The Inequality of Vulnerability: Examining the Relationship between Inequality and Climate Change Vulnerability

Bachelor Thesis, 2014

50 Pages, Grade: 72


Table of Contents


Literature Review
Inequality and Climate Change Vulnerability


Case Study 1: Papua New Guinea
Society, Economy and the Environment in Papua
New Guinea
Inequality, Growth and Poverty in Papua New Guinea
Formal Social Security
Informal Social Security Systems
Conclusion: Papua New Guinea

Case Study 2: Tonga
Society, Economy and the Environment in Tonga
Food Security and Import Dependency
The Role of Remittances: Labor Mobility and Resilience
Urbanization, Inequality and Climate Change
Conclusion: Tonga



‘[N]ature is not in itself catastrophic. The catastrophic character is only revealed within the field of reference of the society affected’ (Beck, 2010: 171)


2013 was a year of climate change. A plethora of events reinforced the notion that climate change is a phenomenon which, contrary to the discourse it is couched in at times, is already underway. The world witnessed massive floods in Central Europe, increasing drought in California, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines as well as extreme heat waves in coastal China. Although none of these events can be connected with climate change individually, collectively they drive home the notion that climate change is not a process taking place in the future, but indeed is very much a force to contend with in the present. According to some estimates, climate-related disaster damages globally grew from 50 billion dollars a year in the 1980s to just under 200 billion dollars in the 2000s (World Bank, 18 November 2013). In addition, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million for the first time in modern history (Montaigne, 14 May 2013).

By now, it is generally accepted by the scientific community that climate change is happening, is anthropogenic, and will have negative implications globally, not only in environmental terms but also in economic and social terms. Hence, climate change emerges as a problem that, due to its global nature, faces individuals and countries wherever they may be. Yet, are there distinctions to be made? Clearly, climate change will not have uniform impacts across geographical regions and different societies. In essence, this is the question this study will grapple with. In particular, it will deal with the question whether one can discern a relationship between climate change and economic inequality as environmental and societal phenomena, respectively. In order to do so, this study will investigate how people and communities are affected by levels of inequality with regard to their vulnerability to climate change. Specifically, the study will focus on Papua New Guinea and Tonga, two countries which are generally taken to be some of the most exposed and vulnerable to the process of climate change.

Inequality as a topic of enquiry has become frequently salient. In recent years, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has published a number of studies focusing on the economic ramifications of inequality (Ostry et al., 2014, Berg and Ostry, 2011). Barring a sudden change of IMF opinion, this suggests that the institution is responding to a recent development that has seen inequality steadily rising as an issue of concern in public discourse. Following the financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent instability of the world economy, inequality has moved to the forefront in academia, politics, economics and in popular literature. Academics such as Stiglitz (2012) as well as Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) have published works of popular literature focusing on the adverse consequences inequality can have for societies. In international development discussions, a number of stakeholders demand that addressing inequalities should constitute one of the essential building blocks of a post-2015 development agenda (ECE et al., 2012). In his second term, US President Obama has focused on addressing inequality as one of his second term’s policy priorities, at least in rhetoric (‘State of the Union’, 28 January 2014). Thus, inequality is crucial when it comes to how we think about the future shape of the world.

In order to clarify the relationship between climate change vulnerability and inequality, this study will examine how these social conditions are mediated by the forces of globalization. Given that both climate change as well as inequality are phenomena which are in part caused by the process of globalization, and therefore shaped by it, such an analysis will be helpful in identifying the precise ways in which climate change vulnerability is facilitated or mitigated. In trying to understand the interrelationship between climate change vulnerability, inequality and globalization, the study will be based on a case-study approach. Following a review of the literature on vulnerability and inequality, two case studies of Papua New Guinea and Tonga will highlight a number of aspects pertinent to the fundamental issues addressed by this study. The study of Papua New Guinea highlights the role played by natural resources in the economy, and pays particular attention to the interplay between formal and informal social security systems, while the section on Tonga focuses on import dependency, remittances and problems associated with urbanization.

This paper argues that understanding the role played by inequality is crucial in evaluating climate change vulnerability. Not only does inequality exacerbate poverty in the intermediate sense, but also creates conditions which make it more difficult to implement measures to increase resilience in the face of climate change. These challenges are mediated by globalization by virtue of the fact that it facilitates inequality, but also fosters social processes which exacerbate the negative effects of inequality. Therefore, awareness of inequality as well as globalization and their mutual relationship is critical in order to understand climate change vulnerability.

