Identifying Opportunities & Assessing Vulnerability: Essential Characteristics of Climate Change Vulnerability Assessments

By Eliot Levine, WWF-US

Last August I found myself in a dark room at a conference facility outside of Delhi, listening to what was meant to be an adaptation talk. The speaker was supposed to be walking us through adaptation options for conservationists and natural resource planners in India, but with only 15 minutes left in his hour-long talk, I had yet to even hear the word “adaptation” mentioned. Which is maybe why one nervous looking individual crept up to an open chair next to me, sat down, and started drawing a map on the back of his workshop agenda. When he was done he tapped me on the shoulder and (in a whisper) started to tell me the story of the fishery he had just finished labeling on the map. The story he told was definitely troubling. This particular fishery that his work has been focusing on, and that thousands of people rely upon was seeing a significant decline in productivity. Looking up from the map he said “I believe this is because of climate change… so what should we do?” Smiling, he handed me his pen and awaited my answer. My response was unsurprisingly unsatisfying- “Have you and your colleagues though about doing a vulnerability assessment?” I asked.

Climate change presents us with a set of complex problems both temporally and spatially. We can feel, see, and monitor the changes we are experiencing now for instance, but we also know that the full extent to which we will feel the changes in our climate has not yet been revealed. There are really two types of adaptation: Reactive adaptation, which is a reaction to the most acute and present impacts we are experiencing, and Proactive, or Long Term adaptation planning, which focuses on being less defensive and more on being prepared ahead of time.

If you are interested in preparing for the long-term, doing a vulnerability assessment (VA) is something you want to consider. Assessing vulnerability is basically a way of ranking priorities – what changes you can live with, what changes you have to live with, and what changes you can prevent. Of course, you can respond to impacts associated with climate change without a VA, and your strategies for dealing with the drought or rising temperatures you might be experiencing may work in the short-term. However, if you are concerned about those same forces intensifying over time, potential new impacts, or the relationship between climate and nonclimate related challenges, doing a VA should be a priority.

As I noted in an earlier article, the difference between adaptation and work that could be categorized as business-as-usual comes down to the information, tools, and methodologies you employ in order to devise such actions. VAs are a means of gathering, organizing, and analyzing such information. A VA can help you sort out how climate change is interacting with other forces you’re worrying about, such as the economy, agricultural policy, or overfishing. Your VA might tell you that climate change is not important in the scheme of things. Or that climate change is the most important thing to worry about. A good VA helps you sort through the maze of issues in order to make better decisions for the future.

At this point you may be saying to yourself “OK, OK I get it. I know I need to do a VA, now give me the step-by-step instructions I need to do one.” Unfortunately I have what is probably another unsatisfying answer. The first thing anyone should know about VAs is that there is no universal methodology. You might now be thinking, “But I have seen about five different methodologies come across my desk this week alone, just tell me which is the best one”.  Of course you have! Everyone wants tools and methodologies that they can apply to the places they work, and sharing our respective methodologies is helpful. However VAs like all adaptation tools must be adapted to the context in which you are working. Reading several VAs before beginning can help you get a sense of what seems useful to your situation and what might need to be adjusted.

While its impossible toendorse a single methodology that will work in all situations, there are a few components that all good VAs should probably consider. This list is by no means exhaustive, but hopefully it will provide those who are just starting to think about doing a VA with some guidelines to consider.

Define your audience and objectives. This has the potential to get lost in the details of the more technical aspects of VA development. Don’t let this happen. At its core all VAs are essentially communication tools in that they compile, organize, and analyze information, even if that audience is a local community of farmers, a group of scientists and engineers, or the national Minister of Water. They can be powerful tools in informing others about one’s personal or organizational goals as well as justify the reaso5ns for such goals. Additionally, defining your audience will also help you focus your overall objective. Both of these steps are essential in putting boundaries on what you will and will not do as part of the VA process. A great example of a VA that illustrates the value of considering your audience and overall objective is one that was done by WWF-India.

In this case the primary audience was WWF-India itself. They needed an analysis which would show their staff which regions of the Ganga were most vulnerable in order to decide where adaptation pilot projects would be most useful. Their audience was mostly internal and focused on planning. As such this analysis was very much an organizational management tool.

“Theobjective… istoassessthevulnerabilityofpeople, livelihoodsandecosystemswiththepurposeofidentifyingrelevantadaptationresponse mechanisms, inacriticalstretchofthe Ganga Basinextendingfrom Gangotrito Kanpur. This summarydocument presentstheanalysisofa macro levelvulnerabilityassessment,  basedon secondary data, and has been used to identify highly vulnerable districts for further assessment and implementation of pilot adaptation projects.”  

Include Climate Variables, Non-climate variables, and explore the link between the two. Including climate change considerations in a climate change vulnerability assessment needs no justification. However climate change will most often be one of many stresses facing a species, community, or region. Consider a VA that analyzes the vulnerability of people and livelihoods in the lower Mekong river basin without considering the numerous planned and existing dams.  Such an analysis would be lacking in many ways. Climate change has the potential to alter the timing and quantity of flows throughout the entire basin. So do the dams, the ones in existence, and the ones that are in the planning stages and are yet to be built. Climate change could very realistically alter the way dam operators control the functions of the dam, which will in turn have additional repercussions for communities and ecological systems downstream.

