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date: 15 September 2019

Vulnerable Regions in a Changing Climate

Abstract and Keywords

Economic geographers have made important contributions to the understanding of many facets of climate change, yet the field has had relatively limited engagement with the study of climate impacts, vulnerabilities, and adaptation. Instead, most work on the economic consequences of climate disruption is being done by researchers in other disciplines or in other subfields of geography. This chapter argues that broad recognition of humanity’s role in shaping Earth’s planetary systems, combined with new hope and opportunity engendered by the 2015 Paris Agreement on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, present a pivotal moment for economic geographers to take a more central role in the study of climate change and in broader, interdisciplinary conversations about the meaning and implications of the Anthropocene.

Keywords: economic vulnerability, climate change, impacts, adaptation, interdisciplinarity, Anthropocene


Earth has entered the epoch of Anthropocene whereby human actions are widely recognized as an influential force in planetary biophysical and geological systems. While the 2015 Paris Agreement on reduction of greenhouse gas emissions offers hope that the most dire scenarios of climate change may be avoided, economic disruptions associated with climate-related extreme events and climate-induced loss and damage are expected for the foreseeable future. For regional economies, highly visible climate events such as unprecedented flooding in Chennai, India, in 2015, which inundated 90 per cent of the city and displaced more than two million people; Typhon Haiyan (Yolanda) in 2013, which killed more than 6000 people in the Philippines; and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which caused more than US$60 billion in property and infrastructure damage to the east coast of the USA, have focused attention on risks and vulnerabilities associated climate change. Growing awareness of the regional economic impacts of climate-related stresses, such as declining water availability, deterioration of resource-based livelihoods, and coastal inundation as the result of sea-level rise, has further reinforced interest in the development of strategies to build regional climate resilience.

Although economic geographers have made important contributions to the understanding of many facets of climate change, including formation of new carbon economies, evolution of energy regimes, development of carbon-offset schemes, and determinants of regional resilience (e.g. Bumpus and Liverman, 2008; Boykoff et al., 2009; Bradshaw, 2010; Bridge, 2010; Knox-Hayes, 2010; Essletzbicher, 2012; Bridge et al., 2013; Martin and Sunley, 2015), the field has had relatively limited engagement with study of economic impacts, vulnerability, and adaptation to climate change. Instead, most work on the economic consequences of and responses to climate disruption is being done by researchers in economics, planning, policy, and engineering. Indeed, a new field of ‘climate economics’ has emerged around exploration of how variation in weather conditions, including temperature, precipitation, and windstorms, affect local, regional, and national economies (Dell et al., 2014). Related (p. 666) subfields explore the effects of extreme climate events for urban and regional economic growth and development (e.g. Hallegatte et al., 2011), poverty rates (e.g. Skoufias et al., 2012), and housing and property markets (e.g. Pryce et al., 2011). While economics and allied fields have dominated study of the impacts of climate change, research on economic vulnerability to climate change is primarily happening within the interdisciplinary fields of human dimensions of climate change and disaster risk reduction, as well as in subfields of geography, including political ecology, natural hazards, environmental justice, and international development (Fuller and Pincetl, 2015). Climate vulnerability research emphasizes identification of communities, sectors, social groups, and households that are more likely than others to be harmed by climate change or are less able to adapt to climate-related shocks and stresses. This research typically incorporates economic variables and recognizes a role for economic processes, such as globalization, in shaping vulnerabilities, yet the central focus of the work is generally directed towards understanding uneven spatial, social, and livelihood vulnerabilities, rather than towards issues that are of more central concern to economic geographers such as impacts on supply chains, regional labour markets, and future patterns of regional growth and development. Furthermore, only limited attention has been directed within economic geography to questions of how vulnerability is generated and maintained by processes such as neo-liberalization and financialization.

