Social work and climate change: a call to action

The Problem

Global warming will mean much more frequent severe weather events. These have already had devastating impacts in parts of the Global South such as the Sahel region of Africa in which extended periods of drought have led to recurrent famines, war and the displacement of large numbers of people leading to refugee crises[1]. However it is not just the Global South that will experience extreme weather and its effects. Increased sea temperatures have increased the severity of tropical storms contributing to the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans[2]. In the UK the recent unprecedented rainfall and consequent flooding in Cumbria are likely to become a much more common occurrence as a result of global warming[3].

It is also important to recognise that the impacts of climate change will not be evenly distributed. Social work service users are likely to be amongst those disproportionately affected. In the Global South “the gender-poverty links show that 70% of the vulnerability is accentuated by gender, ethnicity and age. When natural disasters and environmental change happen women and men are affected differently because of traditionally socially based roles and responsibilities”[4]. Such differences are also apparent in the West, where the 20,000 deaths caused by the heat wave of 2003 in France included a significantly greater number of older women than men. One important dimension was social isolation, with those living alone and without access to support from carers more at risk. As well as gender and age, vulnerability may also be increased by other factors such as health conditions. Those with chronic and severe illnesses such as respiratory and cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimers disease or mobility difficulties are at particularly high risk from heat waves and flooding. People with severe mental health needs also have an increased risk, and for this group the trauma of extreme weather events are likely to exacerbate anxiety and depression while increasing suicide risk[5].

Poverty is another key factor and it has been noted that “deprivation often increases vulnerability to climate change, and climate change increases deprivation”[6]. The most socially and economically disadvantaged people are more likely to live in areas liable to flood, have increased risk from heat waves due to poorer health and housing, have limited access to information about the environment and less access to transport to escape the effects of severe weather events[7].The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans is a devastating illustration of the effects of these inequalities. Achieving social justice through the reduction of poverty and inequality are therefore a key part of reducing the risks from climate change.

Possible Solutions

There are currently two main strategies proposed for tackling climate change. The first is for us to consume less as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint. This approach may help to draw attention to climate issues amongst our friends, family and work colleagues, but only really makes sense for richer people in richer countries. This is because the majority of the world’s population already have a limited capacity to consume because of low incomes. 80% of the world’s population live on less than $10 a day, and almost half, over three billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day. In the UK, 13½ million people live in households below the poverty line, around a fifth (22%) of the population[8]. The idea of more sacrifice is anathema to most ordinary people who have little already. The other mainstream strategy involves market-based solutions. These include bio-fuels where crops such as corn are grown to produce fuel for cars, or carbon trading systems where companies buy carbon credits if they exceed their pre-determined emissions quota. However neither of these has been shown to cut carbon emissions in practice[9] and both contribute to widening inequality as rich investors make significant profits from carbon trading, and bio-fuels reduce food supplies thus increasing hunger in some parts of the world [10]. Ideas of individual sacrifice and market solutions will not help us to significantly reduce emissions or build a mass movement to stop global warming.

However there is a third and alternative strategy that would enhance social justice at the same as it tackles climate change. This would involve a massive programme of government works alongside regulation to cut emissions. There are a number of ways that co-ordinated government-led action could reduce energy use on the enormous scale required to prevent catastrophic climate change. For instance, in the UK there could be a comprehensive programme to install on and off shore wind turbines and solar panels on buildings; significant investment to increase the number of trains and buses to make public transport more convenient, and subsidies to make it cheaper or free; and a programme to insulate all homes in the UK. What these policies have in common is that they would create hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of jobs and at the same time reduce poverty and inequality. However this strategy will require a mass movement to demand government action and challenge the free market thinking that governs existing policy. The strength of this third proposal is that the large numbers of ordinary people needed to build such a movement are more likely to be won to this strategy than to the alternatives because it promotes social justice as well as climate justice. The Campaign Against Climate Change (CaCC) alongside activists from PCS, NUT and other trade unions is now advocating just such a programme.CaCC have set up a working commission to develop costed proposals to create a million climate jobs and have already started to build a campaign to demand them from the government. Such an approach to tackling climate change is fully consistent with the values of social work. In the following section we will discuss how these values will inform our practice in dealing with the challenges of climate change, suggest ways in which social work practice may need to adapt and outline how practitioners and service users might contribute to the struggle against global warming.

Social Work Values

Social work has a long tradition of looking beyond its national borders and campaigning for human rights as part of global progressive movements such as the anti-apartheid lobby. Today climate change is perhaps the biggest challenge that humanity faces. Lord Stern suggested in his Review of the Economics of Climate Change, that “[h]undreds of millions of people could suffer hunger, water shortages and coastal flooding as the world warms” [11]. Social work’s values of social justice and service to humanity demand that we clamour for an ambitious deal at Copenhagen and join the movement to tackle climate change.

Another core value of social work is a commitment to anti-discriminatory practice. However as severe weather events across the globe multiply and intensify many desperate people will flee to Europe to escape struggles to survive in increasingly unviable conditions in some parts of the Global South. They are likely to encounter ever more draconian immigration policies to exclude them from entering Britain or Fortress Europe and an atmosphere of racism whipped up by governments to justify these[12]. Social workers need to be at the forefront of campaigns against the toxic effects of such policies as well as working alongside refugees and black and minority ethnic service users to challenge the increased racism and discrimination they may face.

