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Document 52023IE2907

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on The climate crisis and its effect on vulnerable groups (own-initiative opinion)

EESC 2023/02907

OJ C, C/2024/1565, 5.3.2024, ELI: (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, GA, HR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)


European flag

Official Journal
of the European Union


Series C



Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on The climate crisis and its effect on vulnerable groups

(own-initiative opinion)




Plenary Assembly decision


Legal basis

Rule 52(2) of the Rules of Procedure


Own-initiative opinion

Section responsible

Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship

Adopted in section


Adopted at plenary


Plenary session No


Outcome of vote



1.   Conclusions and recommendations


The climate crisis has already contributed to the increase of extreme weather events like storms, forest fires and floods severely affecting vulnerable communities across the globe and raising an urgent need for adaptive measures and community resilience-building. This disastrous trend is spreading to new regions that have not experienced such rapid phenomena before. A collective and integrative approach is necessary, while all stakeholders should undertake their responsibilities. The political and legal arsenal should be strengthened, and the existing implementation strengthened even further.


While the climate crisis is expected to have profoundly negative effects across countries and social classes, vulnerable groups are going to pay a disproportionately high price. Women, children, poor people, unemployed people, minorities, immigrants and persons with disabilities, are going to be heavily affected by the effects of the climate crisis, and pay a higher-than-average price because of policy failures at national, European and global levels.


Vulnerable groups are less prepared to face the challenges that the climate crisis is going to pose to their living standards in the years to come, and also have fewer resources available to achieve climate mitigation and adaptation. The implementation of their fundamental rights is therefore put under significant risk.


The social aspects of the just transition should be highlighted, in close cooperation with social partners and civil society organisations (CSOs), paying special attention to vital sectors such as tourism and agriculture.


Issues of justice, fairness and inclusion are of paramount importance, as ushering in the era of green energy could accentuate existing income and social inequalities. Initiatives such as the EU Social Climate Fund and the EU Climate Adjustment Fund (1) are welcome and crucial, but need to be supplemented with additional instruments so all the challenges and the demands of transition are met effectively. Emphasis on children and intergenerational justice issues is essential.


Providing vulnerable groups with opportunities to acquire skills that are valuable in the green economy is a formidable task and an essential step for preventing energy poverty.


Supplementary instruments to meet the challenges and demands of energy transition are of primary significance. The Cohesion Fund, the Just Transition Fund and the Recovery and Resilience Facility can also help achieve the aforementioned goal of tackling energy poverty, but more action is urgently needed to develop a comprehensive EU political and social strategy. The rising incidence of climate crisis-related disasters stresses the need for boosting the EU capacity to respond in a proactive rather than reactive manner to all these emergencies. The Climate Adjustment Fund can emerge as a tool of paramount importance in that respect.


Examining the intersection between climate change impacts, vulnerable groups and social inequalities, and understanding how climate change and the transition to green energy could exacerbate existing social and environmental injustices, is of primary significance, in particular given the potential for marginalised communities to bear a disproportionate burden of the climate crisis. Investigating the disproportionate exposure of marginalised communities to air pollution and its adverse physical and mental health effects resulting from the location of industrial facilities in their neighbourhoods is a good example of this. Measures supporting vulnerable groups and affected households should be based on a holistic view, including the use of social policy instruments (2).

2.   General comments


Policy failures at national, European and global levels, as far as the climate crisis is concerned, disproportionately affect vulnerable groups, while challenges faced by vulnerable groups in adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change are formidable. The access of vulnerable groups to resources available for climate mitigation and adaptation remains limited. For example, it is worth analysing how extreme weather events disproportionately affect marginalised communities, such as floods in low-income neighbourhoods leading to displacement and loss of livelihoods.


Energy poverty has already emerged as a key social challenge at the onset of the energy market crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Social challenges arising from the energy market crisis caused by strategic events require urgent measures to address the challenge and ensure social equality, as the climate crisis and transition to green energy has led to rising living costs. This is likely to become a menacing threat against social equality in Europe unless urgent measures are taken.


