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Climate Change and Social Change

Cities are home to more than half the world’s population and the source of most global CO2 emissions—and yet often occupy vulnerable sites particularly sensitive to the effects of climate change. Out of necessity, cities have therefore become pioneers when it comes to responding to these changes. In this series, we examine not just the different strategies they deploy but also the associated social issues, and more specifically how questions of social justice and equity are taken into consideration.

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Cities are leading the way in responding to climate change. Home to the majority of the world’s population and the source of the majority of global CO2 emissions, cities are pivotal sites of both risk and resistance. As most cities are located on coastlines and waterways, they are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels and powerful storms. Yet because of the risks they incur and the resources they consume, combined with the flexibility of their governments, cities have become important laboratories for developing climate change resistance and resilience strategies.

Cities are also places marked by diversity and inequality. Inequalities are entrenched in urban space, and socially marginalized and vulnerable populations disproportionately bear the burden of environmental ills, whether that be air pollution, water contamination, or flooding. As grassroots environmental justice groups and governments now work to address climate change, social justice and equity become crucial components.

Further, as Jared Diamond makes clear in his broad historical study of environmental disasters, societies that are more unequal are fatally impaired when it comes to addressing crises early enough to be effective, because elite decision makers are insulated from environmental problems until it is too late. In more egalitarian societies, the impact is felt earlier by everyone, and decision makers take measures, even dramatic ones, that can save the society. Social inequality is therefore inextricable from the question of who is affected most and how effectively the world will respond to ongoing climate change.

Climate change is well under way, and it will continue no matter what we do. The messages in the draft report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are stark. Intended to report on a more optimistic development—an agreed-upon limit of 1.5°C of warming above pre-industrial levels rather than the 2°C initially proposed at the Paris climate meetings in 2016—the draft’s projections are dire. In the best scenario currently contemplated, “sea-level rise will continue for centuries.” Extreme weather events will increase in frequency and climate change will continue, but the effects will be less severe at 1.5°C than at 2.0°C. The 1.5°C scenario requires an end to fossil-fuel burning by 2050, and the use of carbon-capture technology that doesn’t yet exist and may be dangerous to humans (because it would use biofuels raised on land removed from food production). The IPCC gives less than a one-in-three chance of the better scenario being achieved. The future is likely to be worse.

It is in this context that the authors of this special series confront the mutually constitutive relationship between cities and climate change and integrate considerations of social justice and equity into their analyses. People are pursuing multiple responses to climate change, and the articles in this series provide an examination of a variety of strategies cities around the world are deploying and the key issues that are at play. Ultimately, environmental problems are social problems; solving them requires changing society. Long a critical site of political and social change, a place to reimagine and remake society (Harvey 2013), the city emerges as a particularly important place in which to understand the social impacts of both climate change itself and policies to mitigate its effects.

Articles in this series:

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  • Harvey, D. 2013. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, New York: Verso.

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To cite this article:

Gregory Smithsimon, “Climate Change and Social Change”, Metropolitics, 3 April 2018. URL :

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Centre national de recherche scientifique
Journal supported by the Institut des Sciences Humaines et Sociales (Institute of Human and Social Sciences) of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS)