2. Key attributes of vulnerability

Submitted by Michael Rastall | published 8th Aug 2012 | last updated 10th Feb 2020

Scholars from different knowledge domains and diverse communities of practice conceptualize vulnerability in very different ways. This is mainly because the term can be related to concepts and meanings that resonate differently in different research traditions. Kasperson and Kasperson (2005) reviews different definitions of vulnerability and concludes that there is no single conceptualization of vulnerability that would fit all assessment contexts and purposes. The choice of definition may depend on its suitability for a particular vulnerability and its interpretation for policy or action (Downing et al. 2005).

Before being introduced to the climate change community in the 1990s, the term vulnerability was used by the natural-hazard community. Since its introduction, the definition and interpretation of vulnerability has evolved, reflecting the different purposes for which vulnerability has been assessed. While initially vulnerability studies focused on the assessment of impacts to support mitigation efforts, later studies assess vulnerability focusing on people, livelihoods, sectors, and economies, with the purpose of identifying adaptation options and strategies.

The existence of diverse conceptualizations of vulnerability has become particularly problematic in the climate change field, which is characterized by close collaboration between scholars from many different disciplines and communities of practice (Fussel 2007). One common use of the word ‘vulnerability’ in the climate change field refers to the capacity of a system to be affected by a hazard (Turner et al. 2003). Hence, the vulnerability definition suggested by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): “climate vulnerability is 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” (McCarthy et al. 2001). In short, the IPCC definition recognizes vulnerability as a function of three elements: the exposure and sensitivity of a system to hazardous conditions and the ability or capacity of the system to cope, adapt or recover from the effects of those conditions.

According to the IPCC definition, the potential impact of climate change on a system results from the exposure and sensitivity. These two are almost inseparable properties of a system and are dependent on the interaction between the characteristics of the system and on the attributes of the hazard (Smit and Wandel 2006). Sensitivity refers to the degree to which a system will be affected by a change (e.g. in climate), either positively or negatively, while exposure is the nature and degree to which a system is exposed to a potential hazard or threat (Locatelli et al. 2010). Many of the determinants of sensitivity are similar to those that shape or constrain a system’s adaptive capacity, which is the ability of a system to adapt, cope or recover (Fussel 2007).

Several authors from different disciplinary traditions have attempted to develop conceptual frameworks for vulnerability assessments in the context of global environmental change (see for example Brooks 2003, Luers et al. 2003, Fussel 2004, Downing and Patwardhan 2004, Metzger et al. 2005). To varying extent, these frameworks capture the following dimensions or key attributes of vulnerability:

System: The unit of analysis, such as a coupled social-ecological system, a population or social group and its social arrangements, an economic sector, a geographical region or location, or a natural ecosystem (Fussel 2007). Vulnerability (including adaptive capacity) is context-specific, although its temporal and spatial scales are not independent or separate (Smit and Wandel 2006).The system description includes the identification of valued attributes that could be threatened by the system’s exposure to a threat (Fussel 2007).

Temporal reference: The time period of interest. Vulnerability assessments can correspond to the present conditions (i.e. the baseline conditions of vulnerability) and these conditions can be extended to the future as a reference scenario of vulnerability or possible vulnerabilities (Fussel 2007). In general, the time period considered for vulnerability assessments to anthropogenic climate change cover at least two decades in the past and five decades into the future.

Multiple threats: Potentially damaging influences or disturbances on the system of analysis. A system can be affected by multiple threats, which can include ecological, social, economic and political change, as well as physical, technological change, innovation, etc (RA 2010). Multiple threats are inherent in integrating vulnerability of peoples, livelihoods and systems (Downing et al. 2005).Threats can occur as discrete events in time, referred to as a shock or perturbation to the system, and can also occur as gradual change considered as stress or pressure on the system (RA 2010).A threat is generally but not always external to the system under consideration but it can also be part of itsnatural variability.

