The purpose of this paper is to present a tentative conceptual framework for studies of vulnerability and adaptation to climate variability and change, generally applicable to a wide range of contexts, systems and hazards. Social vulnerability is distinguished from biophysical vulnerability, which is broadly equivalent to the natural hazards concept of risk. The IPCC definition of vulnerability is discussed within this context, which helps us to reconcile apparently contradictory definitions of vulnerability. A concise typology of physically defined hazards is presented; the relationship between the vulnerability and adaptive capacity of a human system depends critically on the nature of the hazard faced. Adaptation by a system may be inhibited by process originating outside the system; it is therefore important to consider “external” obstacles to adaptation, and links across scales, when assessing adaptive capacity.