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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Vulnerability in Climate Change Research: A Comprehensive Conceptual Framework

  • Author(s): Füssel, Hans–Martin
  • et al.

Vulnerability is a central concept in climate change research as well as in a number of other research contexts. However, the term is conceptualized in many different ways by the various scientific communities that use it. Widespread disagreement about the appropriate definition of vulnerability is a frequent cause for misunderstanding in interdisciplinary research on vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. This paper attempts to ameliorate this confusion by presenting a comprehensive and consistent conceptual framework of vulnerability. This framework combines a terminology of vulnerable situations, a classification scheme for vulnerability factors, and a terminology of vulnerability concepts. It allows to clearly describe the vulnerability concept applied in a particular study, to identify the differences between different vulnerability concepts, and to link different concepts by highlighting the reasons for their differences. Applications in this paper include a characterization of the vulnerability concepts employed by the main schools of vulnerability research, a review of earlier attempts at developing conceptual frameworks of vulnerability, and the identification of the reasons why none of these earlier frameworks was able to resolve the confusion around the conceptualization of vulnerability. Finally, the conceptual framework is applied to discuss the disputed vulnerability definition given in the IPCC Third Assessment Report.

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