Cities, Climate, Inequalities

The state of knowledge on inequality associated with climate change adaptation solutions

November 2022

Émily Després, Master’s student in environmental sciences, UQAM


Around the world, communities of all sizes are experiencing the impacts of climate change on their health and well-being, infrastructures, cultures and economies (IPCC, 2019; IPCC; 2021). The experts of the IPCC (2019) reiterate the need for urgent climate action due to the intensification of climate change (CC) worldwide, and Quebec is no exception to this trend (Ouranos, 2015b). Indeed, climate projections indicate with high certainty that there will be an increase in average temperatures and extreme heat across Quebec. This will lead to sharp increases in the duration and frequency of heat waves as well as increases in winter and spring precipitation totals (all forms combined) and freeze-thaw periods for all regions of Quebec (Ouranos, 2015a). In addition, a growing number of specialists argue that the negative impacts of climate change adaptation (CCA) solutions are poorly considered and documented (Coggins et al., 2021; Markkanen and Anger-Kraavi, 2019). This can lead to what is referred to as maladaptation and can result in inequalities or exacerbate those that persist (GERARCC, 2018; Ouranos, 2015b; Torres et al., 2021; Van Gameren et al., 2014). This paper is an assessment of the state of knowledge on this topic for the decade spanning from 2011 to 2021 in the province of Quebec. More specifically, the lands discussed in this report are part of the traditional territories of several Indigenous nations, including the Atikamekw, Innu, Mi’kmaq, Mohawk, Huron-Wendat, Abenaki, Cree and Inuit.


State of the scientific and grey literature on the modality of action studied

The objectives of this knowledge exploration, conducted in 2021, were threefold: 1) to document the impacts of CCA solutions on inequality, mainly in Quebec and Canada; 2) to identify gaps and avenues for preventing maladaptation put forward in the scientific and grey literature; and 3) to formulate recommendations for the development of an analytical framework for matters concerning inequality associated with CCA solutions adapted to Quebec.

In order to conceptualize the inequalities associated with CCA solutions, I carried out a review of prior knowledge in the field, from which four concepts emerged (see Figure 1).

The first concept—CCA solutions—I break down into two categories. The first consists of more fundamental, transformational measures that involve radical changes in the way we act and think (Ouranos, 2015b). These may include: changing land use; relocating a population to protect it from the risks associated with coastal erosion; or ensuring that social acceptability is among the selection criteria for an adaptation solution. The second consists of incremental measures that aim to “maintain the essence and integrity of a system or process at a given scale” (IPCC, 2014, p. 180; our translation). In Quebec, most adaptation solutions are incremental in nature (Ouranos, 2015b). For example, there are green infrastructures such as green roofs and vegetated resilient squares, grey infrastructures such as water features and retention basins, and financial levers such as government policies and programs, laws, regulations and standards or economic tools (e.g., insurance, taxes and subsidies) (Ouranos, 2015b). Finally, there is knowledge and information, which can be part of a transformative or incremental approach. Comprising traditional and local knowledge, they refer to means of communication such as risk zone mapping, which help inform the population to better adapt to climate hazards (Adger et al., 2014; Ouranos, 2015b).
The second concept—the vulnerability framework—when applied in a climate-related risk management context, refers to factors that may predispose certain individuals, categories of individuals or regions to the effects and consequences of CC (Cutter et al., 2003; GERARCC, 2018; IPCC, 2014). Vulnerability can fluctuate over time and space (Ford et al., 2015; Ford et al., 2018). According to the work of Ford et al., the exposure generated by the magnitude, frequency and spatial distribution of climate hazards, as well as the adaptive capacity of individuals, communities or institutions to cope with, prepare for or adapt to climate hazards, are both factors that can influence their vulnerability. In the present study, vulnerability refers to factors that predispose certain individuals, categories of individuals or regions to maladaptation or inequalities due to adaptation solutions. For example, vulnerability factors may include age, gender, geographical location, income or level of education.

The third concept—different types of inequality—is often linked to these vulnerability factors. According to the literature, economic inequalities are disparities between individuals and groups in society in terms of income and wealth (economic, cultural, family) (Torres et al., 2021). Quality-of-life inequalities, on the other hand, refer to differences in well-being and health (Coggins et al., 2021; Islam and Winkel, 2017; Torres et al., 2021). Access inequalities can exclude social groups from access to jobs or social services, such as health, education, housing, finance and other government-funded services (Guivarch and Taconet, 2020; Islam and Winkel, 2016). Contribution inequalities comprise the fact that the individuals most affected by CC are those who have contributed least to it (Guivarch and Taconet, 2020). It is also essential to consider that the intersections between these inequalities lead to an increase in vulnerabilities.