Literature Review


Research on climate change in the natural sciences is comprehensive and well-established. Consensus exists among the vast majority of renowned scientists with regard to the existence of the phenomenon as such, as well as its anthropogenic nature (Min et al., 2011; Pall et al., 2011). Where research is still expanding knowledge significantly is with regard to the question what the likely effects of climate change will be. In this context, research on the consequences of climate change has produced a number of adverse scenarios. In particular, the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is likely to increase. Intense precipitation (Diffenbaugh et al., 2005; Trapp et al., 2007), greater occurrences of storms and hurricanes (Emanuel, 2005) and more intense heat waves (Battisti and Naylor, 2009; Diffenbaugh et al., 2007) are all included as phenomena more probable to occur in a future characterized by climate change. Thus, in many cases it is the increased variability of weather events rather than a steady warming of the planet that leads to the most worrying threats. Crucially for small island countries, a long-term consequence associated with climate change is considerable sea-level rise (Church and White, 2011; Schaeffer et al., 2012).

In social science research, scholarship has focused on the concept of vulnerability, which has been applied with increased frequency to discussions of the sociology and political economy of climate change. Yet, it does not have its origins in climate change literature, but rather in investigations of the social dimensions of natural hazards and food insecurity (Dilley and Boudreau, 2001). Fundamentally, it builds on the notion suggested by O’Keefe and colleagues that, for the purposes of social scientific enquiry, ‘without people, there is no disaster’ (1976: 566). Hence, O’Keefe and colleagues argue that natural disasters are more a function of socio-economic processes rather than environmental phenomena. This emphasis is also reflected by Gallopin and colleagues (2001), whose conception of the socio-ecological system highlights the interaction between societal and ecological subsystems. It is also consistent with Cardona’s suggestion of the social dimension of risk (2004: 44), which underscores the importance of societies’ structures. With regard to food insecurity, Bohle and colleagues make the case that vulnerability to food insecurity is indeed socially differentiated, with different socio-economic segments of the population facing different risks (1994). While indicating that vulnerability as a concept has roots within different disciplines, Gallopin (2006: 293) also highlights that this may be one of the reasons why the concept’s meaning is contested and can take on different functions depending on the subject of study. However, Kasperson and colleagues conclude that vulnerability ‘appears to be emerging as the most common term in […] discussions of the differential susceptibility of social groups and individuals to losses from environmental change’ (1995: 11).

Before continuing, however, it has to be clarified what vulnerability refers to. Both Adger (2006) and Cutter (2006: 72) as well as McCarthy and colleagues (2001: 21) maintain that vulnerability fundamentally encompasses three features; exposure, sensitivity, and ability to cope with or adapt to risk. Chambers offers a basic definition of vulnerability as ‘exposure to contingencies and stress, and difficulty coping with them’ (1989: 1). Yet, a broad-based definition of this sort lacks clarity and provides little guidance as to who may be vulnerable under which conditions. Bohle and colleagues define vulnerability as ‘an aggregate measure of human welfare that integrates environmental, social, economic and political exposure in a range of potential harmful perturbations’ (1994: 37-38). This definition underscores that vulnerability is indeed a function of different processes, some of which may be quite distinct from the natural environment as such. Emphasizing the transformative nature of vulnerability, Adger defines it as ‘the exposure of groups or individuals to stress as a result of social and environmental change’ (1999: 249). Thus, vulnerability can be identified most clearly in situations of change or transformation, when individuals or communities are disrupted or forced to make changes to their livelihoods and lifestyles. Finally, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report defines vulnerability ‘as the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes’ (IPCC, 2007: 883).

What becomes clear is that vulnerability is very much subject to the ability of those who are exposed to a threat to adapt to a given situation. Climate change would not emerge as a threat if everyone were able to adapt instantly at minimal cost. As a constitutive element of vulnerability, adaptive capacity is subject to some of the same determinants. Yet, it has an even wider application with roots in evolutionary biology. Adaptation can be traced through the emergence of three lines of inquiry. Within climate change literature, it builds on research conducted on natural hazards (Kasperson and Kasperson, 1996), food insecurity (Ribot et al., 1996) as well as optimal mitigation scenarios (Glantz, 2003: 184).

