In This Article Vulnerability to Climate Change

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Mapping Vulnerabilities

Geography Vulnerability to Climate Change
Narcisa Pricope, Lumari Pardo-Rodriguez, David López-Carr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 December 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0040


Regardless of academic discipline, whether human or political ecology, the social sciences, or emergent sustainability or global change sciences, vulnerability is a useful concept for discussing a relatively broad suite of environmental, socioeconomic, institutional, and political phenomena. Furthermore, regardless of the vulnerability analysis framework used, social, economic, institutional, and political structures modify social and environmental vulnerability. However, in the risk-hazards and geography literatures, vulnerability was initially assessed with a focus on environmentally driven outcomes. Traditionally, vulnerability research might employ the risk-hazards approach or a pressure-and-release model in studying sustainable livelihoods, vulnerability to climate change or to famines and food insecurity, human ecology, or the integrated vulnerability of socio-ecological systems. The literature corroborates, on the one hand, that institutions adapt to environmental risks and, on the other, that interdependence exists among environmental risk (either experienced or perceived), political economy of development, and systems’ resilience.

General Overviews

Leichenko and O’Brien 2002 and Reid and Vogel 2006 discuss vulnerability as a dynamic construct, simultaneously operational at different scales and resulting from multiple stressors. A simple definition encompassing both social and ecological aspects of vulnerability, such as external exposure, system sensitivity and resilience, and adaptive capacity, was proposed by Ziervogel, et al. 2006. These elements constitute the components of vulnerability according to conceptualizations across different theoretical approaches, and Adger 2006 provides a compendious review in this direction. A more concise definition of vulnerability that encapsulates these components within a working framework of analysis is offered by Turner, et al. 2003. Previous vulnerability literature tended to focus narrowly on perturbations and stressors leading to the formulation of Risk-Hazards and Pressure-and-Release Models, culminating in integrative vulnerability analyses frameworks (Turner, et al. 2003; Luers 2005, cited under Expanded Vulnerability Analysis). Finally, an important part of defining, conceptualizing, and analyzing vulnerability to climate change is a consideration of adaptation or adaptive capacity and, as Mosser 2010 and Wilbanks and Kates 2010 point out, increasing attention must be paid to incorporating adaptation in such analyses. Adaptive capacity denotes a system’s ability to modify its characteristics in response to various changes or cope with the consequences of shock or stress.

  • Adger, W. Neil. “Vulnerability.” Global Environmental Change 16.3 (2006): 268–281.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2006.02.006E-mail Citation »

    Adger shows that the key to understanding vulnerability lies in applying an integrative, coupled human–environment approach to the interactions between social dynamics within the socio-ecological system and to how these dynamics shape the resilience of different systems. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Leichenko, Robin M., and Karen L. O’Brien. “The Dynamics of Rural Vulnerability to Global Change: The Case of Southern Africa.” Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 7.1 (2002): 1–18.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1015860421954E-mail Citation »

    This paper discusses the dynamics of agricultural vulnerability to global climate change through the lens of southern Africa. The authors point out how climate change and globalization act together to expose farmers to new and unexpected conditions and demonstrate that the interaction between the two is dramatically altering the ways in which farmers cope with climatic variability and change and exercise adaptation strategies. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Mosser, Susanne C. “Now More Than Ever: The Need for More Societally Relevant Research on Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change.” Applied Geography 30.4 (2010): 464–474.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.apgeog.2009.09.003E-mail Citation »

    The paper covers a range of critical research needs in the area of vulnerability and adaptation and argues for capacity building and far-reaching changes in the incentive structure for various disciplines to engage in more practice- and policy-relevant research linking climate change, vulnerability, and adaptation strategies. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Reid, Paul, and Coleen Vogel. “Living and Responding to Multiple Stressors in Southern Africa—Glimpses from KwaZulu-Natal.” Global Environmental Change 16.2 (2006): 195–206.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2006.01.003E-mail Citation »

    A regional assessment study that uses the sustainable livelihoods framework (based on assessment of human, social, natural, physical, and financial capital as well as adaptive capacity) to account for the multiple stressors that increase vulnerability in resource-poor, rural communities in developing countries and to identify strategies used to secure livelihoods. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Turner, B. L., II, Roger E. Kasperson, Pamela A. Matson, et al. “A Framework for Vulnerability Analysis in Sustainability Science.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 100.14 (2003): 8074–8079.

    DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1231335100E-mail Citation »

    Placing vulnerability analyses in the more general context of global environmental change and sustainability science, the authors raise a series of crucial questions pertaining to the kinds of people and locations that are vulnerable to multiple environmental changes and propose an expanded vulnerability analysis framework for the assessment of human–environment systems.

  • Wilbanks, Thomas J., and Robert W. Kates. “Beyond Adapting to Climate Change: Embedding Adaptation in Responses to Multiple Threats and Stresses.” In Special Issue: Climate Change. Edited by Robert Aspinall. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 100.4 (2010): 719–728.

    DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2010.500200E-mail Citation »

    This article argues for a broadening in the adaptation to climate change effort. The authors suggest integrating the concept with broader frameworks of hazards research, sustainability science, and community and regional resilience. The authors use a variety of examples and case studies to illustrate the multiple threats and stresses that all communities and regions experience and offer ways that adaptation strategies can be made more efficient. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Ziervogel, Gina, Sukaina Bharwani, and Thomas E. Downing. “Adapting to Climate Variability: Pumpkins, People, and Policy.” Natural Resources Forum 30.4 (2006): 294–305.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1477-8947.2006.00121.xE-mail Citation »

    This paper proposes a simple definition of vulnerability that assesses the degree to which people or the environment are susceptible to harm. This definition encompasses several components: external exposure to hazards or stressors, internal ability of ecosystems and human systems to cope with, recover from, or adapt to external stresses, which is directly linked to the system’s sensitivity, resilience, or adaptive capacity.

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