When we think of the places that are threatened by climate change, we think of tiny islands on the edge of pulling an Atlantis, coastlines where homes fall into the ocean when the shore erodes or the water levels rise, or the Sahara encroaching on land never meant to be part of a desert. Assessing vulnerability goes so far beyond those few extreme examples, however, and can be quite a complicated process.
An area's vulnerability to climate change does, of course, depend in large part on its susceptibility to climate-related disasters. Is the area on a coast or next to a desert? Is it lowland? Has it been historically prone to floods, droughts, hurricanes and the like? If so, these areas are likely to be vulnerable to the new risks created by continued climate change, as we would expect.
However, to determine whether an area is truly vulnerable and deserving of focus from governments and foreign aid programs, there are a number of other factors that can be considered. Different development agencies and governments use different combinations of these factors to decide where to target their programs for the greatest impact.
In a publication last year, the Robert S. Strauss Center's Climate Change and African Political Stability project created acomprehensive definition of vulnerability using four sets of indicators. The first set focused on "physical exposure to climate-related disasters," the part of vulnerability that we think of most often and that is most obvious. These indicators look at prevalence and history of climate-related disasters in an area.
The second set of indicators addressed "household and community vulnerability," and looked at population health, population education, ability to fulfill basic needs, and provision of health and sanitation services. This set of indicators, at least in my own research, is where development agencies and governments differ the most in opinions. CCAPS avers that healthier and better educated populations are more equipped to understand the problem, deal with it, and not fall prey to starvation, thirst, or a host of other problems. Many agencies use provision of services and availability of necessities in assessing vulnerability, but do not use population health and education indicators. However, in interviews with a few organizations in Ethiopia, several aid workers voiced their appreciation that the CCAPS study had included these indicators, as these organizations feel they are important factors in vulnerability that need to be given more attention by all agencies.
The third set of indicators focuses on governance and political violence, operating on the assumption that a responsive government that has the capacity to provide for its citizens will equip communities to be less vulnerable to climate change and help them adapt. Unfortunately, governance indicators are highly subjective. The World Bank's Worldwide Governance Indicators are perhaps the largest database of these indicators, and they have been heavily criticized by scholars, as have other governance databases like Transparency International and Bertelsmann. It is questionable whether these indicators accurately capture a government's effectiveness, transparency and accountability. As a result, it appears that few development agencies take this facet into account.
However, they do take into account a government's capacity for delivering services. If a government is already providing for its people adequately, development agencies will emphasize adaptation programs elsewhere. If a government is unable to deliver services efficiently, agencies implement projects using non-governmental partners. Governance certainly is an important part of targeting decisions, but the difficulty in measuring it turns many away from attempting to include it in vulnerability assessments.
Finally, CCAPS focuses on population density to assess vulnerability. At-risk communities that are more densely populated are more vulnerable than sparsely populated communities at risk, given the number of people threatened by climate change. This allows development agencies and governments to focus support where it can have the greatest impact, and appears to be something that many groups take into consideration when targeting adaptation programs.
There is disagreement on a few of these factors, depending on the focus of the specific organization, but most development agencies, as discussed, use a majority of these indicators in their own vulnerability assessments. Some, however, have decided to take a different approach – a good example is the U.S. Agency for International Development's mission in Ethiopia.
USAID Ethiopia was disgruntled with the fact that vulnerable communities often overlap with the poorest communities, those most often receiving large amounts of humanitarian aid. These communities often receive years, even decades worth of humanitarian aid with little to no improvement in poverty or vulnerability. Aid sent to these parts of Ethiopia sinks itself into the provision of basic needs, and the country at large is no better off for it.
Their solution? Send adaptation and development funding to "productive Ethiopia," the part of the country that is the breadbasket for the population. Although this section of the country is generally assessed as less vulnerable than pastoralist communities or chronically food-insufficient areas, USAID believes that the impact of aid will be greater and more sustainable there. By bolstering the areas of the country that are producing the most food, they hope to create a trickle-down effect that leads to greater availability of resources and greater capacity for adaptation for the whole country.
It's unclear at this point in time whether this aid will, in fact, have a greater impact than aid targeted based on vulnerability assessments, since the project for "productive Ethiopia" is still in the planning phases. If it is effective, we may be forced to reformulate vulnerability assessments to include an economic impact factor or some measure of productivity or capacity for production.
For now, though, vulnerability as defined here will continue to drive climate change adaptation programs.