UCRSEA has culled all the key terms and their definitions that are being used throughout our research papers, presentations and documents. Below are the most commonly used terms.

In the field of climate studies, adaptation is broadly defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate change and its effects (IPCC, 2014).

In human systems, adaptation seeks to moderate or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. Other definitions emphasise the actions and measures taken to reduce vulnerability to actual or expected climate change effects (UNDP), and to help communities and ecosystems cope with changing climate conditions (UNFCCC) and external stresses (Brooks, 2003).

These actions and adjustments, made by all members of society, ie. individuals, groups and governments, are motivated by various factors, including the protection of economic well-being and improvement of safety (Adger, Arnell and Tompkins, 2005).


Adger, N., Arnell, N. & Tompkins, E. 2005. Successful adaptation to climate change across scales. Global Environmental Change, 15: 77–86.

Brooks, N. 2003. Vulnerability, risk and adaptation: a conceptual framework. No. 38. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. (http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/sites/default/files/wp38.pdf).

IPCC. 2014. Climate change 2014: synthesis report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC. (http://epic.awi.de/37530/1/IPCC_AR5_SYR_Final.pdf).

UNDP. Glossary. In: United Nations Development Programme [online]. http://www.undp.org/content/sdfinance/en/home/glossary.html

UNFCCC. FOCUS: Adaptation. In: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [online]. http://unfccc.int/focus/adaptation/items/6999.php

Climate change refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer (IPCC 2014). Broadly defined, climate change may be rooted in two different sources:

  • The climate variability: it refers to natural internal processes or external forcings, such as modulations of the solar cycles or volcanic eruptions, which affect the state of the climate for an extended period of time;
  • The anthropogenic climate change: it refers to persistent anthropogenic impacts that create changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use (IPCC 2014).

Many organizations, including the United Nations Framework for Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), use the term in a much more limited sense to mean a change of climate attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is, in addition to natural climate variability, observed over comparable time periods (United Nations 1992).


IPCC. 2014. Climate change 2014: synthesis report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC. (http://epic.awi.de/37530/1/IPCC_AR5_SYR_Final.pdf).

United Nations. 1992. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. (https://unfccc.int/files/essential_background/background_publications_htmlpdf/application/pdf/conveng.pdf).

In a general meaning, mitigation designates the lessening or minimizing of the adverse impacts of a hazardous event (UNISDR). The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) defines the mitigation hierarchy as follows:

  • Avoidance: measures taken to avoid creating impacts from the outset
  • Minimisation: measures taken to reduce the duration, intensity and / or extent of impacts
  • Rehabilitation / restoration: measures taken to rehabilitate degraded ecosystems or restore cleared ecosystems following exposure to impacts
  • Offset: measures taken to compensate for any residual significant, adverse impacts that cannot be avoided, minimised and / or rehabilitated or restored, in order to achieve no net loss or a net gain of biodiversity.

However, in the field of climate change, mitigation often implicitly refers to greenhouse gases (GHGs) emissions. For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines mitigation as the human intervention to reduce the sources or enhance the sinks of GHGs — with the goal of reducing the global level of GHGs.

Mitigation comprises the actions to reduce the level of emissions (eg. switching from fossil fuels to solar energy) and the actions to sequester or store GHGs to remove greater amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (eg. afforestation) (UNFCCC).

Hence, addressing global warming requires both adaptation (to adjust to the changing climate conditions) and mitigation (to minimize the source of climate change).


UNDP. Glossary. In: United Nations Development Programme [online]. http://www.undp.org/content/sdfinance/en/home/glossary.html

UNFCCC. FOCUS: Adaptation. In: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change [online]. http://unfccc.int/focus/adaptation/items/6999.php

UNISDR. Terminology. In: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction [online]. https://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/terminology

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), more than 800 million people are still living on less than US$1.25 a day — the threshold of extreme poverty defined by the agency, in purchasing power parity. The number of people living in extreme poverty dropped from almost 2 billion in 1990 to 836 million in 2015; however, progress has been uneven.