The last concept—climate justice—is a framework that offers avenues for reflection on reducing inequalities linked to CC and CCA solutions. The components of climate justice are distributive justice, which determines the distribution of inequalities across the population; recognition justice, which makes visible different identities, cultures or systems of knowledge; and procedural justice, which ensures the ability of an individual or category of individuals to participate equitably in political and institutional processes (Coggins et al., 2021; Newell et al., 2021; Schlosberg, 2012).


The research strategy adopted for this analysis of matters concerning inequality associated with CCA solutions in the Quebec context was guided by an exploratory and documentary methodology. The non-exhaustive literature review covered some hundred documents deemed relevant, using a grid of exclusion and inclusion criteria.

This study is based on both scientific and grey literature from 2011 to 2021 (with some exceptions). The literature is drawn from fields directly related to CCA, such as existing reviews by Ouranos or the Observatoire québécois des inégalités (Ouranos, 2015a; Ouranos, 2015b; Torres et al, 2021), and from associated fields, including case studies analyzing inequalities in connection with a CCA solution in the health field (e.g., extreme heat); it also includes federal and provincial climate plans (Brown et al., 2021; Pinault et al., 2021). I pay particular attention to the inclusion of literature from organizations working in climate justice or social-ecological transition (Front commun pour la transition énergétique 2019; Williams et al., 2018).

In order to highlight the different components of inequality associated with adaptation solutions that have been documented in Quebec, Canada or a similar socio-ecological context, I produced two tables. The first presents a review of various adaptation solutions, sorted by administrative region of Quebec. The review was produced using the CCA regional summary sheets (French only) developed by Ouranos, in collaboration with Quebec’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing and Ministry of Public Security (MAMH, 2020). The second table lists the various components of inequality associated with adaptation solutions (type of adaptation solution, impact identified, region affected, vulnerable group, analysis mechanism, alternative solutions).

In addition, in order to deepen the field knowledge related to CCA solutions, nine one-hour semi-structured interviews were conducted with specialists. The latter worked in fields related to climate change adaptation such as public health, sociology, agriculture, economics, politics and architecture, and helped validate and explore alternative avenues of inquiry and identify possible gaps in knowledge.


I identified five categories of adaptation solutions with potential impacts on inequality (see Figure 2).

Transformational adaptation solutions, which are more drastic and fundamental, were found to have a potentially negative impact on inequality. Admittedly, some of these solutions can also have a positive impact, since they have the potential to save lives during climate disasters (Demers-Bouffard, 2021). That said, according to the literature, temporary or permanent relocation due to flooding or melting permafrost in northern environments risks exacerbating economic inequalities (linked to loss of assets and property) and quality of life inequalities (linked to psychosocial repercussions on mental health and well-being), with low-income households, people with reduced mobility and the elderly and Indigenous communities being disproportionately affected (Demers-Bouffard, 2021; Lowe et al., 2013; Willoughby et al., 2018). These populations are more vulnerable to the psychosocial impacts associated with relocation procedures because they do not necessarily have the capacities to adapt or recover (GERARCC, 2018).

As far as incremental solutions are concerned, green infrastructures (greening through tree planting, park development, green roofs, etc.) are those most frequently identified in the literature. Indeed, green infrastructure offers several co-benefits in terms of GHG reduction and adaptation to climatic hazards such as extreme heat and increased precipitation, as well as individual benefits (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health) and community benefits (inclusion, community ties and cultural preservation) (De Kleyn et al., 2020; Li and Wang, 2021). That said, these infrastructures have been associated with the generation or exacerbation of economic inequalities linked to rising land values, which is now termed green gentrification or eco-gentrification, as well as inequalities in quality of life due to difficulty with physical and financial access to some of these infrastructures (Anguelovski et al., 2018l; Pinault et al., 2021; Wolch et al., 2014).

The literature on grey infrastructure, which often involves technology or engineering, examines issues arising from residential energy practices, which are what generally contributes to higher electricity bills among low-income tenants. These practices may range from the most complex, such as geothermal energy, to the most simple, such as mechanical ventilation. (Demers-Bouffard, 2021). For example, applying the concept of vulnerability in conjunction with a mapping of the proportion of air-conditioned households, studies demonstrate that air conditioning in Montreal is indeed less accessible to renters, particularly those from low-income households, compared to homeowners (Kaiser et al., 2016).

