IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

2.2.4 Advances in vulnerability assessment

Since the TAR, the IPCC definition of vulnerability[3] has been challenged, both to account for an expanded remit by including social vulnerability (O’Brien et al., 2004a) and to reconcile it with risk assessment (Downing and Patwardhan, 2005). Different states of vulnerability under climate risks include: vulnerability to current climate, vulnerability to climate change in the absence of adaptation and mitigation measures, and residual vulnerability, where adaptive and mitigative capacities have been exhausted (e.g., Jones et al., 2007). A key vulnerability has the potential for significant adverse affects on both natural and human systems, as outlined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), thus contributing to dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system (see Chapter 19). Füssel and Klein (2006) review and summarise these developments.

Vulnerability is highly dependent on context and scale, and care should be taken to clearly describe its derivation and meaning (Downing and Patwardhan, 2005) and to address the uncertainties inherent in vulnerability assessments (Patt et al., 2005). Frameworks should also be able to integrate the social and biophysical dimensions of vulnerability to climate change (Klein and Nicholls, 1999; Polsky et al., 2003; Turner et al., 2003a). Formal methods for vulnerability assessment have also been proposed (Ionescu et al., 2005; Metzger and Schröter, 2006) but are very preliminary.

The methods and frameworks for assessing vulnerability must also address the determinants of adaptive capacity (Turner et al., 2003a; Schröter et al., 2005a; O’Brien and Vogel, 2006; see also Chapter 17, Section 17.3.1) in order to examine the potential responses of a system to climate variability and change. Many studies endeavour to do this in the context of human development, by aiming to understand the underlying causes of vulnerability and to further strengthen adaptive capacities (e.g., World Bank, 2006). In some quantitative approaches, the indicators used are related to adaptive capacity, such as national economic capacity, human resources, and environmental capacities (Moss et al., 2001; see also Section 2.2.3). Other studies include indicators that can provide information related to the conditions, processes and structures that promote or constrain adaptive capacity (Eriksen et al., 2005).

Vulnerability assessment offers a framework for policy measures that focus on social aspects, including poverty reduction, diversification of livelihoods, protection of common property resources and strengthening of collective action (O’Brien et al., 2004b). Such measures enhance the ability to respond to stressors and secure livelihoods under present conditions, which can also reduce vulnerability to future climate change. Community-based interactive approaches for identifying coping potentials provide insights into the underlying causes and structures that shape vulnerability (O’Brien et al., 2004b). Other methods employed in recent regional vulnerability studies include stakeholder elicitation and survey (Eakin et al., 2006; Pulhin et al., 2006), and multi-criteria modelling (Wehbe et al., 2006).

Traditional knowledge of local communities represents an important, yet currently largely under-used resource for CCIAV assessment (Huntington and Fox, 2005). Empirical knowledge from past experience in dealing with climate-related natural disasters such as droughts and floods (Osman-Elasha et al., 2006), health crises (Wandiga et al., 2006), as well as longer-term trends in mean conditions (Huntington and Fox, 2005; McCarthy and Long Martello, 2005), can be particularly helpful in understanding the coping strategies and adaptive capacity of indigenous and other communities relying on oral traditions.

  1. ^  The degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. Vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate variation to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity (IPCC, 2001b, Glossary).