2021 Climate Change Vulnerability Index: Everything You Need to Know

by Charlie

The wealthiest one per cent of the world produces twice as many carbon emissions as the poorest 50 per cent, according to the UN. Likewise, the wealthiest five per cent of people contributed 37 per cent of emissions growth between 1990 and 2015.1 Yet, according to the Germanwatch 2021 Climate Change Vulnerability Index, global warming affects developing countries the most.2 

This situation is entirely unjust and unfair. Why should the countries that contribute the least towards global emissions suffer the worst consequences? But, this is the sad reality of global warming. The Climate Change Vulnerability Index reveals which countries, species or areas will be worst affected by an increase in global temperatures, regardless of who is to blame.

What is the Climate Change Vulnerability Index?

A Climate Change Vulnerability Index is an evaluation of vulnerability to climate change. It may measure human populations, or plant or animal species. For example, the Climate Change Vulnerability Index may assess the likelihood of a country’s exposure to extreme climate events and other environmental factors that raise global risks.

This may be measured against the capacity of the country to adapt to the impacts (their adaptive capacity). The result is a ranking or rating combining these factors and providing an estimate of risks from future climate change.3

There is no single Climate Change Vulnerability Index. Instead, different organisations create their own versions using specific criteria and measurements. For instance, the NatureServe Climate Change Vulnerability Index is a useful tool for predicting which plant and animal species are particularly vulnerable to population reductions as a result of climate change.4 

On the other hand, the Verisk Maplecroft Climate Change Vulnerability Index concerns itself with the outcomes of climate events and changes on human populations. It offers a single-figure rating for climate change vulnerability. It can help companies calculate the risk of future climate change.5

Which countries are the most vulnerable to climate change?

All countries are vulnerable to climate change. However, a Climate Change Vulnerability Index can rank countries by the extent that they have been impacted by climate-related extreme weather events. They can also measure the country’s preparedness for such occurrences. With this data, they can make predictions regarding the country’s susceptibility to extreme weather.6 

The Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index 2021 finds that over the past decade, Puerto Rico, Myanmar, and Haiti were the most vulnerable countries to climate change.7 In 2019, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and the Bahamas were most affected by climate-caused extreme weather events. They were followed by Japan, Malawi and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.8

Why it is important to also monitor sea-level rise?

However, the Climate Change Vulnerability Index does not take slow-onset climate change processes, such as rising sea levels, into account. Instead, it focuses on storms, floods and heatwaves.9 

Countries in locations where tropical cyclones and other natural disasters are common are therefore more likely to be ranked higher. Unfortunately, these tend to be developing countries with vulnerable natural resources. Therefore, their vulnerability indices are higher. We must find a way to index future vulnerability.

As such, based on the Index’s findings, developing countries tend to be most vulnerable to climate change. Eight out of the ten countries most vulnerable to extreme weather impacts in 2019 were low to lower-middle income countries. These environmental factors make them more vulnerable to extreme weather events occurring. Moreover, they also have a lower adaptive capacity for such events.10

Poorer countries cannot cope with the current sea level rise like richer countries can. Their adaptive capacity is lower due to simple economics. We must mitigate the harmful effects of climate change exposure to lower the global risks it causes.

How to reduce a country’s Climate Change Vulnerability Index ranking?

For a country to reduce its Climate Change Vulnerability Index ranking, it must do two things. Firstly, it needs to minimize the chance of climate-caused events occurring. Secondly, it should improve its ability to cope with such events when they do occur. Neither of these tasks is easy. 

Reducing the chance of climate-caused extreme weather events requires an effort to counter global warming itself. Preventing climate change will require cooperation from the entire world. But it is possible. 

Climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere trapping heat. This raises the Earth’s temperature. Humans have increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by 47 per cent since the Industrial Revolution.11 Consequently, the Earth’s average surface temperature is now about 1°C hotter.12 This promotes climate-related natural disasters, and climate change adaptation cannot keep up.

Reducing global warming by cutting emissions

To reduce global warming, we must stop emitting carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and other pollutants. We must also remove some of the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finds fossil fuel emissions to be the primary cause of global warming. 89 per cent of global CO2 emissions came from fossil fuels and industry in 2018.13 To reduce any country’s vulnerability to climate change and lower its Climate Change Vulnerability Index, cutting fossil fuel consumption is crucial. We cannot stop global warming whilst we continue to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and watch our sea-level rise. Our plant and animal species depend on it.

Reducing global warming by removing greenhouse gases

We must also remove as many greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as possible. CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for up to 1,000 years.14 The best ‘technologies’ for removing CO2 are natural-based. For example, a mature tree captures on average about 22 kilograms of CO2 per year through photosynthesis.15 Trees pull CO2 from the air and store it in their wood and the surrounding soil throughout their long lifetimes.16 However, cutting them down and burning them or leaving them to rot releases the carbon once more.17 This raises our future vulnerability tremendously and leaves us exposed to even more climate-related natural disasters.

Planting more trees can therefore increase the amount of CO2 being removed from the atmosphere. It can help combat global warming cheaply and efficiently. However, it cannot prevent climate change by itself. Older trees absorb more carbon than younger trees and store it for centuries.18 But it takes a long time for them to grow. We must protect and enhance our existing forests to mitigate as many of our emissions as possible. 

We must also stop burning fossil fuels in every country. The accumulated wealth and industry in developed countries means that they are responsible for 79 per cent of historic emissions.19 Yet, as any Climate Change Vulnerability Index examining human populations reveals, it is the poorer nations who suffer most as a result of global warming. To redress this imbalance, we must plant more trees, protect our forests and stop burning fossil fuels.


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  15. European Environment Agency. (2012). Trees help tackle climate change. [online] Available at: https://www.eea.europa.eu/articles/forests-health-and-climate-change/key-facts/trees-help-tackle-climate-change.
  16. Carbon Brief. (2018). Planting a mix of tree species “could double” forest carbon storage. [online] Available at: https://www.carbonbrief.org/planting-a-mix-of-tree-species-could-double-forest-carbon-storage.
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  19. Center For Global Development. (2011). Developed Countries Are Responsible for 79 Percent of Historical Carbon Emissions. [online] Available at: https://www.cgdev.org/media/who-caused-climate-change-historically.

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