Women, particularly in the Global South, are going to be profoundly disadvantaged by the climate crisis. In regions where WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) facilities are insufficient, and women are still responsible for the water supply of their households, the water crisis is going to add a heavy burden. Moreover, women’s access to employment, income stability, living standards and job security will be additionally hampered by the economic disruption which the climate crisis is likely to cause.


Farmers are likely to face unprecedented challenges as desertification and other water stress threats looms over the Mediterranean and other major agricultural regions of Europe such as Central and Eastern Europe. Agriculture is likely to become unsustainable in large swaths of southern Europe where declining rainfall levels and unsustainable water management lead to critical water shortages. Insights into the socioeconomic consequences of changing rainfall patterns and heat stress on crop yields and livelihoods remain insufficient.


The urban poor are also expected to face formidable difficulties in adapting to the climate crisis conditions. Living in the least sustainable and environmentally safe neighbourhoods of large cities, they will face a sharp decline of their living standards without possessing the skills and resources to address these challenges. In addition, individuals in these socially vulnerable groups are approximately 15 % more likely to currently live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses due to climate-driven increases in particulate air pollution, and in areas where the highest percentage of land is projected to be inundated due to sea level rise (3).


Island and coastal communities are going to be particularly affected, as land erosion and rising sea levels are going to challenge their livelihood and call into question the sustainability of traditional economic activities. This includes communities living in atolls and near coral reefs in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.


Indigenous communities from the Arctic to the Amazon and from Indonesia to Congo are likely to face enormous pressure on their livelihoods as a result of the effect of the climate crisis on the ecosystem and their economic activities. There is a need to examine the specific vulnerabilities and impacts of climate change on indigenous communities, as well as explore traditional knowledge and practices that contribute to climate change resilience.


Persons with disabilities and the elderly are likely to face formidable challenges because of the climate crisis, as heatwaves increase death rates among vulnerable groups; in addition, access to public space is going to be impaired by extreme weather events and climate-crisis-linked emergencies.


The climate crisis is likely to disproportionately affect some of the regions of the world whose economies remain heavily dependent on agriculture, such as the MENA region and sub-Saharan Africa (4). This is likely to disrupt the agriculture-based economies of vast regions and lead to political destabilisation and a sharp increase of migration pressures towards the Global North.


In many countries where minority groups face political and social inequality, the climate crisis is likely to exacerbate existing divisions and inequalities as dominant groups will enjoy preferential access to the shrinking common resources. The exacerbation of existing water conflicts can lead to further destabilisation of regions already suffering from protracted conflict, such as Israel-Palestine, Syria and Libya.


Elderly people, due to their reduced mobility and increased attachment to their homes, are likely to be profoundly affected by the climate crisis, as heatwaves increase death rates, and the places they have lived for decades are transformed into climate crisis hotspots. An example is older people in the Netherlands residing in low-lying areas being particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels and an increased risk of flooding due to the climate crisis.


Children are the least responsible for climate change, but it is young people and future generations who will bear the consequences. Questions of intergenerational justice are an essential aspect of any policy intervention addressing the impact of the climate crisis.


Immigrants and refugees remain among the groups most vulnerable to the climate crisis, as they remain underprotected by the welfare state of their respective host countries and they are likely to reside in the neighbourhoods and provinces most vulnerable to climate change. Moreover, immigrants and refugees have the most limited access to the opportunities the green energy transition offers.


The challenges faced by vulnerable groups in urban areas due to climate change are also of primary importance. Analysing the impacts of heatwaves, urban heat islands and flooding on marginalised communities in cities and exploring strategies for enhancing urban resilience and promoting equitable adaptation measures is essential. For example, examining the impact of rising sea levels on coastal cities and the potential displacement of low-income communities residing in flood-prone areas.


