Vulnerability analyses: getting back to basics

If vulnerability analyses are to be truly useful in assessing the impacts of climate change and supporting decisions on adaptation, methods must become standardised, replicable and founded on concepts that can be adapted to different contexts, argues Marcus Moench, president of the Institute of Social and Environmental Transition.

Existing vulnerability analyses are of little use, says Moench. ‘At best, they reiterate what we already know; at worst, they are used to justify entrenched agendas’.

The impacts of climate change can be unexpected, he points out. Droughts in Afghanistan for example, led to malnutrition levels that were highest — not amongst the children of farmers — but among children of shopkeepers and moneylenders who lost income when farmers could not repay loans, and who were not eligible for aid.  

Analytical frameworks need to highlight how growing global interactions generate vulnerability. Nepalese villagers may depend on money sent from family living in cities abroad; city dwellers in Manila depend on rice from Vietnam and Thailand; and the rise of urban food prices may have contributed to the unrest in the Middle East in 2011.

Understanding vulnerability is both simpler, and more complex than is widely believed, says Moench. One the one hand analyses often state the obvious; on the other, the concepts and methods used in vulnerability assessment are often unclear, vary depending on the analyst, and do not provide the baselines needed to measure progress.

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‘Researchers and policymakers need to agree on standard concepts and methods that can capture complex dynamics across scales, systems and social divisions,’ he writes. These should provide clear information about the factors that contribute to vulnerability and resilience, shifting focus from identifying problems towards identifying solutions.

Taking steps in this direction will be necessary for vulnerability analysis to inform high-level debates on the impacts of climate change and how to adapt to them, he concludes.

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