This chapter argues that growing public and policy attention to climate-related economic disruption, combined with broad recognition of humanity’s role in shaping planetary systems, presents a pivotal moment for economic geographers to take a more central role in climate impact and vulnerability studies and in larger, interdisciplinary conversations about the meaning and implications of the Anthropocene. The first part of the chapter defines economic vulnerability and describes important developments in vulnerability thinking. The next section assesses the state of research on regional impacts and vulnerability, showing how ongoing work on spatial, sectoral, and household vulnerabilities provides a strong foundation for answering questions such as which local and regional economies are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and which sectors and which types of workers are most susceptible to harm and least able to bounce back. The chapter then highlights emerging work on the production of economic vulnerability, which is beginning to ask questions about how market-driven responses to climate risks are shaping vulnerabilities. The chapter concludes by identifying opportunities for economic geographers to further explore impacts and vulnerabilities and to engage with the interdisciplinary global change research community.

Defining Economic Vulnerability

Vulnerability to climate change is generally understood as a propensity to be harmed by climate shocks and stresses (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2012). Climatic shocks include extreme events, such as hurricanes and heat waves. Climatic stresses entail longer-term changes such as sea-level rise and gradually warming temperatures. Within the climate change literature, definitions of vulnerability typically take into account physical exposure to climate shocks and stresses, degree of sensitivity or susceptibility to harm from these events, and the ability to respond and recover.1 The highly uneven nature of (p. 667) vulnerability within and across regions, communities, and households stems from differences in exposure to climate extremes, as well as variations in social, demographic economic, institutional, and technological factors that influence both susceptibility to harm and capacity to respond (Liverman, 1990; Adger, et al., 2003; Eakin and Luers, 2006; Barnett and Eakin, 2015). The notion of economic resilience incorporates consideration of how quickly regions, communities, or households might recover from climate shocks and reduce vulnerability to future events (Leichenko et al., 2015). Although vulnerability and resilience are intertwined,2 resilience is touched upon only briefly in this chapter because it is explored elsewhere in the volume (see Chapter 45).

As with the concept of vulnerability, economic vulnerability has a range of different usages and interpretations (Leichenko et al., 2014). In the economics literature, economic vulnerability is typically used to specify the degree to which national economies may be more or less subject to harm from external economic shocks and perturbations (Briguglio et al., 2009). Economic shocks stem from factors such as changes in trade policy, fluctuations in exchange rates, or shifts in commodity prices. Climate change has been implicated as a source of economic shocks, including dramatic shifts in food commodity prices (Wheeler and von Braun, 2013), with significant negative implications for economic growth and poverty within and across the Global South (Ahmed et al., 2009; Hertel et al., 2010). According to this line of work, higher levels of economic vulnerability to climate change are associated with dependency on climate-sensitive commodity sectors, such as agriculture and natural resources, in combination with lower overall income levels (Dell et al., 2012).

The intersection of climatic and economic shocks is also addressed within the literature on vulnerability to multiple stressors. This work highlights the fact that climatic shocks and stresses do not happen in isolation, but are interwoven with other processes of economic, political, and social change (Leichenko and O’Brien, 2008; Casale et al., 2010; Silva et al., 2010; Jeffers, 2013; Burton and Peoples, 2014; McCubbin et al., 2015; Rhiney, 2015). Work by economic geographers demonstrates how exposure to globalization-related economic stresses in combination with climatic shocks can reinforce existing patterns of uneven development, and also create new and unexpected vulnerabilities (Leichenko et al., 2010; Silva et al., 2010, 2015). There is also recognition that regional vulnerabilities are highly interconnected spatially and sectorally as the result of global trade linkages and foreign investment patterns, and insurance and reinsurance markets (Liverman, 2015a). The emergence and growing usage of the concept of ‘teleconnections’ within the human dimensions of global change literature (e.g. Adger et al., 2009; Seto et al., 2012; Moser and Hart, 2015) to describe how global flows of goods, services, and information may transmit vulnerabilities across space and time provides but one example of how concepts from economic geography are shaping understanding of regional climate impacts and vulnerabilities.