In addition, a number of studies show that most public climate policies are associated with both co-benefits and negative side effects. In some cases, they can exacerbate inequalities, depending on their contextual factors as well as the processes used in their design and implementation (Holland, 2017; Markkanen and Anger-Kraavi, 2019). Essentially, certain categories of vulnerable people have been shown to have far less political agency and presence than other categories of people. Consequently, they may be disadvantaged in relation to certain programs and be unable to access them (Bashir et al., 2014 in Markkanen and Anger-Kraavi, 2019; Islam and Winkel, 2017; Rochette, 2016).

There are also economic tools, such as certain flood protection plans, that are not accessible to low-income households, increasing inequalities within communities (Insurance Bureau of Canada, 2019; Demers-Bouffard, 2021). For example, homeowners who do not have the financial means to implement flood protection measures have either a very high insurance premium or are not eligible for any insurance coverage at all. This financial inaccessibility could therefore exacerbate or generate inequalities from an economic point of view (inability to afford protection plans) but also in terms of quality of life (toll on physical and mental health).

Finally, knowledge and information, as tools to inform the population or communicate risks, may likewise fail to be applied equitably, due to the difficulty of reaching certain categories of vulnerable people. Among these categories are homeless people, those unable to understand the language in which the message is issued, those experiencing unequal access to the internet, or socially isolated people (Demers-Bouffard, 2021; Lowe et al., 2011; Mehiriz et al., 2018).

Alternative avenues

Avenues for preventing maladaptation are proposed in the scientific literature as well as in the interviews conducted. Many of these responses refer to principles of climate justice that are both procedural and recognition-based. This translates primarily into the ongoing engagement and integration of the diverse perspectives of vulnerable populations (women, 2SLGBTQ+ communities, people from immigrant backgrounds, single-parent families, seniors, persons with disabilities), Indigenous peoples, governments at different levels, and key players in CCA (Rochette, 2016; Gore, 2020; Brown et al., 2021; Voden and Cunsolo, 2021). The integration of diverse perspectives and knowledge sources, such as Indigenous traditional knowledge, is also imperative for effective adaptation (Adger et al., 2014; Williams et al., 2018).


Despite the considerable progress made in recent years, there are still a number of gaps in the research of inequalities in relation to CCA solutions (see figure 3).

Certain adaptation measures with the potential to impact the Quebec population have not been identified in the literature as comprising issues of inequality. This includes some engineering measures aimed at adapting infrastructures and the built environment to CC (non-return valves, better insulation, roof bracing, etc.). However, blue infrastructures, such as water features and beaches, which are useful in hot weather, are virtually absent from the scientific and grey literature, even though they can be expected to generate the same type of impacts as green spaces.

Moreover, for certain sectors of activity there is very little documentation concerning the social impacts of solutions. For example, in the North American context at least, the tourism and agriculture sectors are less studied from a climate justice point of view, even though certain CCA measures in agriculture do not appear to be equitable (socially and territorially).

This exploration of knowledge highlights that studies on the impacts of CCA solutions (negative or positive) focus more on some populations than others—a finding for which there is a general consensus within the scientific literature (Demers-Bouffard, 2021). Among those who tend to be understudied are: Indigenous people, 2SLGBTQ+ people, visible minorities, the homeless, socially isolated people, and those with reduced mobility. Added to this are territorial gaps, with some Quebec regions less studied than others, such as remote regions or the Arctic region (Demers-Bouffard, 2021).




This literature review has certain limitations. First, it was not possible to analyze or list all CCA solutions, due to time constraints and the fact that they are constantly evolving. Second, certain unconscious biases undoubtedly influenced the perception of inequality issues. For example, since I had already identified several inequality issues in the preliminary analysis, confirmation bias may well have influenced my analysis of the results (Nalty, 2016).

Nevertheless, the review did allow developing recommendations aimed at ensuring a more adequate and operational assessment of CC solutions in terms of the potential inequalities generated. One of the recommendations put forward to respond effectively to CC and ensure a just and inclusive socio-ecological transition is to systematize the analysis of the impacts of strategies, policies, programs and mechanisms that lead to the planning, financing, design and implementation of adaptation solutions. To implement these recommendations, stakeholders could draw on already existing analytical frameworks, which could be enhanced, such as the health impact assessment or community resilience analysis frameworks (Lotfata and Munenzon, 2022; Saint-Pierre et al., 2014).

Finally, encouraging a wide range of stakeholders to participate in CCA solutions, at different times and with different modes of involvement and contribution, seems to be an appropriate way of reducing the inequalities associated with adaptation solutions.

To cite this article

Després, É. (2022). The state of knowledge on inequality associated with climate change adaptation solutions. In Cities, Climate and Inequalities Collection. VRM – Villes Régions Monde.

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