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According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), climate vulnerability is defined as “… the degree to which geophysical, biological and socio-economic systems are susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse impacts of climate change”. Climate vulnerability is a complex and dynamic policy challenge, interacting with social, political, economic and ecological factors at global, regional, national and local scales. The interpretation of climate vulnerability therefore differs across sectors and contexts.
According to the IPCC, livelihood is (p. 798): “… the ensemble or opportunity set of capabilities, assets, and activities that are required to make a living”. Livelihoods in the rural areas of developing countries are often characterized by extreme poverty, social discrimination and a heavy dependence on natural resources. In the presence of climate change-related stresses, natural resource-dependent and climate-sensitive livelihood activities can become particularly threatened. This situation raises two key policy challenges: First, local resource use and distribution practices; and, second, the degree of livelihood uncertainty due to climate variability. Both of these broad challenges can be better understood when the influences of climate on locally-specific socio-economic and social-ecological conditions are studied together.
Despite the global agreement and active involvement and interventions of global leadership on climate change, sufficient advancements have not been made to meaningfully regulate the human drivers of climate change. Many climate stresses are known to result in persistent poverty, socio-economic disparity and continued loss of lives, livelihoods and resources, particularly among the rural smallholders of developing countries. While international efforts generally struggle to bring meaningful change, more locally-based adaptation measures, often emerging from the joint interventions of governments, non-government organizations and affected communities, are making significant contributions to adaptation in response to climate stresses. There is, however, a need to further understand the potential for public policy institutions to deliver more localized approaches to avoiding livelihood vulnerability to climate change impacts. Such understanding can be facilitated by more precise identification of context-specific knowledge gaps and livelihood vulnerability assessment. However, some of the most widely adopted approaches to vulnerability assessment, including those undertaken by the IPCC, have taken a ‘top-down’ approach. Under this framing, vulnerability is conceptualized as an outcome of climate change that can be offset by different adaptation measures. This outcome-based framing often uses different greenhouse gas emission scenarios to project changes to the climate system and then identify potential impacts on communities. A limitation of this is that it excludes context-specific socio-economic, political, cultural, behavioral and ecological variables that are relevant for adaptation policy.
Livelihood vulnerability reduction strategies need to be pragmatic, problem-oriented and participatory. Previous studies have suggested that policy making based on rigorous scientific evidence (e.g., climate modeling) is not sufficient for guiding vulnerability reduction strategies because of the multidimensionality of climate impacts. Furthermore, most studies that attempt to predict future climate challenges are limited in order to obtain precision, and are often not appropriate for the vulnerability reduction strategies ‘on the ground’. This is particularly the case in developing areas, where people are largely dependent on climate-sensitive natural resources for their livelihoods. Although different conceptual and analytical views have been developed and adopted to characterize and assess vulnerability, more effort is needed to compare and combine these views.
Livelihood vulnerability assessment generally views human and ecological systems as two inter-connected systems , and considers vulnerability to be the outcome of not only changing climate properties, but also of social, economic, institutional, political and technological processes. Focusing on the capacity of a household to anticipate and adapt with climate change impacts, this approach assumes that insufficient asset accumulation (in the present) limits the capacity of a household to respond to future climate impacts.
Climate change often brings uncertain and irreversible changes to both social and natural resource systems, and its impacts are adversely felt when it limits a household’s capacity to develop. Sen and Devereux  posit that household vulnerability depends on the availability of assets to which a household has ‘full rights’. Assets buffer risk, enhance recovery and, based on the level of possession, generate disproportionate outcomes for the households in a community. Hence, questions related to climate vulnerability are strongly connected to locally-embedded poverty, economic inequality and institutional structures. Poorer sections of a community are more prone to falling into poverty traps due to repeated climate stress events that limit their capacity to sustain livelihoods, thus making them the worst victims of climate change. Notably, access and entitlement to assets are governed by institutional processes that extend beyond those of the national government and its legal frameworks; indeed, the distribution of assets is highly connected to social norms and locally-embedded political systems. In a socially and economically unequal society, poorer people tend to have limited participation levels in both local and national institutional processes because of their insufficient social networks and low political power. Therefore, it is often argued that vulnerability reduction can be enhanced by securing social justice for, and the economic inclusion of, marginalized groups.
Livelihood sustainability is essential for adequate stocks and flows of food, income, shelter and other necessities . Chambers and Conway and Ellis have posited that rural livelihoods are environmentally sustainable when they maintain the assets on which they depend, and socially sustainable when they can cope with, and recover from, shocks. Livelihood sustainability can be better understood by characterizing livelihood assets, which include social, financial, human, manufactured and natural capitals—jointly known as the “capital assets”.