What Social Workers Can Do

It was noted above that while people in the Global South will experience the effects of climate change most immediately and dramatically, users of social work services in the UK are also amongst the most vulnerable to the effects of global warming and therefore they too will be at high risk. Those experiencing deprivation and without informal support networks will be least able to adapt and cope with climate change[13]. We therefore need immediate action at national, local government and community level to address this and social workers have an important contribution to make in shaping this agenda. There are also practical steps practitioners can take regarding climate change. These fall into two categories which mirror the measures to tackle climate change at a broader level: action to limit the extent of climate change (mitigation); and preparation for life as the world around us changes (adaptation).

In terms of adaptation to climate change in the UK, governmental strategies are starting to appear but one report suggests that “more work is needed to ensure the adaptation responses involve, engage, empower and ultimately build the adaptive capacity of vulnerable people”[14]. Raising the level of climate change awareness among those most at risk or dealing with its social effects may impact on our duties as practitioners and those of health care colleagues. For instance strategies to reduce social isolation to support older people in dealing with heat waves and address the increase in mental health needs accompanying extreme weather events could be more prominent features of future social work practice, as could integrating new communities of climate refugees. Beyond case and group work, there is also the issue of building community capacity to deal with threats brought about by climate change. It has been noted that reinforcing collective provision and supporting and enhancing social networks are important factors in reducing the risk to vulnerable communities and individuals[15] and so the re-emergence of community work models would be a welcome development. This might usefully overlap with, and strengthen the networks of, the transition town movement that aims to drastically reduce carbon emissions in communities and build their resilience in response to global resource depletion. Although the precise nature of the challenges are uncertain, that climate change will alter life for vulnerable people in the UK is not. Combating and managing the effects of climate change will therefore need to be integrated into our professional practice and education. Finally it is important to recognise that whilst service users may be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change they are also agents of change and their mobilisations will shape our adaptation responses as practitioners and form a crucial part of the battle for social justice and the fight to stop global warming. We will now turn to these mitigation strategies.

The contribution of social workers and service users to mitigation such as involvement in the wider environmental social movements against climate change and to force international action will be invaluable. Many social workers and service users participated in this year’s national climate change march ‘The Wave’ , which took place in London on 5th December and was timed to coincide with the Copenhagen Climate Change conference. Such political action on the national level, and joining the Campaign Against Climate Change are important ways for practitioners and service users to get involved with the climate justice movement. CaCC advocates ambitious proposals such as 10% cuts in carbon emissions by the end of 2010. As noted above, CaCC is also working with the trade union movement to call on the government to create a million climate jobs, and social workers can get their UNISON branch or other networks to support this campaign. In the workplace members of UNISON can become green shop stewards representing the workforce in discussions and negotiations regarding the development and implementation of environmentally friendly policies and practices. Social workers and service users can also engage with community level mitigation projects such as the aforementioned transition town movement. Finally social workers might consider twinning their social services department with similar institutions in an area of the Global South affected by climate change such as Bangladesh or Northern Ghana, to raise awareness and develop supportive links.

These strategies for adaptation and mitigation demonstrate the crucial role social work has to play both in supporting many of those who will be most affected by climate change and building an international movement to stop global warming. We hope this article will open up a debate in SWAN about these issues and welcome further discussion and the sharing of experiences around innovative practice and strategies for action in the fight against climate change.


Post-Copenhagen, the struggle to mitigate climate change faces a stark challenge. The broad failure of the talks to achieve a binding multilateral agreement means there are are no longer any international targets for emissions reductions. The hurried accord put together by the richest nations at the end of the conference recognises that temperature rises must not exceed 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels and proposes funding for developing nations to adapt to climate change. However in neither case do the accompanying proposals represent anything like the scale of cuts and money required to prevent catastrophe. Looking at the situation anew in 2010, the lack of choice before us is apparent. Holding our breath for wide-scale, immediate action from multi-lateral discussions mired by rigid economic interests seems increasingly naïve. Instead the new coalition of climate activists, trade unionists and NGO  and charity organisations that came together to protest outside the Copenhagen Summit signals an alternative strategy. Political activism on climate change is required as a never before to drive the sea-change required in global attitudes and action. Social workers can play a crucial role in this fight by bringing their values of social justice to the struggle for climate justice. Supporting the joint CaCC and trade union call for one million climate jobs now ( is more urgently needed than ever and an important way in which social workers can build the movement for climate justice in their trade union branches and beyond.

[1] Flannery, T. (2005) The Weather Makers. London: Penguin

[2] Henson, R. (2006) The Rough Guide to Climate Change. London: Penguin


[4]ENERGIA et al (2007) Gender Aspects of Climate Change. No place of publication: ENERGIA International Network on Gender and Sustainable Energy

[5] SNIFFER (2009) Differential Social Impacts of Climate Change in the UK. Edinburgh: SNIFFER

[6] Ibid., p.73

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jospeh Rowntree Foundation figures for 2007/8 available at:

[9] Williams, C. ‘Cap and Trade Schemes’ in I. Angus (2009) The Global Fight for Climate Justice. London: Resistance Books

[10] Neale, J. (2008) Stop Global Warming: Change The World. London: Bookmarks.

[11] Stern, N. (2006) Stern Review on the Economic of Climate Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[12] Neale, J. (2008) Stop Global Warming: Change The World. London: Bookmarks.

[13] SNIFFER (2009) Differential Social Impacts of Climate Change in the UK. Edinburgh: SNIFFER

[14] Ibid.

[15] Klinenburg, E. (2002) Heat Wave. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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