Answering Korea’s Call for a Climate Vulnerability Index

February 24, 2011

As the April climate talks in Bangkok approach, the Republic of Korea has taken a timely and courageous stance on allocating funds for adaptation assistance. On Wednesday, the Korean government urged the donor community to use scarce funds wisely by creating a climate vulnerability index to guide allocation. Kudos to our Korean colleagues – and we don’t have a moment to lose, because adaptation assistance funds are beginning to flow without any such guide.The Korean challenge is daunting, because the needed vulnerability index should incorporate four key principles:

  • Universal coverage that includes all developing countries, from the largest to the smallest. Since small island states are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, every effort should be made to include all of them.
  • Technical grounding in peer-reviewed research that has quantified the impacts of climate change. Our research at CGD has focused on three problems that are particularly threatening: extreme weather, sea level rise and agricultural productivity loss.
  • A focus on the risks faced by people. Much valuable scientific work has documented climate-related stresses. The Korean challenge requires us to go further, by quantifying the relationship between these stresses and the actual impacts on people who face them.
  • Decision orientation: As the Koreans have noted, the climate vulnerability index must serve as a practical guide for allocating scarce assistance funds. This means including three critical dimensions: the physical impacts of climate change; countries’ ability to cope with these impacts; and success factors related to the risks and costs of adaptation projects.
Fortunately, we saw this one coming. Anticipating the Korean challenge, we have just completed development of a prototype climate vulnerability index that satisfies all four of the requirements I’ve listed above. This month I’ve published the results in a CGD working paper, “Quantifying Vulnerability to Climate Change: Implications for Adaptation Assistance.” The paper explains the indicators we’ve developed and how they can assist allocation strategies. It also provides two concrete examples: assisting adaptation to sea level rise by 20 small, low-income island states; and assisting adaptation by all developing countries to the combined effects of extreme weather changes, sea-level rise, and reduced agricultural productivity.Many other allocation problems can be addressed with the downloadable database that accompanies the paper. It’s an Excel spreadsheet that provides vulnerability indicators for 233 states that range in size from China to Tokelau. The indicators incorporate all three dimensions that I highlighted above: physical impact risk, country vulnerability, and project success factors. Building on our published CGD research, I have included indicators for extreme weather, sea level rise and agricultural productivity loss. To facilitate applications, the database includes relevant identifiers for each country: area, population, income per capita, island status, small island status, coastal status, region, subregion, World Bank region, World Bank lending class and income class. I have also included standard ISO3 codes for linking to other databases.Since the focus is on developing countries, my inclusion of 233 states might seem excessive at first glance. The richest states are in the database alongside the poorest; the tiniest island states alongside the mainland giants, and current “rogue states” (however and by whomever defined) alongside the states currently favored by the major multilaterals and bilaterals.My reasons for this all-inclusive approach are straightforward and, I hope, persuasive: First, all states are affected by climate change, and it makes sense to provide a comprehensive view of the risks they all face. I hope that an inclusive approach will encourage citizens of all countries to consider their stakes in this global problem. Second, all states may well be candidates for assistance in the uncertain, undoubtedly-turbulent world that awaits if we continue to dither on controlling carbon emissions. Finally, I hope that the information in the paper and database will promote recognition that conventional divisions (North/South, rich/poor, etc.) can impede understanding in this context.We are all in this together, and dangerous climate change is already upon us.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.