Gallopin and colleagues (1989) refer to adaptive capacity as the capacity of individuals or collectives to increase or sustain quality of life in a given environment. Walker and colleagues (2004) offer a similarly general definition of adaptive capacity as the human capacity to manage resilience. Thus, adaptation can take on many forms. It is important for the purposes of this study to note that the ways in which adaptation can take place are not limited to wholesale solutions such as migration to eliminate exposure or poverty alleviation through economic growth. Rather, adaptation happens in communities affected by climate change, and importantly is subject to the political process, which includes decisions over how resources are distributed and who is structurally privileged in building adaptive capacity. Therefore, Smit and Wandel argue that ‘adaptive capacity of individuals or households is shaped and constrained by social, political and economic processes at higher scales’ (2006: 284).

For the purposes of this study, what is most interesting is how different segments of society display different levels of vulnerability to climate change and its related events. Previous research has demonstrated that, when compared globally, developed countries display a low degree of vulnerability with generally high adaptive capacity (Tol et al., 2004). In general, Mendelsohn and colleagues (2006) argue that poor countries are likely to bear the bulk of climate change-related impacts. Toya and Skidmore (2007) have found that wealthier countries have suffered fewer disaster-related deaths on average than poor countries. These findings are echoed by Ward and Shively (2011), who identify lower social vulnerability to climate-related disasters in wealthy countries, giving credence to the intuition that wealth and the presence of developed political institutions should be correlated with lower vulnerability to environmental hazards. With particular relevance to island states, Füssel (2010) notes that the population of poor coastal countries face larger risks from sea-level rise than that in wealthy coastal countries. White and colleagues (2004) as well as Wisner and colleagues (2004: 4-6) hypothesize that the low degree of social protection measures, higher levels of poverty and vulnerability to hazards may have a cyclical relationship in developing countries. Hence, these studies suggest that there is an international inequality of vulnerability which pertains to the differences in economic and social development between high-income and low-income countries. Moreover, Tol and colleagues conclude that climate change and related global warming essentially constitutes a ‘transfer from poor to rich’ (2004: 270).

In addition to these cross-country studies, fewer studies have been produced on the differentiation of vulnerability within countries. Burton (1997) highlights that an inequitable distribution of resources can lead to increasing vulnerability. Adger notes that ‘vulnerability […] is differentiated between and within groups through their institutional and economic position’ (1999: 251). This suggests that some groups may not only be vulnerable due to lack of income per se, but more specifically due to the same structures - institutional and economic - which lead to their poverty. Adger further refines this aspect by differentiating vulnerability into individual and collective categories. Thus, individual vulnerability is based on access to resources and the diversity of income sources as well as social status, while collective vulnerability is generated by institutional and market structures (Adger, 1999: 252). Hence, it matters what institutional forms exist in both political and economic terms, whether social security schemes exist or to what degree people can access infrastructure on equal terms. This analysis is supported by Bohle and colleagues, who propose a three-step causal structure of vulnerability (1994: 40). Thus, vulnerability is caused by the interaction between human ecology, entitlement structures and political economy factors.


Research on theories of inequality has experienced a significant boost in recent years. A number of studies have tried to investigate the effects economic inequality can entail. Broadly, this is based on findings that income inequality in a number of countries has grown since the early 1980s (Atkinson and Piketty, 2007; Salverda et al., 2009). Hence, this study will draw on previous work in the realm of theories of inequality in order to illuminate the ways in which vulnerability to climate change and income inequality are related in the case studies.

In general, studies on inequality hypothesize two strands of explanation with regard to why certain levels of income inequality may have adverse consequences for societies. Van de Werfhorst and Salverda (2012) distinguish these into the psychosocial approach and the neo-material approach. While the former represents a more contemporary perspective, drawing on sociology and psychology, the latter can be seen to be based on more classical Marxist theories about access to material resources. The psychosocial approach is most notably associated with research conducted by Wilkinson and Pickett (2009), who link income inequality with a number of harmful societal consequences, such as higher crime rates and lower public health levels. In essence, a psychosocial approach to inequality rests upon the notion that ‘income inequality is strongly and systematically related to the character of social relations and the nature of the social environment in a society’ (Wilkinson, 1999: 526). In other words, what this means is that one should not only look at inequality in terms of the distribution of material resources, but also how it changes non-material social relations. Thus, outcomes can be adverse due to the mere social differences being created by an unequal society.

