Community-Based Climate Vulnerability and
Adaptation Tools: A Review of Tools and Their
SHAWN W. MARGLES WEIS,
DANIEL URENA COT,
AND MIKE WIGGINS
The Nature Conservancy, Austin, Texas, USA
The Nature Conservancy, Chicago, Illinois, USA
NOAA, Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, University of
Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA, and Ecosystems Science Division, Paciﬁc
Island Fisheries Science Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA
Sea Change Consulting LLC, Providence, Rhode Island, USA
International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Les Houches, France
CARE International, Brighton, United Kingdom
International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Geneva, Switzerland
The Nature Conservancy, Coral Gables, Florida
International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, Clayton, Panama
Tearfund, Teddington, Middlesex, United Kingdom
Conservation and development organizations conduct vulnerability and adaptation
assessments to assess the vulnerability of coastal communities and ecosystems to
climate change and to identify adaptation strategies to address these impacts. Local
assessments are needed to provide this information at the scale of communities and
critical habitats. Over the last decade, there has been a proliferation of tools
developed to assess climate vulnerability and adaptation at the community level.
However, there has been limited synthesis of the available tools across disciplines in
the peer-reviewed literature and limited guidance provided to help conservation
practitioners and development planners select which tool is most appropriate for a
given application. This article reviews a number of tools designed for community-
level climate vulnerability and adaptation assessments and highlights their
advantages and limitations to help managers make informed decisions about tool
selection. Selection of tools will involve tradeoffs in terms of the capacity and
resources needed to apply the tools and the aspects of social and ecological
vulnerability that they address.
Keywords climate change, vulnerability, adaptation, vulnerability assessment,
Address correspondence to Elizabeth Mcleod, The Nature Conservancy, 7707 Vail Valley Dr.,
Austin, TX 78749, USA. E-mail: email@example.com
Coastal Management, 43:439–458, 2015
Copyright ÓTaylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0892-0753 print / 1521-0421 online
Climate change has been identiﬁed as a signiﬁcant threat facing coastal communities and
ecosystems (IPCC 2014). Climate change impacts include increases in sea level and sea-
surface temperatures, greater variability in the patterns of rainfall and runoff, changes to
the frequency, intensity, and duration of storms and storm surge, and changes to ocean
chemistry. Such impacts, speciﬁcally sea-level rise, have been identiﬁed as a major threat
to coastal habitats and communities worldwide (Nicholls et al. 2007). In response to these
impacts, communities, governments, and conservation and development organizations
have begun to assess vulnerability to climate change in order to identify adaptation strate-
gies that will build the resilience of social and ecological systems to climate change (e.g.,
Berkes and Jolly 2001; Kelly and Adger 2000; Wongbusarakum and Loper 2011).
Vulnerability is often described as a function of a system’s exposure and sensitivity
to stress and its capacity to absorb or cope with the effects of these stressors (IPCC 2001).
Qualitative and quantitative methods have been used to assess the complexity of social
and ecological drivers of vulnerability and to determine which attributes best characterize
the vulnerability of speciﬁc populations in particular places (Adger 2006; Cutter, Boruff,
and Shirley 2003; Eakin and Luers 2006). However, a number of challenges have been
acknowledged in assessing vulnerability to climate change, adaptive capacity, and adap-
tation strategies. Speciﬁcally, challenges have been identiﬁed in addressing multiple
interacting stressors; capturing socioeconomic and biophysical uncertainty (i.e., it is chal-
lenging to predict how people and ecosystems will respond to change/stress), and
accounting for differences in scale (e.g., different scales of climate change impacts,
responses, proximate causes; scale of assessment vs. scale at which management deci-
sions are made) (Cash and Moser 2000; Cutter et al. 2008; Eakin and Luers 2006; Engle
2011). Additional challenges are due to lack of: adequate datasets at the appropriate scale,
modeling capabilities, and integrating frameworks (Timmermann and Munn 1997). Chal-
lenges have also been noted in identifying appropriate indicators of vulnerability and
adaptive capacity (Vincent 2007).
