The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s research on climate change and social justice has found five forms of injustice associated with climate change and its consequences in the UK.


Low income and other disadvantaged people:


  1. contribute least to causing climate change as their carbon emissions tend to be lower than other groups
  2. are particularly vulnerable to negative effects on their wellbeing from the direct consequences of climate change, including flooding and heatwaves,
  3. pay a higher proportion of their income towards the costs of certain policy responses, particularly associated with energy and carbon reduction, while also
  4. benefiting less from those measures than high income households,
  5. tend to have least voice in decisions1.

Figure 1. Compound climate injustice

There are ethical, legal and pragmatic reasons for developing fair and equitable responses to climate change that take account of issues around responsibility for emissions, the differing vulnerability of people and places to climate impacts, and varying resources and capacity to act.

See our presentation Why climate justice matters for more information.



Ethical basis


There is a question of fairness in relation to who carries the costs or benefits of climate change and who is likely to experience the negative effects of climate change. Internationally, some of the poorest parts of the world are expected to feel the effects more quickly and severely than other countries, despite contributing least to the problem.  Within nations, particular communities will be more exposed, for example, to the effects of sea level rise and coastal erosion, as well as extreme weather, expected from climate change. Within those communities, some people will suffer more than others as they are less able to deal with the consequences, with disadvantaged communities most at risk (Box 1).


Box 1. Findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014


The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report notes that:


Climate change will amplify existing risks and create new risks for natural and human systems. Risks are unevenly distributed and are generally greater for disadvantaged people and communities in countries at all levels of development.2


There are also moral issues about rights and responsibilities, not only for emissions, but also for action, both within and across generations, with the risks of inaction today leading to severe consequences for future generations, raising questions over intergenerational justice.




Legal basis


The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change commits governments to reduce greenhouse gases and considers equity in the ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ of signatory states. Developed countries are expected to take a lead, recognising their greater historic role in contributing to global greenhouse gas emissions compared with other countries.


In the European context, the 1998 Aarhus Convention lays out public rights to access to information, public participation in decision making and access to justice in environmental matters. Under the convention, there is a right to review procedures to challenge public decisions that are made without respecting people’s rights of access to environmental information, public participation in decisions or environmental law in general. 


The Climate Change Act 2008 also provides a legal basis for action to reduce emissions, assess the risks from climate change and take action to adapt in the UK.



Pragmatic and policy considerations


People are more likely to support climate change mitigation (emission reduction) policies and adaptation policies (addressing climate change impacts) if they reflect a fair balance of responsibility, capability and need. Policy responses also provide an opportunity to create a fairer society. Fair processes that widen participation and address justice can help to manage conflict and to build consensus in responses, as well as mobilising assets and generating wider benefits from actions than taking narrow economically or financially driven approaches.3


Taking preventative action to reduce risks could also help to avoid longer term costs, as Nicholas Stern, former economic adviser to the UK Government, reported in 20074 (box 2). He has since suggested that the international approach to economic modelling has underestimated the scale of the problem and costs we may face from climate change.5


Box 2. Key messages from the Stern Review 2007


The evidence gathered by the Review leads to a simple conclusion: the benefits of strong and early action far outweigh the economic costs of not acting.  


Climate change will affect the basic elements of life for people around the world – access to water, food production, health, and the environment.  Hundreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the world warms.  


Using the results from formal economic models, the Review estimates that if we don’t act, the overall costs and risks of climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. If a wider range of risks and impacts is taken into account, the estimates of damage could rise to 20% of GDP or more.   


In contrast, the costs of action – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid the worst impacts of climate change – can be limited to around 1% of global GDP each year.6




  1. Banks. N et al (2014) Climate change and social justice: An evidence review. JRF, York. 
  2. See the various reports of the Intergovernmental panel on climate change including the IPCC (2014) Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report. 
  3. Banks. N et al (2014) Climate change and social justice: An evidence review. JRF, York. 
  4. Nicholas Stern (2007) The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, Cambridge University Press. 
  5. S. Dietz and N Stern (2014) Endogenous growth, convexity  of damages and climate risk: how Nordhaus’ framework supports deep cuts in carbon emissions Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy Working Paper No.180 Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment Working Paper No. 159
  6. Nicholas Stern (2007) The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review, Cambridge University Press.