Conceptual approaches to climate change vulnerability assessments

May 7, 2012, 12:46 pm

This is Section 17.2 of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. Lead Authors: James J. McCarthy, Marybeth Long Martello; Contributing Authors: Robert Corell, Noelle Eckley Selin, Shari Fox, Grete Hovelsrud-Broda, Svein Disch Mathiesen, Colin Polsky, Henrik Selin, Nicholas J.C.Tyler; Corresponding Authors: Kirsti Strøm Bull, Inger Maria Gaup Eira, Nils Isak Eira, Siri Eriksen, Inger Hanssen-Bauer, Johan Klemet Kalstad, Christian Nellemann, Nils Oskal, Erik S. Reinert, Douglas Siegel-Causey, Paal Vegar Storeheier, Johan Mathis Turi


Large-scale studies of climate impacts have begun to examine the vulnerability of social and ecological systems to climate change.The seminal work of Timmerman [1] provided intellectual underpinning for linking the concepts of vulnerability, resilience, and climate change. Examples of recent projects that incorporate these perspectives include the IPCC (particularly the contribution of Working Group II to the Third Scientific Assessment[2]), the Assessments of Impacts of and Adaptation to Climate Change in Multiple Regions and Sectors (AIACC) implemented by the United Nations Environment Programme, the Finnish global change research projects FIGARE and SILMU, the European Commission project on Tundra Degradation in the Russian Arctic (TUNDRA), the Norwegian project NORKLIMA, the US National Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on the United States[3], and the Regional Vulnerability Assessment (ReVA) Program under the United States Environmental Protection Agency[4]. Some of these assessments were based on published research, and as such are limited in their completeness with respect to their spatial coverage, and especially to their inclusiveness of other stressors that can interact with climate to influence the vulnerability of human–environment systems. Other assessments are underway, and the surge in vulnerability research over the last few years will ensure that future climate impact assessments are more complete with respect to interactions with other stressors.

Vulnerability analysis is rooted in a long history[5], and in research traditions[6] that encompass work on risk–hazards–disasters[7], climate impacts[8], food security[9], national security[10], and resilience[11]. Much of the applied hazards, climate impact, and food security research to date has focused on the source of and potential exposure to a hazard, and has sought to understand the magnitude, duration, and frequency of this hazard and the sensitivity of the exposed system[12].

It is common to distinguish between impacts and vulnerability perspectives by saying that the former focuses more on system sensitivities and stops short of specifying whether or not a given combination of stress and sensitivity will result in an effective adaptation. The latter emphasizes the factors that constrain or enable a coupled human–environment system to adapt to a stress. Another distinction that has been drawn between climate impact and vulnerability assessments is that the former proceeds by examining a climate event and the stresses that are exerted upon an exposure unit to produce critical downstream outcomes. The latter, by contrast, considers the climate event in the context of other stresses and perturbations that together produce impacts from compound events[13].

These distinctions are, however, to some degree oversimplifications, since a lack of emphasis on adaptation applies more to past empirical studies of climate change impacts than to the conceptual underpinnings of such studies. Adaptation has long been at the heart of the debate on reducing vulnerability to environmental stresses[14]. Even the early models on climate change impacts[15] consider the importance of adaptation, and the same applies to the broader, related literature on risk/hazards[16] and food security[17]. Parry and Carter[18] also acknowledge the seminal ideas of Kates[19] on this topic and go on to discuss the evolution from a climate impact approach to a climate interaction approach.They describe how the severe economic hardship experienced by Canadian prairie farmers in the 1930s arose as a result of interaction among multiple factors. “Economics, weather and farming technology interacted to create a severe economic and social impact that was perhaps preconditioned by the Depression but triggered by drought.”

Thus, increasing interest in “global change vulnerability” is not so much the result of a revolution in ideas – although the theoretical bases are maturing[20] – but more a response to a general dissatisfaction with the ways in which adaptive capacity has been captured in empirical research and the associated need to reconnect with this concept if climate impact and global change models are to improve.

