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​Understanding Risk

Risk from climate change is determined by the hazards associated with a changing and extreme climate and also the vulnerability of people, communities and assets to hazards.

Risk is social construct as, our culture, our social environment and our understanding and mental processes all combine to personally define what is risky. Emotions (or lack of them), can drive judgements and decisions making, sometimes amplifying risk or reducing risk perception.

Due to the lack of heightened emotions, long-term risks and their assessment can get lost in the everyday concerns of our current priorities and issues. Whereas fear, distress and panic can occur when faced with immediate events outside our control, that have or could have significant impacts of our life, our quality of life and our assets.

Climate change literature uses both the vulnerability and resilience concepts to frame adaptation. The vulnerability framework is made up of impacts, which itself, made up of people's​ exposure and sensitivity to hazards, in conjunction with the adaptive capacity of people and organisations to address the potential impacts. (see figure below)

Resilience is the ability of a system to anticipate, absorb, accommodate or recovery from the effects of a potentially hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner including through ensuring the preservation, restoration or improvement of its basic structures and functions.

While the vulnerability approach to risk governance is very much focused on agency – actors as either individuals, institution or organisations, the resilience approach provide a complementary systemic view of risk governance. It considers “multi-interacting agents and their relationships in and with complex social, ecological and geophysical systems”. 


Risk comprises of known and unknown hazards that, because of our circumstances, can have impact and consequences on our lives, our mental state, the environment and our assets.

Factors of risk

Risk is constructed from a hazard, the exposure to an hazardous event and the vulnerability of people, environment and assets

Climate change risk can be expressed as Vulnerability.

Vulnerability is the degree to which we, others, our assets or the environment are adversely affected by a event. "the propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected" (SREX p32)

Vulnerability results from current conditions. It develops as an almost innate response to our historical and the prevailing cultural, social, environmental, political and economic environments that affect our ability to cope or adapt.

The degree of vulnerability is also affected by communication - our ability to understand and process the information given. Vulnerability is also affected by the capacity we have to cope with the impacts from events.

Exposure and vulnerability increase with successive occurrences of events, especially if they occur within the period it would normally take to cope with the preceding events, or occur in the time period that impacts from early events are still felt. e.g. the continued stress and anxiety felt in the months and years as further earthquakes are felt.

Extreme events can precipitate or amplify exposure and vulnerability to other future events. E.g., Extreme drought in forests heightens the risk of fire due to dry fuel stocks from dead understorey.

Vulnerability can be understood by from its component parts (see the figure)

Vulnerability = f (Exposure, Sensitivity, Adaptive Capacity)

Exposure and sensitivity determine impacts, while adaptive capacity determines the ability to plan and respond.

Exposure is the presence (location) of people, livelihoods, environmental services and resources, infrastructure or economic, social or cultural assets in places that can be adversely affected by physical events and which, thereby, are subject to future harm, loss or damage (SREX, p32)

 Sea level risk will expose risk to houses with the hazard zone, the vulnerability of individual houses is determined by the proactive and adaptive approach to building structure than can reduce or minimise risk. Current prevailing and historical contexts mean that people have strong social (e.g. family) and economic (e.g. house ownership) reasons for not either reducing exposure or vulnerability. (SREX)

Sensitivity is the degree to which a system or species is affected, either adversely or beneficially, by climate variability or change. The effect may be direct e.g., a change in crop yield in response to a change in the mean, range, or variability of temperature or indirect e.g., damages caused by an increase in the frequency of coastal flooding due to sea level rise. (IPCC, AR 5, Glossary)

Impacts are the effects on natural and human systems. Impacts primarily refers to the effects on natural and human systems of climate change including extreme weather and climatic events.

Impacts refer to effects on lives, livelihoods, health, ecosystems, economies, societies, cultures, services, and infrastructure due to the interaction of climate changes or hazardous climate events occurring within a specific time period and the vulnerability of an exposed society or system. Impacts are also referred to as consequences and outcomes.

Climate impacts occur as:

  •  changes to the natural physical environment, 

  • changes to ecosystems

  • adverse effects on the human condition and assets.

     “Whether an extreme event results in extreme impacts on humans and social systems depends on the degree of exposure and vulnerability to that extreme, in addition to the magnitude of the physical event.  Extreme impacts on human systems can be associated with non-extreme events where vulnerability and exposure are high".

    (SREX p.42)

Impacts of hazardous events can be more devastating to some, and not so devastating to others, hence are socially constructed. The level of impact felt is based on the exposure and vulnerability of those affected and the in conjunction with the intensity of the event.

A hazard is an event that can occur into the future that can cause adverse consequences to those exposed and vulnerable, to infrastructure, to the environment and to situations.

Capacity are people’s characteristics that can reduce the risk of a particular hazard, e.g., having emergency supplies for earthquake preparedness, or business continuity plans.

Adaptive capacity is the deliberate activity to anticipate and transform the ‘now’ so that we can better cope in with some future realised hazards. Capacity can shorten impacts and recovery time.

Capacity is required to anticipate and reduce risk. Deliberative risk reduction planning and by reviewing previous events as learning's can help reduce risk for future events.

Capacity is required to respond, i.e. to react once an event has occurred. This has two strands 

(i) the action taking immediately after an event and

"There is high agreement and robust evidence that high vulnerability and exposure are mainly an outcome of skewed development processes, including those associated with environmental mismanagement, demographic changes, rapid and unplanned urbanisation, and the scarcity of livelihood options for the poor.” (SREX, p 70)

(ii) the planning required to ensure preparedness, early warning, and includes on-going communication on risks and active development of capacities to reduce vulnerability.

Capacity is required to recover and change to climate change through adaptations in both the physical environment but also in ways people are affected, including how business resume economic activities.

The ability to recover and adapt is driven or impeded by the physical and mental abilities, and the viability of recover based on financial and environmental constraints as well as political and societal will.

Other factors that can affect recovery is the debate on what recovery looks like, and whether there is opportunity to reconstruct in a way that reduced vulnerability even more, i.e., to improve beyond the previous conditions. This requires time to build consensus on what needs to be changed and how to achieve the new state.


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