Understanding human vulnerability to climate change: A global perspective on index validation for adaptation planning

Joern Birkmann*, Ali Jamshed, Joanna M. McMillan, Daniel Feldmeyer, Edmond Totin, William Solecki, Zelina Zaiton Ibrahim, Debra Roberts, Rachel Bezner Kerr, Hans Otto Poertner, Mark Pelling, Riyanti Djalante, Matthias Garschagen, Walter Leal Filho, Debarati Guha-Sapir, Andrés Alegría

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Citations (Scopus)


Climate change is a severe global threat. Research on climate change and vulnerability to natural hazards has made significant progress over the last decades. Most of the research has been devoted to improving the quality of climate information and hazard data, including exposure to specific phenomena, such as flooding or sea-level rise. Less attention has been given to the assessment of vulnerability and embedded social, economic and historical conditions that foster vulnerability of societies. A number of global vulnerability assessments based on indicators have been developed over the past years. Yet an essential question remains how to validate those assessments at the global scale. This paper examines different options to validate global vulnerability assessments in terms of their internal and external validity, focusing on two global vulnerability indicator systems used in the WorldRiskIndex and the INFORM index. The paper reviews these global index systems as best practices and at the same time presents new analysis and global results that show linkages between the level of vulnerability and disaster outcomes. Both the review and new analysis support each other and help to communicate the validity and the uncertainty of vulnerability assessments. Next to statistical validation methods, we discuss the importance of the appropriate link between indicators, data and the indicandum. We found that mortality per hazard event from floods, drought and storms is 15 times higher for countries ranked as highly vulnerable compared to those classified as low vulnerable. These findings highlight the different starting points of countries in their move towards climate resilient development. Priority should be given not just to those regions that are likely to face more severe climate hazards in the future but also to those confronted with high vulnerability already.

Original languageEnglish
Article number150065
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date1 Sept 2021
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jan 2022


  • Climate change
  • Natural hazards
  • Societal impacts
  • Validity and applicability of indicators
  • Vulnerability


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