Putnam (p. 35) defines social capital as “the features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.” Social capital engenders collective actions that organize people in order to provide them access to, and use of, institutional resources . Bebbington and Pretty posit that different forms of social capital play a supportive role in gaining access to other assets and services (e.g., property rights, credit access, development incentives). For example, bonding (connecting community members with “strong ties”), bridging (connecting neighboring community members with dissimilar situations through “weak ties”), and linking (connecting community members with power and financial resources through “vertical ties”) social capitals can promote self-governance with regards to common resources, knowledge and information sharing, and cross-scalar institutional, political and economic interactions.
Human capital refers to the qualitative and quantitative availability of labor, skills, knowledge and experiences . Sen suggests that this capital widens opportunities for individuals to participate in institutional and market mechanisms and enhances their capability to choose favorable livelihood options. Since investing in generating human capital helps individuals diversify their livelihood opportunities in non-natural and wage-earning activities, it can also help enhance their production possibilities and their capacity to cope with risks and uncertainties.
Saving and credit opportunities (or their substitutes) that can be directly invested into production activities are regarded as financial capital. This asset can also be invested for the purpose of securing other assets like natural and manufactured capitals. For example, fishing communities in Bangladesh pay rental fees to the government in order to obtain wetland fishing rights. In addition, buying water from community-based irrigation systems during the drought season is a common practice in Tanzanian indigenous peasant communities. Rakodi posits that, when invested in production inputs (e.g., buying improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides for increasing agricultural productivity), financial capital can increase the productivity of other assets such as natural capital.
The equipment and infrastructure (e.g., roads, irrigation systems, embankments, etc.) used to maintain livelihood productivity are referred to as manufactured or physical capital. This type of asset can be owned and developed both socially and privately. The IPCC suggests that the poorest people in a society usually occupy marginal areas, which do not have adequate physical protection from climate change impacts. Hence, Rakodi suggests that investments in manufactured capital (e.g., transportation network building, irrigation channel development, etc.) should be aimed at protecting the poor from marginalization and external stresses. However, such investments need to be adjusted with local biophysical and ecological properties. In addition, the level of privately-owned manufactured capital may significantly contribute to economic inequality and social marginalization. For example, Heltberg and Tarp have found that farming households in Mozambique who possess privately-owned manufactured capital (e.g., a motorcycle, radio, television, mobile phone) have wider market participation opportunities for selling their products, which in turn affords them an economically advantageous position in the community. In addition, Heltberg et al.  note that the loss of this capital due to climate change impacts (e.g., destruction of houses from floods or cyclones) may exacerbate asset inequality and lead to a “poverty trap”, as the poorer sections of society usually lose more than the richer sections, and recovering lost assets tends to be more difficult for them due to their generally high cost of repair and replacement.
According to Rakodi (p. 316), natural capital is “made up of the natural resource stocks from which resource flows useful to livelihoods are derived, including land, water and other environmental resources.” Access to and ownership of natural resources is central to rural livelihood sustainability. Babbington suggests that households possessing high levels of natural capital have a marked advantage in terms of obtaining support from and influencing external agents (e.g., government institutions). Poorer households that do not own private natural resources (e.g., land, forest, fisheries) may rely on common or open access resources. However, locally-embedded political processes, conflicts over resource use, and government policy may limit the ability of poorer households to access such resources. Consequently, their insufficient capacity to cope with climate stresses, and the resultant loss of natural capital, may lead to recurrent vulnerability.
Chambers and Rakodi suggest that capital assets are connected to each other. However, rural households tend not to invest all their capital assets towards a single activity; instead, they often opt to distribute their assets in order to diversify their livelihood strategies through agricultural intensification (obtaining more output from a unit of land by investing more in production inputs), extensification (increasing land for cultivation) and migration to seek non-farming activities. Rakodi and Mphande suggest that the selection of strategies depends on three conditions: (i) the internal structure of a household (e.g., the ratio of employed to unemployed household members, timely availability of usable workforce, inheritance of parental livelihood activities, etc.); (ii) the geographic locations of the households (e.g., households located in urban areas are more privileged than those in rural areas due to a greater availability of opportunities); and (iii) the household’s connectivity to the wider market, as well as social and political systems (e.g., national political instability or agricultural market failures may reduce the availability of opportunities).
