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Atmospheric Sciences & Global Change
Research Highlights

October 2005

How Vulnerable Are We To Climate Change?

Researchers at PNNL's Joint Global Climate Change Institute believe that to view the impacts of climate change in an integrated way, its potential effects on human beings must be considered. They 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, 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."

Collage of high resilience (developed, 1st-world) and high vulnerability (under-developed, 3rd-world) areas.

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.

Richard and his JGCRI 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," Richard 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."

For more info, see Breakthroughs magazine.

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