Vulnerability is a measure of exposure + sensitivity + adaptive capacity

The vulnerability of coastal communities can be assessed by referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) framework for vulnerability. The IPCC refers to vulnerability as a characteristic influenced by exposure to change (E), sensitivity (S) and adaptive capacity (AC). In the context of coastal communities, we now recognise that a community can be vulnerable to climate change depending on how its natural and coastal assets are impacted by climate change (E), how sensitive the community might be to these changes (S), and how able the community is to cope and adapt to these changes (AC).

See tabs below for more detail.



Exposure is a biophysical phenomenon. It is perhaps best gauged by getting to know what the likely climate change scenarios are for a particular community some 5, 25 and 50 years ahead. The potential impacts on the marine and coastal assets of the region associated with each exposure scenario should also be explored. For example, see climate and sea-life.


Your coastal community will need to determine how sensitive you might be to a range of scenarios depicting how marine and coastal resources might be affected by climate change. Communities that are more economically, socially or environmentally dependent on their marine and coastal resources are more sensitive to change. Resource dependency can be assessed by determining the environmental, social and economic components of the relationship that communities have with their marine and coastal resources.

Investing effort in understanding how people are dependent on marine and coastal resources, and thus how they might be sensitive to changes occurring as a result of climate change, will help communities understand the potential impacts associated with climate change and will assist during planning processes.

Environmental sensitivity

The environmental component should describe each of the marine-based industry and recreational sectors dependent on the marine and coastal resources. How do they use these resources? Where? When? What methods do they use to harvest or use the resources?

Social sensitivity

The social component should consider the reasons why the marine and coastal resources are an integral part of people’s lives across all industry sectors and recreational groups; if the resource was affected by some way, how would we would expect to see social impacts? In the fishing industry, for example, we would consider factors such as the strength of identity created around being a commercial fisher. Fishers with a strong identity might be unable to consider an alternative livelihood even in the event of a major climate change event, and would consider remaining a commercial fisher even if the industry became unviable. Factors such as place attachment, strength of formal and informal networks, and employability of community members might also be important to describe how people can be dependent on their marine and coastal resources, and therefore sensitive to climate change.

Economic sensitivity

The economic component of resource dependency reflects the extent that coastal communities are dependent on the financial goods and services provided by marine and coastal resources. The proportion of industry, employment and income associated with marine and coastal resources, and the investment in coastal assets will also be important to consider. The extent to which people are able to transform and enter into another (non-marine) industry may also be useful to understand the level of dependency on marine and coastal resources, and thus the likely sensitivity to change.

Adaptive capacity

Adaptive capacity can moderate the potential impacts associated with climate change. In fact, while a community might indeed be sensitive to changes in climate, they are not necessarily more vulnerable if they possess high levels of adaptive capacity.

Adaptive capacity is the potential to convert existing resources into successful adaptation strategies. More resources (such as financial resources) do not necessarily guarantee that a community is more likely to adapt.

Communities that have a higher adaptive capacity are more likely to manage the risks and uncertainties associated with climate change more effectively. They are more likely to possess strategic skill sets for planning, reorganising, experimenting and learning. They are likely to have a financial buffer or effective networks that allow them to absorb the costs associated with change. They will also be highly active in preparing to adapt to climate change.