The dangers that future climate change poses to physical, biological, and economic systems are accounted for in analyses of risk and increasingly figure in decision-making about responses to climate change. Yet the potential cultural and social impacts of climate change have scarcely been considered. In this article we bring the risks climate change poses to cultures and social systems into consideration through a focus on places—those local material and symbolic contexts that give meaning and value to peoples' lives. By way of examples, the article reviews evidence on the observed and projected impacts of climate change on the Arctic and Pacific island atoll nations. It shows that impacts may result in the loss of many unique natural and cultural components of these places. We then argue that the risk of irreversible loss of places needs to be factored into decision-making on climate change. The article then suggests ways forward in decision-making that recognizes these non-market and non-instrumental metrics of risk, based on principles of justice and recognition of individual and community identity.

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Author notes

* This work was supported by NERC, ESRC and EPSRC grants to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK; an Australian Research Council Fellowship, and a Dean's Visiting Fellowship at the University of Melbourne. We thank three anonymous reviewers for constructive comments and pay tribute to the late Steve Schneider, who first suggested we write this article.