Illustration of an angry crowd of people

Social impact

How will communities or countries cope with climate change?

The greatest effects will be on low- and middle-income countries. High-income countries have the infrastructure and resources to cope with climate challenges; others are not so fortunate.

Widespread crop failure and loss of aquaculture (fish and sea-life farming), as well as less tourism, are likely to lead to considerable hardship and mass migration. An underappreciated consequence is the amount of mental distress this is likely to cause.

The suicide rate for farmers is already higher than for the non-farming population, for example. Farmers in the developing world are particularly at risk. In 2012 the National Crime Records Bureau of India reported 13,754 suicides among farmers.

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report suggests that climate change could further increase the migration rate from rural to urban environments, though it recognises that there are many reasons for migration.


There are also real fears that a lack of resources – particularly water – will fuel social strife. This could amount to local conflicts, or escalate to ethnic or even national wars.

The civil unrest of the Arab Spring – a wave of revolution across North Africa and the Middle East beginning in 2010 – has widely been associated with rising food prices, for example, among other factors.

In the UK a respected military think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), has issued apocalyptic warnings about the impact of climate change, calling for a ten-fold increase in expenditure on energy research: “If climate change is not slowed and critical environmental thresholds are exceeded, then it will become a primary driver of conflicts between and within states.” A 2014 report by the US Pentagon agreed.

A 2007 report for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), written by German and Swiss academics, came to similar conclusions. It pointed out that the populations of areas such as North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean are likely to grow by 40 per cent by 2025, while rainfall and agricultural production will fall. Particularly vulnerable are states with unstable political structures, weak economies and large populations.

Meanwhile, David Zhang of the University of Hong Kong has identified links between temperature shifts and conflicts, local and global. Following an initial study of wars in eastern China between 1000 and 1911, a 2007 analysis of 4,500 recorded wars between 1400 and 1900 revealed that conflicts coincided with periods around 1450, 1640 and 1820 when temperatures fell significantly. Conflict was probably driven by hardship resulting from declines in agriculture, rather than the temperature change itself.

Lead image:

Illustration © Glen McBeth


Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Health and Climate Change’ in January 2009 and reviewed and updated in September 2014.

Ecology and environment, Psychology, Health, infection and disease
Health and Climate Change
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development