Exploring the relationships between urbanization trends and climate change vulnerability

Abstract

There is increasing scientific and political interest in the links between urbanization and human vulnerability to climate change. However, our literature review shows that the existing scholarship has largely focused on exposure resulting from urbanization, while other dimensions of urban vulnerability such as sensitivity or capacity to cope and adapt have been insufficiently represented or understood. Furthermore, most attention has been given to the negative effects of urbanization, while opportunities for vulnerability reduction have been underemphasized. Therefore, this paper takes a broader perspective to explore key relationships between urbanization, economic development and socio-economic vulnerability on a global scale. Using data with national resolution, we applied a clustering approach to identify ten country groups sharing similar patterns of urbanization and national income. We then explored associations between these country groups and selected indicators of exposure, sensitivity, coping capacity, and adaptive capacity drawing upon data from the World Risk Index. Our findings suggest that countries with rapid urbanization and economic transformation face significant challenges with respect to sensitivity and the lack of capacities. Additionally, these challenges tend to be greater the lower the income of the respective country. Yet, at the same time, urbanization can be a main driver for enhancing response capacity. The analysis suggests that urbanization can, hence, have nuanced effects on overall vulnerability. We argue that climate change science needs to be more balanced in terms of acknowledging and examining the different possible pathways of vulnerability effects related to urbanization. The country group analysis can provide a first entry point.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    The literature makes reference to urbanization as, first, the growth of urban population due to rural–urban-migration and natural population growth in cities as well as, second, a measure for the proportion of population living in urban rather than rural areas. Both definitions are considered and operationalized here (see section 2).

  2. 2.

    See section 3 for definitions of these terms.

  3. 3.

    Note that due to data availability GNI is used for (2) while GDP needs to be used for (4). Yet, because the absolute levels of both are not being compared this shortcoming is considered acceptable.

  4. 4.

    Even though urban exposure to climate change hazards can be generated from global to local scales, the analysis of this paper has a global focus and applies the resolution of the country groups.

  5. 5.

    While the original WRI also considers exposure to earthquakes, this has been excluded here given the climate change focus of this paper. A maximum exposure of 100 would imply that all people within a country are exposed to one or more of the selected hazards.

  6. 6.

    This dimensions is originally called susceptibility in the World Risk Index but follows a conceptual definition that is very much in line with the definition of sensitivity applied here (c.f. Welle et al. 2012).

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Acknowledgements

Work by Patricia Romero-Lankao is financed by the National Science Foundation of the USA. We are grateful to Dale Rothman and two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments which helped to improve the manuscript. We also would like to thank Torsten Welle for providing the World Risk Index source data and Tobias Blätgen for supporting the data harmonization.

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Correspondence to Matthias Garschagen.

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This article is part of a Special Issue on "Advancing Climate Change Adaptation and Risk Management" edited by Joern Birkmann and Reinhard Mechler.

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Garschagen, M., Romero-Lankao, P. Exploring the relationships between urbanization trends and climate change vulnerability. Climatic Change 133, 37–52 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-013-0812-6

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Keywords

  • Adaptive Capacity
  • Human Development Index
  • Urban Growth
  • National Income
  • Transition Country