Forget adaptation, it’s all about vulnerability!

Mangrove plantation in Tuvalu (South Pacific)

After six weeks of intense research work, the CliMates delegations from China to Colombia and from Austria to the US have finally submitted their topic papers on adaptation, more precisely on the links between adaptation to climate change and development.
Adaptation and mitigation are the two core issues discussed in the international climate negotiations, like this week and the last one in Bonn (Germany). As I highlighted in my previous post, adaptation is a pretty fierce debate between developed and developing countries, and even among developing countries between emerging and least-developed countries. The debate on adaptation is not, however semantically right, or could at least be defined differently. Really, what countries are trying to reduce by negotiating at the UNFCCC is the level of risk.

If you just have a look at your Oxford dictionary, risk is only defined as a situation involving exposure to danger. From a more scientific point of view, risk is a triangle combining hazard, the elements exposed (understanding exposure, population or assets) and their vulnerability. The three elements together shape a triangle, the risk triangle as you can see in the figure below.

Risk Triangle (Chrichton, Kron)In this perspective, the level of risk is estimated by the surface of the triangle; thus reducing only one of the elements of the triangle will consequently affect the whole area and will then diminish the level of risk. According to David Chrichton, the risk triangle’s father, the three elements composing the triangle could be defined as such:
Exposure: assets, goods and populations exposed to hazards;
Hazard: the likelihood of an extreme natural event taking into accounts its intensity and probability of occurrence;
Vulnerability: the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with adverse effects of an event (IPCC, WG 2, 2007).

The risk triangle offers a general background for natural hazards, exposure and vulnerability. If we decided to look at these three elements shaping the risk triangle in a climate change perspective, then the conclusion emphasizes the significance of vulnerability in the climate debate.

Because of increasing global GDP at a current rate of 3.6% (forecasted for 2012) and global population at a rate of 1.1% ( estimated for 2012) we can expect the exposure side to become longer in the coming years.

Following the last IPCC SREX report, both frequency and intensity of disasters are expected to increase over the next decades. In some specific cases though, for instance with tropical cyclones, only intensity is however expected to increase, as Thomas R. Knutson and his co-writers showed in 2010 (Tropical Cyclones and Climate Change, Nature Geoscience). They further explained that the frequency of category 1 to 3 cyclones will decrease while category 4 to 5 cyclones will increase.

In a context of changing climate, global demographic and economic growth, we observe that both exposure and hazard sides of the triangle are expected to get longer and then increase the area of risk. Hence, for the next decades, risk reduction will only depend upon reducing vulnerability. Furthermore, according to IPCC (Climate Change 2001, Synthesis Report) developing countries are more vulnerable to climate change and vulnerability “is most extreme among the poorest people”. As an illustration of this, IPCC SREX report shows that, from 1970 to 2008, over 95% of natural disaster-related deaths occurred in developing countries.

Tackling the adverse effects of climate change requires maximising the resilience capacity of communities. Resilience is defined as “the ability of a social or ecological system to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning, the capacity for self organisation, and the capacity to adapt to stress and change” (IPCC, 2007, WG 2). Increasing resilience capacity does not necessarily and always involve costly investments and heavy infrastructures. For example, in Niger, by regenerating native trees and shrubs, farmers have increased agricultural yield and their resilience to climate change. In Samoa, the World Bank approved the first country strategy focused on reducing vulnerability to climate change, natural disasters and economic shocks.

Vulnerability mitigation tends to become the new focus of international organisations and governments. This is exactly what adaptation must be about.

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