IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Social issues

Social system vulnerabilities to impacts of climate variability and change are often related to geographical location. For instance, indigenous societies in polar regions and settlements close to glaciers in Latin America and in Europe are already experiencing threats to their traditional livelihoods (Chapter 12, Section 12.4.3; Chapter 13, Section 13.6.2). Low-lying island nations are also threatened (Chapter 16). Rising temperatures in mountain areas, and in temperate zones needing space-heating during the winter may result in energy cost savings for their populations (Section On the other hand, areas relying on electric fans or air-conditioning may see increased pressures on household budgets as average temperatures rise.

It is increasingly recognised that social impacts associated with climate change will be mainly determined by how the changes interact with economic, social and institutional processes to exacerbate or ameliorate stresses associated with human and ecological systems (Turner et al., 2003b; Adger et al., 2005b; NRC, 2006). As studies undertaken in Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Arctic show, climate change is not the only stress on rural and urban livelihoods. The livelihoods of the Inuit in the Arctic are threatened by multiple stresses (e.g., loss of traditional food sources, growing dependence upon distant fish markets and externally driven values and attitudes). These processes could overtax their adaptive capacity, reduce the role of kinship and family as the centre of social organisation around fishing, and lead to divisions within and between fisher and hunter organisations (Turner et al., 2003b; ACIA, 2004). Rural communities do struggle daily with scarce resources, with insufficient access to commercial markets for their products, and with development policies and other institutional barriers, which frequently limit their ability to cope with extreme climate events (O’Brien et al., 2004; Eakin, 2006). Similarly, in urban settlements, climate change could coalesce with other processes and factors, such as land subsidence due to groundwater withdrawal, the poor condition of many buildings and infrastructures, weak governance structures, and modest income levels, to impact on peoples’ livelihoods (Wood and Salway, 2000; Bull-Kamanga et al., 2003; Sherbinin et al., 2006).

The vulnerability of human societies to climate change could vary with economic, social and institutional conditions: particularly socio-economic diversity within urban and rural settlements and their productive sectors, linkage systems and infrastructure (Eakin, 2006; O’Brien et al., 2006). In already-warm areas exposed to further warming, for instance, less-advantaged populations are less likely to have access to air-conditioning in homes and workplaces. Urban neighbourhoods that are well served by health facilities and public utilities, or have additional economic and technical resources, are better equipped to deal with weather extremes than poor and informal settlement areas, and their actions can affect the poor as well (Sherbinin et al., 2006). Relatively-wealthy market-oriented farmers can afford more expensive deep-well pumps. In coastal settlements, large-scale fishing entrepreneurs can afford to relocate or diversify. By contrast, poverty and marginalisation raise serious issues for impacts and responses, including the following:

a. The poor, who make up half of the world’s population and earn less than US$2 a day (UN-Habitat, 2003), cannot afford adaptation mechanisms such as air-conditioning, heating or climate-risk insurance (which is unavailable or significantly restricted in most developing countries). The poor depend on water, energy, transportation and other public infrastructures which, when affected by climate-related disasters, are not immediately replaced (Freeman and Warner, 2001). Instead, they base their responses on diversification of their livelihoods or on remittances and other social assets (Klinenberg, 2002; Wolmer and Scoones, 2003; Eakin 2006). In many countries, recent reductions in services and support from central governments have decreased the resources available to provide adequate preparedness and protection (UN-Habitat, 2003; Eakin and Lemos, 2006). This does not necessarily mean that “the poor are lost”; they have other coping mechanisms (see Section 7.6), but climate change might go beyond what traditional coping mechanisms can handle (Wolmer and Scoones, 2003).

b. Especially in developing countries, where more than 90% of the deaths related to natural disasters occur (UNISDR, 2004) and 43% of the urban slums are located (UN-Habitat, 2003), the poor tend to live in informal settlements, with irregular land tenure and self-built substandard houses, lacking adequate water, drainage and other public services and often situated in risk-prone areas (Romero Lankao et al., 2005). Events such as the December 1999 flash floods and landslides in Caracas, killing nearly 30,000, and the 2001 severe flooding in Cape Town, damaging 15,641 informal dwellings, show us that the poor in these countries are the most likely to be killed or harmed by extreme weather-related events (Sherbinin et al., 2006). During 1985 and 1999 the world’s wealthiest nations suffered 57.3% of the measured economic losses due to disasters, about 2.5% of their GDP. The world’s poorest countries suffered 24.4% of the economic toll of disasters, but this represented 13.4% of their combined GDP (ADRC et al., 2005).

c. Impacts of climate change are likely to be felt most acutely not only by the poor, but also by certain segments of the population, such as the elderly, the very young, the powerless, indigenous people, and recent immigrants, particularly if they are linguistically isolated, i.e., those most dependent on public support. Impacts will also differ according to gender (Cannon, 2002; Klinenberg, 2002; Box 7.4). This happens particularly in developing countries, where gendered cultural expectations, such as women undertaking multiple tasks at home, persist (Wood and Salway, 2000), and the ratios of women affected or killed by climate-related disasters to the total population are already higher than in developed nations (ADRC et al., 2005).

Government/institutional capacities and resources could also be affected by climate change. Examples from Mexico City, Tokyo, Los Angeles and Manila include requirements for public health care, disaster risk reduction, land-use management, social services to the elderly, public transportation, and even public security, where climate-related stresses are associated with uncoordinated planning, legal barriers, staffing shortages and other institutional constrains (Wisner, 2003; UNISDR, 2004). Where budgets of local or regional governments are affected by increased demands, such effects can lead to calls for either increases in revenue bases or reductions in other government expenditures, which implies a vulnerability of governance systems to climate change (Freeman and Warner, 2001). The disruption of social networks and solidarity by extreme weather events and repeated lower impact events can reduce resilience (Thomas and Twyman, 2005). As sources of stress multiply and magnify in consequence of global climate change, the resilience of already overextended economic, political and administrative institutions will tend to decrease, especially in the most impoverished regions. As Hurricane Katrina has shown, it is likely that if things go wrong people will blame “the Government” (Sherbinin et al., 2006). To avoid such outcomes, governance systems are likely to react to perceptions of growing stresses through regulation and strengthening of emergency management systems (Christie and Hanlon, 2001).