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Assessing risks and vulnerabilities to climate change

Assessing risks and vulnerability to climate change

This step aims to develop a comprehensive picture of current and future climate change risks as well as further stress factors to be expected. It will also help identify opportunities arising from climate change, and provide information on how to assess adaptive capacity and cope with uncertainty. Adaptation cannot be planned solely on the basis of climate projections; information on risk and vulnerabilities is also needed to determine how the climate interacts with socio-economic issues. European-wide and national projects have created socio-economic and climate scenarios across a variety of sectors and developed projections for different climate and socio-economic variables. These projections, when combined, provide an indication of future climate change impacts, risks and vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability assessment is more than measuring potential harm using information about climate impacts. It includes an assessment of the region's or sector's ability to adapt.

The assessment of vulnerability to existing climate variability and extremes is a necessary starting point for any adaptation. Assessments of past weather events, for example heavy rain or extreme temperatures, and analysis of consequent responses can help provide insights into successful or ineffective initiatives. Lessons learned from such exercises can be used as a basis for designing climate change adaptation policies. In order to perform a sound vulnerability assessment, much information has to be collected and assessed. This includes analysis of past and current weather trends, projected changes in climatic conditions, identifying sensitivity to those anticipated changes and estimating adaptive capacity in terms of available financial recourses, human resources and adaptation options.

In addition to risk and vulnerability, positive impacts (opportunities) can result from future climate change. Agriculture and forestry may benefit from a longer growing season, for example. Conditions are likely to be created which suit new business opportunities and innovation and governments may respond with targeted pioneer support.

Vulnerability guidance has been developed for different purposes and user groups. Lessons differ and no agreed methodology currently exists. Recommendations from existing assessments include:

  • Make a clear distinction between the academic and the political aspects of the assessment.

  • Involve the potential users in all methodological and analytical choices that will affect the outcome.

  • Keep vulnerability indicators simple, transparent and easy to communicate.

    Provide users with all available information, but let them decide what to use and how it should be weighed.

  • Be explicit about the purpose of the vulnerability assessment and how it will be used, for example:

    • To identify hotspots for further detailed analysis
    • To raise awareness of the problem causing vulnerability
    • To improve understanding of the dynamics of a system
    • To inform plans and decisions to reduce vulnerability
    • To compare and prioritise vulnerable systems or locations
  • A vulnerability assessment is a step towards adaptation planning that can be time consuming. Other steps, like the assessment and implementation of adaptation options, will also require resources and should not be overlooked.