Factors that inﬂuence vulnerability at the local level can vary signiﬁcantly from place
to place, depending on cultural, political, economic, and ecological characteristics and the
institutional environment in which adaptation occurs. Furthermore, the links between fac-
tors that inﬂuence vulnerability are not well established, making it difﬁcult to weight
them (Kelly and Adger 2000; Smit and Wandel 2006). Although many of the factors
inﬂuencing vulnerability (e.g., poverty, inequality) can be quantiﬁed, not all processes
that determine vulnerability can be reliably identiﬁed, and there is a danger that factors
that can be identiﬁed and included in a composite index may be overemphasized (Kelly
and Adger 2000; Yohe and Tol 2002). Recent progress has been made to address these
challenges and help conservation and development practitioners assess the vulnerability
of communities to climate change (e.g., Marshall et al. 2010; Cinner et al. 2013).
Tools to assess climate vulnerability can help identify people or places that are most
susceptible to harm and identify actions that reduce their susceptibility (Downing et al.
2001; Polsky, Neff, and Yarnal 2007). Since the 1970s, vulnerability assessments have
been applied to assess climate risk; they have evolved from science-driven impact-based
assessments to policy-driven assessments that recommend speciﬁc adaptation options for
minimizing the risks associated with multiple environmental and social stresses (F€
and Klein 2006). Some early assessments have been criticized for lack of knowledge
of climate conditions at scales relevant to local communities, limited consideration of
practical adaptation options and local knowledge, and insufﬁcient engagement of key
440 E. McLeod et al.
stakeholders and consideration of adaptation policy (Burton et al. 2002; F€
ussel and Klein
2006). In addition, quantitative model-based assessments often are not applicable at local
scales, are not available for many communities due to cost and capacity limitations, and
do not explicitly address adaptive capacity of local communities (van Aalst et al. 2008).
Over the past decade, in response to the lack of locally relevant assessment tools,
resources have been developed to assess climate vulnerability and adaptation at the
community level (Asia Development Bank 2011; Gombos, Atkinson, and Wongbusar-
akum 2013; Nakalevu 2006; van Aalst et al. 2008). Such tools provide practical infor-
mation that can support locally developed and locally relevant adaptation strategies.
These tools are used to address a number of conservation and/or development objec-
tives, including: assessing the vulnerability and resilience of coastal ecosystems and
communities to climate impacts; identifying actions to enhance the adaptive capacity
of vulnerable species and communities; gathering information to support community
adaptation efforts; assessing the resilience of infrastructure, agriculture and water
resources; and raising awareness of climate change impacts. An advantage of such
community-based approaches is that they allow for broader stakeholder engagement,
and recognize the role that local political, cultural, economic, institutional, and tech-
nological forces play in shaping people’s ability to anticipate and respond to climate
impacts (van Aalst et al. 2008).
Despite the recent proliferation of community-based tools to assess climate vulnera-
bility and adaptation, there has been limited guidance for conservation and development
planners and managers on how to select an appropriate tool for a given application. There
has also been a lack of synthesis of vulnerability assessment tools in the peer-reviewed lit-
erature that speciﬁcally addresses their strengths and limitations to inform future efforts
and research; much of the available guidance is in the gray literature (Hammill and Tan-
ner 2011; Olhoff and Schaer 2010). In addition, many vulnerability and adaptation tools
have been developed by either development or conservation organizations, with limited
sharing of approaches and lessons learned. Consequently, there is a need for a synthesis
of tools across disciplines.
This article reviews some of the most widely applied community-based vulnerability
and adaptation tools. Criteria for tool selection included identifying tools that have been
developed by both development and conservation organizations, tools applied in different
geographies, and tools designed to address different overarching objectives: poverty
reduction, disaster risk reduction, natural resource management, and alternative liveli-
hoods. Our aim was to review a selection of widely applied tools, rather than provide an
exhaustive list. We conducted our assessment based on tool documentation, consultations
with tool developers, and the personal experiences of development and conservation prac-
titioners who have applied these tools.
To assist users in the selection of an appropriate tool, we provide a systematic com-
parison of tools including the objectives they were designed to achieve, methods for
implementation, and strengths and weaknesses of the tool. We include information to
help users identify the most appropriate tool for their speciﬁc needs based on a description
of target users, methods and data required for implementing the tool, outputs that can be
produced, and the capacity needed to implement the tool (Tables 1a and 1b). The tables
also include geographies where each tool has been applied with links to case studies.
