Definition of vulnerability

Legal assistance paper

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Date produced: 05/08/2010

1. Has ‘vulnerability’ been defined anywhere in international law?

2. Has ‘vulnerability’ been defined anywhere in the UNFCCC?

3. How have states chosen to define vulnerability?

1. ‘Vulnerability’ has not been explicitly defined in any international law instrument.

Nevertheless, an insight into how the term ‘vulnerability’ is understood internationally may be gained through international resolutions and publications produced by international organisations.

Resolution 10/4 of the United Nations Human Rights Council on ‘Human rights and Climate Change’, whilst not defining ‘vulnerability’ per se, provides an insight into those who might be considered most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. It provides in one of its recitals:

Recognizing that while these implications affect individuals and communities around the world, the effects of climate change will be felt most acutely by those segments of the population who are already in vulnerable situations owing to factors such as geography, poverty, gender, age, indigenous or minority status and disability.

With more specific regard to the meaning of ‘vulnerability’ in terms of nation-states, the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have defined the term, as set out below.

The IOM sets out the history of the term ‘vulnerability’ in climate change literature as originally meaning: the extent to which climate change may damage or harm a system and was deemed dependent not only on system sensitivity but also on its ability to adapt to new conditions.

They claim that the term has more recently become extended to include: social vulnerability to climate change in the absence of adaptation and mitigation measures, and residual vulnerability whereby adaptation and mitigative capacity have been exhausted.

The IPCC 2001 defined vulnerability as “the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. Vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate change and [varies according] to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity“.

In 2007, the IPCC refined its definition of ‘vulnerability’ to include “the degree to which geophysical, biological and socio-economic systems are susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse impacts of climate change“. The 2007 Report went on to note that there are a number of ways to classify vulnerability, including:

  • reference to the vulnerable system itself, e.g., coastal city;
  • the impact to this system, e.g., flooding of coastal cities; or
  • the mechanism causing these impacts, e.g., the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet.

2. ‘Vulnerability’ has not been explicitly defined in the UNFCCC.

Nevertheless, as “The Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(IPCC AR4) mentioned above notes at page 784, the meaning of ‘vulnerability’ includes those states which, because of their unique characteristics, are particularly susceptible to what the UNFCCC calls “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system” such that the objectives set out in Article 2 of the UNFCCC are not achieved. That is, that these states’

  • ecosystems cannot adapt naturally to climate change;
  • food production is threatened; and
  • economic development is not able to proceed in a sustainable manner.

Further, a sense of what was intended by the UNFCCC’s use of the word ‘vulnerable’ may also be gleaned from the recitals to that convention, one of which provides:

[r]ecognizing further that low-lying and other small island countries, countries with low-lying coastal, arid and semi-arid areas or areas liable to floods, drought and desertification, and developing countries with fragile mountainous ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.

Accordingly, this recital anticipates the land features and classes of states that might be classified as ‘vulnerable’.

Article 4.8 of the UNFCCC, moreover, sets out more detail as to the land features and classes of states that are ‘vulnerable’ to climate change, as it lists the following “developing country Parties”:

a) Small island countries;

b) Countries with low-lying coastal areas;

c) Countries with arid and semi-arid areas, forested areas and areas liable to forest decay;

d) Countries with areas prone to natural disasters;

e) Countries with areas liable to drought and desertification;

f) Countries with areas of high urban atmospheric pollution;

g) Countries with areas with fragile ecosystems, including mountainous ecosystems;

h) Countries whose economies are highly dependent on income generated from the production, processing and export, and/or on consumption of fossil fuels and associated energy-intensive products; and

i) Landlocked and transit countries.

 Finally, Article 4, paragraph 10 of the UNFCCC states that:

The Parties shall, in accordance with Article 10, take into consideration in the implementation of the commitments of the Convention the situation of Parties, particularly developing country Parties, with economies that are vulnerable to the adverse effects of the implementation of measures to respond to climate change. This applies notably to Parties with economies that are highly dependent on income generated from the production, processing and export, and/or consumption of fossil fuels and associated energy-intensive products and/or the use of fossil fuels for which such Parties have serious difficulties in switching to alternatives.

This article, then, provides that states whose economies are particularly dependent on fossil fuels may be particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of adapting to climate change. That is, to response measures.

The Ad Hoc Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action Under the Convention (AWG-LCA) adds to the potential classes of vulnerable states as Part A, paragraph 5, Chapter II, paragraphs 1 and 6 and Chapter III, paragraph 4 of the latest draft of the AWG-LCA negotiating text (9 July 2010) provide that the most vulnerable groups to the adverse effects of climate change are “least developed countries and small island developing States, and … countries in Africa affected by drought, desertification and floods.”

3. Various states have defined ‘vulnerability’, particularly in the context of their submissions to the AWG-LCA under the Convention.

In its submission, Australia defined ‘vulnerability’ to climate change as “a combination of (1) the exposure of individual countries to the physical impacts of climate change that differ greatly on a regional and local level; and (2) the institutional and financial capacity of individual countries to respond to those differing impacts.”

More generally, the United States signalled in its input to the negotiating text for consideration at the 6th session of the AWG-LCA that it agreed with the AWG-LCA’s classification of vulnerable states as including “the least developed countries, small island developing states and African countries prone to drought, desertification, and floods“.

In the Official Submission of the Bolivarian Republic Of Venezuela on Behalf of Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua; Alba – Ptt Member States, to the AWG-LCA, ‘environmental vulnerability’ was defined as “the ability of an environmental, social and economic system to cope with an impact or risk, taking into consideration environmental integrity and how it is affected by anthropogenic and natural threats.”

Finally, Columbia, in its submission to the AWG-LCA, defined “countries that are vulnerable to climate change” as “countries with distinctive climate patterns due to the specific relation between mountainous ecosystems and low lying coastal areas, in order to establish specific regional climate change information for adaptation planning in the short, medium and long term.” Further, in the context of vulnerable states adapting to climate change, Columbia noted that ‘vulnerability’ includes “social, economic, environmental and gender aspects“.