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Vulnerability in the Context of Climate Change

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Contexts and Origins

In a general sense, the concept vulnerability is used to describe the susceptibility of individuals and collective groups to environmental, economic, social, cultural, and political harms. Since the 1980s, the concept has been increasingly applied in very different contexts in the Americas and also across the globe. Initially, vulnerability was addressed by sociologists, anthropologists, and geographers examining natural disaster risks such as Phil O’ Keefe, Ken Westgate, and Ben Wisner, who concluded that “[t]he greatest loss of life per disaster is observed in underdeveloped countries, and there are general indications that the vulnerability of these countries in particular is increasing” (1976, 566). In the following years, numerous vulnerability analysts distanced themselves from the conventional “dominant approach to disaster” (Bolin, 2007, 123) and increasingly considered political economic processes in disaster research and management (see Bohle et al., 1994; Oliver-Smith, 1996; Hewitt, 1997). Complementary, the term vulnerability was also drawn upon in the research on poverty and development-mechanisms, for instance in 1981 by Amartya Sen in his study on the vulnerability to droughts and famines, and in Robert Chambers’ publications in 1983 and 1989 on the vulnerability of poor people becoming poorer. In 1980 the “development aid”-initiatives then popularized the concept of vulnerability, which was, at that time, defined in contrast to “poverty”, not relating to a “lack or want, but [to] defenselessness, insecurity, and exposure to risk, shocks, and stress” (Chambers, 2006, 33). Since then, vulnerability has been assessed in very different contexts ranging from the susceptibility to diseases, to the sensitivity of ecosystems, to environmental changes. Furthermore vulnerability has turned into a widespread term that is applied across various disciplines, such as geography, sociology, risk management, ecology, theology, psychology, medicine, and even computer science.

Contemporary Uses

In the 1990s the concept gained momentum particularly in the context of scholarly and activists’ debates related to the consequences of global climate change. That is why today, the concept is mostly associated with climate change and its adverse effects. Therefore, in this intervention we mainly focus on the uses and interpretations of the concept in the context of climate change debates. In the past decades climate change has increasingly been regarded as “potentially the greatest global environmental challenge facing humankind” because of its global scope and very diverse impacts (IPCC, 1990; cf. among many others The White House, 2016). The causes of extreme events, such as hurricanes and floodings, are often traced back to the changing climate, which is why particularly in the context of global climate change, several vulnerability-scholars from the aforementioned disciplines intersect when working for instance on risk assessments or in the field of disaster sociology.

In these interdisciplinary collaborations it is widely acknowledged that vulnerability regarding climate change effects is not solely determined by the biophysical event of a flood or drought, but non-climatic processes, such as political structures and social power relations, must also be taken into account. However, in political and climate scientific debates, a climate-deterministic perspective on vulnerability still dominates (for example, the National Adaptation Programmes of Action from least developed countries, which focus on technological and managerial solutions). With such a perspective, socio-technological answers to climate change (effects) are promoted, which often lead to the perpetuation of existing social inequalities, dependencies, and asymmetries of power. However, as various examples from the Americas show, particularly these often neglected patterns explain why the vulnerability of individuals and social groups to climate change effects differs largely.

Vulnerability and its relation to climate change, social inequality and social power

Mick Kelly and Neil Adger, the leading author of the fourth and fifth Climate Change-report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the main international body for the assessment of climate change that regularly informs the UN Climate Conference (see also Methman et al., 2013), define vulnerability as “the ability or inability of individuals and social groupings to respond to, in the sense of cope with, recover from or adapt to, any external stress placed on their livelihoods and wellbeing“ (Kelly and Adger, 2000, 328). As this definition from the year 2000 shows, central questions regarding the causes of vulnerability, its measurement, and distribution were left unanswered and are still much debated among scholars, such as: What factors make individuals and social groups vulnerable to higher temperatures, droughts, rising sea-levels or to extreme weather events? How is it possible to measure vulnerability, and how can it one explain that vulnerability is distributed unequally in societies? Dealing with these questions is central for the analysis of climate change in social sciences and the formulation of policies to solve the climate crises. Analysis and policy formulation thereby rely on each other: Social scientists explore the causes of vulnerability and provide knowledge on the relationships between society and climate change, which is of great value to political scientists and political practitioners who focus on the formulation of adaptation-policies (that are mostly based on the analysis of vulnerability and on its explanation). A better knowledge of the emergence and distribution of vulnerability, moreover, allows the formulation of political demands regarding its redistribution, gender equality, social participation, expansion of social protection systems, and the democratic participation in climate policy-making.