Many of the tools address multiple objectives (poverty reduction, disaster risk reduction,
natural resource management); therefore, we do not recommend a speciﬁc tool to achieve
a single objective (e.g., poverty reduction). The article concludes with a discussion of the
differences between the tools and lessons learned based on tool development and
Community-Based Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation Tools 441
Key attributes of community-based vulnerability and adaptation tools
Tool Primary developer Objective Target user Type of resource Languages available
CVCA CARE Poverty reduction, disaster
Bahasa Indonesia, and
Natural resource planning
CEDRA Tearfund Resilient development
disaster risk reduction,
Nepali, Burmese and
VCA Red Cross/ Red
disaster risk reduction
of Red Cross member
English, French, Spanish
CRiSTAL IISD with IUCN,
SEI and Helvetas
disaster risk reduction
Project planners and
managers working at
the local level
Key attributes of community-based vulnerability and adaptation tools, continued
Tool Time and cost (USD) Expertise required Final products Website/case studies
CVCA Highly variable based on scope
(e.g., 6 months per pilot site)
Climate change knowledge,
technical expertise in relevant
sectors such as agriculture,
water and natural resource
facilitation, gender and
Community-level analysis of
vulnerability and adaptive
capacity, including effects of
climate variability and
change on important
resources, existing response
strategies and information
about the institutional and
policy environment for CBA
cvca; Ecuador, Peru and
Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kenya,
Tanzania and Uganda,
Ghana, Niger, Indonesia,
LEAP 1–2 weeks ($5–10k includes
int’l experts; <$5k with local
Facilitation skills; climate
knowledge; natural resource
Local early action plan, local
climate story, threat and
Micronesia, Coral Triangle
CEDRA 22–40 days ($35k/ country) Climate and environmental
development expertise is
essential; expertise in
agriculture, water and
sanitation, construction, and/
or community participatory
approaches are beneﬁcial
Risk assessment, adaptation
plan, stakeholder consultation
plan, action plan
cedra/; Haiti, India, DRC,
Uganda, Nepal, Zimbabwe,
Pakistan, Malawi, Colombia,
Bolivia, Peru, Bangladesh
(Continued on next page)
Key attributes of community-based vulnerability and adaptation tools, continued (Continued)
Tool Time and cost (USD) Expertise required Final products Website/case studies
VCA 30–60 days ($10–20k includes
training for staff conducting
Knowledge of VCA
planning and development
Inventory of community
capacities, community action
plan (disaster preparedness,
Nepal, Yemen, Caribbean,
Rwanda, Solomon Islands
CRiSTAL 2–5 days on average; depends if
training is involved and scale
of application (i.e., # of
communities and social
Basic knowledge of climate
variability and change,
dynamics, gender and
diversity, basic computer
Summary reports that list
adaptation actions, desired
34 countries (Central and
South America, Africa, Asia)
implementation. This article provides guidance and best practices for future vulnerability
and adaptation assessment efforts, and informs the reﬁnement of existing tools and the
development of new ones.
Overview of Tools
To address the need for guidance to help conservation and development planners and
managers identify appropriate tools, this section provides a description of ﬁve commu-
nity-based vulnerability and adaptation tools: Climate Vulnerability and Capacity Analy-
sis (CVCA), Local Early Action Planning and Management Planning (LEAP), Climate
change and Environmental Degradation Risk and Adaptation assessment (CEDRA), Vul-
nerability and Capacity Assessment (VCA), and Community-Based Risk Screening
Tool—Adaptation and Livelihoods (CRiSTAL).
CARE developed the CVCA methodology and associated Handbook in 2009 to help
development practitioners understand the implications of climate change for the lives and
livelihoods of stakeholders within the context of poverty reduction initiatives. The main
objectives of the CVCA are to analyze climate change vulnerability and adaptive capacity
at the community level, and to combine community knowledge and scientiﬁc data to yield
greater understanding about local impacts of climate change. The Handbook provides
guidance on a methodology for gathering, organizing, and analyzing information on vul-
nerability and adaptive capacity of communities and of individuals and households within
communities. The Handbook was designed to help project teams and local stakeholders
gather and analyze information to develop climate change adaptation initiatives, as well
as to integrate climate change adaptation issues into livelihoods and natural resource
management programs. This resource also provides practical evidence for advocacy on
climate change issues. The CVCA is intended to be applied at the beginning of a project
cycle, so that the results can be used to support the design of adaptation projects or advo-
The CVCA Handbook includes participatory exercises and associated discussions,
which provide opportunities to link community knowledge to available scientiﬁc informa-
tion on climate change. Signiﬁcant engagement with communities and local stakeholders
over a period of time is required to gather information, analyze the data, validate the anal-
ysis, and for application in a broader participatory planning process. The Handbook pro-
vides a ﬂexible and participatory process for the analysis, by providing a framework of
guiding questions that explore the enabling factors for Community-Based Adaptation
(CBA) at national, local, and household/individual levels. The Handbook includes a dis-
cussion of recommended tools including institutional mapping (to identify relevant insti-
tutions that may support or constrain adaptation efforts), key stakeholder interviews, and
policy analysis. Detailed guidance on participatory tools is provided.
