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11 May 2018

Climate change adaptation practice is stopping short: it’s time to work on real-life consequences

A new paper published by RESIN researchers in Sustainability calls on climate change practitioners to tackle the practical consequences of climate change: all they need to do is to shift their focus away from ‘vulnerability’ and onto ‘risk’. This shift can bring climate change adaptation practitioners up to date with the perspective of scientific community and intergovernmental organisations, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) moved from a vulnerability to a risk-based conception of climate change adaptation in 2012.

Those in the climate change adaptation community have largely used ‘vulnerability’, or the propensity to be affected by hazard, as their frame for understanding and responding to climate change. The authors write that, “by labeling people and places as ‘vulnerable’, a passive attitude may be adopted to climate change. Similarly, the negative framing overlooks the importance of local culture and underlying resilience, particularly in non-western nations. In short, a vulnerability frame can promote inaction.”

Risk assessments, on the other hand, focus much more on the real-life consequences of potential hazard and are carried out by important stakeholders for the climate change adaptation community, including the health sector, disaster risk managers, and even insurance companies. Risk assessments, the authors write, go beyond impact and vulnerability assessments and bring together different elements of the adaptation agenda to help identify which weather and climate risks are most pressing.

Paradoxically, following the advice of the research community would actually move cities and climate practitioners away from relying on the assessment and recommendations of researchers, and would encourage them to share knowledge and input with practitioners in other fields rather than looking to academia for answers. The authors write that “the risk-based concept can help to shift the focus from top-down, science-first vulnerability assessments to risk assessments that can better involve a range of stakeholders and can help to consider climate change as one risk along with many other challenges.” This makes considerations of future and often uncertain climate risk compatible with practical on-the-ground decision-making across municipal departments and across the city.

Risk assessment is used by a range of different industries, it is broad and makes room for inclusion of different stakeholders, and it is closer to relevant practice for climate adaptation practitioners, particularly disaster risk managers. Even more importantly, it focuses on real consequences, rather than the vague possibility of adverse affects, as is the case for vulnerability. So why is risk not already the first choice for the climate change adaptation community? 

Firstly, existing climate change assessment projects support a ‘science-first’ vulnerability focus rather than supporting a risk-based approach. Some tools provide information on too broad a scale, while cities need detailed information about small areas, or data coverage is inconsistent across European countries, or tools can only be useful for early planning stages, or they ignore the wider hinterland that cities might be embedded within.

The European Climate Risk Typology, developed as part of the RESIN project, aims to bridge this gap and help cities to move away from vulnerability and towards risk, reaping the benefits of better connections to other sectors and a better grip on real-life consequences. The Typology will help policymakers differentiate different risk elements and will help to show them which issues are driving risk in a particular situation. Climate adaptation practitioners interested in contributing to the development of the Typology are invited to join the RESIN Expert Input Group and to participate in a consultation process for the final development stage of this tool.

More information is available at