the national picture for river and coastal flood disadvantage are also presented there.

The website seeks to arm local authorities, their partners and communities to respond to these issues, with information on potential actions to take and resources to help support fairer decision-making and policy creation.

We are keen to see how different organisations take up and use the evidence provided – we recognise that Climate Just is just part of the picture and local knowledge will be equally important in developing responses. We welcome your feedback.

Katharine Knox, policy and research manager, Joseph Rowntree Foundation,




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