Mapping the social causes of uneven impacts from climate change and extreme weather and mapping patterns of potential exposure need to be given equal emphasis


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The need to consider social factors

Much effort has gone into providing local decision-makers with supporting evidence concerning the geographical patterns of potential exposure to climate-related events, particularly flooding. While this is important, much less attention has been paid to providing equivalent supporting evidence concerning the other factors which explain why one community can have a very different health and wellbeing outcome than another even when exposed to the same event. This has restricted the development and implementation of local responses which address the specific social, personal and environmental factors that render people more or less vulnerable to losses in well-being.


The Climate Just website provides map resources to help you to consider social factors in your local adaptation planning. Evidence from past UK flooding and heat wave events are used to measure socio-spatial vulnerabilities and map geographical distributions of climate disadvantage. A greater consideration of the causes of uneven impacts can also help you to make your adaptation plans more socially just.


Social deprivation is often used as a proxy for social vulnerability and there is evidence of a link between deprivation and exposure to hazards. A study in 2006 looked at the association between Environment Agency flood risk zones and the proportion of the population within them classified as being deprived. Although no clear trend was found for river-related flooding, for coastal flooding the most deprived people were more likely to live in exposed areas compared to the least deprived (Figure 4). In a separate study, slightly higher proportions of deprived communities were also found to be located in areas likely to be exposed to particularly intense rainfall and therefore surface water flood events.1


Figure 4: Deprivation and coastal flooding: Percentage of England’s total population living within zones 2 (between a 1 in 200 and 1 in 1,000 annual probability of sea flooding) and 3 (1 in 200 of greater annual probability of coastal flooding) by deprivation decile.2


Social deprivation indices do not capture the full range of factors affecting impacts on people’s wellbeing from events like floods and heat waves. For example, although many of the 38 indicators used in the English Index of Multiple Deprivation 20103 cover some of the same themes (such as income, education, access to services, health and crime), they do not include:

  • Age, other than the Income Deprivation Affecting Older People Index;
  • Tenure, other than Social and private housing in poor condition and Difficulty of access to owner-occupation;
  • Building or local environment characteristics specifically linked to higher exposure levels, such as building elevation or the amount of greenspace;
  • Social networks and isolation, either directly or by proxy;
  • Past flooding events or potential for insurance access problems;
  • Mobility, other than personal disability.

Despite their limitations for understanding impacts and responses, social deprivation indices are still a mainstay of national government evidence building. Flood Risk Management policy typically considers vulnerability through the lens of deprivation (as indicated by the Index of Multiple Deprivation) and this view provided the basis of the analysis presented in the Climate Change Risk Assessment15,16.


The vulnerability of an area is a cause for concern in itself as it suggests that the wellbeing of the community living there could be improved. Many aspects of vulnerability are not hazard specific. Social isolation, low income, the absence of voice and lack of insurance will render individuals vulnerable when facing other pressures too (e.g. loss of employment, illness, theft or burglary). However, for vulnerability to climate change to translate into welfare losses, the area where vulnerable people live clearly needs to be exposed to a climate hazard, like a flood or heat-wave.



Duties and responsibilities


In preparing for climate change and extreme weather events, the need to account for social vulnerability is becoming increasing recognised in guidance and legislation. It is linked with wider sustainability goals and therefore relevant across the framework of current legislation. Addressing issues associated with social vulnerability can therefore be either an explicit or implicit requirement for authorities and their partners in service delivery. The sections below focus on England, but the same broad issues are recognised in Scotland and Wales.


Local authorities and their partners in service delivery have statutory duties and other responsibilities in relation to:

  • Flood and Water Management Act (FWMA) 2010 The Flood & Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM)4 strategy for implementing the Act sets out guiding principles. Sustainability is a central theme, following the strong public support (96%) identified at the draft bill stage.5 The strategy also highlights that some individual elements, such as the national capital allocation system, should consider both flood risk and also how far those affected are able to help themselves, in other words taking account of how much adaptive capacity is already within a community.  Guidance for risk management authorities sets out how sustainable development should be brought into decision-making in the context of flood and coastal erosion risk management. This includes:  
  • taking account of the safety and wellbeing of people and the ecosystems upon which they depend,
  • taking action to avoid exposing current and future generations to increasing risk
  • improving the resilience of communities, the economy and the natural, historic, built and social environment to current and future risks.6


The guidance also identifies Well-being and Social Justice as a theme, namely to ‘ensure that FCERM activities continue to contribute to community well-being and address issues of social justice’.7  Defra’s recent (2011)8 guidance for mainstreaming the government’s sustainable development vision into practice recognises the need to account for the social dimensions of policies and reiterates that a key part of Government’s agenda is a focus on fairness and wellbeing.  Defra’s earlier policy statement on the appraisal of flood and coastal erosion risk management spells out some of the social justice issues to consider (Table 3). This stresses the need to fully consider social vulnerability alongside some of the other social justice themes covered in this resource.  


Broad Principles


All impacts of different policy and investment options should be recognised in appraisal and where possible valued.

To ensure that no preferential treatment is given to certain types of costs or benefits which may accrue to different groups in society.

Costs and benefits should be disaggregated so that it is clear which sections of society are paying for and gaining from different options.

To seek contributions from private beneficiaries. To ensure that the poorest members of society are not indirectly subsidising wealthier beneficiaries

Distributional adjustments should be made, where appropriate, in line with official guidance.

To better understand whether there is evidence that the marginal utility of an extra pound to a poorer person is higher than that of a richer person in an appraisal area or across a catchment or shoreline, or across wider programme.