Moreover, the poor often lack access to adequate food, clean drinking water and sanitation. Drawing upon Amartya Sen’s work on non-monetary deprivations (see among other: Sen 1981), the UNDP and the Oxford University’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative (Alkire et al. 2014) have developed a Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), which integrates various non-monetary indicators such as the access to adequate food or education. The MPI aims at identifying more accurately who are the poor to better design poverty reduction policies, as income-poor households and households facing other basic deprivations do not match well, and economic growth does not ensure the reduction of social deprivations (Alkire et al. 2014).

In addition to various absolute thresholds (such as the US$1.25 a day poverty line, or the US$1.90 set up by the World Bank in 2016), a relative poverty threshold may be defined. Middle and high income countries often opt to use a relative poverty lines(Casazza 2015). They are defined in relation to the overall distribution of income in a country – they are set as a share (usually between 40 and 60 percent) of the country’s mean or median income. It means that the threshold arises with the mean or median income.  

Eradicating poverty, “in all its forms everywhere”, is the first Sustainable Development Goal.


Alkire, S., Foster, J.E., Seth, S., Santos, M.E., Roche, J.M. & Ballon, P. 2014. Multidimensional Poverty Measurement and Analysis: Chapter 1 – Introduction. No. Working Paper No. 82. Oxford University’s Poverty and Human Development Initiative. (http://www.ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/OPHIWP082_Ch1.pdf).

Casazza, A. 2015. How are all countries, rich and poor, to define poverty? In: UNDP [online].  http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/blog/2015/10/16/How-are-all-countries-rich-and-poor-to-define-poverty-.html

Sen, A. 1981. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford University Press. 276 pp.

The term “resilience” has somehow become a portmanteau word; authors and practitioners do not always clarify its definition and meaning and the multitude of uses of the word may lead to confusion.

Based on the Latin verb “resilire, resilio”, meaning “bounce” (and subsequently the idea of “bouncing back” (Manyena et al., 2011)), the contemporary use of the word can be traced to the field of physics of materials, where it has been defined to measure the reaction of a material when undergoing a brutal shock (Alexander, 2013). However, its common current use in social sciences is rooted in the ecological field. In 1973, Holling (1973, p.17) states that “resilience determines the persistence of relationships within a system and is a measure of the ability of these systems to absorb changes (…) and still persist”.

Since then, the definition has been enriched and refers to:

  • the capacity of a system, community or society to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance,
  • responding or reorganizing in ways that maintain its essential function, identity and structure (IPCC, 2014)
  • in a timely and efficient manner, including through the preservation and restoration of its essential basic structures and functions through risk management (UNISDR).

Thus, a resilient system is a system that is able to restore a state of equilibrium after a disturbance — which does not necessarily mean the same state as prior to disturbance, but can be a new state of equilibrium without impairing the fundamental structures of the system.

While resilience is a powerful concept to qualify the adaptive capacity (or lack thereof) of a system facing a disaster, disruption or any kind of pressure (Adger, 2000; Gallopin, 2006; Manyena, 2006; Walker et al., 2004), some critics have emerged. A first set of critics point out at its lack of practical usefulness (Aldunce et al., 2015; Reghezza-Zitt et al., 2012; Sudmeier-Rieux, 2014). A second set of critics emphasizes the emergence of a technical approach being adopted by the international resilience-building effort, which seeks to collapse the measurement of resilience into a single index (Weichselgartner and Kelman, 2015). This use of the concept may lead to maintaining the status quo (Pelling, 2011) and overshadow the social and structural roots of inequalities in face of a disaster.


Adger, W.N. 2000. Social and ecological resilience: are they related? Progress in Human Geography, 24(3): 347–364. https://doi.org/10.1191/030913200701540465

Aldunce, P., Beilin, R., Howden, M. & Handmer, J. 2015. Resilience for disaster risk management in a changing climate: Practitioners’ frames and practices. Global Environmental Change, 30: 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.10.010

Alexander, D.E. 2013. Resilience and disaster risk reduction: an etymological journey. Nat. Hazards Earth Syst. Sci., 13(11): 2707–2716. https://doi.org/10.5194/nhess-13-2707-2013

Gallopin, G.C. 2006. Linkages between vulnerability, resilience, and adaptive capacity. Global Environmental Change, 16(3): 293–303.