Alongside vulnerable groups, vulnerable ecosystems also face formidable challenges in light of the climate crisis and deserve the attention of the international community. In many cases, vulnerable groups and communities rely on vulnerable ecosystems. As a result, they are faced with heightened risks from both natural and climate-induced hazards. Adaptation strategies in this context are also bound to be faced with important trade-offs and policy choices (5).


Many socially vulnerable groups live in industrial or urban areas with high levels of air pollution. Roma communities in the European Union are more likely than others to live in areas where climate-related changes are likely to have negative health effects. Some people are also more vulnerable to the physical and mental health impacts of air pollution because they have chronic medical conditions. For example, certain ethnic communities, low-income groups, indigenous populations and immigrant groups have higher rates of heart disease, asthma and COPD (6).

3.   Climate Change, Vulnerable Groups and Energy Transition


Vulnerable groups are likely to face significant difficulties in the transition to fair and clean energy. The rise of unemployment in certain sectors because of this transition threatens groups already sensitive to unemployment risks who are employed in sectors such as agriculture, transport, construction and housing. Unemployment resulting from this transition is going to affect people who have limited employment alternatives, e.g. due to being relatively old or having insufficient professional skills to move to a new sector.


There is an important shift in research priorities from exploring climate or extreme weather events to examining the ways in which people and systems are experiencing impacts and the systemic social and economic inequalities that exacerbate their exposure and vulnerability. Understanding the differential impacts on populations, communities and systems due to the transition to a green economy is critical for developing a tailored response and adaptation actions that include a wide range of stakeholders and distribute transition costs in a fair and equitable manner (7).


Higher living costs linked to the transition to green energy is a hard challenge that needs to be addressed as soon as possible so that energy transition is not vilified by populists and opportunists.


European households and families are likely to find it more difficult to meet energy expenses in a rapidly changing energy market which is also challenged by major strategic shocks. The opportunity for European households and families to become energy self-sufficient by producing their own energy by renewable means and improving energy efficiency of buildings remains underexplored.


The consequences of the climate crisis on mental health should be carefully studied: the climate crisis directly and indirectly impacts people’s mental health. Natural disasters are the most striking example. In the US, a new medical discipline — eco-psychology — has been created to study this phenomenon.


Energy transition can only be successful if it serves the public interest: it must be about people and for people. This means that financial redistribution measures are necessary, but not sufficient for tackling the crisis. Preventive and structured initiatives across all governance levels are essential supplements of financial redistribution instruments that can not only mitigate but also reverse the risks of energy poverty (8).


The transition to new energy can produce shock effects on the labour market and low-income sectors such as transport, construction and housing. Unemployment risks for marginalised groups employed in vulnerable sectors remain high, while there is limited access to opportunities for immigrants and refugees in the green energy transition. It is very important to make sure that this transition is just and to provide skills development for the green economy, for example, by examining the challenges faced by construction workers in adapting to sustainable building practices and the need for retraining programmes.


The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) stresses the primary role of education and capacity building in empowering vulnerable groups to respond to climate change. Exploring innovative approaches to climate change education and awareness among marginalised communities and examining the potential for skills development programmes to enhance the adaptive capacity of vulnerable groups, in particular through studying community-led climate change education programmes in disadvantaged neighbourhoods and their impact on enhancing resilience and adaptive capacity, is of primary significance.

4.   Specific comments


In Central and Eastern Europe, including Ukraine and Moldova, countries are experiencing increasing seasonal variability, threatening their largely agrarian economies and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers (9). In countries such as Poland and Hungary, low-income communities living in urban areas often face higher levels of air pollution, which are exacerbated by climate change impacts such as heatwaves and changes in precipitation patterns. Belarus and Ukraine have recorded a sharp increase in forest fires due to the changing climate conditions, which significantly impact rural communities and wildlife habitats (10).


