Climatic Change

, Volume 83, Issue 4, pp 495–514

Travelling in antique lands: using past famines to develop an adaptability/resilience framework to identify food systems vulnerable to climate change


DOI: 10.1007/s10584-007-9240-9

Cite this article as:
Fraser, E.D.G. Climatic Change (2007) 83: 495. doi:10.1007/s10584-007-9240-9


This paper builds on existing theory and proposes a framework to identify vulnerability to climate change in food systems by examining historic cases where common environmental problems caused famine. Cases presented are (1) Ireland’s Potato Famine, (2) El Niño induced famines during the Colonial period, and (3) Ethiopia between 1965 and 1997. Three factors stand out as common in each. Prior to each famine: (1) there were very few ways that people could obtain a living in the worst affected regions; (2) livelihoods in famine stricken communities came to depend on highly specialized agro-ecosystems that were sensitive to environmental change; (3) institutions failed to provide adequate safety nets to protect livelihoods from failure. This analysis suggests that vulnerability to climate change in food systems can be assessed by looking at agro-ecosystems, livelihoods and institutions. Local conditions, however, mean that ways of measuring these three factors will vary from place to place. As a result, direct comparisons are difficult. By conceptualizing these three variables as the axes of a three dimensional “vulnerability” space, it is possible to compare regions and look at trends over time by studying the paths through this “space” as traced by changes at the agro-ecosystem, livelihood, and institutional scale.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, B.V. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sustainability Research Institute, School of Earth and EnvironmentUniversity of LeedsLeedsUK