How vulnerable is your livelihood to climate change?

Mark Reed
August 7, 2013

There are many frameworks that can help us assess the vulnerability of livelihoods to climate change, but we often don’t think about how the effects of climate change may interact with other drivers of change.

And we rarely consider what factors might influence people’s uptake of adaptations to climate change, or consider potential trade-offs between adaptation options.

The impacts of future climate change on many ecosystem services are uncertain, but it is clear that those who depend most on natural resources are likely to be most severely affected.

Although the challenges of climate change may seem distant and marginal compared to poverty alleviation and economic development in many parts of the developing world, there is a growing recognition that poverty and the impacts of climate change are closely interconnected, e.g., impacting upon land availability (due to sea-level rise), water availability for rain-fed agriculture and reducing production in fisheries due to the emergence of new diseases and other factors.

Unless we can better understand what the future might hold and how to prepare for it, we could see major disruptions to ecosystem services that could threaten existing livelihoods and further increase the vulnerability of the poor to climatic and other future changes, e.g., related to globalisation. This presents a challenge for experts working on behalf of international development organisations, who need better tools to assist land managers in developing countries maintain their livelihoods, as climate change puts pressure on the ecosystem services that they depend upon.

Although the sustainable livelihoods framework is widely used and offers many useful insights, it also has a number of limitations, and has rarely been used to assess the vulnerability of rural livelihoods to climate change.

For this reason, some colleagues and I have just published a paper exploring synergies between the sustainable livelihoods framework and other widely used analytical frameworks, with the goal of developing an integrated framework for assessing livelihood vulnerability to climate change.

Despite its shortcomings, the sustainable livelihoods framework offers a structured space in which to integrate and organise complementary theories and concepts about livelihood vulnerability to climate change. Natural capital from the livelihoods framework can be considered both as stocks of capital and flows of ecosystem services that may be affected differently by climate change.

The effectiveness of climate change adaptation options may be measured by looking at the sensitivity of natural capital (and associated ecosystem services) and other capital assets, to the levels of climate change a system is exposed to.

If a sustainable livelihood is built on maintaining critical levels of natural capital and associated ecosystem services, then the long-term viability and sustainability of adaptations may be measured by looking at their effect on natural capital and ecosystem service provision.

However, adaptations based on past and existing responses to climate variability and change may have limited success under future conditions that have not been previously experienced. Innovation will therefore be necessary to develop adaptations that can reduce vulnerability to the twin challenges of climate change and poverty in the developing world. This may involve identifying and realising untapped ecosystem services or using existing assets and services in new ways.

A range of theories and concepts can help understand how such innovations are evaluated, refined and disseminated within livelihood strategies. For example, diffusion theory explores the way people make decisions about the adoption of innovative adaptations. Social learning helps explain how people learn about innovative adaptations in their social context, and how people learn about adaptations through interactions with those in their social network.

Adaptive management addresses some of the perceived weaknesses of transitions management, and supports multi-stakeholder decision-making through iterative experiments to explore how adaptive options might play out in the socio-ecological system at multiple temporal and spatial scales. Rather than seeking to understand how adaptations are adopted and diffused through socio-ecological systems, transitions management seeks to identify transition pathways along which these systems can be actively transformed towards more sustainable futures.

Adaptive management and transitions management show how livelihood strategies from livelihoods analysis (which are usually focused on the household scale) can be evaluated, refined and replicated to achieve adaptation at meso- and macro-scales.

This then takes adaptation into the realm of governance, where it is possible to recognise that many ecosystem services are in fact “common goods” that it is impossible to prevent people competing for, as part of their livelihood strategies. As Eleanor Ostrom and others have shown, the cooperative behaviour necessary to protect critical levels of natural capital depends on human motivation, rules governing use, and resource characteristics.

Devising effective governance systems is akin to a co-evolutionary race in which the rules governing resource use are able to evolve with changing socio-ecological conditions. A set of rules crafted to fit one set of socio-ecological conditions may erode as social, economic and technological developments increase the potential for human damage to ecosystems and to the biosphere itself.

Of course, humans also devise ways of evading rules. Thus, successful commons governance requires that rules evolve. Devising ways to sustain the Earth's ability to support diverse life, including a reasonable quality of life for humans, involves making decisions under uncertainty, complexity and substantial biophysical constraints, as well as conflicting human values and interests.

Mobile sand dunes in SW Botswana encroaching on the homestead of a pastoralist family. Climate change predictions suggest this area will become increasingly arid, with mobile dunes encroaching on grazing lands that currently sustain the livelihoods of local communities.

So in our paper, we combined elements of each of these frameworks to come up with an integrated framework for assessing livelihood vulnerability to climate change, and identify and target no-regrets anticipatory climate change adaptation options. It suggests following four broad steps:

  1. Determine the likely level of exposure to climate change, and how climate change might interact with existing stresses and other future drivers of change
  2. Determine the sensitivity of stocks of capital assets and flows of ecosystem services to climate change
  3. Identify factors influencing decisions to develop and/or adopt different adaptation strategies, based on innovation or the use/substitution of existing assets
  4. Identify and evaluate potential trade-offs between adaptation options.

I wonder whether any of the ongoing ESPA projects might be able to provide data and experience that could help test and refine this framework?

For example, the ESPA-ASSETS project is helping us better understand how the effects of climate change on the provision of ecosystem services might be modulated by future changes in land use. Similarly, the Dynamic drivers of disease in Africa ESPA project is considering how the combined drivers of climate change, land use change and urbanization are driving disease risk. By better understanding how individuals are likely to behave in response to such scenarios, it may be possible to develop adaptation strategies that can achieve more widespread uptake.

The ESPA-ASSETS project is investigating trade-offs between adaptation options to enhance understanding of their aggregate effects on ecosystem services, and ultimately upon food security and health. This sort of research might enable the development of complementary bundles of adaptation options that reduce trade-offs and enhance synergistic benefits for poverty alleviation and ecosystem service provision.

ESPA’s ALTER and P4GES projects are investigating whether ecosystem services that have previously not been paid for directly by society (e.g. climate regulation) may be combined with existing assets to provide new livelihood options that can reduce poverty whilst also increasing resilience to climate change.

Although adaptation strategies often involve substitution between assets to sustain livelihoods (e.g., liquidating natural capital like forests to generate financial capital), innovative adaptation and poverty alleviation options may also emerge by exploiting hitherto untapped assets (e.g., enhancing natural capital in the form of carbon stocks by marketing the carbon sequestration potential of new adaptation options).

Mark Reed is Professor in Interdisciplinary Environmental Research at the Centre for Environment & Society Research in the Birmingham School of the Built Environment at Birmingham City University mark.reed [at] ">mark.reed [at]

Further reading:

M.S. Reed, G. Podesta, I. Fazey, N. Geeson, R. Hessel, K. Hubacek, D. Letson, D. Nainggolan, C. Prell, M.G. Rickenbach, C. Ritsema, G. Schwilch, L.C. Stringer & A.D. Thomas (2013). Combining analytical frameworks to assess livelihood vulnerability to climate change and analyse adaptation options. Ecological Economics, 94, 66–77.