Research also highlights the dynamic nature of economic vulnerability to climate change (Jeffers, 2013; Mechler and Bouwer, 2015). Vulnerability is continually evolving as exogenous economic and political processes such as marketization and financialization alter the capacity of regions and households to respond and adapt to climatic stresses. Work by Jeffers (2013) shows how the growing dominance of a neo-liberal discourse of development planning shapes decision-making processes associated with responding to economic and climatic stresses, contributing to an emphasis on technological approaches to climate risks (Jeffers, 2013). The dynamic nature of economic vulnerability is also apparent in the context of post-disaster learning. Decision-makers in some regions that experience extreme events (p. 668) are found to learn from these events and to take these lessons into account when siting new development, making locational decisions, and planning for future events, all of which shape subsequent vulnerabilities (Mechler and Bouwer, 2015).

While space does not permit full consideration of critical perspectives on vulnerability (e.g. Birkenholtz, 2012; Bassett and Fogelman, 2013; Tschakert et al., 2013; Grove, 2014; Ribot, 2014), it is important to acknowledge some of the key limitations of vulnerability approaches. One important shortcoming of much vulnerability work over the last decade is that the emphasis has shifted away from ‘root causes’ of vulnerability (Ribot, 2014). Although explicit emphasis on political economy and challenges to status quo understandings of environmental hazards were key components of early vulnerability work (e.g. Liverman, 1990; Dow, 1992; Watts and Bohle, 1993; Bohle et al., 1994; Wisner et al., 1994; Cutter, 1996), this dimension is often lost in newer studies that frame the work primarily in terms of exposure to physical processes such as flooding and sea-level rise. As a consequence, much vulnerability work focuses on documentation and quantification of locations, sectors, and populations likely to be exposed to climate shocks or stresses and who have characteristics that make them more prone to harm or less able to respond, with little or no questioning of forces putting people in harm’s way.

Proposals to address vulnerability that emerge from applied studies have also been subject to critique. Because this work has little acknowledgement of underlying social processes that create vulnerability, efforts to identify vulnerable locations may inadvertently reinforce official narratives of disadvantage, as well as power structures that perpetuate these disadvantages (Yamane, 2009; Preston et al., 2011). The work has sometimes been labelled ‘post-political’ (e.g. Swyngedouw, 2010), in that it emphasizes technical and managerial measures, such as improvements in infrastructure that reduce physical exposure, changes in land-use policy, and provision or expansion of early warning systems, rather than addressing power and wealth differentials that create and maintain precarity. All of these critiques reveal the need for more attention to economic processes that are shaping vulnerabilities, as well as explicit recognition of how different discourses are exercised in the application of vulnerability approaches. As discussed in the section ‘Producing Vulnerability’, economic geographers are beginning to explore many of these issues.

Studying Regional Economic Vulnerability

Studies of regional economic vulnerability consider whether and how a region’s economic assets, economic activities, workers, and households might be directly or indirectly affected by climate-related shocks and stresses. The work explores how and why regional economic vulnerability varies spatially and considers whether efforts to respond to climate change impacts may create new types of vulnerabilities. Although detailed discussion of climate mitigation policies, such as a tax on carbon, is beyond the scope of this chapter, it is important to recognize that regional economic vulnerabilities may also arise as the result of policy responses intended to limit or sequester greenhouse gas emissions. Mitigation policies can be expected to have significant consequences for many regional economies, especially for regions that produce or are highly dependent upon fossil fuels. For example, the demise of the coal industry in the USA due to a combination of pollution-limiting policies and (p. 669) growing competition from natural gas produced via hydrological fracturing, is dramatically reshaping local economies in coal-producing regions (Vancura, 2015).

Which Economic Assets are Vulnerable?