Increasingly, studies of vulnerability go beyond understanding the behavior of a stress and the degree to which an exposed system reacts adversely or beneficially[21].These studies also investigate (1) ways in which the exposed system might respond to, intensify, and/or ameliorate the effects of multiple stresses; and (2) why the same hazard might affect different systems in different ways and what system characteristics (including political economy, social structures and institutions) help to explain this variation.The concept of resilience in ecological studies has also informed treatment of adaptive capacity in vulnerability assessment[22]. Resilience generally refers to the ability of a system to return to a reference state or remain within a range of desirable states following a perturbation. Berkes and Jolly[23] have pointed out that the concept of resilience has three defining characteristics. It is a measure of: the amount of change the system can experience and still retain the same controls on function and structure; the degree to which the system is capable of selforganization; and the systems’ ability to sustain and increase its capacity for adaptation.

Similarly, adaptive capacity refers to ecosystem flexibility and social system responsiveness in the face of disturbances[24]. According to one line of thought in political ecology, for example, adaptive capacity derives from human ecology of production, entitlements pertaining to market exchanges, and political economy[25].These factors depend, for example, on resources available to a social group, the ability to sell these resources, the selling price, and access to markets[26]. In addition, social, institutional, and political conditions might affect the ability of a social system to utilize resources or make other adjustments in overcoming the effects of a disaster such as drought[27]. Initiatives such as the Management of Social Transformations Programme’s Circumpolar Coping Processes Project (MOST CCPP) advances understanding of human responses to environmental and other forms of change. MOST CCPP is a cross-disciplinary network comprising participants from Norway, Finland, northwest Russia, Denmark, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Iceland, Canada, and Sweden.This project is a comparative research endeavor that examines ways in which local authorities, civil society actors, and enterprise networks cope locally and regionally with global technological, economic, and environmental changes.

Researchers are also increasingly attentive to the socioecological, multi-scalar, and dynamic nature of vulnerability. Studies aimed at understanding the vulnerability of particular places are forgoing the tendency to treat social and biophysical vulnerability as separate conditions[28].They are instead examining the vulnerability of the coupled human–environment system with placebased approaches[29].

In addition, conditions and phenomena spanning global, national, and local levels can have important implications for the vulnerability of specific people and areas. For example, the globalization of markets, technological innovations originating abroad, changes in national policy, and the condition of local infrastructure could all potentially increase or decrease the vulnerability of a particular household or community to drought or flood[30].The ever-changing character of biogeophysical, environmental, institutional, economic, and political processes that influence human–environment systems requires that vulnerability be treated as a process[31]. In its simplest static state vulnerability can be seen as the residual of change after considering the resilience and adaptive capacity of a system. However, the dynamic nature of these processes requires that vulnerability also be considered as an integral part of the change rather than external to it.


Chapter 17: Climate Change in the Context of Multiple Stressors and Resilience
17.1. Introduction
17.2. Conceptual approaches to vulnerability assessments
    17.2.1. A framework for analyzing vulnerability
    17.2.2. Focusing on interactive changes and stresses in the Arctic
    17.2.3. Identifying coping and adaptation strategies
17.3. Methods and models for vulnerability analysis
17.4. Understanding and assessing vulnerabilities through case studies
    17.4.1. Candidate vulnerability case studies
    17.4.2. A more advanced vulnerability case study
17.5. Insights gained and implications for future vulnerability assessments



