Understanding climate change as a social development issue

What is climate change?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines climate change as ‘a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (for example by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persist for an extended period, typically decades or longer’ (IPCC, 2007). Effects of climate change include: increasingly erratic weather patterns; more frequent extreme weather events (such as droughts, tropical storms and floods); and longer-term stresses, such as rises in temperature and sea levels (ILO et al., 2011). Climate change has cascading impact chains from physical features to people, with social and economic consequences affecting livelihoods and food and nutrition security (FAO, 2016). While much attention is given to extreme weather events, the less dramatic, slow and incremental impacts of climate change are equally important in their cumulative impact on human well-being (Moser et al., 2010).

Adaptive capacity refers to the ‘ability or potential of a system to respond successfully to climate variability and change’. Adaptive capacities include preventative strategies, which involve making decisions to minimise or avoid an event, and strategies to facilitate recovery. Research has highlighted that adaptive capacities are interrelated, and no single factor is likely to account for the degree of reduced vulnerability and increased resilience in any given context.

Transmission of climate stress may be increased or reduced by the specific vulnerabilities at each level of the system. If households face repeated shocks that steadily erode their assets, vulnerability is likely to increase as resilience erodes over time (FAO, 2016). Vulnerability depends on both physical and social dimensions – a social vulnerability lens is therefore essential to understand why certain individuals, households or communities experience impacts differently, even when they are in the same location (FAO, 2016).

Key terms and definitions

Adaptation: ‘adjustments to reduce vulnerability or enhance resilience in response to observed or expected changes in climate and associated extreme weather events. Adaptation occurs in physical, ecological and human systems. It involves changes in social and environmental processes, perceptions of climate risk, practices and functions to reduce potential damages or to realise new opportunities’ (IPPC, 2007).

Mitigation : ‘ability to diminish the intensity of the natural (and other) stresses to which it might be exposed. Since this definition suggests that a group’s capacity to mitigate hinges on the severity of impacts, capacity may be defined as “a country’s ability to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gases or enhance natural sinks’ (IPPC, 2007).

Resilience is the capacity of systems (and communities, households, individuals) to prevent, mitigate or cope with risks/shocks and recover. A system is resilient when it is less vulnerable to shocks over time enabling recovery by adaptation (FAO, 2013).

Vulnerability is the propensity to be adversely affected by shocks; it is a complex issue incorporating various dimensions. It is useful to consider vulnerability of ‘what’ to ‘what’ (FAO, 2013). Structural and situational factors in a given context largely determine vulnerability (Mearns & Norton, 2010).

The following documents present a range of interpretations of concepts and terms related to climate change identified in UN and national climate change reports, and in development and academic literature:

Integration of climate change and social development in programme design: the rationale

Consensus among experts is that climate change will have far-reaching consequences for development, poverty eradication and food and nutrition security (Mearns & Norton, 2010; FAO, 2016). There is a broad body of literature exploring the scientific dimensions of climate change (See IPCC 2007; 2014), and growing attention is being paid to its social and economic impacts (ILO et al., 2011; Mearns & Norton, 2010). As yet, however, there are no agreed international indicators of the effects of climate change on social development goals. An example of possible indicators is provided by a study led by FAO in six Sub-Saharan African countries. This measured climate change impacts on household welfare indicators, including total income, agricultural income, consumption levels, and food security. Findings showed that the most vulnerable households were most adversely affected by climate hazards, such as decreased rainfall (FAO, 2016).

Despite this, experts broadly assert that integrating consideration of climate change into social development programming is vital to tackle impacts it may have on the achievement of social development goals. These impacts include multiplying and perpetuating existing vulnerabilities, disproportionately affecting people living in poverty, and rolling back hard-earned gains in poverty reduction (ILO et al., 2011; IPCC, 2014).

Likewise, integrating a social development perspective into climate change adaptation and mitigation programmes can improve the design and implementation of climate change response measures while promoting social development goals. By applying robust social analysis in climate change programme design it is likely that more effective interventions will be incorporated to improve adaptive capacities (ILO et al., 2011; IPCC, 2014; FAO, 2011). The social analysis lens can also be useful in emphasising issues of equity, social justice and engagement – including among countries globally, and among the more marginalised and vulnerable population groups such as indigenous peoples and women (Means & Norton, 2010). In the long run, supporting climate change adaptation may likely be less costly than inaction: adaptation is a cost-effective strategy (FAO, 2011).