The need for identification and valuation of economic assets that are likely to be exposed to climate extremes has become a major concern for cities and regions worldwide. Research on this topic explores exposure of economic assets, including property, physical capital, and inventories that are directly exposed to prominent facets of climate change such as storm events and sea-level rise (Leichenko at al., 2014). Studies focused on vulnerability to extreme storms generally emphasize costs associated with storm-related damage to property and infrastructure, costs of business interruption, and secondary impacts on regional economies. Using indicators such as number of affected business establishments, taxable sales, production and employment, housing prices, and wages, this work estimates and projects damage costs associated with past and future storm events (Leichenko and Thomas, 2012). Studies of regional exposure to rising sea levels investigate projected exposure of economic assets over many decades (Bosello and De Cian, 2014). The studies typically overlay projections of sea-level rise onto property or parcel maps in order quantify number of properties exposed, total property values, municipal tax bases, and infrastructure over various time horizons (e.g. 2020, 2050, and 2080) or for various scenarios of greenhouse emissions (e.g. Kirshen et al., 2008; Tate and Frazier, 2013; Maloney and Preston, 2014; Brady et al., 2015; Neumann et al., 2015).

While studies of assets at risk are drawing public and policy attention to the potential economic costs of climate change, there are a number of areas where additional input from economic geographers might enhance this work. Most exposure studies focus on coastal regions of the Global North, particularly the US Gulf Coast, the Atlantic Seaboard, coastal Alaska, and major port cities such as London and Rotterdam. Work is beginning to appear for other areas, such as Dar es Salaam (Kebede and Nichols, 2012) and the South Pacific (Kumar and Taylor, 2015), but there is a need for more attention to highly exposed regions of the Global South, including low-lying megacities, island nations, and ecologically important coastal zones (de Sherbinin et al., 2007; McGranahan et al., 2007; Rhiney, 2015). There is also a need for consideration of economic exposure to other types of climatic stresses, such as droughts and heat waves that may affect non-coastal areas, and regions that depend upon climate-sensitive ecosystem services such as dryland agriculture or glacier-based water supplies. Another area for potential contribution by economic geographers would be to incorporate other dimensions of ‘economic’ into estimation of exposure. In particular, there is a need for greater recognition of non-market and non-monetary values-associated ecosystem services, cultural heritage sites, and assets that form the basis for informal economies (Leichenko and Thomas, 2012; Brady, 2015).

Which Regions are Vulnerable?

Exploration of spatial patterns and determinants of regional economic vulnerability and resilience is another important research area. Work in this realm draws, in part, from (p. 670) geography’s vulnerability mapping tradition, with an emphasis on comparative assessment of exposure and susceptibility to climate and environmental hazards among cross-sections of states, counties, districts, or other political units (e.g. Cutter et al., 2003, 2008, 2014; O’Brien et al., 2004b). The studies often measure vulnerability via composite indices that incorporate a wide range of social, technological, institutional, environmental, and economic variables that are thought to influence susceptibility to harm or capacity to respond. While most spatial vulnerability work falls more squarely within hazards and human dimensions traditions, a number of studies adopt a more explicitly economic focus (e.g. Frazier et al., 2010; Leichenko and Solecki, 2013; Thatcher et al., 2013; Boero et al., 2015). Thatcher et al. (2013), for example, develop an index of economic vulnerability for counties in the US northern Gulf Coast that incorporates factors thought to contribute to societal risk from rising sea level, including value of residential and commercial buildings and types of infrastructure. Other studies focus on how and why regional patterns of economic vulnerability are changing over time. Preston (2013) draws on concepts including path dependency and lock-in to investigate expected future patterns of vulnerability across US counties. Future socio-economic conditions are projected based on extrapolation of growth trends for population, income, and earnings growth, which dictate future exposure to natural hazards of all types. The study notes that, without significant transformation of development patterns, large increases in economic losses from natural hazards are likely, even before accounting for the potential effects of climate change (Preston, 2013).

