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Climate change vulnerability and adaptive capacity: Evaluating collaborative landscape decisionmaking

August, 2012 to December, 2017

This project seeks to improve understanding of social vulnerability and adaptive capacity at the community and landscape scales and evaluate collaborative scenario-building exercises as a method for encouraging multi-stakeholder learning and adaptation planning.

Communities in the interior West face myriad ecological and socioeconomic changes due to climate change. These communities are already coping with and adapting to prolonged drought, insect and disease outbreaks, changing fire regimes, extreme weather events, lower late summer stream flow, and shifts in recreation and tourism. Land management agencies need vulnerability assessments of human communities near and/or dependent on national forests and grasslands, but the vulnerability assessments developed thus far focus largely on biophysical vulnerabilities. Effective methods for both in-depth understanding of social/community vulnerability and for rapid assessment need to be developed. Alongside improved vulnerability assessment, there is also a need for an improved empirical understanding of the adaptive capacities of communities and how they might increase their adaptive capacity in the face of uncertain climate changes.


Two researchers engage a group of local stakeholders in the scenario building process
Two researchers engage a group of local stakeholders in the scenario building process
This project addresses these needs by advancing an innovative research design that integrates various interdisciplinary methods in collaborative scenario-building. Climate models indicate that landscapes and communities face unprecedented change, but there is considerable uncertainty concerning specific future climate change impacts on western landscapes and little knowledge of how individuals, groups, and communities formulate decisions under such conditions. In particular, uncovering how individual and group risk perceptions, institutional dynamics (the interactions between rules, regulations, and organizations), and governance arrangements (the distribution of authority) interact to impact community decision-making - in the face of change and uncertainty - is critical for fostering socially and ecologically sustainable futures for communities.

Pairing research that identifies vulnerabilities with attention to improved adaptive capacity provides both a realistic picture of threats as well as possible paths toward community action and empowerment. Moreover, comprehending the complex, interconnected social and ecological feedbacks, linkages, and path dependencies that drive decision-making processes will not only contribute to fundamental theoretical advances in the social and ecological sciences but improve land managers’ ability to navigate climate change throughout the interior West.

This project addresses the following research questions:

  • How do community members characterize risk, vulnerability, and adaptive capacity in the context of various landscape transformation scenarios and how are these perceptions tied to current institutional dynamics (the interactions between both formal and informal rules, regulations, and organizations)?

  • What kinds of responses are suggested by community members and what resources, networks, and governance arrangements are necessary to carry out such responses?

  • What are the constraints and opportunities (including perceptions and institutions) that shape decision-making processes at the community and landscape scales? What disputes and conflicts might arise in these processes?

  • How can this multi-scale, iterative scenario-building process that integrates both ecological science and local knowledge, successfully guide communities through adaptation plans?

  • How can the spatial and temporal inconsistencies between climate change predictions and the scales at which individuals and communities respond and adapt be reconciled? How can we meaningfully scale up the findings from this pilot to larger landscapes?

  • How can the Forest Service, other federal and state agencies, and communities utilize the knowledge gained through scenario-building exercises? What sorts of scenario building and at what scale would be useful for rapid vulnerability assessment, given available time, resources, and expertise?

Key Findings

Winter Park
Winter Park
This research offers a number of immediate benefits. It builds an understanding of vulnerability and adaptive capacity in rural communities in the selected case study communities in Grand County, Colorado and the Big Hole Valley in Montana. The study also develops and evaluates potential decision-support tools such as scenario-building to assist communities, non-governmental organizations, and federal land management agencies in assessing vulnerability, nurturing adaptive capacity, and planning under uncertainty in the context of landscape change.

Research results will assist these groups by:

1) indicating potential pathways and actions for adaptation,

2) building processes for other communities to use in assessing vulnerability and adaptive capacity, and

3) empowering communities to take action and preserve their economic competitiveness while promoting sustainable futures.


Parker, Julia Dawn ; Avant, Bill , 2000

Research Topics: 
Climate Change; Human response
National Strategic Program Areas: 
Resource Management and Use
National Priority Research Areas: 
Climate Change
RMRS Science Program Areas: 
Human Dimensions
RMRS Strategic Priorities: 
Human-Landscape Interactions; Resilient Landscapes
Project Contact: 

Principal Investigators:
Laurie Yung - University of Montana
Daniel J. Murphy - University of Cincinnati