Mearns, R., & Norton, A. (Eds.). (2010). Social dimensions of climate change: Equity and vulnerability in a warming world. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Drawing from multi-method research, this volume analyses vulnerabilities to climate change and assesses strategies of adaptation through a social development and social equity perspective. A main theme is combining climate change measures with social development and sustainability goals. It covers issues including the impacts of climate change on migration, gender dimensions of poverty and adaptation, the role of indigenous knowledge in crafting adaptation efforts, impacts on drylands, and urbanisation. The volume emphasises inclusion and social justice, with attention to engagement of the poor and more vulnerable populations.

IPCC. (2014). Climate change 2014: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerability – Summary for policymakers. Geneva: IPCC.
How are patterns of risks and potential benefits shifting due to climate change? This report from the IPCC assesses a large knowledge base of scientific, technical, and socioeconomic literature. It covers: observed impacts, vulnerability and exposure, and adaptive responses to date; future risks and potential benefits; and principles for effective adaptation. A particular focus on risk highlights the interaction between climate-related hazards and the exposure and vulnerability of ecosystems and human systems. Adaptation to future climate change must start with reducing vulnerability and exposure to present climate variability and increasing resilience by improving human well-being and environmental quality.

ILO, UNDESA, & WHO. (2011). The social dimensions of climate change: Discussion Draft. New York: UN Task Team on Social Dimensions of Climate Change.
This report represents a collective effort by 20 UN agencies to map out the benefits of addressing social dimensions in climate change policies. People are both threatened by, and agents of, climate change. Social processes including demographic change, consumption and production are key drivers of climate change and response measures depend on people to be successful. There are also major synergies between action on climate change and wider sustainable development and human rights agendas. Local-level social impact assessments are advocated to identify socioeconomic climate change ‘hotspots’. Designers of climate response measures need to pay extra attention to safeguarding the interests of the most vulnerable.

Understanding vulnerability to climate change

Factors that increase vulnerability

Both demographic and socioeconomic factors affect vulnerability to climate change. It is widely asserted that the poor will be hardest hit by the impacts of climate change, especially those whose livelihoods are most heavily dependent on natural resources. Vulnerability is a complex and dynamic concept. It depends on many contextual factors and system components, such as environmental, social, cultural, economic and institutional factors and livelihood strategies. Typically, more vulnerable groups are those with fewer assets and less access to means of coping with and adapting to climate risks (FAO, 2016; 2013). The poor, women, and indigenous peoples are often particularly vulnerable as they have limited access to assets, services, networks and land, and may face a range of constraints to improving their livelihoods and building resilience (e.g. social norms, policy, inadequate legislation such as lack of land rights, limited access to services, and limited agency and engagement in public decision-making) (Ribot, 2010). Some experts advocate including power relations in understanding vulnerability, characterising vulnerability in three forms: physical vulnerability, politico-legal vulnerability, and socioeconomic vulnerability (Moser et al., 2010).

Recommended tools to identify and understand dynamics of vulnerability include vulnerability assessments, social risk management and asset-based assessments, and the sustainable livelihoods framework. The latter particularly identifies how assets and the institutional and policy environment shape resilience. These tools can help in designing interventions that are well-tailored to context and targeted to those most in need (Heltberg et al., 2008; FAO, 2011; 2016).

Heltberg, R., Jorgensen, S. L., & Bennett Siegel, P. (2008). Climate change, human vulnerability, and social risk management. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Risks associated with climate change could increase household vulnerability to poverty, hunger, disease, mortality, displacement and conflict in many developing countries. This paper sets out a social risk management framework to help design interventions to increase society’s capacity to manage climate risks so as to reduce households’ vulnerability and maintain or increase opportunities for development.

Ribot, J. (2010). Vulnerability does not fall from the sky: Toward multi-scale pro-poor climate policy. In R. Mearns & A. Norton (Eds.), Social dimensions of climate change: Equity and vulnerability in a warming world. Washington, DC: World Bank.
This chapter examines vulnerability as a structural issue and calls for evaluation of the relatively neglected social and political-economic drivers of vulnerability. It focuses on the reduction of everyday vulnerabilities of poor and marginal groups exposed to climate trends, and suggests that policy can significantly reduce climate-induced vulnerabilities among the poor. Analysis of the causes of vulnerability is fundamental to this process.