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual review of ecology and systematics: 1–23.

IPCC. 2014. Climate change 2014: synthesis report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC. (http://epic.awi.de/37530/1/IPCC_AR5_SYR_Final.pdf).

Manyena, S.B. 2006. The concept of resilience revisited. Disasters, 30(4): 434–450. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.0361-3666.2006.00331.x

Manyena, S.B., O’Brien, G., O’Keefe, P. & Rose, J. 2011. Disaster resilience: a bounce back or bounce forward ability? Local Environment, 16(5): 417–424. https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2011.583049

Pelling, M. 2011. Adaptation to climate change: From resilience to transformation. New York, NY, Routledge.

Reghezza-Zitt, M., Rufat, S., Djament-Tran, G., Le Blanc, A. & Lhomme, S. 2012. What Resilience Is Not: Uses and Abuses. Cybergeo : European Journal of Geography. https://doi.org/10.4000/cybergeo.25554

Sudmeier-Rieux, K.I. 2014. Resilience – an emerging paradigm of danger or of hope? Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal, 23(1): 67–80. https://doi.org/10.1108/DPM-12-2012-0143

UNISDR. Terminology. In: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction [online]. [Cited 13 November 2017]. https://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/terminology

Walker, B., Holling, C.S., Carpenter, S. & Kinzig, A. 2004. Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social–ecological Systems. Ecology and Society, 9(2). https://doi.org/10.5751/ES-00650-090205

Weichselgartner, J. & Kelman, I. 2015. Geographies of resilience: Challenges and opportunities of a descriptive concept. Progress in Human Geography, 39(3): 249–267. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132513518834

Secondary cities (sometimes called intermediary or intermediate cities) comprise urban centers that are playing a local and regional role in the spatial organization of a country, without having a national leadership. They are often determined by their population size, function and economic status (Roberts and Hohmann 2014).

  • The population of secondary cities range between 10 and 50% of a country’s largest city, although some can be much smaller than this (Roberts and Hohmann 2014), depending on the national context. However, it is difficult to define any specific threshold, as smaller cities can still be a major sub-national administrative, economic and political center, and larger cities may have little attraction.
  • The most important factor seems to refer to the function of the city within the national urban system. At the global scale, S. Sassen (2001) defines the global city based on its significant role in the globalized economy, but also in the political arena and the cultural sphere. By contrast, a secondary city performs only some of these functions (giving them a specific profile, such as industrial centers, administrative cities etc.), and performs them at a sub-national level (Roberts and Hohmann 2014).

Secondary cities in the Global South experience high demographic growth, often higher than megacities, and they are expected to absorb a significant part of the global demographic growth (Cohen 2006), both from the natural demographic growth and migrations from surrounding rural areas (either on a short-term basis or on the long run). It drives a spatial expansion of the cities in their outskirts, with a shift in land use — from agricultural and natural lands to urbanized lands. This urban development refers to the concept of “ordinary cities” (Robinson 2002) — characterized by overlapping and multiple networks and the diversity of their activities.

However, despite this trend and their critical position to deliver education, health, economic, administrative services (Roberts and Hohmann 2014) to a large share of the national population, they benefit from much less public and private investments than major cities, they often lack major infrastructures, and in the environmental field, they may face inefficient legislations and governance.


Cohen, B. 2006. Urbanization in developing countries: Current trends, future projections, and key challenges for sustainability. Technology in Society, 28(1): 63–80. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techsoc.2005.10.005

Roberts, B. & Hohmann, P. 2014. The Systems of Secondary Cities – The neglected drivers of urbanising economies. CIVIS series. Cities Alliance. (http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/400881468181444474/pdf/898610BRI0CIVI00Box385295B00PUBLIC0.pdf).

