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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Climate Research - From Science to Society

How vulnerable are we to climate change?

Putting together research on climate change can be like putting together pieces of a puzzle. One piece might contain crop yields under different climate scenarios. Another piece might contain information about a water shortage caused by decreased snow pack in the mountains. But, until recently, an important piece has been missing.

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory believe that to view the impacts of climate change in an integrated way, its potential effects on human beings must be considered. Climate researchers have devised a vulnerability model that integrates environmental research with economic and social indicators to help project the ways people may be affected and their ability to adapt.

"The concept of vulnerability integrates the potential effects of global change and the ability of people to adapt. Vulnerability immediately puts you in connection with peoples' livelihoods and ways of life, much more than the individual pieces of research," said Richard Moss of PNNL's Joint Global Climate Change Institute. "This is especially true in developing countries because adaptation is a much bigger challenge there than it is in developed countries."

In less developed countries, public infrastructure is less advanced and often not well maintained. For example, many people get their water from a single borehole or stream and have less capacity to adapt. They will experience an immediate crisis if that borehole or stream dries up. In addition, people in less developed countries do not have access to capital markets and financing. They also have less access to education so they don't have the flexibility afforded by retraining programs that allow them to prepare for a new occupation if their original livelihood is no longer viable.

Moss and his colleagues—Antoinette Brenkert, Elizabeth Malone and Hugh Pitcher—have developed an approach for evaluating potential vulnerability by examining the sensitivity and adaptability of key economic, social and environmental sectors. They look for particular combinations of change, sensitivity and lack of adaptability that might create vulnerability.

"By identifying those vulnerability hot spots, we can better project how people will be most affected in their livelihood and what sort of assistance would be most helpful," Moss said. "We're looking at what is causing their problem, which usually involves a limitation in capacity to respond to environmental change, not just whether there is an immediate environmental impact such as lower crop yields."

Researchers at PNNL have developed a vulnerability model that integrates economic and social indicators as well as environmental research to help project the ways people may be affected by climate change and their ability to adapt.

In a prototype experiment, Moss and his team looked at about 40 countries, three quarters of which were less developed. They created a ranking of population groups using eight different sectors, including settlements, food security, human health, ecosystem sensitivity and water security. On the adaptive side, they looked at economic, environmental and human resources capacity. "Sparsely populated countries like Canada and Australia had very different patterns of vulnerability than more densely populated countries like Japan or the Netherlands," Moss said.

This approach has been applied by the United Nations Development Programme in creating guidelines to assist developing countries in preparing national reports to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. In this application, researchers and policymakers from developing countries select specific quantitative indicators for the sectors that are most relevant to their particular situation, effectively bringing together the pieces of the puzzle.

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