Advantages of the CVCA Handbook include the ability to directly support planning
processes by providing context-speciﬁc information about the impacts of climate change,
local vulnerability, and existing adaptive capacity. The Handbook also provides guidance
on how to create an enabling environment to support adaptation at national and local lev-
els. Additionally, guiding questions are provided for multiple scales, thus can be used to
support national-, provincial-, and community-level assessments. A drawback is that
while the Handbook suggests entry points for introducing future climate projections and
Community-Based Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation Tools 445
other scientiﬁc information in community dialogues, it does not provide concrete guid-
ance on how to do so. This limitation has been identiﬁed by users who have at times strug-
gled to effectively link community knowledge to scientiﬁc climate information. In
response, a new process was developed to address this limitation, the Participatory Sce-
nario Planning process for community-based adaptation (http://www.careclimatechange.
org/ﬁles/ALP_PSP_Brief.pdf). An additional limitation of the Handbook is the lack of
guidance provided on how to analyze the information collected. For example, gender
inequality is recognized as a key underlying cause of vulnerability within the tool (and
within the ﬁeld of vulnerability more broadly), yet the Handbook does not provide direc-
tion on how to undertake a gender analysis, despite the recommendation to collect gen-
der-disaggregated data. Experience with the tool has shown that users want and need
more explicit guidance on data analysis in general, on gender analysis in particular, and
the integration of a stronger ecosystems perspective on vulnerability and adaptive
The Adapting to a Changing Climate, Guide to Local Early Action Planning and Man-
agement Planning (LEAP) tool was developed in 2011 by a team of conservation man-
agers and independent contractors. The LEAP tool was developed through a
collaborative process with community members, resource managers, conservation prac-
titioners, and representatives from various sectors (e.g., food security, ﬁsheries, disaster
risk management, climate science) in Micronesia (Wongbusarakum et al., this issue).
The tool was designed to be used by conservation practitioners and partners. The tool
is intended to provide outreach and communications materials on climate change for
community facilitators and leaders in Micronesia to share with communities, and to
help users integrate climate change vulnerability assessments into existing natural
resource management planning guidance (e.g., for the Paciﬁc Islands Managed and Pro-
tected Area Community (PIMPAC)). In 2012, the U.S. Coral Triangle Initiative Support
Team adopted and adapted the tool for the Coral Triangle to support climate change
adaptation in the region.
The LEAP tool is organized into four steps: (1) Getting the project team organized
for raising awareness and planning; (2) Understanding climate change and the local cli-
mate story; (3) Carrying out a ﬁeld-based threat and vulnerability assessment; and (4)
Developing a LEAP or Management Plan. For each of the steps, key messages are
highlighted to facilitate knowledge transmission. Each step includes instructions for com-
munity facilitators, worksheets/templates with guiding questions, and exercises to be con-
ducted with community members and/or a core resource management planning team.
Most exercises are based on participatory rural appraisal methods used in natural resource
management (e.g., seasonal calendar, historical timeline, and community mapping) and
users are encouraged to build on materials developed through previous management plan-
ning processes rather than create new products.
Advantages of the LEAP tool are its ease of use, local relevance in Micronesia (and
coastal and island communities in tropical developing countries more broadly), and its
focus on community health and well-being; hence it is comprehensive and inclusive of
multiple sectors. Another advantage is that the LEAP tool is designed so users can select
the steps that they need at any point in the assessment process; it can be a standalone plan-
ning tool or the information gathered through the LEAP can be incorporated into existing
plans. Through the LEAP process, key messages on climate change science can be
446 E. McLeod et al.
communicated in a simple way using illustrations and the tool utilizes participatory pro-
cesses that allow community members to understand vulnerability to climate change
through their own experiences in combination with climate science. Comparison between
factors that contribute to healthy and unhealthy conditions of natural and social resources
help communities to explore how the impacts of existing local threats may be exacerbated
by climate change. The focus on community social and ecological health, instead of a par-
ticular sector, allows for an integrated approach that takes both natural and human resour-
ces into consideration.