Robinson, J. 2002. Global and world cities: a view from off the map. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 26(3): 531–554. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-2427.00397

Sassen, S. 2001. The global city: New york, london, tokyo. Princeton University Press.

UNICEF (2012) defines an urban area based on various criteria:

  • Administrative or political boundaries (e.g., area within the jurisdiction of a municipality or town committee) — this can be broad, such as in China (Qin and Zhang 2014)
  • A threshold population size — although this threshold varies widely depending on the country, ranging from 200 hab. (in Denmark and Norway for instance) to 50,000 hab. (in Japan) (Haub n.d.)
  • A minimal population density (e.g., in India, over 400 hab per sq.km (India Census Bureau 2011))
  • A spatial criteria: areas of densely developed territory (United States Census Bureau), or maximal distance between buildings
  • The economic function (e.g., in India, over 75 % of the active population engaged in non-agricultural activities (India Census Bureau 2011))
  • The presence of urban characteristics (e.g., paved streets, electric lighting, sewerage).

In 2010, 3.5 billion people lived in areas classified as urban.


Haub, C. What Is a City? What Is Urbanization? In: Population Reference Bureau [online]. http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2009/urbanization.aspx

India Census Bureau. 2011. Census of India. (http://censusindia.gov.in/2011-prov-results/paper2/data_files/India2/1.%20Data%20Highlight.pdf).

Qin, B. & Zhang, Y. 2014. Note on urbanization in China: Urban definitions and census data. China Economic Review, 30 (Supplement C): 495–502. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chieco.2014.07.008

Unicef. 2012. Children in an Urban World. UNICEF. (https://www.unicef.org/sowc2012/pdfs/SOWC%202012-Main%20Report_EN_13Mar2012.pdf).

United States Census Bureau. Census Glossary [online]. [Cited 15 November 2017]. https://www.census.gov/glossary/#term_Urban

UNICEF (2012) defines urbanization as the proportion of a country that is urban. However, the word has multiple meanings:

  • In a static approach, it refers to the current share of the population living in urban settlements;
  • It also describes the process of urban growth, either in terms of population or spatial sprawl.

Hence, urbanization refers either to the population (rural vs. urban residents) or to the land use. Social sciences point out the economic, social, cultural and environmental changes that derive from urbanization (Peake and Bain 2017), including rising inequalities (Kanbur and Zhuang 2013), change in consumption patterns or increased vulnerability to various weather-related hazards.


Kanbur, R. & Zhuang, J. 2013. Urbanization and Inequality in Asia. Asian Development Review, 30(1): 131–147. https://doi.org/10.1162/ADEV_a_00006

Peake, L. & Bain, A.L., eds. 2017. Urbanization in a global context. First edition. Don Mills, Ontario, Oxford University Press. 472 pp.

Unicef. 2012. Children in an Urban World. UNICEF. (https://www.unicef.org/sowc2012/pdfs/SOWC%202012-Main%20Report_EN_13Mar2012.pdf).

The vulnerability framework has been widely defined in risks management and environmental studies. Vulnerability can be defined as the propensity or predisposition of a system (either natural or human) to be adversely affected by a perturbation (Brooks 2003; IPCC 2014). Other definitions emphasize the damages caused by such event: UNEP (2007) characterizes vulnerability as the degree to which a community, a population, an ecosystem, a territory etc. is susceptible to adverse effects of a hazard.

Vulnerability has two dimensions:

  • An exogenous one: the exposure to a hazard (and the adverse effects depend on the amplitude and the frequency of the hazard)
  • An endogenous one, which is two-fold: the sensitivity to the hazard (W. N. Adger 2006; Gallopin 2006), which relates to the susceptibility of the system to be adversely affected by the hazard, and the coping capacity, defining the ability to withstand and overcome the perturbation (W. N. Adger and Vincent 2005).

Vulnerability is a property of a system; however, it is determined by a variety of factors and processes, both internal (learning process and adaptive capacity building) and external (risks management, environmental planning and regulations etc.), which increase (or decrease) the susceptibility of an individual, a community, an ecosystem, to the impacts of hazards (UNISDR).


