Assessing vulnerability

This is the process of identifying, quantifying and prioritizing (or ranking) the vulnerability of species and ecosystems to a particular stressor.

A framework for assessing vulnerability to climate change was first proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and includes the elements of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. Assessments of species or ecosystem vulnerability to climate change provide three essential contributions to species conservation by identifying: (i) sources of vulnerability, (ii) potential impacts, and (iii) adaptation options. The framework is able to integrate ecological, social, economic and political information across sectors, and consider non-climate determinants of vulnerability through adaptive capacity. The assessment outputs provide knowledge for identifying actions that can reduce vulnerability, prioritize adaptation efforts, and assess the relative costs and benefits (including risks) of potential management interventions.

Vulnerability assessments have been conducted for many species, populations and habitats worldwide, and yet there are not many practical tools available online. There are no simple user-friendly guides to undertaking a vulnerability assessment, although some international organizations provide conceptual frameworks and online training. There are however, many results-focused reports and papers that describe the utility of the framework and the process used.


  • United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) online training package for vulnerability and adaptation: This links to a detailed downloadable training package (containing PowerPoint presentations, along with substantial supporting material) on methods and tools for vulnerability and adaptation (V&A) assessment. Chapter 5 would be of particular interest to Caribbean coastal managers as this chapter focuses on coastal resources and includes methods to assess and plan for the effects of sea-level rise.
  • “Current and future impacts of the climate changes we are experiencing will impose further challenges to the way we think about and manage businesses, regions and industries in an uncertain environment.” For this reason, the Queensland Government developed the Climate Change Risk Management Matrix (available from: The Matrix is a tool “that can help address uncertainty by identifying the impacts, risk and vulnerability and adaptive responses associated with climate change. Identifying and analysing risks and opportunities, using this risk management approach, can help to plan responses to climate variability and climate change – and can enable organisations to be proactive and more effective in adapting to future uncertainty.” The matrix can be filled in quickly (<1 hour) either for ecosystems or industry sectors enabling the posing and answering of questions like: what is the vulnerability of our marine tourism industry to an increased frequency of coral bleaching events?
  • The Socioeconomic Data and Applications Centre (SEDAC) has an online tool that provides a synthesis and maps of the geographic distribution of climate change vulnerability: Although these are general, it may be of interest to Caribbean reef managers to compare their vulnerability to that of other countries in the region or elsewhere. The complete report and full set of maps is available for download from the link above.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has a conceptual framework for identifying and assessing vulnerability: This page specifically defines the meaning of ‘vulnerability’ with regards to climate change and lists key vulnerabilities like water resources and coastal systems.
  • The 929-page book “Vulnerability of Tropical Pacific Fisheries and Aquaculture to Climate Change” (2011) addresses the vulnerability of different ecosystems including coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass and addresses the vulnerability of coastal and open-ocean fisheries. The table of contents can be viewed at: PDF and e-book editions are available for download at: Although it has a Pacific Ocean focus, much of the information is applicable to the Caribbean.
  • GBRMPA’s Climate Change and the Great Barrier Reef: A vulnerability assessment (2007): Individual chapters of this 24-chapter publication are available for download and each chapter has a focus on the vulnerability of key sectors, like coral reefs, marine mammals, birds, islands, and the tourism industry. This publication concludes with a section on vulnerability and management applications. This is a detailed report likely to be useful for Caribbean managers as an example of how to undertake a vulnerability assessment, present the results, and use the results to inform management actions and strategy.

Key Publications

Scanning the Conservation Horizon: A Guide to Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment (2011) Glick P, Stein BA and Edelson NA (Eds). National Wildlife Federation, Washington, D.C.

Assessing key vulnerabilities and the risk from climate change, p 779–810. In: Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (2007) Schneider SH, Semenov S, Patwardhan A, Burton I, Magadza CHD, Oppenheimer M, Pittock AB, Rahman A, Smith JB, Suarez A and Yamin F. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Parry ML, Canziani OF, Palutikof JP, van der Linden PJ and Hanson CE (Eds.) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

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

Global Change Vulnerability – Assessing the European Human-Environment System (2004) Schroter and the ATEAM consortium. Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam, Germany.