Steps Toward Mapping Vulnerability to Climate Change

By Kirsten Dow

_Prompted by USA Today headlines like June 13's "The debate's over: Globe is warming," threats of climate change become increasingly important, and more attention is directed towards understanding vulnerability to impacts like heat waves, changing precipitation patterns, droughts and coastal flooding.Uncovering and mapping patterns of vulnerability help with planning climate adaptation strategies.Analyzing vulnerability, or the degree to which people or the environment may be harmed, requires integrating three types of information about society - environment interactions: patterns of exposure to hazards, such as cyclone tracks; sensitivity - the amount of damage expected to be caused by a particular event; and resilience - the capacity to recover.Geographers are bringing their spatial analytical capabilities and their long standing engagement with questions about human-environment interactions to bring important insights to this challenge.

Many climate adaptation endeavors begin with an effort to discern patterns of vulnerability.This focus comes from the expectation that the greatest ecological damages and human losses are likely to be concentrated in vulnerable areas.It also reflects recognition that the vulnerable are generally least responsible for climate change, least able to protect themselves, and so deserve particular consideration for funds to support adaptation (Dow, Kasperson and Bohn forthcoming). An increasing interest in the ability to identify "hotspots" of high vulnerability is developing as recent agreements, such as the Marrakech Accord of COP 7, within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), require development of strategies to allocate funding support for adaptation activities (Adger, Mathur and Dow 2003). But while the issue is pressing, our collective ability to identify these vulnerable people and places is still evolving (Kasperson et al.forthcoming).

The term "hotspot" is used in a wide variety of ways to define areas deemed critical, or at "high risk." Geographic information sciences have been central in many applications to topics such as biodiversity, food security and water scarcity.There have been many efforts to use GIS techniques to identify "hotspots," but fewer, beyond a local scale, that use an integrated vulnerability framework, one that captures the combination of the vulnerability of dimensions exposure to physical changes, sensitivity and resilience. Integrated vulnerability mapping for climate change is particularly difficult as it involves a number of potential hazards; relies on projections and scenarios that involve substantial uncertainty; involves patterns of impact that do not match national boundaries; and requires that data become available at a subnational level (Adger, Mathur and Dow 2003). Although a global assessment cannot capture the important household level information, given the future time frames involved, it must consider other global trends that may contribute to stresses on national resources and household well being, such as the loss of family members to HIV and impacts of economic globalization on livelihoods.

While the integration of climate change vulnerability remains a difficult problem, global assessment efforts have taken pieces of this challenge, ranging from focus on the impacts of sea level rise to potential impacts on agriculture.I would like to share examples of three major collaborative efforts involving partnerships among international development agencies which rely on GIS techniques in their efforts to identify the most vulnerable to contemporary climate related risks.The three examples include food insecurity, poverty mapping and natural disasters losses.They provide valuable insights into global vulnerabilities and represent the development of tools and databases we will have for the future.

Food insecurity. Research into the spatial aspects of food insecurity is a major area of concern for current well being that contributes to our understanding of vulnerability to climate changes. Climate change is expected to cause changes in temperature, rainfall and water availability in areas of marginal agriculture, many of which are currently prone to food insecurity and famine.The Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information Mapping Systems is a network of 28 organizations, of which 14 belong to the UN system.Member organizations, such as the World Food Program, rely on GIS and spatial analysis to answer key questions including:
  • Where are the areas of food insecurity/vulnerability?
  • What physical/human characteristics and features of the location are related to food insecurity?
  • What geographic characteristics of the area - compact/dispersed, close/far, accessible/remote - should be considered in development and aid strategies?
  • What are the key spatial relationships involved in the food security problems and their possible solutions: linkages between ports and roads, stocks and delivery points, barriers or administrative boundaries? (UNWFP 2005)
Poverty Mapping. A second major area of effort centers on poverty mapping.Here the goal is to provide information to decision makers in developing countries on the spatial distribution of poverty at a subnational level. While poverty is not the same as vulnerability, the lack of assets and access to resources makes it a key indicator of peoples' ability to cope with stresses climate change may bring, such as water scarcity or limited rain for crops.Understanding the distribution of poverty and related causative factors is an important contribution to understanding potential vulnerabilities to climate change.

Given that climate changes are likely to vary across a country, spatially delimited data is fundamental to refining our understanding of vulnerability patterns.But poverty is not yet regularly mapped at the subnational scale required to target resources to areas most in need.Poverty presented at a national scale masks tremendous differences within countries.Geographers have engaged in the challenges of developing these maps and comparing a variety of methods. Approaches range from those based on the more readily available community based averages to newer approaches based on smaller estimation techniques and household unit expenditures data (see Henninger and Snel 2002 (PDF) for examples from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Vietnam and other countries).

Natural Disaster Losses. The third example of major contributions comes from the natural disaster research community, which is engaged in a long-term effort to shift from a position of responding to natural disasters to preparedness and prevention.A recent collaborative effort mapping natural disaster hotspots globally has advanced analytical capabilities in combining information on multiple hazards with data on mortality and economic losses (Dilley et al. 2005 (PDF)).For the volcanic and earthquake hazards addressed, this historic pattern of risk and loss data makes disasters somewhat more foreseeable and offers opportunities to interrupt cycles of repetitive loss that threaten households, communities and sometimes nations.For climate related hazards, drought, flood, cyclones and landslides, the analysis is more cautionary as it depicts the potential for losses, but recognizes that changes to the climate may well alter the patterns we derive from analysis of recent history.

The desire for spatial information on vulnerability to guide the new challenge of climate change adaptation remains ahead of existing knowledge, data and skills in several areas.Geographers and colleagues are making major contributions to bridging that gap as they bring spatial analytical skills to bear on major issues of climate related vulnerabilities in the world today.In so doing, they are building the foundation for the types of analysis that will inform adaptation planning.

Adger, N., V.Mathur and K.Dow.2003.Climate Vulnerability Hotspots.SEI Poverty and Vulnerability Programme Adaptation Research Workshop Briefing Paper, Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm, Sweden, November 2003, 4pp.

Dilley, M et al. 2005, March.Natural Disaster Hotspots: A Global Risk Analysis.

Dow, K., R.E.Kasperson, and M.Bohn.Forthcoming "Exploring the Social Justice Implications of Adaptation." In Adger, al., eds. Fairness and Climate Change.Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

FIVIMS, Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information Mapping System.2005.

Henninger, N.and M.Snel. 2002.
"Where are the poor? Experiences with development and use of poverty maps." World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C.and UNEP/GRID Arendal, Norway.

Kasperson, R.E.and K Dow, Coordinating Lead Authors, Lead authors: E. Archer, D.Caceres, T.Downing, T.Elmqvist, C.Folke, G.Han, K. Iyengar, C.Vogel, K.Wilson, G.Ziervogel.In press "Vulnerable Peoples and Places," chapter 6 in Millennium Ecosystem Assessment: Conditions and Trends.Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

UNWFP, United Nations World Food Programme.2005.Vulnerability Analysis & Mapping.

Published Sunday, July 10th, 2005

Written by Kirsten Dow

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