The Vulnerability Assessment (VA) Framework developed by Turner et al. considers vulnerability as being a function of context-specific exposure (intensity of climate stresses), sensitivity (propensity of a system to be affected by the stresses and adaptive capacity (capacity to respond to the stresses and derive positive outcomes). This framework can be applied across sectors following contextual modifications to ensure appropriate assessment variables (see, for example, Ford and Smit; Ebi et al.; Johnston and Williamson,; Wilhelmi and Hayden; Hughes et al.; Prosperi et al. ). The Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (SRL) framework conceptualizes vulnerability as the external stresses that can affect livelihood assets, while assets can also generate feedback responses to the stresses. Asset responses can be aided by external institutional and policy support (e.g., government, donor, non-government organizational supports) when needed for deriving favorable livelihood outcomes (e.g., increased income, agricultural productivity, health care system, food security, etc.). The following sections combines the VA and the SRL frameworks to present an analytic approach for assessing livelihood vulnerability. In so doing, the approach borrows three components (i.e., exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity) from the VA framework its structural outline, while the analytical variables are derived from the SRL framework.
IPCC defines exposure as the frequency, extent and nature of climatic extremes in a local setting. Ribot and Ford et al. have posited that social phenomena along with climatic variability are responsible for exposure, which suggests that both social and ecological components are important. However, exposure is most frequently studied using climate variables (e.g., temperature trend, precipitation pattern, frequency of extreme events like drought, flood, cyclone etc.) that are used to observe potential present and future risks—identified as the ‘outcome-based approach’ of exposure assessment. Engaging community perception-based assessment of stresses is also important with experiential interpretation being key to ‘context-specific’ rural livelihood vulnerability assessment. Such assessments can be influenced by local ecological properties, nature and use patterns of resources, observational and tacit knowledge of communities and the availability and seasonality of resources. Further, many regional climate models based on long-term climate data fail to adequately account for local climate properties, and thus, insufficiently inform understandings of more locally-observed impacts. Moreover, rural
livelihood adaptation decisions are made based on the experiential and subjective interpretation of climate change impacts. Importantly, exposure does not sufficiently indicate a system’s vulnerability to climate stresses. More specifically, a system, community, household or individual may be exposed but not vulnerable. A system can be said to be vulnerable only when it is exposed to stresses and reacts to them.
Sensitivity is defined as the degree to which a system is affected, either positively or negatively, by climate stresses, and along with exposure, determines the extent of vulnerability. Thus, Smit and Wandel and Ford et al.  identify exposure and sensitivity as two inextricably associated components of vulnerability; with this association explained as having “dose-response”interactions. Smit and Wandel  characterize this dose-response association stating that it depends on interactions between system characteristics and climate stimuli. Further, Füssel and Klein distribute climate stimuli and system characteristics (i.e., non-climatic factors) between exposure and sensitivity respectively. Characterizing access to, and use of, capital assets is considered key to understanding livelihood interactions with climate sensitivity. The underlying notion of such analysis is that the assets generate livelihood opportunities and diversities. However, the SRL framework also suggests that capital assets are organized, transformed and substituted in order to strategize livelihood portfolios , although this remains understudied in the livelihood vulnerability literature. Better understanding this property of capital assets is likely to be particularly important because asset organization ultimately determines feedback relationships with vulnerability, and may help with reducing negative livelihood sensitivity to climate impacts .
Adaptive capacity is the impetus that influences the ability of an individual, a household or a community to maintain their livelihoods in the face of climate stresses. Engle suggests that adaptive capacity modulates livelihood exposure and sensitivity to climate stress to help maintain and improve livelihood practices. Institutional and governance mechanisms that determine access to different capital assets are considered to be some of the most important determinants of adaptive capacity. Institutions are the mutually agreed upon rules that specify who gets access to a resource system (e.g., fisheries, irrigation, forest, agricultural resources etc.) and what actions are permitted or not. Institutions are developed both formally (as a coded form) and informally (as social norms and values) . Both forms of institutions play pivotal roles in determining adaptive capacity. For example, formal institutions provide the rational and legitimate mean of transection, and therefore, articulate the process of market integration within and across communities and scales (e.g., from a local level market to broader scale markets operating at regional, national and international levels). Thus, formal institutions have considerable influence on livelihood portfolios. Informal institutions, on the other hand, are locally embedded and often based on ‘thick bonding’ social networks. Informal institutions determine and reflect local level resource use politics, and emerge from local power structures, social systems, historical resource use practices, local knowledge systems, and the biophysical properties and resource stocks of a system. They therefore influence the distribution of resources and access to higher levels of market.