The connection between climate change and spatial inequality is another topic of interest for economic geography. While the possibility that climate change will exacerbate inequalities is well recognized (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014), empirical studies have only begun to shed light on this issue at the regional level. A study by Silva et al. (2015), for example, explores linkages between extreme weather events, economic shocks, and regional inequalities within Mozambique. The study demonstrates that climatic and economic shocks exacerbate both income and power disparities in most regions, but there are some cases where disparities and polarization decline following climate and economic shocks. Further exploration of those unexpected cases suggested that the shocks had contributed to a so-called ‘poverty trap’ whereby regions experienced deteriorating overall levels of income and wealth. Regions that were prone to poverty traps were found to have high dependency on agriculture and limited diversity of economic opportunity. Research also finds evidence that poverty traps may result from persistent climate stresses. In examining how sea-level rise may affect regional economic growth and poverty dynamics over long time horizons, Hallegatte (2012) demonstrates that poverty traps may be created when loss of land, destruction of infrastructure assets, and loss of physical and social capital is followed by diversion of public resources towards costly adaptation measures such as coastal defence structures. Other researchers contest the premise that climate shocks create poverty traps, showing that shocks may, in fact, provide opportunities to enhance future resilience (Leichenko and Silva, 2014). Such was the case in Honduras, where community responses in the years after Hurricane Mitch included institutional changes that reduced vulnerability to future flooding (McSweeney and Coomes, 2011). The mixed results for these studies suggest a need for further exploration of the linkages between climate shocks, regional inequalities, and poverty traps, especially (p. 671) given the expectation that shock events will become more frequent and more severe as the result of climate change.

Which Sectors are Vulnerable?

Regional vulnerability is also frequently examined through a sectoral lens. Regions that depend upon climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and fisheries, lumber and forestry products, outdoor recreation, and tourism are expected be more vulnerable to climate change shocks and stresses (Lal et al., 2011; Johnson et al., 2012; Morrison and Pickering, 2013; Sagoe-Addy and Addo, 2013). In addition to direct dependence on climatic conditions such as temperature, rainfall, and snowfall, other sources of sectoral vulnerability stem from the spatial immobility of certain types of production facilities and processes. For industries such as oil and gas and mineral mining, re-location away from flood-vulnerable riverine areas or low-lying coastal areas is not feasible with existing technologies (Cruz and Krausmann, 2013; Sharma and Franks, 2013). In addition to exploring how production of goods or provision of services might be directly affected by climate change, sectorally focused studies have also considered how consumer demand for tourism and recreational activities in different regions may change as a function of predicted climate changes such as loss of snow pack and warmer temperatures (Scott et al., 2008; Barrios and Ibañez, 2015). Research has also explored how economic vulnerabilities vary for producers within different sectors, attempting to specify how institutional, social, and political factors, in combination with firm characteristics such as size and assets, may interact to shape decision-making about climate risks within different regional settings (Eakin et al., 2012; Barnett and Eakin, 2015; Vancura and Leichenko, 2015).

Although investigation of sectors that are directly on the front lines of climate change, such as tourism and agriculture, is critical for illuminating regional vulnerabilities, there is a need for further investigation of how climate change may affect other sectors of the economy (Liverman and Glasmeier, 2014; Liverman, 2015a). Within the field of climate economics, integrated sectoral modelling studies are generally focused on impacts and interactions across climate-sensitive sectors, such as water resources, agriculture, and coastal zones (e.g. Harrison et al., 2015). There remains a need for examination of climate change impacts in high-value sectors, particularly those that are driving global economic growth and are the major sources of employment, such as chemicals, textiles, electronics, and automotives (Liverman and Glasmeier, 2014). Climate-related disruptions of supply chains and inventories in these sectors can have long-lasting consequences for regional economies. Flooding of production facilities in the automobile and electronics industries in Thailand in 2011, for example, resulted in severe and sustained disruptions of global supply chains with economic and political repercussions in many other regions (Stern et al., 2013; Liverman and Glasmeier, 2014). Impacts of climate change on sectors such as health care, information technology, retail, and real estate are also under-examined (Liverman and Glasmeier, 2014). Each of these sectors may see dramatic changes in patterns of consumer demand in response to climate stresses and shocks, such as changing needs for medicine and health products, greater usage of mobile information products, shifting preferences for where to live, and changes willingness to pay or tolerance for risk.

