Climate change is not a problem for the future. It is here, and the most vulnerable members of our society are already on the frontline. Climate change is a stress multiplier that will disproportionately affect those who are already most disadvantaged. Vulnerable population groups are likely to feel the impact of climate risks soonest and hardest. For example: 

  • Those without access to financial resources find it much harder to get warnings for, prepare, respond, and recover from extreme weather events. 
  • The impacts of floods will be much harder on those who cannot afford flood protection measures and insurance. 
  • The cascading impacts of climate change from harvest failures to supply chain disruption will increase the cost of everyday necessities, making it even harder for those on the lowest incomes to make ends meet.   
  • The pandemic highlighted how the elderly, frontline, and low paid workers, migrants, those in poverty, and those with disabilities, tend to be amongst the most vulnerable and are likely to be less able to adapt to emerging threats. 

Unless we act now, existing social divisions and inequity will widen as the impacts of climate change progress and worsen making it much more difficult to achieve a range of policy objectives and deliver a good quality of life for all.   

In recognition of this, as part of the Adaptation Scotland programme, Sniffer has been working with the Scottish Trade Union movement to help identify the hazards that climate change could bring to a range of different workplaces and to empower workers to develop adaptation solutions. The new resources are designed to address the human consequences of a changing climate and help workers have a central voice in building resilience to climate risks and championing solutions that also tackle inequality and social justice. This project highlights that it is vital that the transition to a net zero and resilient Scotland is a just transition that puts social justice at its heart. When it comes to climate impacts, while we may all be facing the same storm – the effects, and our ability to respond, will not be equally distributed. Socioeconomic inequalities mean that while some of us face the climate emergency from relatively comfortable conditions, for others, such as those in marginalised groups, those in insecure or low paid employment, those in poverty, those with long term health conditions, the climate crisis will compound already overwhelming existing daily hardships. We might all be facing the same storm but some of us are on luxury yachts and others on dinghies. However, we will sink or swim together. 

The project combined the latest climate change science and the lived experience of trade union representatives from across Scotland. Over 70 trade unionists shared the experiences of their members in coping with the impacts of an increasingly unpredictable climate. Their stories were stark. We heard about: 

  • Carers attending housebound clients in inadequate clothing during the Beast from the East. They were not provided with PPE and could not afford to buy their own, and as a result they put their own health and safety at risk to protect vulnerable elderly and disabled people.  
  • Offices and call centres forced to close when electrical infrastructure failed in extreme heat. 
  • Businesses going bankrupt, and jobs lost as they struggled to recover from repeated flooding events.  
  • Deaths from landslides on the rail network triggered by unprecedented storm conditions.  

These stories reiterated that the ‘receptors’ of climate change risks will very often be people. We can’t forget this.  

The Climate Change Committee warned in a recent report to the Scottish Parliament that we are not yet taking climate change impacts and adaptation sufficiently seriously (read our recent blog on this report) and that action on adaptation has stalled.  This summer the Met Office issued its first ever red warning for heat, and UK temperatures exceeded 40°C for the first time on record. Such heatwaves have long been forecast as a likely consequence of climate change, but despite this forewarning, it is alarming to see that many of the measures which have long been called for to adapt to the impacts of climate change have not yet happened. Taking the heatwave as a case in point, the UK and Scottish Governments have not yet delivered adaptation measures which could help with extreme heat like changes to building standards to reduce overheating risks, and the establishment of cool rooms for the vulnerable. Nor are there maximum workplace temperatures enshrined in regulation.  

We can see the climate emergency getting closer, yet we have barely got out of the starting blocks when it comes to adapting to climate impacts. It feels as though the tide has receded as a tsunami draws close, but we have yet to notice and take serious action to protect ourselves.  

The good news is that many of the actions that we need to take to adapt to the changing climate can help to address long-standing social and environmental inequalities. While The Climate Hazards and Resilience in the Workplace resources were developed with the Scottish Trade Union movement, they can be used by workers and employers, whether unionised or not, in any workplace setting. For all workplaces there are clear benefits in proactively identifying climate risks and developing solutions today which increase resilience. By thinking about adaptation in a planned and proactive way we can prioritise solutions which deliver other benefits to the workplace such as productivity gains, better work/life balance, reducing utilities spend, increasing health and wellbeing, and improving morale and potentially, staff retention. 

The need for these resources was identified from the experiences of the pandemic, when it became apparent, very early on, that frontline workers and the most vulnerable people in our communities were being disproportionately harmed. While we should be wary of using past crises to think about the challenges facing us, there are some obvious parallels: 

  • Responding reactively to fast-moving crises, ‘policy-making on the hoof’ can result in unintended consequences which worsen social divisions and inequalities. We need to think, and act on climate change risks before the worst of the crisis is upon us. We should not delay any longer in developing our adaptation response, collectively and individually.  
  • The systems which our society relies on are more vulnerable than we might like to think, and cascading risks have the potential to seriously impact supply chains, infrastructure, and health and safety; often in unexpected and surprising ways. 
  • We should draw on the more positive aspects of the response to COVID-19 where people came together to care for each other. Our response to climate change must be similarly collaborative and compassionate. It should make our places and communities stronger, the economy better and fairer, protect and restore nature, and reduce economic harm here, and around the world.  
  • COVID highlighted the intricate interdependencies of modern life. Our collective resilience will be determined by the most vulnerable in our society. 
  • We need new types of leadership to tackle this crisis and should include and centre marginalised communities.  

The resources created by this project are available for anyone to access here. They comprise: 

  1. a handbook which makes the case for socially just adaptation,  
  2. a workbook which takes users on a step-by-step guide to identify potential climate hazards in their workplace and develop solutions which deliver multiple co-benefits for business and workers,  
  3. printable checklists for use in site audits and  
  4. a series of videos.  

We hope you find them useful in addressing the climate crisis in your workplace or organisation.  

Cat is a Senior Climate Resilience Manager at Sniffer. She is particularly interested in climate justice, green buildings, water resilient places and nature-based approaches. Contact Cat for more information [email protected]