  1. ^Timmerman, P., 1981.Vulnerability, Resilience and the Collapse of Society. Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Toronto, 42p.
  2. ^ IPCC, 2001b. Climate Change 2001: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability:The Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Scientific Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ NAST, 2000. Climate Change Impacts on the United States: The Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change. A Report of the National Assessment Synthesis Team, US Global Change Research Program. Cambridge University Press.
  4. ^Smith, E.R., 2000. An Overview of EPA's Regional Vulnerability Assessment (ReVA) Program. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 64:9–15.
  5. ^ e.g., Cutter, S.L., 1996.Vulnerability to environmental hazards. Progress in Human Geography, 20:529–539.;
    --  Dow, K., 1992. Exploring differences in our common future(s): the meaning of vulnerability to global environmental change. Geoforum, 23:417–436.;
    --  Downie, D.L., J. Krueger and H. Selin, 2004. Global Policy for Hazardous Chemicals. In: R. Axelrod, D.L. Downie and N.Vig (eds.). Global Environmental Policy: Institutions, Law and Policy, pp. 125–145. CQ Press;
    --  Kates, R.W., 1971. Natural hazards in human ecological perspective: hypotheses and models. Economic Geography, 47:438–451.;
    --  Liverman, D., 1990.Vulnerability to global environmental change. In: J.X. Kasperson and R.E. Kasperson (eds.). Understanding Global Environmental Change: the Contributions of Risk Analysis and Management, pp.27–44. Clark University.;
    --  Turner, B.L., II, R.E. Kasperson, P. Matson, J.J. McCarthy, R.W. Corell, L. Christensen, N. Eckley, J.X. Kasperson, A. Luers, M.L. Martello, C. Polsky, A. Pulsipher and A. Schiller, 2003a. A Framework for Vulnerability Analysis in Sustainability Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100:8074–8079.;
    --  White, G.F., 1974. Natural Hazards: Local, National, Global. Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ for recent reviews see Cutter, 1996, Op. cit.;
    --  Golding, D., 2001.Vulnerability. In: A.S. Goudie and D.J. Cuff (eds.). Encyclopedia of Global Change: Environmental Change and Human Society. Oxford University Press.;
    --  Kasperson, J.X., R.E. Kasperson, B.L.Turner,W. Hsieh and A. Schiller, 2003.Vulnerability to Global Environmental Change. In: A. Diekman, T. Dietz, C.C. Jaeger and E.A. Rosa (eds.).The Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change, pp. 280–290. MIT Press.;
    --  Polsky, C., D. Schröter, A. Patt, S. Gaffin, M. Long Martello, R. Neff, A. Pulsipher and H. Selin, 2003. Assessing Vulnerabilities to the Effects of Global Change: An Eight-Step Approach. Research and assessment systems for sustainability program discussion paper 2003–05, Environment and Natural Resources Program, Harvard University.;
    --  Turner et al., 2003a, Op. cit.
  7. ^ Blaikie, P.,T. Cannon, I. Davis and B.Wisner, 1994. At Risk: Natural Hazards, People’s Vulnerability, Disasters. Routledge.;
    Cutter, 1996, Op. cit.
  8. ^ Cutter, S.L., 2001. American Hazardscapes:The Regionalization of Hazards and Disasters. Joseph Henry Press.;
    --  IPCC, 1997. Summary for Policymakers.The Regional Impacts of Climate Change: An Assessment of Vulnerability. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press.;
    --  Kates, R.W., J.H. Ausubel and M. Berberian (eds.), 1985. Climate Impact Assessment: Studies of the Interaction of Climate and Society. John Wiley & Sons.;
    --  Parry, M.L., 1978. Climate Change, Agriculture and Settlement. Dawson UK Ltd.;
    --  Parry, M.L., M. Livermore, C. Rosenzweig, A. Iglesias and A. Fischer, 1998.The Impact of Climate on Food Supply. In: Climate Change and its Impacts: Some Highlights from the Ongoing UK Research Programme. Department of Environment,Transport, and Regions, with UK Public Meteorological Service Programme.
  9. ^Böhle, H.G.,T.E. Downing and M.Watts, 1994. Climate change and social vulnerability: the sociology and geography of food Insecurity. Global Environmental Change, 4:37–48.;
    --  Downing,T., 1991. Assessing Socioeconomic Vulnerability to Famine and Country Studies in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Senegal and Chile. Research Report No. 1, Environmental Change Unit 2, University of Oxford.;
