The socio-economic impacts of environmental stresses associated with global environmental change depend to a large extent on how societies organize themselves. Research on climate-related societal impacts, vulnerability and adaptation is currently underdeveloped, prompting international global environmental change research institutions to hold a series of meetings in 2009–2010. One of these aimed at identifying needs in middle-income and low-income countries (MLICs), and found that effective responses to the challenge of reducing vulnerability and enhancing adaptation will drive research and policy into challenging and innovative areas of research. Producing impacts, vulnerability and adaptation knowledge requires greater inclusion of MLIC researchers and a rethinking of the research structures, institutions and paradigms that have dominated global change research to date. Scientific literature discussed in this article suggests that governance issues need to become central objects of empirically based, detailed, multiscalar and action-oriented research, and that this needs to address the politically sensitive and seemingly intractable issue of reducing global inequities in power and resource distribution. The scientific literature suggests that without effective action in those directions, current trends toward greater inequality will continue to both reflect and intensify global environmental threats and their impacts.