There’s been much study of rural communities, and the socio-economic and political factors behind vulnerability. That said, there are still shortcomings in analysing some social factors as well as drivers that work across scales. For example, about two-thirds of the studies reviewed did not critically examine the socio-political drivers causing vulnerability to differ within communities. And less than half of the studies considered the influence of cross-scale factors such as linkages between local and globalized markets, despite broad consensus that vulnerability depends on processes operating at a range of scales.

"There needs to be more focus on the nitty gritty," McDowell told environmentalresearchweb. Socio-economic assessments of sea-level-rise, for example, often use census data and maps to assess the vulnerability of inhabitants who could be inundated with water. Typically the results show that poorer parts of town are more affected, but this is unlikely to reveal who within that population is most vulnerable. Knowing that level of detail is essential for targeting assistance, McDowell says.

So-called first-generation vulnerability research considers vulnerability to be a direct outcome of climate stressors. "Second generation" research, on the other hand, focuses on the socio-economic, cultural and political factors that affect experiences of environmental change. Although McDowell says the review showed a "reassuring" trend toward more second-generation-type studies, he believes there is still much scope for greater collaboration between researchers and communities, increasing the relevance of vulnerability research for decision-making, and for longer-term analysis. There is also a place for evaluating the opportunities that climate change may bring. "Understanding the causes and distribution of harm and benefits should be a larger part of research going forward," McDowell added.

Climate change affects human and ecological systems, but that’s something that most vulnerability researchers are not engaging with at the moment. For example, while building dams in response to climate-related changes in river flow may lessen impacts on people, altering flows can lead to dramatic effects on aquatic and riverside ecosystems. In the longer term this may end up harming people who depend on the environment for their livelihoods. "To avoid ‘mal-adaptation’, it is critical that more integrative approaches to the study of climate change impacts underpin adaptation planning," McDowell said.

Key themes

McDowell and colleagues James Ford of McGill University and Julie Jones of Simon Fraser University, also in Canada, performed the review as there’d been a proliferation of community-level work but no systematic effort since the early 2000s to synthesize developments. They wanted to get a sense of how research into climate change vulnerability is evolving, and provide a snapshot that will be replicable in 5–10 years’ time.

The team identified key themes in research into vulnerability to climate change at the community level in English language peer-reviewed publications from the last 25 years. The researchers filled in a standardized questionnaire for 274 papers to identify key information, spending about six months reviewing articles and analysing data.

Whilst putting together the review, McDowell and colleagues became concerned about the number of first authors from developed countries when it is populations in developing countries that tend to be most affected by climate change. The geographic distribution of research sites was also uneven, with much in North America, Africa, and South/Central Asia but relatively little in other regions.

The team hopes the review will stimulate discussion and research that fills in some of the gaps identified. In his current research, McDowell is comparing vulnerability and adaptation to glacio-hydrological change in the mountains of the eastern Himalayas, Peruvian Andes and southeast Alaska.

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