The decisive factor for the academic and political significance of the vulnerability-concept is the epistemological perspective the concept is grounded on. Only if climate and policy debates conceptualize vulnerability in a dialectic sense, as a result of the intermediation between societal and natural processes, is it possible to explain why some social groups are more affected by the impacts of climate change than others. It becomes evident then, that vulnerability is not the result of a linear cause-and-effect chain of climate change impacts. On the contrary, vulnerability is rather decisively shaped by ethnicity, race, class, and gender. This understanding of vulnerability also inspired political decisions regarding the different forms of nature appropriation and (dis-)investments in infrastructures of social reproduction. Only conveyed via these social and political factors and practices does vulnerability become visible to the effects of climate change.

Vulnerability to the effects of climate change in the Americas

In August 2005 in New Orleans, for instance, the effects of Hurricane Katrina bore impressive empirical witness to this connection between social relationships, political decisions, and extreme weather events. Although almost 80% of the city area was flooded by the hurricane, which affected citizens of all ages and social classes, particularly poor women, men, children, and retired persons were vulnerable during and after the catastrophe occurred, a high percentage of them being of Afro American origin. Regarding risk management, among others, the missing public evacuation strategy, poorly equipped and insufficient places of refuge, insufficient reconstruction work in the destroyed residential areas, and a lacking federal and urban precaution by the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Authority, were identified as having caused this vulnerability. The latter had been informed about the poor condition of protective dykes as well as about the prognosis that the eastern city districts and some suburbs would strongly be affected by a flooding. The majority of citizens in these districts belonged to the working class and was classified as black people. The overlapping of class-, gender- and race-specific inequalities, in combination with an urban planning in which the known risks were deliberately accepted, caused an extremely unequal distribution of vulnerability in New Orleans (Davis, 2005; Katz, 2008).

Another example is in the case of Uru Chipaya, an indigenous community that has been located in the highlands of Bolivia for 4,000 years but now suffers from extinction. Politicians explained the water shortage, which had forced the members of Uru Chipaya to migrate to cities, as being a typical phenomenon related to climate change. The suffering of the Uru Chipaya from droughts and erratic rainfalls was mostly perceived as typical for its location in Bolivia’s highlands, until an article published in The Guardian (Carroll and Schipani, 2009) and a report written by Oxfam International in 2009 pointed out that the competition with upriver communities had also contributed to the water shortage in this community. Both found that it was the combination of climate change effects and existing structural factors, which had made the Uru Chipaya particularly vulnerable: The Plurinational State of Bolivia, which is still regarded to be the country with the highest poverty rate in South America (ECLAC 2014), suffers from the worst patterns of inequality that particularly affects indigenous communities living in the river basins. In the Plata region, in which the Uru Chipaya community is located, the poverty rate was at 42 per cent (Oxfam, 2009), which led Oxfam to the assessment that “areas with high incidence of extreme poverty are also some of the most vulnerable to climate change-induced disasters” (2009, 20), thereby, confirming that the early findings of vulnerability-studies conducted in the 1980s are still valid: “The less people have, the more vulnerable they are, and the harder it is for them to rise” (Chambers, 1983, 130).

Reflection and Outlook

As the examples of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the water shortage in the case of Uru Chipaya demonstrate, the „nature of the catastrophe“ - in the first case a category five hurricane and in the second example erratic rainfall and drought - cannot explain vulnerability and its unequal social distribution. Vulnerability to climate change is, first and foremost, a result of social practices and political decision making, as well as societal structures, (not seldom racist) ascriptions, and (historical) relations, which can only be explained if a “denaturalized” understanding of vulnerability is applied in climate change-analyses (see Dietz, 2013; Mussetta and Barrientos, 2015; O'Brien et al., 2007). While risk geography certainly also plays a role, it makes a difference whether a nuclear power plant is built in a tsunami prone coastal area or not, like in the case of Fukushima, Japan. But, it was the political decisions and hegemonic social practices that created the vulnerability of the Fukushima Region in the first place, when the decision to build the plant there was taken, although knowing the risks.