Demographic and cultural factors affecting vulnerability


Men and women experience climate change differently. Because of the existing gender division of labour and roles based on social norms, women have different tasks and responsibilities from men, have a different knowledge base, face different risks and have different access to climate response strategies. Men and women have different access to information, technologies, services and support due to sociocultural normative inequalities which typically leave women at a disadvantage (Lambrou & Nelson, 2010). Women’s primary care role in the household often means they feel the effects of climate change keenly – walking further for water and food due to climate-related resource scarcity, or having to care for relatives impacted by climate-related disease (Skinner, 2011). Higher rates of illiteracy and a lack of access to information about climate change can increase their exposure to risk and ability to respond (Skinner, 2011). Gender inequalities in the distribution of assets and limited access to financial capital often mean women cannot easily diversify their livelihoods (Skinner, 2011). There is also evidence of the differential impact of climate change on men’s and women’s health (WHO, 2014), and concerns that women are less likely to survive natural disasters and may be placed at increased risk of sexual violence in a post-disaster context (Plan International, 2011; UNDP, 2009).

Despite being among the most vulnerable to climate change, and broadly excluded from international climate change policy, women and girls have a critical role in increasing the resilience and adaptive capacity of their communities. In particular, their expert knowledge of natural resources makes them well placed to take a lead in adaptation efforts (UNDP, 2009). Gender analysis tools can be useful for identifying the differential impacts of climate change interventions on women and girls. They can help tailor interventions to ensure they are gender inclusive and that the voices of women and girls are included in decision-making processes at all levels (Lambrou & Nelson 2010; FAO, 2011).

UNDP. (2009). Resource guide on gender and climate change. New York: UNDP.
How are women and men affected differently by climate change, and how can international climate action take account of gender? This report reviews the literature on these questions, and includes an annotated bibliography and list of relevant international frameworks. Women are particularly vulnerable to climate change, for example in their roles as food producers and water collectors. But women can also play an important role in adaptation and mitigation, for example through leadership in natural resource management. Action is needed to document the differentiated impact of climate change on the quality of life of women and men, and to include explicit gender equality considerations in international climate change policies and action plans.

Skinner, E. (2011). Gender and climate change: Overview Report (BRIDGE Cutting Edge Pack). Brighton: BRIDGE/IDS.
What is the relationship between gender and climate change? This literature review identifies the gender dimensions of climate change and argues that gender considerations need to be at the centre of climate change policy. Many climate adaptation policies fail to account for the role and agency of women, despite women’s often expert knowledge on the environment. A rights-based approach to climate change is advocated, which emphasises the agency and role of women in adaptation and mitigation.



Climate change will have significant generational impacts, affecting children disproportionately in both the immediate and long term (UNICEF, 2007). Children, particularly girls, are highly susceptible to disaster and health-related impacts of climate change, including an increase in the prevalence of malaria, undernutrition, and increases in sexual exploitation and violence in a post-disaster context (Plan International, 2011). Climate change impacts compound existing discrimination faced by girls, including lack of education and health care services, and the burden of paid and unpaid work (Plan International, 2011).

However, despite their vulnerability, children can play a positive role in mitigation and adaptation efforts. For instance, children can help communicate risks to their peers and relatives, and provide practical and creative ideas to help communities recover from disasters (Back et al., 2009). Children’s awareness of the impacts of climate change, and how to mitigate them, is also crucial to sustaining development outcomes (Back et al., 2009). A rights-based perspective draws attention to children’s issues in adaptation and emphasises that children should play a role in decisions that affect them.

UNICEF. (2007). Climate change and children. Geneva: UNICEF.
This report provides a broad overview of the main ways that climate change affects children. Key themes considered are natural disasters, disease, water, food security, trees, and energy. The particular vulnerability of children in all these areas is emphasised – for example, they are affected most severely by natural disasters. While children and young people are affected most profoundly by environmental deterioration, they are also potentially the greatest agents of positive change. Instilling environmental awareness at a young age is an effective way to encourage protection and stewardship of the earth, hence increased investment is needed in environmental education.

Back, E., Cameron, C., & Tanner, T. (2009). Children and disaster risk reduction: Taking stock and moving forward. Brighton: IDS/Children in a Changing Climate.
What does child-centred disaster risk reduction (DRR) look like, and what is its particular value? Today’s children will bear a disproportionate share of the impact of the increasing frequency and severity of disasters, both in the immediate and longer term. They are also critically important actors in addressing disaster risk, now and in the future. This report presents 16 case studies from around the world that illustrate DRR interventions involving children, along a continuum from expanding knowledge, to enhancing voice, to taking action. It recommends greater focus on supporting children engaged in action to influence and transform DRR in their communities and countries.

