Assessing vulnerabilities to the effects of global change: an eight step approach

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Abstract

In the recent years, global environmental change research has seen increased attention to the concept of vulnerability. There have been a growing number of vulnerability assessments, but relatively little discussion on appropriate and common methods. Here we propose a method to guide vulnerability assessments of coupled human–environment systems toward a common objective: informing the decision-making of specific stakeholders about options for adapting to the effects of global change. We suggest five criteria vulnerability assessments must at least possess to achieve this objective. They should have a knowledge base from various disciplines and stakeholder participation, be place based, consider multiple interacting stresses, examine differential adaptive capacity, and be prospective as well as historical. On the basis of these criteria, we present a general methodological guideline of eight steps. To examine whether these eight steps, if attentively coordinated, do in fact achieve the criteria, and in turn satisfy the objective of the assessment, we discuss two case studies. We expect most readers to identify some of the steps as part of their well-established disciplinary practices. However, they should also identify one or more steps as uncommon to their research traditions. Thus taken together the eight steps constitute a novel methodological framework. We hypothesize that if researchers employ this framework, then the products of the research will (1) achieve the objective of preparing stakeholders for the effects of global change on a site-specific basis, and (2) further the “public good” of additional insights through cross-study comparisons of research projects designed according to common principles.