(p. 672) Which Populations are Vulnerable?

Differential patterns of economic vulnerability also emerge for individuals and households. Poverty is often highlighted as a key factor that increases the propensity of individuals and households to be harmed by climatic shocks and stresses (Adger et al., 2003; Füssel, 2012; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2012; Leichenko and Silva, 2014; Mutabazi et al., 2015). Globally, poorer individuals have a greater propensity to be harmed by climate change for a variety of reasons, including fewer assets to rely on for recovery from droughts, hurricanes, and floods, dependence on livelihoods within climate-sensitive sectors (e.g. agriculture, fishing, pastoralism), and limited access to information about climate risks (Jones et al., 2009; Skoufias et al., 2012; Barua et al., 2014). Physical health and psychological dimensions of poverty, which compound monetary disadvantage and hinder the ability to cope with external shocks, or plan for the future, also contribute to vulnerability of poor populations (Leichenko and Silva, 2014).

Individual and household vulnerability are also highly variable by region. Within rural regions of the Global South, factors that contribute to vulnerability of poor households include limited land ownership, lack of options for livelihood diversification, lack of market access, and ongoing degradation of ecological resources such as forests. Growing reliance on cash crops aimed at global markets further exacerbates vulnerabilities to extreme weather and climate change, as small-scale agriculturalists abandon traditional strategies for managing climate risks (Silva et al., 2010). In urban areas of the Global South, living and working in hazardous physical environments, in conjunction with factors such as inadequate infrastructure and weak governance, contribute to vulnerability of poor populations to climate extremes (Pelling, 2003; Douglas et al., 2008; Hardoy and Pandiella, 2009; Tanner et al., 2009; Chatterjee, 2010). Studies have also documented greater exposure to climate stresses of poor populations in wealthy countries, particularly the USA (Cutter et al., 2003; Lal et al., 2011; Paolisso et al., 2012; Martinich et al., 2013; Maldonado et al., 2013). The economic vulnerability of relatively poor US populations is tied to factors including social isolation, limited options for affordable housing, and dependence on public transport infrastructure (Halpin, 2013; Barnes, 2015). Climate-related transport disruptions, in particular, tend to have a disproportionate economic effect on individuals who hold low-wage hourly positions and may not have access to private automobile transport during weather-related shutdowns (Barnes, 2015).

Research on individual and household vulnerability emphasizes that it is often the intersection of many dimensions of poverty, such as limited income, gender, ethnic or racial discrimination, lack of assets and capabilities, and failed or misguided development policies that contribute to susceptibility of poor populations (Eakin et al., 2012; Burnham et al., 2013). Emphasizing the relational nature of vulnerability, Turner (2016) suggests that social relations, including differential social obligations and opportunities, have a critical influence on individual and household vulnerability. Research by Ajibade et al. (2013) on economic vulnerability to flooding in Lagos is illustrative of these emerging intersectional and relational perspectives. The work documents greater negative impacts of flooding for low-income women in Lagos as compared with middle- and high-income women, demonstrating how gender relations and gender roles, occupational status, and household structure together contribute to greater vulnerabilities for lower-income women. Work on the gendered nature (p. 673) of economic vulnerability in the Eastern Gangetic Plains of India similarly demonstrates that women from marginal farmer and tenant households are more vulnerable than other individuals, and that this vulnerability is integrally connection with gender roles and social relations which are interwoven with expectations of outmigration for economic opportunities elsewhere for men (Sugden et al., 2014).