Adger, W.N. 2006. Vulnerability. Global Environmental Change, 16(3): 268–281. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2006.02.006

Adger, W.N. & Vincent, K. 2005. Uncertainty in adaptive capacity. Comptes Rendus Geoscience, 337(4): 399–410. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.crte.2004.11.004

Brooks, N. 2003. Vulnerability, risk and adaptation: a conceptual framework. No. 38. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. (http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/sites/default/files/wp38.pdf).

Gallopin, G.C. 2006. Linkages between vulnerability, resilience, and adaptive capacity. Global Environmental Change, 16(3): 293–303.

IPCC. 2014. Climate change 2014: synthesis report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the fifth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC. (http://epic.awi.de/37530/1/IPCC_AR5_SYR_Final.pdf).

UNEP. 2007. Glossary of Terms for Negotiators of Multilateral Environmental Agreements. United Nations Environment Programme. (https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/7569/-Glossary%20of%20Terms%20for%20Negotiators%20of%20Multilateral%20Environmental%20Agreements-2007762.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y).

UNISDR. Terminology. In: United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction [online]. https://www.unisdr.org/we/inform/terminology

Governance determines who has power, who makes decisions, how other players make their voice heard and how account is rendered (IOG 2017). Following UNESCO, governance  has been defined to refer to structures and processes that are designed to ensure accountability, transparency, responsiveness, rule of law, stability, equity and inclusiveness, empowerment, and broad-based participation (UNESCO).

The United Nations Development Programme gives a specific definition of environmental and social governance, as a set of standards for a company’s operations that socially conscious investors use to screen investments (UNDP). Environmental criteria look at how a company performs as a steward of the natural environment. Social criteria examine how a company manages relationships with its employees, suppliers, customers and the communities where it operates.


IOG. 2017. What is Governance? In: Institute on Governance [online]. https://iog.ca/what-is-governance/

UNDP. Glossary. In: United Nations Development Programme [online]. http://www.undp.org/content/sdfinance/en/home/glossary.html

UNESCO. Concept of governance. In: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [online]. http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/strengthening-education-systems/quality-framework/technical-notes/concept-of-governance/

The term precarity has only recently appeared within the English language literature, by contrast to its very common use in continental Europe since early 1970s, particularly in France (Barbier, 2005; Bourdieu, 1997; Paugam, Zoyem and Charbonnel, 1993). Precarity has first referred to the degradation of employment conditions, and designates the subsequent unstable living conditions. It evocates the revocable and unstable nature of what it applies to. Therefore, it qualifies the lack of security, stability, assets and resources.

Precarious people have become an often-used category in social sciences to embed people who are not necessarily currently poor but are facing unstable and adverse conditions in their access to basic resources, including employment, housing, healthcare, social relationships etc (Pulliat, 2013). As such, precarity has become a central theme of social contestation in continental Europe and is a central motif used by various activists in social justice movements (Waite, 2009). `


Barbier, J.-C. 2005. La précarité, une catégorie française à l’épreuve de la comparaison internationale. Revue française de sociologie, Vol. 46(2): 351–371.

Bourdieu, P. 1997. La précarité est aujourd’hui partout. Paper presented at Rencontres Européennes contre la Précarité, 13 Decembre 1997, Grenoble. http://lcs.allende.lyc14.ac-caen.fr/~molinas/CDT_2008-2009/docs/Chap3_La%20pr%E9carit%E9%20est%20partout.doc

Paugam, S., Zoyem, J.-P. & Charbonnel, J.-M. 1993. Précarité et risque d’exclusion en France. La Documentation Française.

Pulliat, G. 2013. Vulnérabilité alimentaire et trajectoires de sécurisation des moyens d’existence à Hanoi : une lecture des pratiques quotidiennes dans une métropole émergente. PhD thesis, University Paris Ouest – Nanterre

Waite, L. 2009. A Place and Space for a Critical Geography of Precarity? Geography Compass, 3(1): 412–433. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-8198.2008.00184.x