The complications that climate change presents us with can feel all-consuming. However, considering only the potential direct impacts of climate change gives you only a very small portion of the overall picture. This is one of many reasons that the over-reliance on climate models can be very dangerous. Climate models only really provide a small portion of the overall picture- what the climate may look like some time in the future. This leaves out a lot of information necessary to make the types of complicated decisions required of us. However there is a tendency to treat models in a very prescriptive manner (“Oh well, the models say that this region will be viable in the future for our favorite species, so let’s establish a protected area there!). If you do decide to use climate models as part of your VA, be sure to also include other types of analyses that can help provide a more complete, and realistic, picture of what the future may look like.

Span a relevant time scale. I think it’s safe to say that if you are reading this article you probably agree that the earth’s climate is not static. It’s changing. I think it’s also safe to say that the climate a place is experiencing now will not necessarily be the same in a few years. Trying to paint a picture of what the future may look like becomes harder the further from the present we go. Thus, while long-term planning is necessary, the usefulness of a VA decreases the further out you get from its completion. Try focusing your timeline on a short period. 10 years may be an appropriate amount of time, however if the situation in which you are working is changing quickly (population growth, infrastructure development, etc…) a shorter time period may be needed to account for those changes. This brings me to my next point.

Plan on repeating yourself. The usefulness of your VA will decrease every year after its completion. Why, you ask? The simple answer is that things change and you learn more over time. Even priorities shift over time. The whole landscape of issues may alter very suddenly, shifting how you are aware of the climate, development, governments, institutions, non-climate threats… everything, really. Plan on repeating your VA utilizing new data and methodologies as the period of time which you defined for your VA comes to an end. Assessing vulnerability, like any adaptation project, is part of a process that should feed back into itself. To put it another way, it’s not a one-time activity. Planning for this by including VA development in work plans and budgets will make this process less of a burden.

Identify and engage local stakeholders. There are two reasons for this. The first is that these stakeholders will have data and other types of information that may be relevant to your analysis (farmers can help paint a picture of precipitation trends, dam operators can provide information related to flows). The second is that ideally your VA is operationalized in some way, meaning you hope it will spur some sort of actions or projects that build the adaptive capacity of a system or a community. More than likely such actions would require the understanding and help of such stakeholders. This will be much easier if these groups are brought on board early via the VA process. This could be as easy as hosting a workshop in the region where you are working to which local experts, institutional representatives, local communities, and other important stakeholders are invited to review a draft outline of the analysis and identify areas of collaboration. Who knows, this could make your job easier!

Consider opportunities and capacities, not just vulnerabilities. Yes, VA stands for Vulnerability Assessment and therefore the core of such an assessment naturally focuses on the troubles we may face in the future. However, vulnerability is a measure (or function) of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity is defined as a species, communities, or individual’s ability to respond to climate stressors. Thus if you are truly seeking to analyze vulnerability you need to consider not only the threats but the opportunities, tools, and potential advantages that are present as well. One way to consider this when focusing on communities and livelihoods might be through the idea of capital (or assets) as defined by the sustainable livelihoods framework. Ideally a vulnerability assessment results in efforts to reduce the assessed vulnerabilities. Building upon the natural strengths or adaptive capacities of a community, species, or ecosystem is one way of beginning to prioritize adaptation options.

Develop future scenarios. There is a saying that you should never come to your boss with a problem unless you have a solution. Earlier I mentioned the problems associated with the prescriptive uses of models (climate models in particular). So the obvious question is, if you’re not going to use models, what other options are there? One option would be to develop future scenarios that focus on the aspects of a system that you are concerned about (development, temperature increases, changing precipitation, etc…). Developing varied pictures of the future allows you to plan adaptation strategies that correspond to a particular scenario in addition to those that function well across multiple futures. The strength of this approach is that it acknowledges the uncertainty regarding what the future may look like and actively plans for it. An example of a VA methodology that does exactly this is the one outlined in Flowing Forward, a report recently produced by John Matthews (formerly of WWF-US, now with Conservation International), Tom Le Quesne (WWF-UK), and a whole host of other contributors. The unique thing about this approach, even at a relatively early stage in the overall process is that it recognizes that neither climate change nor development is happening in a closed system. Instead of paraphrasing though, here is how the authors describe this step themselves:

“The first stage…is the development of a series of potential narrative scenarios for future change. These scenarios should not be tightly bounded; that is, they are not scenarios in the sense of the economic development and emissions trajectories used by the IPCC, such as the “A1B scenario.” Instead, narrative scenarios here refer to qualitative or semiquantitative “stories” of directions for future development, with explorations of the interactions of those futures with climate change.”

These “qualitative” scenarios can be complimented by trend data (temperature, precipitation, etc..) and historical information. Predicting how species, ecosystems, and communities will respond to climate change is hard to do. However we do have some indication as to what extremes could look like. Looking back in time to see how systems responded to extreme events can provide valuable insights as to how they might respond to similar conditions in the future.

In Conclusion

Combine all of these components with all those different VA methodologies that you see pop into your email inbox and you should have more than enough resources to get started. The most important thing is to remember to write down what works and what does not as you go through the process.  VAs are like any other adaptation activity – they are part of a process that needs to feed back into itself.

One final note: If you have made it this far into the article, have already done a VA (or are in the process of doing one), and are interested in writing about it, we might be interested in publishing your story. If you have a story to tell please write to us at