Producing Vulnerability

In addition to exploring patterns and processes driving regional vulnerability, economic geographers are also beginning to probe underlying factors that create vulnerability, including financial and governance mechanisms that put assets and people in harm’s way, produce new risks, and shape adaptation responses. Incorporating insights from a range of literatures including studies of the cultural economy, political ecology, feminist theory, and science and technology studies, work in this vein explores financialization, marketization, and commodification of climate risk, governance of corporate responses to climate change, and the emergence of the adaptation industry (e.g. Pollard et al., 2008; Pattberg, 2012; Webber, 2013; Johnson, 2014). In many cases, actions intended to reduce climate exposure or promote adaptation are found to create new and unanticipated vulnerabilities.

The insurance sector plays a particularly important role in producing new vulnerabilities. Researchers have demonstrated that the emergence of index insurance, weather derivatives, and catastrophe bonds as alternative asset classes, are influencing the association of risk calculations with decisions such as where and how to build, what to grow, and how to allocate municipal finances (Pryke, 2007; Pollard et al., 2008; Johnson, 2014). Work by Johnson (2014) shows how place-based vulnerabilities of physical assets have become a new commodity traded via the insurance-linked securitization (ILS) market. The research reveals how climate change is increasingly understood as a business opportunity for the insurance sector because the expectation of greater future losses associated with extreme weather events allows for higher premiums. Noting that the immobility of economic assets necessitates the purchase of insurance for protection against climate-related damage to physical capital, business interruption, and worker compensation, Johnson documents how the development of ILS markets have created the ‘ability to fashion geographic liabilities as strategic resources’ (2014, p. 173), thereby contributing to built environments that are more exposed to climatic risk.

Changes in the norms and expectations around the pricing of hazard insurance have also contributed to the production of new geographies of insured risks and vulnerabilities. Researchers have long noted that subsidization of flood insurance contributes to growing climate and hazard vulnerabilities (Thomas and Leichenko, 2011), yet shifts towards risk- or market-based pricing of insurance are also problematic. Detailed analysis of the distributional effects of risk-based pricing in the UK demonstrates that market-based pricing produces new vulnerabilities within poorer communities as households forgo insurance coverage altogether (Penning-Rowsell and Pardoe, 2015). Uneven distributional outcomes were also found in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in coastal New Jersey, where patterns of recovery and rebuilding varied, in part, because of differences in insurance coverage and capacity to afford higher insurance premiums for newly rebuilt properties (Leichenko et al., 2014).

(p. 674) Other research raises more fundamental questions about the framing of climate change as an economic threat, including the mechanisms and motivations behind the emergence of the climate change risk and adaptation industries (Pattberg, 2012; Webber, 2013). Pattberg (2012) examines how climate change became a business risk for multinational corporations, showing how this risk is governed through instruments of disclosure and transparency, both of which serve the needs and interests of institutional investors. Non-state actors, such as the C40 Global Cities Leadership Group and the Carbon Disclosure Project, which largely operate outside the boundaries of state authority and governance, are found to play a decisive role in manufacturing corporate climate risks. Proposing the concept of performative vulnerability, Webber (2013) explores the climate change adaptation industry within the island nation of Kiribati, demonstrating how encounters between financiers and government officials produce a particular form of vulnerability. Questioning the conventional understanding of vulnerability as a latent condition, Webber argues that vulnerability is, instead, an emergent effect that is ‘produced in historical and contemporary encounters that are uneven and power laden, with meaning given by an assemblage of facts, expert actors, and objects’ (2013, p. 2722). While studies of this type are beginning to shed light on the myriad ways that climate change is articulated as an economic issue, there is need for further investigation of the production of vulnerability and adaptation within different regions and sectors.