Plan International. (2011). Weathering the storm: Adolescent girls and climate change. Plan International.
What is the impact of climate change on girls? This report identifies the climate change impacts and girls’ ‘double disadvantage’ of gender and youth. Analysis of primary evidence from Ethiopia and Bangladesh shows that climate change poses specific risks for girls and prevents them from realising their rights. Some of the negative impacts include sexual exploitation and violence, early marriage, death from pregnancy, and high HIV infection rates. The report demonstrates that girls’ agency is critical for climate change adaptation and emphasises the need for policymakers to recognise girls as agents of change.

Older people

Older people are considered at highest risk of climate change-related health impacts, including heat stress and undernutrition. Their knowledge and experience can add value to adaptation and mitigation efforts, and should be brought into the climate change adaptation process (HelpAge, 2009).

HelpAge. (2009). Witness to climate change: Learning from older people’s experience. London: HelpAge International.
This paper is based on research with older men and women from Bangladesh, Bolivia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mozambique, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. It looks at older people’s experience and awareness of climate change, and calls for better inclusion of their views in developing adaptive strategies. Older people are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and are repositories of indigenous knowledge and experience that could contribute to local and national adaptation. They are, however, excluded from climate change debates.

Indigenous peoples

Indigenous peoples and minority groups tend to live in areas that are among the worst affected by climate change, yet they have been broadly excluded from climate change discussions. Many indigenous groups are primary users of natural resources – their livelihoods depend on ecosystems based on forest and water resources. These groups are repositories of traditional ecological knowledge. Such knowledge has evolved over time in parallel with customary institutions and practices, supporting a balanced and sustainable relationship between society and its resource base (Mearns & Norton, 2010). But political discrimination and high rates of poverty among these communities exacerbate their exclusion from decision-making on climate change-related processes. Such exclusion can even increase their vulnerability ‒ if, for example, mitigation measures lead to injustices. Despite these challenges, indigenous and minority groups can add significant value to climate adaptation and mitigation processes, particularly given their often expert knowledge of the natural environment (Kronik & Verner, 2010).

Baird, R. (2008). The impact of climate change on minorities and indigenous peoples (Briefing paper). London: Minority Rights Group.
How do climate-related disasters and slow-onset climate changes affect minorities and indigenous peoples? Why are these groups especially sensitive to the effects of climate change? In examining such questions, this report highlights a neglected area of research. It emphasises the important role of these groups as stewards of natural environments that are major carbon sinks and biodiversity hotspots. It argues for the explicit inclusion of minority and indigenous groups in plans for combating, and adapting to, climate change. National Adaptation Programmes of Action, international human rights law, and new guidelines for humanitarian agencies provide opportunities for these groups to make themselves heard.

Kronik J., & Verner, D. (2010). The role of indigenous knowledge in crafting adaptation and mitigation strategies for climate change in Latin America. In R. Mearns & A. Norton (Eds.), Social dimensions of climate change: Equity and vulnerability in a warming world (pp. 199-256). Washington, DC: World Bank.
This chapter provides case studies from Latin America of the expansive knowledge base and experiences among indigenous peoples in balancing ecosystem use with human needs. It examines three main issues: social impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples in Latin America; how indigenous peoples have reacted to environmental change and shaped their societies, cultures, and capacity to adapt; and the role of indigenous peoples’ knowledge in climate change adaptation and mitigation. The authors conclude that to achieve climate change adaptation and mitigation it is vital to incorporate and strengthen conditions for the continued use and development of indigenous knowledge. This is particularly important as indigenous peoples have expressed concern over having their autonomy and authority undermined through REDD agreement negotiations.

What are the international policy frameworks?

The High Level Panel on Post-2015 goals emphasises that sustainability must be at the core of international development efforts, and recommends immediate action to halt the pace of climate change and environmental degradation, including reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (United Nations, 2013). The Panel also encourages the incorporation of social and environmental metrics into accounting practices. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) – 2030 Agenda prioritises climate change adaptation and mitigation measures and consistently considers climate change in relation to vulnerability, socioeconomic development and livelihoods. Climate change is mainstreamed throughout the SDGs and targets. The stand-alone goal directly tackling climate change is Goal 13 – taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Other goals also emphasise climate change and resilience. These include Goal 2 – ending hunger and improving food security and nutrition; Goal 8 – promoting sustainable economic growth and productive, decent work; and Goal 11 – making cities and urban settlements more resilient and sustainable.

