Adaptation & Vulnerability

Adaptation & Vulnerability at SEI-US


Climate change is no longer just a future concern; it is here and is challenging us now and for the foreseeable future. Even if we act promptly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the carbon we've already pumped into the atmosphere will continue to affect our climate system. Though climate science remains uncertain, and not all will be affected equally, we can expect that many parts of the world will see higher temperatures, sea-level rise, more frequent and intense natural hazards, and changed rainfall patterns.


There is no question that we need to adapt to climate change - but there are plenty of questions on how to adapt. Many countries and communities don't know where to begin: Should they build sea-walls as defense from sea-level rise and storm surges? Should they relocate entire communities living along riverbanks, in coastal zones, or on hills and mountains? Or do they need to go further, restructuring national institutions and policies or reshaping economic development priorities? Each of these approaches has different financial, social, environmental and political implications.

This is where SEI comes in: helping countries and communities to develop and then implement sound adaptation strategies. SEI has been working on adaptation, vulnerability and resilience issues for over a decade across its seven centers, helping to identify approaches that work in a broad range of situations. The new adaptation program at SEI's US Center, led by Dr. Lisa Schipper, in our Davis office, focuses on five key areas:

Adaptation and migration

Civilizations have used migration for centuries as a way to cope with adverse conditions at home and seize opportunities elsewhere, temporarily or permanently. Some are already doing the same in response to variable and uncertain climate, but does it really leave people better off in the short, medium and long term? Is it a viable strategy for climate change? Should it be supported through international policies, institutions and other mechanisms? Or should the priority be to make things better for people where they are? We explore these and many other questions, looking at both international and internal migration around the world, with an emphasis on developing countries.

House on stilts in Thailand

Adaptation and sustainable development

Adaptation has been described as an opportunity to take a new look at development, but this requires examining not only financial flows and institutions, but also underlying development problems and how they contribute to climate change vulnerability. Adaptation has to begin by gauging vulnerability, but because this is tremendously challenging, a more superficial project-based approach is almost always taken. Our work seeks to understand how adaptation can be part of sustainable development in practice, and not just in theory.

Adaptation and natural resources management

An important starting point for addressing climate change impacts is to look at how societies relate to natural resources. Understanding attitudes and behaviors around resource use can help identify what types of adaptation strategies are viable for a particular society, and which ones are likely to be maladaptive. Our work draws on political ecology and social contract theory to examine how the governance, use and planning of natural resources contribute to climate change vulnerability and its reduction.

Risk and culture

It is crucial to understand how society and culture influence our attitudes and behavior toward climate change and natural hazard risks. We research the challenges and opportunities posed by socio-culturally derived world views, with a particular focus on the role of religion. By better understanding local cultures, we aim to identify how the concepts of risk and vulnerability reduction might be encouraged without threatening existing beliefs.

El Salvador after TS Agatha

Adaptation and disaster risk reduction

Extreme events such as droughts, floods and tsunamis require rapid responses but also offer windows of opportunity for understanding "what went wrong." But these opportunities are time-sensitive, especially when governments are scrambling to develop reconstruction plans. The challenge is to help governments respond quickly, but also in a way that increases the long-term resilience of affected communities. Our work monitors how political, institutional, behavioral and attitudinal changes occur following extreme events. Knowledge generated in this manner can be used by governments to help them make rapid but sound decisions about recovery and reconstruction in a way that supports adaptation to climate change.


Lisa Schipper