Climate justice: who and where are the climate disadvantaged?

Our research came up with new, philosophically-informed ways of mapping areas and communities that are vulnerable to increased flooding and heatwaves as a result of climate change, by taking into account not just the level of risk but also the dimensions of social disadvantage that make people more susceptible to the harms caused by climate change. Our work enabled us to help national and local bodies develop adaptation policies.

ClimateJust mapping tool
Our research came up with new ways of mapping areas and communities that are vulnerable to increased flooding and heatwaves, as a result of climate change.


ClimateJust is a web-based mapping tool that facilitates socially-aware decision-making by showing how, where and to what extent exposure to risk and social vulnerabilities intersect to produce ‘climate disadvantage’.

ClimateJust was conceived as a result of research conducted for an interdisciplinary project, Justice, Vulnerability & Climate Change: An Integrated Framework, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2010-11). The project was led by John O’Neill in collaboration with several co-investigators and postdocs from three disciplines: philosophy, geography and planning. The website and online mapping tool were developed during a second project, ClimateJust (on which O’Neill was a CI), supported by the JRF and the Environment Agency (Midlands region) and launched in 2015, with a subsequent relaunch with modifications in 2018.

The ClimateJust mapping tool is underpinned by the concepts of ‘climate vulnerability’ and ‘climate disadvantage’, both explained below. It combines specific dimensions of climate vulnerability – for example, income, lack of local knowledge, disability, lack of private transport, lack of community support, and housing characteristics – with exposure to physical risk (primarily flooding and heatwaves). This allows users to assess the levels of – and contributors to – climate disadvantage present in specific areas of the UK at different levels of granularity, in a similar way to Google Maps.

Climate impacts can affect anyone, but some people are more acutely affected than others. How badly people are affected depends not only on their exposure to events like floods and heatwaves but also on various forms of social vulnerability. The intellectual framework that underpins ClimateJust derives directly from John O’Neill’s work on climate justice, which defines, and defends the importance of, the notions of ‘climate vulnerability' and ‘climate disadvantage’ that are enshrined in CJ’s algorithms and user interface.

  • Climate vulnerability: the extent to which one would be negatively affected by climate impacts (so, for example, other things being equal low-income households have greater climate vulnerability than high-income households).
  • Climate disadvantage combines climate vulnerability with exposure to physical risk; thus those with the highest level of climate disadvantage are typically those who have a high level of climate vulnerability and a high level of exposure to physical risk.

In order to measure climate vulnerability, however, one needs to have a clear idea of what is being measured. Having one’s house flood impacts negatively on everyone, but it will impact more negatively on the wellbeing of unemployed asylum-seekers than it will on a middle-class British home-owning family. A clear conception of ‘wellbeing’ is required so that negative impacts on it can be identified and measured. O’Neill’s work was crucial to this key component of the conceptual framework behind, and the factors that are counted as elements of climate vulnerability by, the ClimateJust tool.

The research

O’Neill has criticised subjective state and preference satisfaction accounts of wellbeing, arguing that they cannot capture the full range in the dimensions of well-being put at risk by climate change (see e.g. his ‘Citizenship, Well-Being and Sustainability: Epicurus or Aristotle?Analyse & Kritik 28 (2006) and his book Environmental Values (Routledge 2008, co-authored with Alan Holland and Andrew Light). He has instead defended a version of the ‘objective-state’ account, endorsing a needs-based account and – most significantly – developing the account in the context of vulnerability to climate hazards, thus delivering the concept of climate vulnerability. (See e.g. his 'Need, Humiliation and Independence', Royal Institute of Philosophy, Supp. 57 (2005) and ‘The Overshadowing of Need’ in F. Rauschmayer, I. Omann & J. Frühmann (eds), Sustainable Development: Capabilities, Needs, and Well-Being (Routledge 2010).)

O’Neill argues that a needs-based approach, as opposed to a capabilities approach, is justified in that certain achieved functionings (as opposed to capabilities) – ‘fertile functionings’ – are a condition of the very possibility of exercising capabilities. For example, being housed is a fertile functioning: people displaced by floods lose the ability to engage in long-term planning, which undermines their ability to exercise various capabilities, which in turn puts other central functionings at risk, for example concerning livelihood or children’s education. A practical advantage of this approach is that these functionings and their loss are measurable in a way that capabilities are not.

The research for ClimateJust specifically developed a particular account of climate vulnerability that was used to create empirically informed measures of the factors that affect the degree to which different groups would be affected by climate hazards such as heatwaves and floods, under five broad headings: sensitivity, enhanced exposure, ability to prepare, ability to respond, and ability to recover; see the JRF report, Climate Change, Justice and Vulnerability (2011) and O'neill's ‘Dimensions of Climate Disadvantage’, in A. Walsh, S. Hormio & D. Purves (eds), The Ethical Underpinnings of Climate Economics (Routledge 2016).

These measures were incorporated into the ClimateJust mapping tool as dimensions of socio-spatial vulnerability to climate hazards (that is, climate vulnerability), which, together with risk exposure, combine to produce an overall measure of climate disadvantage. 

The results

The ClimateJust website and mapping tool are free to use and have so far reached over 38,000 users. ClimateJust is described in a European Environment Agency Technical Paper as “a flagship example of a knowledge hub focused on social justice in the climate change context” (p.25). Both the mapping tool and the key concept of climate disadvantage that underpins it have helped embed the idea that not only physical risk but also social vulnerability is crucial to decision-making; here are some of the various ways in which users have benefited:

  • UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017 Evidence Report: Under the 2008 Climate Change Act, the UK government is required to provide a UK-wide climate change risk assessment every 5 years. The 2017 assessment was carried out by the Adaptation Sub-committee of the Committee for Climate Change at the request of Defra. ‘Climate disadvantage’ – the core conceptual innovation of CJ that combines risk of exposure and social vulnerability – plays a central role in Chapter 8 of the report (Cross-Cutting Issues). 
  • Town and Country Planning Association/Royal Town Planning Institute: The 2018 TCPA/RTPI report, Rising to the Climate Crisis: A Guide for Local Authorities on Planning for Climate Change is “designed to inform the preparation of strategic and local development plans being prepared by local and combined authorities in England” (p.4). The report -- unlike previous guidance, which did not mention it at all -- introduces climate justice at the outset and specifically recommends ClimateJust as "a powerful way of mapping the relationship between social exclusion and the impacts of climate change, offering the opportunity to tailor policy to meet the needs of those likely to be most vulnerable to climate change”.
  • Friends of the Earth’s ‘Climate Action’ website: ClimateJust provides one of the datasets used by FoE in its ratings of local authorities – available via postcode search on its ‘Climate Action’ website – on a range of issues related to climate change.
  • Local and regional public bodies: ClimateJust has been used for a range of purposes by a range of public bodies, such as Hull City Council, Climate Ready Clyde, Aberdeen Adapts, Staffordshire County Council and the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospitals NHS Trust.