Limitations of the LEAP tool are that it can take considerable time to implement;
community processes are time consuming especially when new knowledge has to be built
among the community facilitators before it can be transmitted to the broader community.
This limitation is common to community-based vulnerability tools and is not unique to
the LEAP tool. Another limitation is that the LEAP tool is not geared toward urban set-
tings or communities with complex social/governance structures, which limits its applica-
bility in these areas. The tool does not deal with gender dimensions of vulnerability to
climate and environmental changes and adaptation. Another challenge of the tool is sus-
taining the same level of effort through the later parts of the LEAP where the most impor-
tant outcomes are generated (i.e., the vulnerability assessment and adaptation plan).
Although the LEAP helps users to develop early action plans, details on how to imple-
ment adaptation actions and achieve “SMART” objectives are not provided. Additionally,
community-based plans may not effectively address climate impacts when solutions
depend on technical skills and capacities that communities do not possess (e.g., how to
address coastal erosion and inundation issues).
The CEDRA assessment process, developed by Tearfund, is designed to help local
humanitarian and development agencies take a structured approach to identifying possible
impacts of climate and environmental change at a strategic level. The tool is aimed at
helping NGOs in developing countries to access and understand the science of climate
change and environmental degradation and compare this with local community experi-
ence of environmental change, but may also be useful for national or local governments.
CEDRA’s purpose is to help organizations integrate adaptation into development and
disaster risk reduction (DRR) work, to ensure that development, adaptation to climate
and environmental change, and resilience to disasters are addressed together. It is a strate-
gic tool, to be used across the whole of an organization’s work rather than in speciﬁc proj-
ects or sectors.
CEDRA is a seven-step process that occurs over several phases (e.g., initial capacity-
building workshop, assessment, follow-up workshop to share results and recommenda-
tion, implementation of adaptation actions). It is designed to be ﬂexible so that it can be
adapted to ﬁt different contexts and requirements, which may mean that not all phases or
steps are relevant to every situation. Methods include: community consultation, scientiﬁc
research, stakeholder identiﬁcation and consultation, community mapping, participatory
rural appraisal (PRA) tools, risk assessment /ranking, and adaptation assessment.
Advantages of CEDRA are that it is designed to help make climate science more
accessible to communities by providing speciﬁc guidance on identifying stakeholders
with scientiﬁc knowledge on climate change and tips for navigating national government
and Internet sources of climate change information. Because CEDRA is designed as a
strategic tool to be used across the whole of an organization’s work, rather than in speciﬁc
Community-Based Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation Tools 447
projects or sectors, it has potential for broader scale impacts. It builds on existing
approaches and expertise, and is multisectoral, so encourages the development of adapta-
tion actions/projects that address climate and environmental change together and that
also support development and resilience to disasters.
Limitations of CEDRA are that it does not address policy and institutional issues that
have implications for adaptation (e.g., policies that support or constrain adaptation), and
does not consider the capacities and partnerships required by government, civil society,
and communities to effectively implement adaptation strategies. Additional limitations
include the time required to help local NGOs overcome a “fear of science” and the sup-
port needed to improve their ability to access, interpret and apply scientiﬁc information
to strengthen their projects.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies developed the
VCA process to support Red Cross and Red Crescent staff and volunteers in identifying
and taking action to assess risks that people face in their locality, their vulnerability to
those risks, and the capacities they possess to cope with a hazard and recover. VCA guid-
ance was developed to be used by National Societies as an integral part of community
intervention to identify social needs (education, livelihoods) and disaster preparedness.
National Societies can work with vulnerable communities to identify risks and take steps
to reduce them by designing projects based on local skills, knowledge, and initiative. Out-
puts of a VCA may contribute to the creation of community-based disaster preparedness
programs at the rural and urban grass-roots level and the development of social micro-
projects. A VCA may be used to complement national and sub-national risk, hazard, vul-
nerability, and capacity mapping exercises that identify communities most at risk and
their vulnerabilities and to identify actions to address them. Speciﬁc objectives of VCAs
include community ownership of vulnerability analyses and mapping vulnerability and
risks and capacities in a community context.
