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What Does Vulnerability Even Mean?

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Insights, inspiration and opportunities to create a more vibrant and resilient future.

What Does Vulnerability Even Mean?

Lyndon Valicenti

This hurricane season, warmer seas and weaker wind shear have exacerbated activity in the Atlantic, and, as a result, put a fine point on our collective visualization of vulnerability. But what makes us vulnerable? Why some more than others? What does vulnerability even mean?

There are multiple definitions to vulnerability across a range of disciplines. So for the purposes of this post, we will focus on defining vulnerability with regard to climate change. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines vulnerability as “the degree to which geophysical, biological and socio-economic systems are susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse impacts of climate change.” They go on to characterize vulnerability as a function of a system’s exposure and sensitivity to a climatic hazard, as well as its capacity to adapt to adverse effects. 

Breaking this definition down a bit further, we can describe (1) exposure as the physical and geographical context which determines a system’s predisposition to be impacted by a climatic hazard (think about the risk of hurricanes in Houston vs. Chicago); and (2) sensitivity as the social, cultural, and economic contexts (think about, for example, an elderly person living alone vs. a young family on an active block). Taken together, vulnerable systems, communities, or groups are not only at risk because they are exposed to a hazard but also as a result of marginality, everyday patterns of social interaction and organization, and access to resources.

To plan for future climate change impacts, we must understand and address the many layers of what makes our cities and communities vulnerable. Moreover, we must remember that we are collectively only as strong and resilient as our most sensitive and exposed neighbors.