Better rankings of climate vulnerability needed - experts

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 12 Apr 2013 08:43 GMT
Author: Chelsea Diana
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Which fares worse in a world of climate shifts, drought-ridden Burundi or flood-prone Bangladesh?

As poorer countries are hit by the effects of climate change and their resources to respond remain inadequate, richer nations have promised $100 billion a year by 2020 to help them adapt to the impacts and try to curb their own climate-changing emissions. But experts say dividing up the money requires answering one very tough question: Who is the most vulnerable to climate change?

Given the urgency to act and the lack of international consensus, developing countries and negotiators are pushing to create an index of the most vulnerable. Such a list would prioritise who could tap what are expected to become multi-billion-dollar reserves, such as the Green Climate Fund.

As climate change accelerates, experts say, increasing drought, flooding and sea-level rise, and stronger storms and other extreme weather events are a few of the adversaries developing – and developed – countries are facing. In poorer countries with fast-growing populations, weak economies and inadequate infrastructure, help is particularly crucial, experts say.

So, which is the most needy of the most needy? Policy analysts and scientists said the question is complicated, riddled with scientific and political disputes.

“It’s all in the eye of the beholder and the beholder is subjective,” said Saleem Huq, head of the climate change group at the International Institute for Environmental Development (IIED).

Is Mozambique more vulnerable than the Solomon Islands because more people will be affected? Or are the Solomon Islands more vulnerable because more of the country’s land is unprotected?

What about China? It is considered a developing country under the Kyoto Protocol, has still high but declining levels of poverty and expects to suffer a range of ill effects from climate change. At the same time, it is one of the world’s increasingly dominant economies, with a GDP of $7.3 billion in 2011. Should it have prioritized access to climate aid?  

And how can experts weigh the impact of creeping disasters like drought or sea level rise versus immediate ones such as flooding or worsening storms?

“It’s too much of comparing apples to oranges in assessing the difference between the affects of hurricanes and cyclones and drought,” Huq said to AlertNet. “These are different impacts with different affects in different areas.”


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) commits developed countries to financially support developing countries that are “particularly vulnerable” to climate change.

According to the U.N., the least developed countries (LDCs), the small island developing states (SIDS) and the countries of Africa are considered to be “particularly vulnerable” to the effects of climate change.

That term, created during the first UNFCCC gathering in 1992, aimed to prioritise what countries would receive the most climate aid. But, what does “particularly vulnerable” mean?

The truth is, “(we) cannot make a decision for what makes a country ‘particularly’ vulnerable,” said Richard Klein, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute. “It’s hard to make a consensus on a presumed vulnerability.”  

Klein said it is possible to rank countries by various assessments of vulnerability, but almost all lists would be different based on different political and scientific perceptions.

“The assessment of vulnerability and allocation of funding are linked, but there are many ways to track vulnerability, it’s not an exact science,” Klein said during an interview with AlertNet.

“It’s not like you can prove one country is more vulnerable than this country,” he said. “It depends on what presumptions, what things, you take into account.”

Any resulting ranking, he said, would be contested by countries that are not considered particularly vulnerable and therefore would not be have priority for climate aid.

“(We) could come up with some number for each country,” Klein said. “The problem is that at some point the first 10 or the first 20 considered to be particularly vulnerable are going to receive the aid and the first country under that threshold is going to say, ‘Well you didn’t look at this, you didn’t look at that.’”

Despite a South Korean proposal to form a vulnerability index during climate talks in April 2011, no such U.N. rankings exist. But, some companies, such as the U.K. risk firm Maplecroft and the Global Adaptation Institute (GAIN), an environmental organization, are trying.

The current system of distributing money for climate aid is based on proposals written by countries asking for aid and demonstrating their ability to carry out the proposed project. That means some countries are more successful at getting funds than others, Klein said.

“The challenge that many are facing in making decisions (is that) most countries where adaptation money is more needed aren’t the countries where the money would be used where it is most needed,” Klein said.

Countries that are extremely vulnerable and in need of aid, such as Somalia, do not have the means to carry out projects, so are not distributed money, he said.

Somalia “is a failed state,” Klein said. “How would you expect it to make use of money to build up government groups that aren’t there?”


To help businesses, governments and NGOs figure out where investment would be most effective, Maplecroft creates annual maps and indexes of what it sees as the most vulnerable countries and cities to climate change.

The information is useful to industries that have direct operations, supply chains or investments in areas where climate change may have disastrous effects. The index measures vulnerability based on exposure to extreme weather events, sensitivity to environmental changes, and the economic and political capacity to adapt.

“The approach we use does incorporate both the physical promises and the social and political and economic promises,” said Helen Hodge, an associate director at Maplecroft.

In 2013, Dhaka, Bangladesh; Manila, the Philippines; Bangkok, Thailand; Yangon, Burma; and Jakarta, Indonesia, rounded out the top five cities most vulnerable to climate change, according to a Maplecroft press release.

