What is the impact of climate change on social development goals? How can social development analysis and interventions reduce vulnerability to climate change and improve people’s resilience and adaptive capacity?

Climate change is fundamentally a social development issue. The impacts of a changing climate – including increases in extreme weather events and rising temperatures – are acute and multi-dimensional, already affecting vulnerabilities, resilience and social inequities globally, and placing lives and livelihoods at risk. There is a consensus in the literature that climate change will have far-reaching consequences for social development goals and economic development more broadly, including poverty reduction, food and nutrition security, economic growth, gender equality, social equity, and health (FAO, 2016). Moreover, causes and consequences of climate change are linked with global patterns of inequality and social justice. Evidence indicates that climate change impacts are not borne equally – demographic and socioeconomic factors such as gender, age, livelihood strategies and poverty shape levels of exposure to climate change effects, vulnerability and resilience (Ribot, 2010; Lambrou & Nelson, 2010; Skinner, 2011).

This topic guide synthesises literature on the links between climate change and social development, and includes evidence of their interactions, lessons, approaches and tools. It considers climate change impacts and climate-relevant interventions in the following areas:

  • five sectors: agriculture and food security, health, water, energy, and low-carbon transport;
  • three types of contexts: conflict-affected and insecure settings, urban settings, and coastal zones;
  • two key social development strategies: social protection and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR).

Climate change is threatening the resilience of societies and communities worldwide and increasing existing vulnerabilities, particularly where people’s livelihoods rely on natural resources and ecosystems. Consideration of climate change in investment programme design, particularly investments with strong social development aspects, is vital in tackling its potentially adverse impacts (Dubois et al., 2012).

Social development, and specifically social analysis, is important to integrate into climate change programme design and implementation because it provides the perspectives and methods essential for understanding the dynamic processes of vulnerability and resilience in response to climate change contexts. Social analysis – including use of vulnerability assessments in particular – is essential to understand why specific individuals, households and/or communities may experience differences in impacts, and the implications of climate change effects on differing groups and their livelihoods (FAO, 2011; 2016).

Both urban and rural areas will face new and more severe challenges arising from climate change. Resource depletion and agricultural sector impacts may be severe, affecting production levels, food security, incomes and livelihoods (HLPE, 2012; FAO, 2013). Changes in water levels and temperatures and increasing water scarcity will affect both rural populations whose livelihoods depend on water ecosystems (e.g. fishing communities), and people in urban areas. Further, resource scarcity combined with community adaptation responses (e.g. pastoral migrations) and emerging mitigation measures may provoke or heighten tensions and conflict (Bernauer et al., 2011). Urban areas are often vulnerable to disaster risk due to high population density, poor quality infrastructure and inadequate planning and risk management (Baker, 2012; Satterthwaite et al., 2007). Health and well-being will be affected as climate change increases levels of disease (such as malaria), malnutrition and psychological stress (Confalonieri et al., 2007).

Social protection can reduce vulnerability to climate change by improving household resilience, including coping strategies and adaptive capacities (FAO, 2015). Integrating approaches such as disaster risk reduction (DRR) with climate change adaptation has also had positive results (Davies et al., 2013). A main message of this topic guide is that using social analysis approaches and tools in climate change programming is vital for deepening understanding of vulnerability and adaptive processes – this will improve the design and effectiveness of climate-relevant interventions (Dubois et al., 2012; FAO, 2011). Inclusive, participatory, people-centred methods and tools that examine contextual factors in a holistic perspective are recommended. These include vulnerability assessments, gender analysis, poverty and social impact analysis, and institutional analysis.