Lead Author:
Elizabeth L. Malone, Independent Researcher
Contributing Authors:
Michele Betsill, Colorado State University
Sara Hughes, University of Toronto
Rene Kemp, Maastricht University
Loren Lutzenhiser, Portland State University
Mithra Moezzi, Portland State University
Benjamin L. Preston, RAND Corporation
Tristram O. West, DOE Office of Science
Expert Reviewers:
John Robinson, University of Toronto
Sarah Burch, Waterloo University
Hal Wilhite, University of Oslo
Nicole Woolsey Biggart, University of California, Davis
Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex and Aarhaus University
Science Lead:
Paty Romero-Lankao, National Center for Atmospheric Research (currently at National Renewable Energy Laboratory)
Review Editor:
Christine Negra, Versant Vision
Federal Liaison:
Elisabeth Larson, North American Carbon Program; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Science Systems and Applications Inc.

Social Science Perspectives on Carbon

Because carbon is embedded in social, economic, political, and cultural arrangements, people are vulnerable to disruptions in the carbon cycle as changes in it bring changes in these social arrangements. Thus, research that first explicitly connects societal capacities, functions, and activities to carbon and then demonstrates the extent of human vulnerabilities will help to define ways to reduce those vulnerabilities. This is an alternative framing (see Section 6.1) to vulnerability research and assessment that developed out of a framing that begins with physical changes to the carbon cycle and to climate and considers physical impacts first. (Using the physical science framing, researchers assess the vulnerability of agricultural crops and systems, species survival, future biodiversity, and ecosystem damage.)

In a framing of vulnerability assessment that investigates the potential for harm to human systems—by climate change and, by extension, the carbon cycle sources and sinks—researchers explore questions about who is likely to be harmed by climate change, how much harm is likely, compared across countries or areas, and the sources of vulnerability (exposure, sensitivity, and lack of adaptive capacity; Malone and Engle 2011). Comparative studies may aim to identify priority areas for governmental or donor investments in adaptation activities, while studies that include stakeholders may outline mitigation or adaptation activities and practices that stakeholders themselves are interested in undertaking.

6.5.1 Methods Used in Vulnerability Assessment

Researchers have used two broad approaches. The first is to select indicators of vulnerability and proxy variables (usually quantitative data) that represent those indicators and then to calculate comparative indices. The second approach is tailored to a locality by convening stakeholders and asking them to identify vulnerabilities, perhaps along with developing adaptive strategies or evaluating those already in use.

Studies have used indicators, case studies, analogies, stakeholder-driven processes, and scenario-building methodologies, sometimes employing mapping and geographic information system (GIS) techniques. These approaches often are combined to improve a given regional vulnerability assessment, and risk assessment is sometimes coupled with vulnerability assessment (Preston et al., 2009).

Stakeholder involvement has been particularly important in improving both vulnerability assessments and the design of adaptive responses (Rosentrater 2010). The community of stakeholders, whether in a village or a much larger region, then identify their community’s vulnerabilities and how to address them using scenarios of the future that stakeholders develop based on relevant data, values and priorities, and realistic descriptions of what is feasible (de la Vega-Leinert and Schroter 2010; see Ch. 18: Carbon Cycle Science in Support of Decision Making Shaw et al., 2009; UKCIP 2001, 2005). Stakeholder involvement has been used in Canada (Carmichael et al., 2004) and the United States (NAST 2000) to build scenarios of the future.

6.5.2 Application to Carbon Cycle Research

The techniques of vulnerability assessment are well established, but the carbon cycle typically has not been part of research designs or indicators. Examples of studies that do not specify carbon cycle indicators include global vulnerability studies, in which Canada and the United States usually are ranked as having low vulnerability to climate change, whereas Mexico is ranked as having higher vulnerability (e.g., Yohe et al., 2006; Malone and Brenkert 2009). Also, subnational vulnerability studies identify economic activities and livelihoods directly related to carbon. A study of farming in Arizona (Coles and Scott 2009) showed that farmers have good access to information, notably seasonal climate forecasts, but consistently use proven short-term strategies rather than take the large risks of changing farm animals or taking on the high cost of wind or solar energy. Furthermore, the assumption of rational decision making “ignores important influences such as tradition, identity, and other ­non-economic factors” (Coles and Scott 2009). Safi et al. (2012) found that rural Nevadans’ risk perception of climate change is not affected by the sum of physical vulnerability, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity, but rather by “political orientations, beliefs regarding climate change and beliefs regarding the impacts of climate change” (Safi et al., 2012). For Mexico, Ibarrarán et al. (2010) assessed vulnerabilities to climate change at the state level, using comparative proxy variables; differences among the sources of vulnerability in the coming decades suggest different strategies for mitigation and adaptation. Ford et al. (2010) assessed the social factors in health-related Aboriginal vulnerability in Canada, finding that vulnerability is affected by poverty and inequality, limited technological and institutional capacity, sociopolitical beliefs, and lack of information. Furthermore, these elements of vulnerability are unevenly distributed among Aboriginal populations in Canada.

Bringing carbon considerations into vulnerability assessments has the potential to improve priorities for activities to address carbon cycle–related issues and the information base from which carbon cycle–related decisions can be made. For example, research into vulnerability that includes the carbon cycle can examine the specific implications of 1) depleted soil carbon and forest destruction in the agricultural sector; 2) the benefits of urban agriculture and methane capture for waste; and 3) the impacts of increased heat-trapping from excess CO2 in the atmosphere (i.e., excess over what is being captured by plants, the ocean, and other sinks). This explicit inclusion of carbon can help stakeholders, who can more easily track the carbon content embedded in societal activities, as identified in vulnerability studies, than they can the more abstract long-term changes in climate. Understanding vulnerability to changes in the carbon cycle allows specific actions to reduce vulnerability by controlling emissions and capturing or conserving carbon.

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