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  • Stacey Heath

The power of labels in the context of climate vulnerability and adaptation

Defining a community as vulnerable comes with an array of problems that provide several cautionary lessons in the context of climate related emergencies. Vulnerability is a multidimensional concept defined by one’s susceptibility to harm and the capacity to cope with, or adapt to extreme events (IPCC, 2014). Research over the last decade has attempted to develop our understanding of how communities and populations experience vulnerability, and why some people and communities are more vulnerable to climatic change than others (see Windfeld et al., 2019 for a review). However, with each dimension of vulnerability operating at different scales, accurate and credible measures are difficult to define (Adger, 2006). In order to develop a more holistic understanding of how climate change impacts, and adaptations to mitigate or protect against climate change impacts, affect existing vulnerabilities, it is necessary to measure both climatic and non-climatic variables that incorporate past, present and future possible climatic projections. In addition to developing knowledge about how, and under what circumstances, climate change and adaptation strategies affect or exacerbate vulnerabilities, in order to get a true understanding of the impact of vulnerability itself, we also need to consider the implications of defining a community as vulnerable from the outset.

Firstly, defining a community as ‘vulnerable’ based on the perception of risk to climate related emergencies could stigmatise or further isolate that community from wider society. Suggesting that a community is inherently ‘vulnerable’ implies that the people within that community are also inherently ‘vulnerable’ and therefore fundamentally different to the wider society. Seeing people and communities as fundamentally different to ourselves – an in-group out-group process – and assigning labels to define them as such can lead to unconscious processes of ‘othering’. Thus, by labelling communities as climate vulnerable they are placed in the ‘out-group’ and risk being stigmatised and treated as different from the rest of society (in-group). Stigmatising groups in this way often results in an imbalance of power that creates and exemplifies inequalities, and influences the actions or decisions we take towards them; ultimately making it easier to blame people and communities for their own, and society’s, problems – a process known as victim blaming.

Furthermore, segregating groups from wider society by labelling them as vulnerable may also lead to a process of rejection identification (Branscombe et al, 1999). The rejection-identification model (RIM) suggests that the rejection of minority groups by an out-group (i.e., wider society) can lead the stigmatized minority to solidify group boundaries (that is, to solidify their vulnerable group identity) as a way of coping with the stigmatised identity and buffering against the negative effects of discrimination. However, increasing in-group identification based on a stigmatised identity in this way can further lead to a process of rejection dis-identification (Jasinska-Lahiti, et al., 2009) whereby minority groups (the stigmatised in-group) disengage with, and actively distance themselves from, the wider out-group (society). In the context of climate change, the wider out-group may include authorities. Disengaging with authorities during climate emergencies or processes of climate adaptation increases the opportunity for disagreement and distrust between community members and authorities, which can lead to active opposition and maladaptation.

Failing to understand these socio-psychological processes may negatively affect the health and well-being of residents by further highlighting group difference, creating inter-group divides, and leading vulnerable communities to further segregation; ultimately reinforcing and exacerbating vulnerabilities which could lead to a shift from climate-vulnerable communities to more socially, mentally, and economically vulnerable communities as a consequence of the overarching vulnerable label. It is therefore suggested that in order to successfully and sustainably reduce climate-related vulnerability it is imperative that we do more to understand the socio-implications of defining a community as vulnerable from the outset, as well as developing our understanding of the impact of group dynamics between and within vulnerable communities, wider society, and policy makers.

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