Climate change and social development

Climate change will be at the centre of attention this year as part of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and as the international community is aiming to reach a new climate agreement in Paris in December 2015. The fact that changes in climate often affect socially and economically vulnerable people the most, is something that the Commission for Social Development has also addressed this year.

“Addressing the social dimensions of climate change creates opportunities, as it increases the adaptive capacities of communities worldwide and it helps enhance social development objectives. At the same time, addressing social aspects will enable mobilization towards equitable climate resilient pathways,“ said Dr. Asunción Lera St. Clair, a sociologist and expert on poverty, development and climate, as UN DESA’s team met with her before the high-level panel event on 4 February when the Commission kicked off its 53rd session.

In order to meet the world’s needs in an equitable way, formulating objectives for the future can be a delicate task but it is crucial to have social aspects at the center. In the post-2015 agenda sustainability is the key word and it will be promoted globally covering its three dimensions – economic, social and environmental. These dimensions are closely intertwined and dependent on one another. The symbiosis between them also opens up for new advantages and positive synergies.

“Climate changes impact sectors that are of fundamental importance for poor people, for example water, agriculture, changes in temperature affecting crops and droughts,” stressed Dr. St. Clair. “Poor people whose livelihoods are more dependent on nature are strongly affected.”

What determines how disastrous the effects of climate change are and will be in the future are pre-existing vulnerabilities and people’s lack of social development. “For example we know that what makes a disaster is not necessarily the natural shock, we saw this in Haiti with the earthquake or here in New York: the impacts of hurricane Sandy were felt more strongly in those areas of the city that are more vulnerable, that are poorer. So it is this unbalance what is of fundamental importance,” Dr. St. Clair explained.

There are and always will be trade-offs between addressing poverty and inequality and sustainability, so it is central not always keep our attention to social aspects to, among other things, prevent negative trade-offs.

According to Dr. St. Clair, the poorest people will have to play a key role in the actions against climate change, even though they are seldom the cause of green-house gas emissions. But this means that social needs cannot be neglected in pursuit of economic interests. “This generates a double injustice, from a social perspective.”

Dr. St. Clair used the metaphor of a double-sided sword to describe the delicate challenges when it comes to climate change. “The key risk and challenge affecting the poorest people requires that they be on board in order to solve what is ultimately a global problem.”

When looking ahead and beyond the post-2015 agenda, Dr. St. Clair is nevertheless positive about strengthening the social dimension of sustainable development, if the SDGs and climate action are properly integrated and if there are institutional arrangements that link social and climate change policies.

“Many people who until now have not been interested in [social] development because of climate change are now extremely interested in development. Why? Because if we are to move towards those climate resilient pathways we need to bring on board developing economies, so as to develop and to grow and to reduce poverty in a different way than what we have been doing so far.”

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