Graham Sustainability Institute

Improving Climate Change Social Vulnerability Assessments: New Indicators of Adaptive Capacity

Project Team

Paige Fischer, U-M School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) (PI)
Wayne Baker, U-M Ross School of Business
John Kim, U.S. Forest Service
Matt Sehrsweeney, SEAS

Project Summary

Climate change is the defining threat of our era, and thus projecting and understanding vulnerability to people and the ecosystems they depend on is an urgent task. Social vulnerability consists of three components: exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity.

Indicator-based frameworks for assessing social vulnerability have attracted significant attention from policymakers and practitioners who seek to target populations and geographic areas with programs and policies. However, although exposure (the chance of harm) and sensitivity (potential extent of harm) are relatively well understood and quantifiable, capacity to adapt has been more difficult to operationalize.

This project seeks to improve frameworks for assessing social vulnerability to climate change by identifying reliable indicators of adaptive capacity to the impacts of climate change at the community level. The U.S. Forest Service has made commitments to conduct regional vulnerability assessments and adaptation planning, and the indicators this project develops will be incorporated into their frameworks used to prioritize programmatic efforts.

The team will complete ethnographic case studies of communities in the interior Pacific Northwest identified as vulnerable in a previous pilot assessment. This work will generate:

  • A set of community profiles describing adaptive processes on a governance network level, and
  • A set of indicators of adaptive capacity that the U.S. Forest Service and other relevant entities can use in their climate adaptation policy frameworks.

This project will improve practitioners’ understanding of adaptive capacity, enhance their ability to create effective vulnerability-related policy, and strengthen collaborative research and practical relationships across academic, governmental, and community institutions involved in adapting to the impacts of climate change.

This project received a $10,000 Catalyst Grant in 2019.