The VCA process is broken down into three levels: (1) National Society Support, (2)
From Analysis to Planning, and (3) Planning to Actions. These levels cover a variety of
activities including: determining whether a VCA should be implemented, building sup-
port for a VCA process, identifying assessment objectives, collecting and interpreting
data, sharing data with a community, identifying actions to address vulnerabilities, and
implementation of risk reduction projects. VCA guidance includes four publications that
together explain what a VCA process is, how to undertake a VCA, how to apply a variety
of information-gathering techniques (VCA Toolbox), and how to train Red Cross and
Red Crescent volunteers to use VCA tools (VCA Training Guide). The VCA Toolbox
provides an overview of research tools and methods needed to conduct a VCA, a sum-
mary of each method with strengths and limitations, and guidance on choosing and apply-
ing different methods. Based on a recent review of the VCA methodology, new guidance
has been developed on how to adjust the VCA to better address climate change and the
reduction of vulnerability in towns and cities (IFRC 2014).
Strengths of the VCA tool are the emphasis on community ownership of the vulnera-
bility assessment process and results; communities are fully engaged from the beginning
and are integral to decision-making and to strengthening community resilience. Another
strength is that implementation of the VCA in communities has led to the identiﬁcation of
other priority social issues including violence prevention, unemployment, livelihoods,
and social security.
448 E. McLeod et al.
A limitation of the VCA is that because it focuses heavily on social vulnerability
in response to hazards, it does not adequately address environmental vulnerability and
human dependence on the environment. This is currently being addressed through a
partnership between the Red Cross and The Nature Conservancy in Grenada. Gaps
have been noted in the assessment methods including the lack of an agreed set of
indicators of social vulnerability and lack of understanding and practical experience
concerning ways to merge data from a social VCA with other sectors of vulnerability
(Davis, Haghebaert, and Peppiatt 2004).
CRiSTAL was launched in 2007 by a partnership between four development and conser-
vation organizations, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the Swiss
Foundation for Development and International Cooperation, the Stockholm Environment
Institute—United States, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Liveli-
hoods provide the entry point for CRiSTAL and the tool focuses on projects at the local
community level. It helps users to identify and prioritize climate risks that affect or may
affect a project area and local livelihoods, helps to identify livelihood resources most
important for managing these risks, and uses these as a basis for designing adaptation
strategies. This tool is a desktop application and was designed for project planners and
managers, but is also useful for policy and decision makers.
CRiSTAL is organized according to three phases, which build on each other: (1)
understanding the livelihoods and climate context; (2) evaluating the implications for a
given project; and (3) supporting monitoring and evaluation. The tool relies on informa-
tion collected from desk-top studies and stakeholder consultations at the local level (com-
munity and other local experts) using participatory methods. The resources needed to
apply CRiSTAL vary according to the objectives and capacities of the users. Typically,
between two and ﬁve days are needed to conduct all the steps, which include time for
preparation, local consultations, data entry into the tool, and data analysis. Costs to apply
CRiSTAL vary, but generally include costs associated with the project team meetings
and community consultations. The desktop application can be downloaded for free. Train-
ing is highly recommended for new users to support tool application.
Strengths of CRiSTAL are that it provides a framework for both organizing and ana-
lyzing, in a simple and logical format, the information collected both at the local level
(community and other local experts) and at the national level (e.g., scientiﬁc information
on climate change projections). The tool is ﬂexible, can be applied at local to national lev-
els, and can be adapted to suit different needs and contexts. For example, the sustainable
livelihoods framework can be replaced by one focused on ecosystems goods and services,
or food security, to assess how climate interacts with particular aspects of a given system.
Another strength is that the tool has been continuously applied and reﬁned based on user
needs and feedback (it was revised in 2012), incorporating advancements in climate
However, users suggest that while the tool was designed to be simple, some still see it
as complex and requiring time to gain familiarity with the tool. In addition, because the
tool relies primarily on qualitative data, the ﬁnal analysis is subject to the biases intro-
duced through the stakeholder consultation process. Gathering the information needed for
applying CRiSTAL (i.e., through document reviews, stakeholder consultations, etc.) is
resource-intensive and can be challenging to keep up the motivation necessary to com-
plete the ﬁnal analysis. Finally, the current version of CRiSTAL prompts users on linking
Community-Based Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation Tools 449
the analysis to monitoring and evaluation of climate adaptation, but more guidance is
needed to facilitate this process.