While the social factors have been discursively recognized earlier, such an understanding of vulnerability in official climate-scientific and -political sense of terms was highly unusual in the past decades and has only been recently applied more often. The former common understanding of vulnerability, as a non-compensable effect of climate change solely related to the “biophysical vulnerability” (Brooks, 2003), which is in a critical perception, is presently understood as “outcome vulnerability” (O'Brien et al., 2007) or “physicalistic perspective“ (Lampis, 2012). From this viewpoint, the social and political aspects are not considered when analyzing vulnerability and the one-dimensional focus on the „nature“ of the “climate catastrophe” and perceiving a “ risk as controlled by, or following from, the nature of geophysical agents“ (Hewitt, 1997, 58). From such a viewpoint, climate change and its forms of appearance are conceived as something external and supposedly threatening to human beings. In a functionalist perspective, the degree of vulnerability to an external climate event is, thus, determined according to its intensity, frequency, and character. Societal and political institutional factors are regarded as given and subordinately integrated to the terms “exposure”, “sensitivity”, and “adaptive capacity”, which are borrowed from ecology.

Therefore, in reference to the “objective” biophysical effects of climate change, social power relations as fundamental determinants of vulnerability have mostly been neglected. Neither social actors and their social and political actions nor social relationships have been placed at the center of consideration but homogenized, socially emptied-out geographical “entities” (semi-arid areas, low-level coastal regions or urban districts, precarious settlement areas, the “North”, the “South”, “industrial vs. developing countries”, etc.), which react towards the external event within their lineal dependency or change in dependency thereto.

It was particularly this perception, which served as a basis for the identification of global climate change hot spots, which include for instance, the Amazon and Andean regions in Latin America or the coastal regions in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast-Asia. If climate-determinism can be described as a paradigm, in which the perception dominates that climate change gives the orientation for human actions, then the relevant climate-political definition of vulnerability is a product of climate-deterministic and naturalistic ways of thinking (see Leichenko and O’Brien, 2006). Against this backdrop, demands for the societal adaption to climate change rather base on the ecologic circular flows, while the significance of non-climatic processes of change, of political structures, and social relationships are neglected. For instance, lacking access to water is, in a natural sense, mostly perceived as a result of absent rainfall caused by climate change. In this regard, unequal access to water-distributing systems is often not problematized. As a consequence, only a small path of political actions can be defined and existing inequalities, dependencies, and power asymmetries will be codified. This path is based on “technological optimism”, the belief to master and to reduce climate change effects via technological progress. It is obvious, that higher temperatures and changing precipitations are then defined as reasons for vulnerability if it is the aim to reduce vulnerability with down-streamed technological measures and not to change existing social relationships, which is also the case when political actions are evaluated according to their economic profitability. This is why mostly adaptation measures still depend on socio-technocratic strategies, for instance infrastructure measures such as barrages and irrigation systems, technological innovations such as drought tolerant seeds, or an architecture adapted to extreme conditions, which reduce the negative effects of floods, dry seasons, heat waves, or changing precipitations to some, but they certainly do not reduce vulnerability as such.

The demand of social scientists, who continue to argue „[a]s to agents, it is necessary to go beyond the notion of vulnerability because it often hides the very active role human beings play in interacting with their ‘environment’” (Faist and Schade, 2013, 4), however, slowly seem to have an effect on political vulnerability debates: Still serving as a reference point for policy makers, the newest IPCC-report (2014, 54) has at least expanded its definition of vulnerability and states:

“Differences in vulnerability and exposure arise from non-climatic factors and from multidimensional inequalities often produced by uneven development processes (very high confidence). These differences shape differential risks from climate change. People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalized are especially vulnerable to climate change and also to some adaptation and mitigation responses (medium evidence, high agreement). This heightened vulnerability is rarely due to a single cause. Rather, it is the product of intersecting social processes that result in inequalities in socio-economic status and income, as well as in exposure. Such social processes include, for example, discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, age and (dis)ability.”

The reformulation of the understanding of vulnerability in the IPCC-Report is important and promising as it acknowledges longstanding claims of scholars and activists to take into account underlying social, political, economic, and cultural inequalities, when analyzing vulnerability. What is missing at this point is a translation into political action and modified policy formulation.

Kristina Dietz and Dorothea Wehrmann


Please cite as:
Dietz, Kristina, and Dorothea Wehrmann. 2016. “Vulnerability.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspective. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/v_Vulnerability.html.


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