Vulnerability is the degree to which a population, area, or infrastructure system will be affected by climatic and environmental hazards. Here at the Center, we separate two kinds of vulnerability: social and geographic. Social vulnerability refers to how different social groups will be affected by climate change, whereas geographic vulnerability refers to the likelihood of occurrence for the physical aspect of climate change, like flooding or extreme heat.
Different places experience distinct physical aspects of climate change. For example, people living in floodplains or on low-lying coasts are exposed to much greater danger from flooding and sea level rise than people living inland or at higher elevations. Similarly, changes in rainfall patterns are projected to bring some areas more rain, while others will become drier. Geographic vulnerability is the degree to which a population, area, or infrastructure system will be subjected to climatic and environmental hazards, and is also what many organizations refer to as exposure to climate change.
Here are the factors we consider when assessing geographic vulnerability:
Areas vulnerable to regular flooding (current 100-year floodplain) Areas vulnerable to flooding under severe events (current 500-year floodplain) Tree canopy cover Impervious surfaces Localized flooding from rain events and CSO overflows (CSO: combined sewer overflows, in which heavy rain events overwhelm the sewer system, mixing stormwater and sewage and creating polluted water that gets sent directly into the river, and locally often backs-up around storm drains)
Just as different groups experience disparate impacts from climate change, they also possess different capacities for recovering from disruption. This concept, known as resilience, commonly refers to the ability to rebound from withstand chronic stresses, like flooding, heat, or even unemployment, without losing the ‘normal’ rhythm of life. This is what many organizations refer to as adaptive capacity. However, a more justice-oriented approach to resilience notes that maintaining ‘normal life’ also means maintaining the unequal social structures that create greater vulnerability in disadvantaged communities. Instead of making unequal structures resilient and therefore more lasting, resilience should focus on recovering from stresses in ways that enable people to reorganize social systems more equitably, ultimately building greater resilience for everyone.
All communities have infrastructure and social systems that increase their resilience to climate change. Many of these are simply the systems that already respond to natural hazards we’re familiar with, like floods or storms—for example, emergency shelters, search-and-rescue operations, or cooling centers. Generally, resilience assets are key services or structures that facilitate recovery in the event of an emergency, or mitigate chronic stresses like increasing heat. In our assessment of a town’s existing resilience assets, we include things as diverse as schools, emergency shelters, urgent care centers, cooling centers, grocery stores, and public transportation and microbility.
Climate change does not impact everyone equally. Due to structural and personal inequalities, like poverty or racism, different social groups experience greater and lesser levels of disruption from extreme weather, chronic heat and other climate change effects. This is also what many organizations refer to as sensitivity to climate change. Generally, communities of color with fewer socioeconomic resources and less access to services are more socially vulnerable, but there are many other factors that affect vulnerability — such as age, physical disabilities, and the strength of local social networks. Recognizing and addressing that populations who experience discrimination and structural inequality are also under greater threat from climate change is a major focus of the climate justice movement, and of the Center for Resilient Metro-Regions.
Our individual and collective actions to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will shape our future climate including temperature, precipitation, and extreme weather. GHG induced climate changes are already occurring and will continue in the future.
In the Northeast, these changes include rising average temperatures, longer, hotter, drier summers and shorter, warmer, rainier winters; more intense storms with longer dry streaks in between, meaning both more common inland and coastal flooding and more drought; and lastly, significant rises in sea levels that will further increase flooding.
All climate action plans should include a general assessment of climate trends. At the Center for Resilient Metro-Regions, we believe in balancing data: we need enough to make decisions, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming. Although we don’t include detailed technical climate projections, we support communities that want to know more about what might lie ahead. For more in-depth projections. For example, the Massachusetts Climate Action Tool provides summaries of anticipated and possible changes and impacts on ecosystems.