“It’s important to take into consideration that perception of risk is only one measure of climate change,” Hodge said to AlertNet. Managing and mitigating risks effectively requires taking into account the wider country context, she said.

GAIN developed a similar ranking system, accessible for free, based on open data about countries’ exposure to weather events and readiness to deal with those threats.

The GAIN index aims to encourage private business investment in climate aid – something that is crucial to meeting that $100 billion a year goal, experts say - and greater public involvement in building up developing countries’ infrastructure, said Bruno Sánchez-Andrade Nuño, the director of science and technology at GAIN.

“There is a lot of money that is needed and out of that only roughly 1 percent is available through public funds, like the World Bank,” Nuño said. “We [GAIN] believe the private center could close that gap.”

The GAIN index ranks Sudan. Burundi, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea as the states least ready to adapt to the affects of climate change.

While GAIN’s interpretation of vulnerability differs from Maplecroft’s, the lists both rank African and Asian countries as some of the most vulnerable.

To resolve these discrepancies, Nuño said an international consensus of vulnerability – based on extreme weather events, capacity and willingness to respond – could help, but he does not know how the list would be developed.   


In 2001 during the seventh United Nations Framework Convention on UNFCCC in Marrakesh the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) was established. The fund aims to address and finance needs for LDCs under the climate convention and prioritizes preparation and implementation of climate change adaptation strategies.  

 The 49 recognized LDCs have equal access to the fund with projects approved on a rolling basis. As of 2012, $346 million in voluntary donations to the fund had been approved to go toward adaptation projects for the LDCs, reaching 20 million people and making the LDCF the largest portfolio of such projects in the developing world.

From Burundi to Bangladesh, the fund addresses the needs of the LDC countries who often are attempting to cope with low income levels, weak human assets and high economic vulnerability, all of which increase their overall vulnerability to climate impacts.

As of September 2012, 77 projects have been funded with about 30 percent focused on food security and agriculture, 24 percent on early warning systems and 17 percent on water resources.

But donations to the LDCF are on a voluntary basis and only 19 countries have contributed, including the United Kingdom., Germany and Canada. The United States and Australia have said they will not donate until the LDCs are held to the same emissions cuts as developed countries.


While most climate change discussions focuses on what countries are the most vulnerable, there is less formal discussion about which people and groups within countries are the most exposed to climate change.

“Despite repeated calls, most UNFCCC mechanisms do not explicitly prioritise the most vulnerable groups/people,” said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre during an AlertNet and IIED-hosted online chat this month about how the most vulnerable can adapt to climate change.

Research shows women are more vulnerable, as they constitute more of the world’s poor and are more dependable on natural resources affected by climate change. Mortality rates during extreme weather events are often greater for women than men, as women face many social, economic and other barriers that limit their capacity to protect themselves.

Social norms may make it difficult for women to flee disasters. Many women stay with elderly relatives and children during disasters, cannot leave without a male relative’s consent, wear restrictive clothing that can hinder escape or simply never learned to swim.

A 2006 study of 141 natural disasters by the London School of Economics found physical differences between men and women do not account for the mortality gap. Instead, it is economic and social differences that produce the different rates of mortality.

To address this and other problems, the UNFCCC is looking to increase participation from women delegates in climate negotiations. In 2010, they accounted for only 12 to 15 percent of the head delegations for countries and 30 percent of all party delegates.

“Promoting gender equality in the climate talks is far bigger than just increasing the numbers of women involved,” said Agnes Otzelberger, the global gender advisor of CARE, during the AlertNet hosted debate. “Women and men worldwide, particularly those who will be picking up the largest share of the human cost of climate change, deserve fair decisions from the UN climate talks and other decisions on climate change.”

At the Doha climate conference in December 2012, ministers adopted an agreement calling for greater gender balance at future conferences, with governments promising to add more female delegates. But more needs to be done to bring in women’s views and understand their needs, experts say.

“We cannot develop [adaptation plans] in nice air-conditioned offices far away from the women who make a living off the land and think that we are going to come with ready-packaged solutions,” said Yvette Abrahams, a researcher with Gender CC and a member of Women for Climate Justice in South Africa, during the AlertNet-hosted debate.

These issues and more will be discussed in further detail during the seventh International Conference on Community-Based Adaptation to Climate Change in Dhaka from April 18 to 25.

For now Huq said some kind of vulnerability index should be made within the G77, a UN coalition that includes 132 developing countries and China, and then presented to the United Nations.

Huq is not a fan of using quantitative vulnerability indices to determine who should get priority funding, saying a list complied by diplomatic conversation rather than some “objective” criteria needs to be developed.

“There’s no one-side-wins-all methodology,” Huq said. “These are complex issues, It’s not that easy.”

Chelsea Diana is an AlertNet Climate intern.