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Forsyth, Tim. 2000. "Vulnerability to Climate Change: Theoretical Concerns and a Case Study from Thailand." Draft Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs (BCSIA) Discussion Paper. Cambridge, MA: Environment and Natural Resources Program, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.


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This paper looks critically at approaches to vulnerability and adaptation to climate change as currently adopted under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United States Country Studies Program (USCSP). At present, these assessments approach vulnerability to climate change through the essentially natural-science technique of predicting changes to greenhouse gas concentrations, the likely impacts on specific ecosystems, and probable effects on current patterns of land use, economic activities and health. This approach, however, may be criticized firstly by debates in local environmental adaptation coming from cultural ecology and hazards theory; and secondly by science policy debates concerning the political and social contextualization of scientific statements made by one community about another. Together, these criticisms suggest the currently dominant approach toward vulnerability in the IPCC may overlook the social (rather than ecological) basis of vulnerability. Furthermore, the dominant approach may overlook how climate change vulnerability and adaptation may in fact be co-dependent and produced by complex interactions between specific actors, networks and political contexts in each different locality to which the assessments are extended.

The paper summarizes the arguments for and against these criticisms, and then illustrates the dilemma in general terms by referring to current debates concerning the implementation of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in developing countries through either forest-based sinks projects or projects aiming for industrial technological upgrading or transfer. The paper then illustrates the debate more specifically by referring to the case of Thailand as an example of a rapidly industrializing country at risk from climate change, and where the government is actively seeking investment from the CDM. In particular, the paper focuses on the recently published United States Country Studies Program (USCSP) assessment of vulnerability to climate change in Thailand, and the response of environmental policymakers and citizens to climate change and environmental vulnerability in general.

The paper has two key arguments. Firstly, the current approach of the IPCC and USCSP of associating predicted changes in ecosystems to socio-economic vulnerability overlooks the diverse ways in which vulnerability is created and avoided at the local level. Secondly, as a result of this oversight, proposed climate change adaptation measures are often co-opted to add legitimacy to pre-existing political debates unrelated to climate change, or specific climate change mitigation projects are proposed that may actually increase social vulnerability. The paper concludes by suggesting various procedures improving the assessment of vulnerability to climate change, and for increasing the transparency and democratization of proposed adaptation strategies.


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