Theme 3 Vulnerability And Adaptation Analyses Of Coupled Humanenvironment Systems

Not all people, activities, environments, and places are equally vulnerable1 or resilient to the impacts of climate change. Identification of differences in vulnerability across space and time is both a pivotal research issue and a critical way in which scientific research can provide input to decision makers as they make plans to adapt to climate

1 Vulnerability is the degree to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including changes in climate variability and extremes. Vulnerability is a function of the character, magnitude, and rate of climate variation to which a system is exposed, its sensitivity, and its adaptive capacity (NRC, 2010a).

BOX 4.2

Vulnerability and Adaptation Challenges in Coastal Regions

Coastal regions house most of the world's people, cities, and economic activities. For example, in 2000, the coastal counties of California were home to 77 percent of the state's residents, 81 percent of jobs, and 86 percent of the state's gross product—which represents nearly 19 percent of the total U.S. economy (Kildow and Colgan, 2005). A number of climate and climate-related processes have the potential to damage human and environmental systems in the coastal zone, including sea level rise; saltwater intrusion; storm surge and damages from flooding, inundation, and erosion; changes in the number and strength of coastal storms; and overall changes in precipitation amounts and intensity. Under virtually all scenarios of projected future climate change, coastal areas face increased risks to their transportation and port systems, real estate, fishing, tourism, small businesses, power generating and supply systems, other critical infrastructure (such as hospitals, schools, and police and fire stations), and countless managed and natural ecosystems.

Coastal regions are not homogenous, however, and climate change impacts will play out in different ways in different places. Some areas of the coast and some industries and populations are more vulnerable, and thus more likely to suffer harm, than others. Thus, managers and decision makers in the coastal zone—including land use planners, conservation area managers, fisheries councils, transportation planners, water supply engineers, hazard and emergency response personnel, and others—will face a wide range of challenges, many of them place specific, regarding how to respond to the risks posed by climate change. What does a coastal land use planner need to know about climate change impacts in order to make decisions about land use in a particular region? How can a research program provide information that will assist decision makers in such regions?

Knowledge and predictions about just how much sea level will rise in certain regions over time is a fundamental question. However, as noted in Chapter 7, precise projections are not easy to provide. Moreover, sea level rise projections are, by themselves, not sufficient to meet coastal managers' information needs. Managers also need to know how changes in sea level translate into erosion rates, flooding

change. Indeed, the companion report Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change (NRC, 2010a) identifies vulnerability assessments as a key first step in many if not all adaptation-related decisions and actions. An example of the use of vulnerability assessments in the context of climate-related decision making in the coastal zone can be found in Box 4.2.

In addition to merely identifying and characterizing vulnerabilities, scientific research can help identify and assess actions that could be taken to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience and adaptive capacity in human and environmental systems. Combined vulnerability and adaptation analyses can, for example, identify "no-regrets" actions that could be taken at little or no cost and would be beneficial regardless of frequencies, storm surge levels, risks associated with different development setback limits, numbers of endangered species in exposed coastal ecosystems, habitat changes, and changes in water supply and quality parameters. In addition to these climate and other environmental changes, coastal managers need to consider the numbers of hospitals, schools, and senior citizens in potentially affected areas; property tax dollars generated in the coastal zone; trends in tourism; and many other factors.

Vulnerability assessments of human, social, physical, and biological resources in the coastal zone can help decision makers identify the places and people that are most vulnerable to climate change and help them to identify effective steps that can be taken to reduce vulnerability or increase adaptive capacity. To help coastal managers and other decision makers assess risks, evaluate trade-offs, and make adaptation decisions, they need a scientific research program that improves understanding and projections of sea level rise and other climate change impacts at regional scales, integrates this understanding with improved understanding or nonclimatic changes relevant to decision making, identifies and evaluates the advantages and disadvantages of different adaptation options, and facilitates ongoing assessment and monitoring. Such a program would require the engagement of many different kinds of researchers, including those focusing on resource and land use institutions; social dynamics; economic resilience; developing or evaluating regional climate models; sea level and ocean dynamics; coastal ocean circulation; spatial geomorphologic, geologic, and geographical characteristics; and aquatic and terrestrial ecosystem dynamics, goods, and services. In addition to interdisciplinary interactions, research teams would benefit from interactions with decision makers to improve knowledge and understanding of the specific challenges they face (Cash et al., 2003; NRC, 2008h, 2009k). The knowledge gained by these researchers needs to be integrated and synthesized in decision-support frameworks that actively involve and are accessible to decision makers (e.g., Kates et al., 2006; Moser and Luers, 2008). Finally, a research enterprise that includes the development, testing, and implementation of improved risk assessment approaches and decision-support systems will enhance the capacity of decision makers in the coastal zone—as well as other sectors—to respond effectively to climate change.

how climate change unfolds. They can also help to identify sectors, regions, resources, and populations that are particularly vulnerable to changes in climate considered in the context of changes in related human and environmental systems. Finally, scientific research can assist adaptation planning by helping to develop, assess, and improve actions that are taken to adapt, and by identifying barriers to adaptation and options to overcome those barriers. Indeed, many of the chapters in Part II of the report identified vulnerability and adaptation analyses, developing the scientific capacity to perform such analyses, and developing and improving adaptation options as key research needs. Table 4.3 lists some of these needs.

TABLE 4.3 Examples of Research Needs Related to Vulnerability and Adaptation (from Part II)

• Expand the ability to identify and assess vulnerable coastal regions and populations and to develop and assess adaptation strategies, including barriers to their implementation.

• Assess food security and vulnerability of food production and distribution systems to climate change impacts, and develop adaptation approaches.

• Develop and improve technologies, management strategies, and institutions to enhance adaptation to climate change in agriculture and fisheries.

• Develop vulnerability assessments and integrative management approaches and technologies to respond effectively to changes in water resources.

• Assess vulnerabilities of ecosystems and ecosystem services to climate change.

• Assess current and projected health risks associated with climate change and develop effective, efficient, and fair adaptation measures.

• Assess the vulnerability of cities and other parts of the built environment to climate change, and develop methods for adapting.

• Advance understanding of how climate change will affect transportation systems and how to reduce vulnerability to these impacts.

• Develop improved vulnerability assessments for regions of importance in terms of military operations and infrastructure.

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