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Climate change is deeply intertwined with global patterns of inequality. The poorest and most vulnerable people bear the brunt of climate change impacts yet contribute the least to the crisis. As the impacts of climate change mount, millions of vulnerable people face disproportionate challenges in terms of extreme events, health effects, food, water, and livelihood security, migration and forced displacement, loss of cultural identity, and other related risks.

Certain social groups are particularly vulnerable to crises, for example, female-headed households, children, persons with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples and ethnic minorities, landless tenants, migrant workers, displaced persons, sexual and gender minorities, older people, and other socially marginalized groups. The root causes of their vulnerability lie in a combination of their geographical locations; their financial, socio-economic, cultural, and gender status; and their access to resources, services, decision-making power, and justice. 

Poor and marginalized groups are calling for more ambitious action on climate change. Climate change is more than an environmental crisis – it is a social crisis and compels us to address issues of inequality on many levels: between wealthy and poor countries; between rich and poor within countries; between men and women, and between generations. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has highlighted the need for climate solutions that conform to principles of procedural and distributive justice for more effective development outcomes.

The most vulnerable are often also disproportionately impacted by measures to address climate change. In the absence of well-designed and inclusive policies, efforts to tackle climate change can have unintended consequences for the livelihoods of certain groups, including by placing a higher financial burden on poor households. For example, policies that expand public transport or carbon pricing may lead to higher public transport fares which can disproportionately impact poorer households. Similarly, if not designed in collaboration with beneficiaries and affected communities, approaches such as limiting forestry activities to certain times of the year could adversely impact indigenous communities that depend on forests year-round for their livelihoods. In addition to addressing the distributional impacts of decarbonizing economies there is also a need to understand and address the social inclusion, cultural and political economy aspects – including agreeing on the types of transitions needed (economic, social, etc.) and identifying opportunities to address social inequality in these processes.

While much progress has been made on the science and the types of policies needed to support a transition to low carbon, climate resilient development, a challenge facing many countries is engaging citizens who may not understand climate change, and garnering the support of those who are concerned that they will be unfairly impacted by climate policies. It is critical that people are brought along in the choices to be made – this requires transparency, access to information and citizen engagement on climate risk and green growth in order to create coalitions of support or public demand to reduce climate impacts and to overcome behavioral and political barriers to decarbonization, as well as to generate new ideas for and ownership of solutions.

Moreover, communities bring unique perspectives, skills, and a wealth of knowledge to the challenge of strengthening resilience and addressing climate change. They should be engaged as partners in resilience-building rather than being regarded merely as beneficiaries. Research and experience have shown that community leaders can set priorities, influence ownership, and design and implement investment programs that are responsive to their community’s own needs. A recent IPCC report recognizes the value of diverse forms of knowledge such as scientific, Indigenous and local knowledge in building climate resilience. Innovations in the architecture of climate finance can connect communities and marginalized groups to the policy, technical and financial assistance that they need for locally relevant and effective development impacts.

Last Updated: Apr 01, 2023


Washington, D.C.
Laura Ivers