Climate vulnerability assessment methodology : Agriculture under climate change in the Nordic region

Abstract: Food security and climate change mitigation are crucial missions for the agricultural sector and for global work on sustainable development. Concurrently, agricultural production is directly dependent on climatic conditions, making climate change adaptation strategies essential for the agricultural sector. There is consequently a need for researchers, planners, and practitioners to better understand how, why, and to what extent agriculture is vulnerable to climate change. Such analyses involve challenges in relation to the complex social– ecological character of the agricultural system and to the multiple conceptualizations and approaches used in analysing vulnerability.The aim of this thesis is to identify how vulnerability assessments can be used to represent climate-related vulnerability in Nordic agriculture, in order to advance the methodological development of indicator-based and geographic visualization methods. The following research questions are addressed: (i) How can agricultural vulnerability to climate change and variability in the Nordic countries be characterized? (ii) How do selections, definitions, and emphases of indicators influence how vulnerability is assessed? (iii) How do estimates of vulnerability vary depending on the methods used in assessments? (iv) How can geographic visualization be applied in integrated vulnerability assessments? This thesis analyses and applies various vulnerability assessment approaches in the context of Nordic agriculture.This thesis demonstrates that various methods for composing vulnerability indices result in significantly different outcomes, despite using the same set of indicators. A conceptual framework for geographic visualization approaches to vulnerability assessments was developed for the purpose of creating transparent and interactive assessments regarding the indicating variables, methods and assumptions applied, i.e., opening up the ‘black box’ of composite indices. This framework served as the foundation for developing the AgroExplore geographic visualization tool. The tool enables the user to interactively select, categorize, and weight indicators as well as to explore the data and the spatial patterns of the indicators and indices. AgroExplore was used in focus group settings with experts in the Swedish agricultural sector.The visualization-supported dialogue results confirm the difficulty of selecting and constructing indicators, including different perceptions of what indicators actually indicate, the assumption of linear relationships between the indicators and vulnerability, and, consequently, that the direction of the relationship is predefined for each indicator. This thesis further points at the inherent complexity of agricultural challenges and opportunities in the context of climate change as such. It is specifically emphasized that agricultural adaptation policies and measures involve trade-offs between various environmental and socio–economic objectives, and that their implementation could furthermore entail unintended consequences, i.e., potential maladaptive outcomes. Nevertheless, it proved difficult to validate indicators due to, e.g. matters of scale and data availability. While heavy precipitation and other extreme weather events are perceived as the most relevant drivers of climate vulnerability by the agricultural experts participating in this study, statistical analyses of historical data identified few significant relationships between crop yield losses and heavy precipitation. In conclusion, this thesis contributes to the method development of composite indices and indicator-based vulnerability assessment. A key conclusion is that assessments are method dependent and that indicator selection is related to aspects such as the system’s spatial scale and location as well as to indicator thresholds and defined relationships with vulnerability, recognizing the contextual dependency of agricultural vulnerability. Consequently, given the practicality of indicator-based methods, I stress with this thesis that future vulnerability studies must take into account and be transparent about the principles and limitations of indicator-based assessment methods in order to ensure their usefulness, validity, and relevance for guiding adaptation strategies.

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