Differential exposure: Different exposure units (i.e. components of the system) are exposed to, experience or anticipate threats in different ways (Downing et al. 2005). In this sense, vulnerability is more specific than general. It relates to specific exposure units (e.g. specific economic activities, livelihoods or social groups) and threats (e.g. drought, flood, sea-level rise). Vulnerability is unlikely to be the same for all threats, even if all are climate-related threats (e.g. increasing temperature, floods, sea-level rise, droughts, etc.). As a result, it is difficult to produce a single composite index that reflects the aggregate exposure of all the exposure units to all of the potential threats (Downing et al. 2005).

Dynamic process: Vulnerability is a dynamic process, changing on a variety of inter-linked temporal and spatial scales. Vulnerability is rooted in the actions and multiple attributes of human actors (Downing et al. 2005), as well as in the functioning and flows of ecosystems (Locatelli et al. 2010), reflecting the non-linear interactions and feedbacks that shape the vulnerability of a system. Vulnerability is constructed simultaneously on more than one scale and can involve rapid changes, often with discontinuities that can break a trend. While some processes of change are slow (e.g. ecological succession), some can be fast (e.g. forced migration) and unexpected (e.g. death of a pivotal political leader), denoting the interplay between periods of gradual and abrupt change in a system.

Furthermore, processes driving exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity are frequently interdependent. Broader stresses and forces can determine exposure and sensitivity and shape adaptive capacity at the local level (e.g. global market price fluctuations of a particular commodity or a large tsunami), and the interaction of environmental and social forces at the local level can influence exposures and sensitivities, and various social, cultural, political and economic forces at broader scales (e.g. forest fires, species extinctions or forced migration) (Downing et al. 2005, Smit and Wandel 2006). Similarly, some determinants of adaptive capacity are mainly local (e.g. the presence of a strong social network which will serve as safety net to absorb stress), while others reflect broader socio-economic and political systems (e.g. the availability of early warning systems, political stability, monitoring and enforcement mechanisms) (Smit and Wandel 2006).

Social capital, agency and collective action: Social networks drive and bound vulnerability in the social, economic, political and environmental interactions (Bodin and Crona 2009, Crona and Bodin 2010). In times of rapid change, social networks can facilitate individual and collective change (Rayner and Malone 2001) and provide arenas for novelty, innovation and enhanced flexibility (Gunderson et al. 1995). These networks are usefully described as an asset of an individual or a society and are increasingly understood as social capital. Social capital involves relations of trust, reciprocity, and exchange, as well as the evolution of common rules and the role of networks (Adger 2003). It also involves resources and assets that serve to a common use, such as education or health centres, roads or religious centres.

In the context of resource-dependent livelihoods, social capital can facilitate adaptive capacity by exploring its interactions with natural capital (Crona and Bodin 2010). Both social capital and the social dynamics of adaptive capacity are defined by the ability to act collectively, which involves understanding the interdependence of actors through their relationships with each other, with the institutions in which they reside, and with the resource base on which they depend (Adger 2003). The ability to act collectively also depend on shared understandings and a common vision (Ostrom 2005). The role of power dynamics can also be explored through the lens of social capital, as power relations are held in interactions between individuals and organisations (Fox 2000).

Within social networks, the role of agency or leadership is key in order to provide innovation to achieve the flexibility and reorganization needed to deal with change. Leaders can provide key functions for adaptive governance, such as building trust, making sense, managing conflict, linking actors, initiating partnership among actor groups, compiling and generating knowledge, and mobilizing broad support for change (Folke et al. 2005). Key agents often have the ability to manage existing knowledge within social networks and further develop those networks for collective action (Bodin and Crona 2009). Collective action requires relationships and flows of information between individuals and groups, as well as basic design principles to organize and govern group behavior successfully to manage common resources and build adaptive capacity (Ostrom 1990).

Understanding the above dimensions of vulnerability implies using different participatory and analytical methods. This approach will provide the basis for further research to identify potential actions and capacity required to support adaptation factoring in current vulnerability conditions and the uncertainty of future scenarios. The next section describes the approach taken for the vulnerability analysis in this report.