What is the present state of vulnerability research and how does it link with the fields of climate change adaptation and resilience? This paper reviews the research traditions of vulnerability to environmental change and the challenges for present vulnerability research in integrating with the domains of resilience and adaptation. It demonstrates that the fields of vulnerability, adaptation and resilience share many points of convergence and mutual challenges, pointing to common ground for learning between presently disparate traditions and communities.
Vulnerability is the state of susceptibility to harm from exposure to stresses associated with environmental and social change and from the absence of capacity to adapt. The concept of vulnerability has been a powerful analytical tool for describing states of powerlessness and marginality of both physical and social systems, and for guiding normative analysis. Current research emphasises multiple stressors and multiple pathways of vulnerability. It can potentially contribute to emerging resilience science through methods and conceptualisation of the stresses and processes that lead to threshold changes.
Evolving insights into the vulnerability of social-ecological systems show that vulnerability is influenced by the build-up or erosion of elements of social-ecological resilience. A review of vulnerability research points to a converging research agenda on the challenges faced by human environment interactions under stresses caused by global environmental and social change:
- Antecedent traditions include theories of vulnerability as entitlement failure and theories of hazard
- From its origins in disasters and entitlement theories, there is a newly-emerging synthesis of systems-oriented research attempting, through advances in methods, to understand vulnerability in a holistic manner in natural and social systems
- Vulnerability research in climate change has, in some ways, a unique distinction in being a widely accepted and used term and an integral part of its scientific agenda.
The antecedent research from all traditions contributes to framing vulnerability to global change in two ways. First, it demonstrates that institutions adapt to environmental risk. Given resources and favourable circumstances, this adaptation will ultimately reduce the impact of perturbations on marginal sections of society and enhance resilience. Second, it shows that there is a close interdependence between environmental risk, the political economy of development and the resilience of systems.
A comprehensive theory of vulnerability to global change therefore needs to account for a range of risks, thresholds and institutional responses and resources, given that vulnerability will manifest itself differently at different scales. If vulnerability research is to contribute to wider debates on resilience and adaptation, it faces significant challenges:
- Vulnerability is a dynamic phenomenon often in a continuous state of flux. It is not easily reduced to a single metric or easily quantifiable.
- Vulnerability persists due both to inherent unpredictability in some physical systems, but also because of ideological blocks to perceiving certain risks
- Vulnerable people and places are often excluded from access to power and resources; policy interventions need to recognise the plurality of types of governance systems that are used throughout the world to manage risks and promote resilience.