    --  Easterling,W., 1996. Adapting North American agriculture to climate change in review. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 80:1–53.
  10. ^Bachler, G., 1998.Why environmental transformation causes violence. Environmental Change and Security Project Report 4.;
    --  Dabelko, G. and P.J. Simmons, 1997. Environment and Security: Core Ideas and US Government Initiatives. SAIS Review, 71:127–146.;
    --  Gilmartin,T.J., B.R. Allenby and R.F. Lehman, 1996. Environmental Threats and National Security, An International Challenge to Science and Technology. University of California.;
    --  Homer-Dixon,T.F. and J. Blitt (eds), 1998. Ecoviolence: Links Among Environment, Population, and Security. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.;
    --  Winnefield, J.A. and M.E. Morris, 1994.Where Environmental Concerns and Security Strategies Meet: Green Conflict in Asia and the Middle East. RAND, Santa Monica.
  11. ^ Berkes, F. and C. Folke (eds.), 1998. Linking Social and Ecological Systems: Management Practices and Social Mechanisms for Building Resilience. Cambridge University Press.;
    --  Berkes, F., J. Colding and C. Folke (eds.), 2003. Navigating Social-Ecological Systems: Building Resilience for Complexity and Change. Cambridge University Press.;
    --  Turner et al., 2003a, Op. cit.
  12. ^Burton, I., R. Kates and G.White, 1978.The Environment as Hazard. Oxford University Press.;
    --  Cutter, 1996, Op. cit.
  13. ^ (Vogel as quoted in Kasperson J. and Kasperson 2001)
  14. ^ Turner et al., 2003a, Op. cit.
  15. ^ e.g., Kates et al., 1985, Op. cit.
  16. ^ e.g., Burton et al., 1978, Op. cit.;
    --  Cutter, 1996, Op. cit.;
    Kasperson R. et al., 1988, Op. cit.
  17. ^ e.g., Böhle et al., 1994, Op. cit.
    --  Downing,T., 1991. Assessing Socioeconomic Vulnerability to Famine and Country Studies in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Senegal and Chile. Research Report No. 1, Environmental Change Unit 2, University of Oxford.
  18. ^Parry, M. and T. Carter, 1998. Climate Impact and Adaptation Assessment: A Guide to the IPCC Approach. Earthscan Publications, Ltd., 166p.
  19. ^Kates, 1985, Op. cit.
  20. ^ e.g., Adger,W. and P. Kelly, 1999. Social vulnerability to climate change and the architecture of entitlements. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 4:253–266.
  21. ^ Holling, C.S., 1996. Engineering resilience versus ecological resilience. In: P. Schulze (ed.). Engineering Within Ecological Constraints, pp. 31–44. National Academy,Washington, D.C.
    --  Holling, C.S., 2001. Understanding the complexity of economic, ecological and social systems. Ecosystems, 4:390–405.
  22. ^ Resilience Alliance. no date. (14 Jan 2004);
    --  Walker, B., S. Carpenter, J. Anderies, N. Abel, G. Cumming, M. Janssen, L. Lebel, J. Norberg, G.D. Peterson and R. Pritchard, 2002. Resilience management in social-ecological systems: a working hypothesis for a participatory approach. Conservation Ecology, 6(1):14. [online] URL:
  23. ^Berkes, F. and D. Jolly, 2001. Adapting to climate change: Socialecological resilience in a Canadian Western Arctic Community. Conservation Ecology, 5(2):18.
  24. ^ Turner et al., 2003a, Op. cit.
  25. ^ Böhle et al., 1994, Op. cit.
  26. ^Sen, A., 1981. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation. Oxford University Press.
  27. ^ Turner et al., 2003a, Op. cit.
  28. ^ e.g., see Adger and Kelly, 1999, Op. cit.;
    --  Kelly, P.M. and W.N. Adger, 2000.Theory and practice in assessing vulnerability to climate change and facilitation adaptation. Climatic Change, 47:325–352.
  29. ^ Cutter, 1996, Op. cit.;
    --  Turner et al., 2003a, Op. cit.
    -- also see Berkes and Folke, 1998, Op. cit.;
    -- Berkes et al., 2003, Op. cit.
  30. ^ Leichenko, R.M. and K.L. O'Brien, 2002.The dynamics of rural vulnerability to global change: the case of Southern Africa. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 7:1–18.
  31. ^ Handmer, J.W., S. Dovers and T.E. Downing, 1999. Societal vulnerability to climate change and variability. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, 4:267–281.;
    --  Leichenko and O’Brien, 2002, Op. cit.;
    -- Reilly, J.M. and D. Schimmelpfenning, 1999. Agricultural impact assessment, vulnerability, and the scope for adaptation. Climatic Change, 42:745–748.






Committee, I. (2012). Conceptual approaches to climate change vulnerability assessments. Retrieved from


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