In the far Northern European regions, particularly Greenland, indigenous communities face threats to their traditional hunting and fishing lifestyles due to rapid permafrost melt, which threatens the ecosystem as well as the local economy and vulnerable groups (11). In the Arctic Circle, indigenous Sami communities in Northern Scandinavia are seeing their traditional reindeer herding and fishing livelihoods threatened by warming temperatures and changing ecosystems (12).


Declining air quality as a result of the climate crisis is likely to affect the physical and mental health of vulnerable groups in megacities of the MENA region. Cities like Cairo, Tehran or Istanbul are likely to face formidable challenges in the near future.


In South-eastern Europe, especially Bulgaria and Romania, countries have to deal with unprecedented incidents of flooding and landslides, which have a severe impact on low-income communities that lack resources for disaster management (13). Countries throughout south-eastern Europe, including Albania and North Macedonia, have been found to be particularly susceptible to heatwaves, droughts and wildfires due to climate change, mainly affecting the rural and elderly populations (14).


Mediterranean countries, such as Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain, face an increased risk of falling rainfall levels, heatwaves leading to desertification and water scarcity. These conditions disproportionately affect rural, coastal and island communities, particularly those reliant on farming (15).


Wildfires of unprecedented dimensions pose a formidable challenge to the security and well-being of vulnerable groups across the Mediterranean (16). The catastrophic forest fires of summer 2022 in the northern part of the Greek island of Euboea, and of summer 2023 in Greece’s Evros district decimated all agricultural and forest economic activities and served as a very painful reminder about the increased risks vulnerable groups in Mediterranean EU Member States face.


Island and coastal communities in the Mediterranean face considerable risks because of flooding and erosion. Both also pose a formidable threat to Mediterranean natural and cultural heritage (17).


In megacities like Milan and Paris, urban heat islands affect the living conditions and health of all citizens and disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged people and those with health conditions. These are exacerbated by lack of green spaces and housing quality issues (18).

Brussels, 13 December 2023.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Oliver RÖPKE

(1)  Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on Climate Adjustment Fund financed by Cohesion and NGEU (OJ C 486, 21.12.2022, p. 23).


(3)  United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Climate Change and Social Vulnerability in the United States: A Focus on Six Impacts, Washington DC: United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2021.

(4)  UCESA, Climate change and its consequences: The voice of the African citizens, Glasgow, 10 November 2021.

(5)  Least Developed Countries Expert Group, Considerations Regarding Vulnerable Groups, Communities and Ecosystems in the Context of the National Adaptation Plans, Bonn: United Nations Climate Change Secretariat, 2018, p. 34, United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Climate Change Impacts on Air Quality.

(6)  United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Climate Change Impacts on Air Quality, Washington DC: United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 2021.

(7)  Least Developed Countries Expert Group, Considerations Regarding Vulnerable Groups, Communities and Ecosystems in the Context of the National Adaptation Plans, Appendix B.

(8)  Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on Tackling energy poverty and the EU's resilience: challenges from an economic and social perspective (OJ C 486, 21.12.2022, p. 88).

(9)  Climate change and agriculture in Eastern Europe, 2022.

(10)  Forest Fires and Climate Change in Eastern Europe, 2023.

(11)  Indigenous Adaptation in the Arctic, 2023.

(12)  Forbes et al., 2022.

(13)  Rasul & Balica, 2023.

(14)  European Environmental Agency, 2023.

(15)  Climate change and desertification in Southern Europe, 2023.

(16)  Angela Symons, The Era of ‘Mega Forest Fires’ Has Begun in Spain. Is Climate Change to Blame?, Euronews, 27.3.2023.

(17)  Lena Reimann et al., Mediterranean Unesco World Heritage at Risk from Coastal Flooding and Erosion Due to Sea-Level Rise, Nature Communications, Vol. 9, no. 1 (2018).

(18)  Nidhi Singh, Saumya Singh and RK Mall, Urban Ecology and Human Health: Implications of Urban Heat Island, Air Pollution and Climate Change Nexus, Urban Ecology: Elsevier, 2020.


ISSN 1977-091X (electronic edition)