Capping or decision rules should be considered and applied consistently.

To ensure that a disproportionate level of benefit does not accrue in specific properties when benefits could be spread more fairly and efficiently across wider number of beneficiaries.

Vulnerability of people should be considered in appraisal including vulnerability to residual risks: e.g. where benefits may arise via flood warning, adaptation and resilience measures.

To ensure that social justice relates to not only the less wealthy, but also those who may be vulnerable to the risks, such as the elderly.

Procedural justice should be considered throughout.

To ensure fair and equitable access to the decision making process. Good stakeholder engagement and governance, as part of appraisal, are important aspects.

From time to time Government may set targets to encourage the delivery of flood and erosion risk management to specific sections of society for reasons of social justice.

To influence fairness through target setting across the programme. For example, the target for the current period which relates to reducing the risk in the most deprived areas.

Table 3. Principles to ensure a strong, healthy and just society.9


  • Health and Social Care Act 2012 puts local authorities at the centre of activities to improve health and to bring together the work of the NHS with that carried out by organisations involved in providing social care, housing, environmental health, leisure and transport services.  Important instruments for joining up actions to address climate risks and extreme weather events are the Joint Strategic Needs Assessments (JSNAs) and the associated strategies produced by Health and Wellbeing Boards. Tackling inequalities is central to the Act and many factors are also associated with aspects of social vulnerability:
    • population level demography – age, gender, ethnicity, population; growth and migration flows;
    • social, economic and environmental determinants  of health – housing quality, environment, employment,  educational attainment, benefit  uptake, crime, community  cohesion, and community assets such as libraries;
    • behavioural determinants of  health – exercise, smoking,  diet, alcohol and drug use, immunisation uptake.


  • The Equality Act 2010 allows for positive action in favour of people in groups with protected characteristics.10 Protected characteristics include disabilities defined as “physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect” on normal day-to-day tasks”.11
  • The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 identifies local authorities, along with the emergency services and NHS bodies as the key organisations who have a responsibility for developing plans for emergency situations. They need to work with other organisations in local resilience fora to develop responses to support civil protection.
  • Action on reducing health and social inequalities is central to the Sustainable Development Unit for NHS England and Public Health England’s recent Sustainable Development Strategy12. The strategy is an important reference point for actions in relation to statutory responses. The SDU also provides additional guidance on statutory and policy drivers for action.13
  • The Heatwave Plan for England14 is non-statutory but provides a basis through which other obligations to produce adaptation plans can be developed. The main purpose is to provide information which helps in the process of building more resilient communities to heatwaves. It does this through setting out ways to prepare for heatwave events and what to do to avoid some of the most severe impacts from prolonged exposure to high temperatures.  Raising awareness among the wider public – especially sensitive groups - is one important goal but there are other actions which are also recommended for organisations whose role is likely to have an influence, such as the NHS, local authorities, public agencies and a range of organisations working with sensitive and vulnerable groups. According to the plan it is the role of local NHS, public health and social care organisations to oversee the care associated with people with particular susceptibilities, to help reduce the potential for over-exposure and to help ensure that associated service provision is sufficiently resilient to cope with the challenges associated with heatwave events. There is an equivalent plan for cold weather events.


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  1. Houston, D., Werritty, A., Bassett, D., Geddes, A., Hoolachan, A. & McMillan, M. (2011) “Pluvial ( rain-related ) flooding in urban areas : the invisible hazard”, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York.
  2. Walker, G., Burningham, K., Fielding, J., Smith, G., Thrush, D. & Fay, H. (2006) “Using science to create a better place: Addressing Environmental Inequalities: Flood Risk”, Science Report: SC020061/SR1, Environment Agency, Bristol.
  3. DCLG (2011) The English Indices of Deprivation 2010 Neighbourhoods. Statistical Release. Last accessed May 2014.
  4. Defra and the Environment Agency (2011) Understanding the risks, empowering communities, building resilience: The national flood and coastal erosion risk management strategy for England.
  5. Defra (2011a) Guidance for risk management authorities on sustainable development in relation to their flood and coastal erosion risk management functions.
  6. Defra (2011a) Guidance for risk management authorities on sustainable development in relation to their flood and coastal erosion risk management functions.
  7. Defra (2011a) Guidance for risk management authorities on sustainable development in relation to their flood and coastal erosion risk management functions. Page 28.
  8. Defra (2011b) Mainstreaming sustainable development – The Government’s vision and what this means in practice. Last accessed May 2014.
  9. Defra (2009) Appraisal of flood and coastal erosion risk management: A Defra policy statement (June 2009). Last accessed May 2014.
  10. Discrimination: your rights. Last accessed May 2014.
  11. Definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010. Last accessed May 2014
  12. Public Health England and the Sustainable Development Unit for NHS England (2014) Sustainable, Resilient, Healthy People & Places A Sustainable Development Strategy for the NHS, Public Health and Social Care syste
  13. Public Health England and the Sustainable Development Unit for NHS England (2014) Statutory and Policy Drivers for Change presentation.
  14. Heatwave Plan for England 2013
  15. Sayers, P.B., Horritt, M.  S., Penning-Rowsell, E., and Mckenzie, A.  (2015).  Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017: Projections of future flood risk in the UK.  Pages 125.  Sayers and Partners LLP report for the Committee on Climate Change.

  16. Sayers, P.B., Horritt, M., Penning Rowsell, E., and Fieth, J. (2017). Present and future flood vulnerability, risk and disadvantage: A UK scale assessment. A report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published by Sayers and Partners LLP