The international policy framework for dealing with climate change is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This includes the Kyoto Protocol, which places more responsibility for mitigation on developed countries, and includes binding emissions targets for signatory industrialised countries. The Convention established a system of grants and loans, managed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) to help finance climate mitigation and adaptation; this is based on prepared National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) to address urgent needs. The NAPAs are to draw from community-level input to identify and address vulnerabilities to climate change.

However, tensions have been observed between global climate policy and local communities over policy and strategies. For example, some experts have stated there is concern about the impact of schemes for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (such as REDD and REDD+) regarding the rights of indigenous and other forest-based communities (Larson, 2010). REDD+ was negotiated at the UNFCCC to generate investments for forest-related CO2 reductions and removals. However, lack of clear land tenure, ineffective law enforcement, and unrecognised customary and ancestral rights may create situations where REDD+ could represent an additional threat to local communities. Experts stress the need for secure community tenure rights (Larson, 2010).

United Nations. (2013). A new global partnership: Eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development (The report of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda). New York: United Nations.
This report on the post-2015 agenda from 27 world leaders, based on global consultation, calls for five ‘transformational shifts’: leave no one behind; put sustainable development at the core; transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth; build peace and effective, open and accountable institutions for all; and forge a new global partnership. Post-2015 action must move from reducing to ending poverty; must integrate the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, including addressing climate change; and must recognise peace and good governance as core elements of well-being.

Larson, A. (2010). Forest tenure reform in the age of climate change: Lessons for REDD+. Global Environmental Change, 21(2), 540-549.
This article examines two issues arising from schemes for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD, or REDD+): rights to forests and rules for resource use. It draws on the findings of a study conducted by the Centre for International Forestry Research on forest tenure reforms in selected countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America from 2006 to 2008. The study underlines the numerous obstacles faced by communities, after rights are won, in moving from statutory rights to their implementation and to access to benefits on the ground. It argues that there is currently little reason to expect better results from national policies under REDD+ without binding agreements to protect local rights.

Climate finance mechanisms: Investment options and gender-sensitive approaches

Climate finance mechanisms provide support to poorer countries for cutting emissions and adapting to a changing climate. Finance options for climate change activities include both support for mainstreaming climate change interventions into agricultural and rural investment projects and programmes, and support for stand-alone climate projects or programmes. Climate-specific finance provides resources to support low-carbon and climate resilient development. To date, an array of bilateral and multilateral initiatives is in place to finance climate change, in addition to several carbon funds and development initiatives, but funding levels are insufficient. For example, the largest source of agricultural investment finance are farmers, herders, fishers and foresters themselves – further public investments in climate change measures to complement this is a priority (Dubois et al., 2012; FAO, 2013, Module 14).

Women and men have different types of exposure to climate risks, and use different adaptation measures. Women are disproportionally affected by climate change, but they are often marginalised in investment design decision-making and implementation (FAO, 2013). Some experts therefore emphasise the need for gender-responsive climate financing instruments and funding allocations (Schalatek & Nakhooda, 2013; World Bank, FAO, & IFAD, 2015, Module 18). Explicit gender criteria in performance objectives and evaluation are recommended, as well as gender balance in staff administering climate finance, and a robust set of gender safeguards for implementation.

World Bank. (2012). Carbon livelihoods: Social opportunities and risk of carbon finance. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Do carbon projects offer livelihood opportunities or present risks? This report reviews the literature and analyses 85 examples from the World Bank’s carbon finance portfolio. In theory, ‘carbon credit’ projects in low-income countries can both reduce emissions and contribute to sustainable development; but in practice they make only a small contribution to the livelihoods of poor people. Projects with greater potential livelihood benefits, such as clean cook-stoves and solar home systems, tend to reduce emissions less. This suggests that there are trade-offs between emissions reduction and livelihood benefits. Reforms to carbon finance rules and project design and implementation could strengthen synergies.

Schalatek, L., & Nakhooda, S. (2013). Gender and climate finance (Climate finance fundamentals 10). London: ODI.
Gender plays a key role in contributing to climate change vulnerability. This report identifies key principles and actions for gender-responsive climate finance. These include:

  • gender equality as a guiding principle and a cross-cutting issue for all climate finance instruments;
  • a gender balance and gender expertise among staff administering climate finance, to ensure equality principles are integrated in funding and programme guidelines; and
  • a robust set of social, gender and environmental safeguards and guidelines for implementation to ensure gender equality, women’s rights and women’s full participation.