To make informed choices on something as complex as climate change policy, it’s important to incorporate scientific evidence into the decision-making process. Yet oftentimes scientific assessments do not reach decision-makers, making it difficult to develop evidenced-based policies that lead to effective action.

For instance, climate change vulnerability assessments (VAs) convey important, scientifically based information on how exposed and sensitive a population is to climate change, as well as its capacity to adapt to change.

However, VAs are often not utilized to
their fullest potential in the realm of decision-making.

What Is a Vulnerability Assessment?

In the context of climate change adaptation, a vulnerability assessment (VA) is a study that identifies current and plausible future impacts of climate change, the sensitivities of people and ecosystems to the impacts, and the existing capacities that can support adjustment to impacts (called “adaptive capacity”). The VA may include several methods to assess exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity, such as analysis of historic and modeled climate data, livelihood surveys, crop models, and ecosystem studies, which are used to develop recommendations to provide planners a guide to addressing vulnerability to climate change. Although natural and social scientists often conduct the VA, its process requires consultations with a wide range of stakeholders, such as community groups and policy makers, so that the design and implementation of the assessment incorporates local knowledge about climate change adaptation. VAs ultimately help such stakeholders understand vulnerability to climate change and evaluate options that may minimize negative impacts and increase resilience.

The recent Experts’ Meeting on Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment Utility and Uptake, hosted by African and Latin American Resilience to Climate Change, explored how findings from VAs can be better integrated into decision-making. Climate change adaptation researchers and practitioners from around the world spent two days discussing strategies that support the “uptake” of assessment results.

This framing helps to think about how VAs can be more fully incorporated into decision-making about climate change and adaptation. | Source: McGray et al. 2014

Establishing Credibility, Salience, and Legitimacy

The uptake process can be framed around establishing credibility, salience, and legitimacy:

  • Credibility refers to the perceived technical quality and adequacy of the presented evidence and claims. In other words, is the VA providing trustworthy and accurate information? Case studies from Kenya and Vietnam presented in the workshop show that credibility can come from different stakeholders contributing technical aspects to the VA. This does not necessarily mean discussing data from scientific publications, but instead integrating quality scientific information with local knowledge. In the case from Kenya, the VA used data from satellite maps as well as input from pastoralists about their experiences with droughts. In Vietnam, flood data was used along with input from local level stakeholders in an urban planning context. In both cases, scientists leading the VAs met face-to-face with local stakeholders, and then integrated scientific and local knowledge to develop credible VAs.

  • Salience is the perceived relevance of the technical information. Developing salience may depend on the timing and release of the VA. For instance, in Kenya, the VA was highly relevant to decision makers because it provided critical, timely information to help decide where and how to invest climate funds. In the case of Uganda, donors used the results of the VA to determine how to develop adaptation programs, making the VA highly relevant to donors and their partners.

  • Establishing legitimacy can be quite tricky compared to building credibility and salience. Legitimacy is based on the acknowledgement and acceptance of the study by a broad range of stakeholders representing all of the groups that may be impacted by climate change. This means that those leading the VA process should make an effort to ensure that this broad and representative group of stakeholders contribute to the VA. The contributions should be voluntary and meaningful (e.g., resulting in actions that yield tangible and equitable improvements).

The Role of Knowledge Brokers, Champions, and Communications

Establishing credibility, salience, and legitimacy may not be possible without knowledge brokers, champions, and means to effectively communicate VA findings to decision-makers.

  • Knowledge brokers can be involved in developing the VA, and they can also provide links to decision-makers and stakeholders. They may contribute to the VA in terms of providing technical knowledge, but they are also in a position to facilitate between different stakeholders in the VA process. Knowledge brokers can also link scientists with decision- and policy-makers who may benefit from using the VA to make adaptation decisions.

  • Champions may not be directly involved with VAs, but are motivated to act on the findings and integrate them into decision-making. Champions do not usually provide technical support to developing the VAs, but primarily focus on using the VA findings to improve their plans and programs and/or link the VAs to decision-making processes that influence other program implementers and policy makers.

While integrating a VA into the Madhya Pradesh (India) State Action Plan on Climate Change, the Environmental Planning and Coordination Organization (EPCO) acted as a knowledge broker and a champion. As a knowledge broker, EPCO provided data needed to build the VA’s credibility, and also helped translate VA findings to decision-makers to build salience. As a champion, EPCO advocated for the VA among key government decision-makers. In El Salvador, the Minister of Environment became a champion of the VA when he realized the importance of including VA findings into policies.

Of course, building credibility, salience, and legitimacy through knowledge brokers and champions may not be possible without effective communications. Experience from the VAs mentioned above shows that multiple communication strategies are necessary to target various audiences. If VAs are disseminated in written documents, they may be easy to share—but they’re not useful if they are long, extremely technical, and not translated in local languages. Written communication needs to be coupled with public outreach, where information is not only shared verbally, but interactively, thereby creating space for dialogue.

Although the diagram above depicts a linear uptake process, in reality, it is often iterative, with communication taking place throughout the assessment process. Credibility, salience, and legitimacy may not be established equally, equitably, or linearly. Knowledge brokers and champions may not always have the right skills and resources. Furthermore, the uptake process depends heavily on the specific context for decision-making, which varies depending on socio-economic, political economy, and institutional factors. The ability of the VA’s implementers to understand and plan for the often complex environments where VAs are needed will also determine the level of uptake that occurs.

Even though reality is multi-faceted and dynamic, making these connections can improve the utility of scientific findings to influence decision-making in a positive way. This, in turn, can lead to implementation of appropriate policies and projects, creating a path for successful climate change adaptation.