Why different interpretations of vulnerability matter

Submitted by Anna Taylor | published 9th Jul 2012 | last updated 18th May 2018

Figure 1 reproduced from the O’Brien et al (2007) paper: Frameworks depicting two interpretations of vulnerability to climate change, outcome vulnerability (left) and contextual vulnerability (right).

O’Brien et al (2007), through a synthesis article in the journal Climate Policy, provide a really useful overview of the two dominant interpretations of vulnerability, which they refer to as ‘outcome vulnerability’ and ‘context vulnerability’.

Outcome vulnerability is considered the residual exposure to impacts of climatic changes (associated with a given increase in greenhouse gas concentrations) after adaptation responses have been factored in. Studies done using this interpretation often take a sectoral view, looking at which / where is likely to be worst affected or looking for thresholds of dangerous climate change.

Context vulnerability, based on a more multi-dimensional view of climate-society interactions, considers – in a dynamic way – the institutional, biophysical, socio-economic and technological conditions that affect the extent of exposure to climate changes, alongside other types of changes, and the ways in which those exposed can respond. Studies using this interpretation often take a more holistic view in a local setting, looking at how and why groups are affected differently by climate change, often in the context of other changes happening simultaneously, like market liberalisation for example.

Using the example of two studies done on vulnerability in the context of Mozambique, one looking at outcome vulnerability and the other context vulnerability, they show how these different conceptualisations stem from asking different questions and lead to using different methods to assess vulnerability, identifying different ‘problems’ and a making different recommendations for how to intervene to reduce vulnerability. 

They conclude that it is not possible, nor necessarily desirable, to integrate these two interpretations into a unified framework for vulnerability because they stem from different framings of the climate change issue (what the authors of the paper refer to as scientific and human-security framings) with different conceptual starting points and assumptions. They also conclude that is important for those using the concept of vulnerability to be clear themselves and explicit in their writings about which interpretation of vulnerability they are using.

For the details please refer to the original paper

KAREN O'BRIEN, SIRI ERIKSEN, LYNN P. NYGAARD & ANE SCHJOLDEN (2007): Why different interpretations of vulnerability matter in climate change discourses, Climate Policy, 7:1, 73-88. 

The article can be found here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14693062.2007.9685639

Below the original abstract is reproduced:

In this article, we discuss how two interpretations of vulnerability in the climate change literature are manifestations of different discourses and framings of the climate change problem. The two differing interpretations, conceptualized here as ‘outcome vulnerability’ and ‘contextual vulnerability’, are linked respectively to a scientific framing and a human-security framing. Each framing prioritizes the production of different types of knowledge, and emphasizes different types of policy responses to climate change. Nevertheless, studies are seldom explicit about the interpretation that they use. We present a diagnostic tool for distinguishing the two interpretations of vulnerability and use this tool to illustrate the practical consequences that interpretations of vulnerability have for climate change policy and responses in Mozambique. We argue that because the two interpretations are rooted in different discourses and differ fundamentally in their conceptualization of the character and causes of vulnerability, they cannot be integrated into one common framework. Instead, it should be recognized that the two interpretations represent complementary approaches to the climate change issue. We point out that the human-security framing of climate change has been far less visible in formal, international scientific and policy debates, and addressing this imbalance would broaden the scope of adaptation policies.

Keywords: adaptation; climate change; Mozambique; vulnerability

Further resources

  • Carlo Giupponi and Claudio Biscaro (2015) Vulnerabilities—bibliometric analysis and literature review of evolving concepts Environ. Res. Lett. 10 123002. https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/10/12/123002

    Kelly P M and Adger W N 2000 Theory and practice in assessing vulnerability to climate change and facilitating adaptation Clim. Change 47 325–52