Conclusion: Directions and Opportunities for Future Research

Widespread recognition that human actions are a driving force in planetary geological systems has ignited interest across the discipline in the social, political, and economic dimensions of global change. For economic geography, the onset of the Anthropocene raises foundational questions about drivers of regional growth, spatial differences in regional economic performance, and regional responses to stresses and shocks (see Storper, 2011; Chapter 7). While geographers of all stripes have long rejected notions of environmental determinism, there is a need to come to new theoretical understandings of the role of the changing material environment for the economy. What does climate non-stationarity mean for firm decision-making in both the short and long term? How will gradual deterioration of environmental baselines affect regional economic growth and development trajectories? In what ways will adaptation responses to climatic and environmental stresses, such as out-migration from inundated or drought-prone areas, affect wages and housing markets? This chapter has highlighted a wide array of research on the regional dimensions of climate vulnerability, yet there remains a pressing need for attention to regional impacts and vulnerabilities in non-coastal contexts, areas that depend on climate-sensitive ecosystem services, high-value manufacturing and service sectors, and informal economies. There is also a need for further investigation of climate impacts on regional labour markets and spatial inequalities, of intersectional and relational dimensions of economic vulnerability, and of the production and performance of vulnerability in a variety of regional contexts.

(p. 675) While this chapter has focused primarily on vulnerabilities to climate shocks and stresses, there is also a need for more attention to the economic consequences of both adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation decisions in response to sea-level rise, for example, may span a continuum that ranges from expansion of physical flood defences to complete retreat from a flood-prone area. Each decision along this continuum is likely to have significant consequences, both deliberate and unintended, that will influence economic vulnerabilities of communities, households, and firms. New flood defences may benefit protected regions but enhance flood exposure in areas that are immediately adjacent to the protective structures. Retreat will affect populations living in adjacent areas and those that are ‘left behind’, and may also affect distant locations that receive an influx of in-migrants. Mitigation in the form of changing energy policies, such as implementation of a carbon tax, subsidization of biofuel production, or promotion of energy transitions that include widespread adoption of wind, solar, or nuclear energy, would have significant economic implications for both fossil fuel-producing regions and for regions that have an energy mix that is highly dependent on coal, oil, or natural gas. A number of studies suggest that unexpected vulnerabilities are emerging as the consequence of climate-related energy policies (Marino and Ribot, 2012; Hodbod and Tomei, 2013; Venkatasubramanian, 2016), but further research is needed on the connections between climate change responses and vulnerability, particularly in light of implementation of the Paris Agreement and similar measures in the future.

In addition to opportunities for theoretical and empirical work within economic geography, the study of climate change also provides a multitude of opportunities for collaboration both within and outside geography. Recognition of climate change as a material force provides avenues for engagement between economic geography and subfields such as science and technology studies and feminist geography, which are re-thinking how economy and environment interact and seeking to identify alternative societal pathways. The need for better understanding of how environmental baselines are changing, which ecosystem disruptions are expected, and what types of non-linearities and tipping points might arise, suggests possibilities for fruitful collaboration with researchers studying social and ecological resilience and transformation (Harden et al., 2014). With respect to methodology, economic geography’s traditional strengths in key informant and stakeholder-based research could make important contributions to collaborative vulnerability research, where co-production approaches are increasingly used to identify climate stresses and to ensure that vulnerability knowledge is relevant to decision-makers (e.g. Frazier et al., 2010; Corfee-Morlot et al., 2011; Rosenzweig et al., 2011; Leichenko et al., 2014; Brady, 2015; Ford et al., 2015). In short, study of climate change offers countless avenues for fruitful collaboration, not only with other subfields of geography, but also with the interdisciplinary global change research community (Liverman, 2015b). Economic geography has much to offer to the field of climate change and much to gain through further engagement in conversations about the Anthropocene.


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(1.) Exposure is sometimes defined as a separate phenomenon from vulnerability: exposure results from exogenous factors that influence particular locations or sectors, while vulnerability emphasizes endogenous factors that influence susceptibility to harm from exposure and capacity to respond (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2012).

(2.) The connections between vulnerability and resilience are also debated within the climate change and hazards literatures (O’Brien et al., 2004a; Cutter et al., 2008; Turner, 2010; Maru et al., 2014).