Regional Environmental Change

, Volume 17, Issue 6, pp 1651–1662 | Cite as

Social vulnerability to climate change: a review of concepts and evidence

  • Ilona M. OttoEmail author
  • Diana Reckien
  • Christopher P. O. Reyer
  • Rachel Marcus
  • Virginie Le Masson
  • Lindsey Jones
  • Andrew Norton
  • Olivia Serdeczny
Original Article


This article provides a review of recent scientific literature on social vulnerability to climate change, aiming to determine which social and demographic groups, across a wide range of geographical locations, are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts within four well-being dimensions: health, safety, food security, and displacement. We analyze how vulnerability changes over time and ask whether there is evidence of critical thresholds beyond which social vulnerability drastically changes. The review finds that climate change is expected to exacerbate current vulnerabilities and inequalities. The findings confirm concerns about climate justice, especially its intergenerational dimensions. For example, deficiencies in early childhood may limit future educational and income generation opportunities. Evidence of clear thresholds is rare and is mainly related to the vulnerability of different age groups, household income level, and the impacts of different degrees of global warming.


Climate change Differential impacts Social vulnerability Thresholds 



Ilona M. Otto greatefully acknowledges research funding received from the National Science Foundation of China (Project No. 71273008; 71350110520) and funding from the Earth League’s EarthDoc Program.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ilona M. Otto
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Diana Reckien
    • 3
  • Christopher P. O. Reyer
    • 2
  • Rachel Marcus
    • 4
  • Virginie Le Masson
    • 4
  • Lindsey Jones
    • 4
  • Andrew Norton
    • 5
  • Olivia Serdeczny
    • 6
  1. 1.School of Public AffairsZhejiang UniversityHangzhouChina
  2. 2.Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact ResearchPotsdamGermany
  3. 3.Center for Research on Environmental DecisionsUniversity of TwenteEnschedeThe Netherlands
  4. 4.Overseas Development InstituteLondonUK
  5. 5.International Institute for Environment and DevelopmentLondonUK
  6. 6.Climate AnalyticsBerlinGermany

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