How can we make climate adaptation more socially just?

Decisions on how to adapt to the impact of extreme weather events caused by climate change, such as flooding and heat waves, often rely on understanding only physical factors. Research from The University of Manchester has highlighted how we can support socially-vulnerable and climate-disadvantaged communities through map-based evidence.

Historically, UK and European decision-makers across a range of sectors have focused purely on location, hazard frequency and hazard severity when assessing risk to communities and proposing ways to handle the impact of extreme weather events.

By overlooking personal, social and environmental factors that affect the impact of extreme weather events on wellbeing, decision-makers have been missing the crucial links to understanding their adverse effects on people's lives and to identifying local needs — vital for ensuring decision-making is effective and socially just.

Stimulating a socially-aware response

Working with a range of partner organisations since 2010, researchers from the Departments of Geography, Philosophy and Planning developed the free-to-use Climate Just resource. It provides evidence, guidance and case studies which support users to bring social perspectives into UK climate change risk assessments and adaptation plans.

Since its development, the Climate Just website has attracted more than 40,000 users, with more than 600 people attending events to learn about its capabilities, including public service providers and industry.

The research is stimulating socially just responses across Europe. In 2018 the European Environment Agency recognised the resource as "the most comprehensive and detailed tool currently existing in Europe for the planning and implementation of socially just urban adaptation". The City of Helsinki recently replicated the methodology to provide evidence to help rebalance coastal flood adaptation responses and avoid inadvertently favouring the wealthy.

Implementing the right framework

The framework brought together ideas from climate change adaptation, disaster risk reduction and an understanding of how wellbeing and social justice could be affected by an uneven distribution of extreme weather adaptive measures.

The team applied the framework to UK flooding and heat-related events using data and spatial analysis techniques. They created maps to show how well people can prepare for, respond to, and recover from, heat waves and floods, and the ways in which the physical environment — for example, greenspaces and types of housing — can accentuate or offset the severity of harm.

These maps cover a range of social vulnerability factors, such as disability, income, lack of local knowledge and housing tenure characteristics. They revealed severe regional, and other geographical inequalities in social vulnerability and climate disadvantage across the UK.

In the UK, the tool has influenced strategic responses from the Environment Agency, Regional Flood and Coastal Committees, NHS Scotland, and a series of local governments and organisations that hope to build a stronger social emphasis into their adaptation plans and practitioner guidance. The tool continues to be developed and improved, funded by organisations such as Friends of the Earth and ClimateXChange who are looking for it to further inform their decision making.