More Devil in the Details: Climate Change

April 26th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

A discussion paper from the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research at the University of Oslo, Norway examines the consequences for climate science and policy of different definitions of “vulnerability.” The paper observes the term “vulnerability serves as a flexible and somewhat malleable concept that can engage both research and policy communities. Yet the extensive use of vulnerability in the climate change literature hides two very different interpretations of the word, and two very different purposes for using it.”

The paper presents two different definitions of the term vulnerability, “On the one hand, vulnerability is sometimes viewed as an end point – that is, as a residual of climate change impacts minus adaptation… On the other hand, it is sometimes viewed as a starting point, where vulnerability is a characteristic or state generated by multiple environmental and social processes, but exacerbated by climate change.”

The authors argue, “We make the case in this paper that the two interpretations of vulnerability – as an end point or as a starting point – confound the issue of climate change… the two definitions not only result in two different diagnoses of the climate change problem, but also two different kinds of cures.”

The paper concludes, “the end-point interpretation [of vulnerability] focuses on technology and transfer of technology, rather than on development… When vulnerability is taken as the starting point of the analysis, the focus of the assessment is quite different. Vulnerability to climate change is recognized as a state, generated not just by climate change, but by multiple processes and stressors. Consequently, there are multiple points for intervention. Technological adaptations to climate change represent only one of many options – albeit a problematized one due to existing social, economic and political structures that may increase inequality in a community and exacerbate vulnerability for some. Addressing climate change means enhancing the ability to cope with present-day climate variability and long-term climate uncertainty.”

This paper is worth reading. It is consistent with our own work focused both on vulnerability as well as the different definitions of climate change held by the IPCC and FCCC. There are signs that the pathologies resulting from the dominant framing of the climate issue are no longer flying under the radar.

Comments are closed.