Layte (2011) further differentiates the psychosocial approach into the categories of social capital, which borrows from Putnam (1993; 2000), and psychological ramifications, such as stress or differences of status. Hence, there is an analogy here with Adger’s differentiation of social vulnerability into individual and collective categories (1999). While the psychological consequences of inequality can be said to impinge primarily on individuals, the social capital dimension is more clearly a collective category which affects society as a whole. This is useful when theories of inequality are applied to an investigation of climate change vulnerability.

With regard to the psychological dimension, Lancee and Van de Werfhorst (2012) as well as Neckerman and Torche (2007) have argued that income inequality can lead to a perceived status loss among individuals, which in turn may be associated with feelings of stress. While these findings may also reveal something about contemporary concepts of success and life satisfaction, they do point to outcomes which render segments of the population less well-off in psychological terms. However, it should be noted that the association of income inequality with such psychological is contested, as some argue that factors such as status and stress should not be used in an assessment of income inequality and its implications (Goldthorpe, 2010).

In social terms, or what one might call the collective level, income inequality has been linked with a plethora of adverse social outcomes within societies. Findings have included higher crime rates (Van Wilsem, 2004), declining housing standards (Dwyer, 2009) as well as lower public health levels (Kawachi et al., 2010) and deteriorating life satisfaction (Delhey and Kohler, 2011). In general, a number of studies find that social trust levels are lower in unequal societies (Bjørnskov, 2008; Freitag and Bühlmann, 2006). However, other studies suggest that the relationship between economic inequality and adverse social outcomes is not as strong as previous studies indicate (Fairbrother and Martin, 2013).

Nevertheless, the literature highlights a number of issues precipitated by inequality. What are the mechanisms connecting these social repercussions with income inequality? McPherson and colleagues (2001) explain this phenomenon with the observation that people tend to associate with others like them. Hence, this is very much a political explanation in that it speaks to power relations and how political and economic institutions are in part socially constructed. As a result, parts of the population may feel left out from the process, which in turn excludes them from governance. Thus, as Rothstein and Uslaner (2005) point out, the poor often fail to be represented precisely because of steep inequality levels. Such economic stratification creates the conditions in which social trust between different segments of the population deteriorates, as the socioeconomic differences grow ever wider apart. Ultimately, this can lead to a situation where the lower strata of the socioeconomic ladder become permanently disenchanted with their position within society, developing a feeling of powerlessness which can prevent them from social engagement. Hence, inequality can trigger a vicious cycle in which more inequality leads to less representation and vice versa. As a result, societies are not able to harness the potential of their members, which can, for example, make them less resilient to the impacts of climate change as social trust erodes and feelings of stress among low-income individuals increases.

By contrast, the neo-material theory of inequality and its effects follows a quite different path which derives more clearly from a political economy approach. Lynch and colleagues explain that, under a neo-material approach, ‘the effect of income inequality […] reflects a combination of negative exposures and lack of resources held by individuals, along with systematic underinvestment across a wide range of human, physical, health, and social infrastructure’ (2000: 1202). Thus, negative social outcomes generated by income inequality are associated with the lack of access to resources among lower economic strata and the inadequate provision of infrastructure in societies with high levels of inequality. Consequently, there is a hypothesis that more equal societies are able to provide better services to citizens, while unequal ones do not make the necessary public investments (Kaplan et al., 1996; Mackenbach, 2002). It is important to note that the neo-material conception implies a weaker sense of income inequality effects. Given that the neo-material theory is more preoccupied with absolute differences rather than relative positions between individuals, it is suggested that shortages in resource access or infrastructure gaps can ultimately be remedied by measures such as progressive taxation and welfare state arrangements. Nevertheless, such provisions are more difficult to implement in unequal societies.


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The Inequality of Vulnerability: Examining the Relationship between Inequality and Climate Change Vulnerability
Queen Mary University of London  (School of Politics and International Relations)
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inequality, vulnerability, examining, relationship, climate, change
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Tim Pfefferle (Author), 2014, The Inequality of Vulnerability: Examining the Relationship between Inequality and Climate Change Vulnerability, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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