Differences among Tools
Framing and Approach. The tools described above have overarching similarities in
terms of their broad-scale objectives (e.g., assessing the vulnerability of coastal ecosys-
tems and communities to climate impacts and adaptation responses), yet differences
exist in their framing and approach. Some tools prioritize conservation and natural
resource management, while others make community development central, and still
others speciﬁcally aim to draw linkages between the two. For example, the tools devel-
oped by conservation nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) (e.g., LEAP), directly
link vulnerability and adaptation with existing conservation planning and management
priorities and processes (e.g., PIMPAC Management Planning Guidance; The Nature
Conservancy’s Conservation Action Planning process, http://www.conservationgate-
way.org/ConservationPlanning/). These tools make conservation a central objective and
seek to ﬁnd ways to articulate the beneﬁts of conservation actions for human adaptation
and disaster risk reduction. By contrast, tools that support development organizations,
not surprisingly, reﬂect development priorities with human wellbeing being central to
outcomes. CEDRA and CRiSTAL both support sustainable development and liveli-
hoods and emphasize linkages between climate change and environmental degradation
and ecosystem management. In other cases, tools focusing on disaster and risk reduc-
tion (e.g., VCA), may not explicitly address natural resource management and conser-
Target User. The target users of the vulnerability and adaptation tools reviewed above
differ. Understanding the intended users for a given tool can help practitioners to assess
whether a tool is appropriate for their purposes and, if necessary, how it should be adapted
to ﬁt their objectives. For example, the CVCA provides CARE staff assistance in analyz-
ing support mechanisms for community-based adaptation, whereas the Red Cross VCA
was designed as a resource for Red Cross/Red Crescent staff in their community-based
resilience programs. Both of these tools have a strong organizational focus even though
the tools may be adopted and adapted by other organizations. When deciding how to
apply these tools, it will be helpful for a user to understand how each organization uses
the tools and integrates the outputs into their existing organizational processes. This can
highlight key decision points where activities may need to be adapted to meet the objec-
tives of other organizations. In comparison, CEDRA, LEAP, and CRiSTAL have less of
an organizational focus, and target a broader base of users. Even though these three tools
are afﬁliated with NGOs, they are not explicitly linked to a speciﬁc agency’s process or
strategy (Hammill and Tanner 2011). Based on this ﬂexibility, it may be more apparent to
other organizations how they might apply and adapt these tools to meet their desired
Integration of Multiple Factors. Many vulnerability and adaptation tools are unable to
address multiple stressors simultaneously (Hammill and Tanner 2011). Some tools are
“climate-centric” (CRiSTAL) and do not prioritize the consideration of other
450 E. McLeod et al.
environmental, political, or socioeconomic risk factors. Other tools place emphasis on
livelihoods (CVCA) or disaster management (VCA) and do not address environmental
factors as comprehensively. When considering a tool, users must consider what factors
they are seeking to address and compare this with the factors that different tools are
designed to address. Currently, no one tool addresses all factors equally so users must
make informed decisions based on their organizational and/or project priorities.
Identiﬁcation of Options. Another key difference among the tools above is the way that
each tool addresses the identiﬁcation of adaptation options. CVCA and VCA include
steps for identifying and evaluating adaptation options and integrating them into existing
or new projects, but they do not offer detailed guidance on how to prioritize adaptation
actions. By contrast, CEDRA, CRiSTAL, and LEAP walk users through identifying spe-
ciﬁc adaptation options, provide guidance on how to evaluate options according to
selected criteria, and prioritize adaptation options for implementation. CEDRA also pro-
vides a sample list of adaptation options by sector and impact.
Dealing with Uncertainties. None of the tools above provide sufﬁcient guidance on how
to address the uncertainty inherent in climate and vulnerability data. While these tools
acknowledge the importance of climate model outputs, they do not provide the guidance
necessary to integrate such outputs into the assessment. Uncertainties in climate model
projections pose additional challenge for how to incorporate these data into assessments.
The tools above emphasize the use of more readily available information, such as local
observations and perceptions of climate impacts and responses, which are subjective and
also may reﬂect substantial uncertainties. Some tools, such as CEDRA and CRiSTAL,
provide some support to handle uncertainties. Although CEDRA includes a discussion of
the uncertainties inherent in climate data, it does not provide guidance on how to deal
with these uncertainties. CRiSTAL includes a few sentences on recommendations to
address uncertainty (e.g., users should compare different data sources and look for projec-
tions that are based on different models and scenarios, and should note any uncertainty
ranges that are mentioned in the projections), but additional guidance is needed to address
the uncertainties associated with climate changes, impacts, and human and ecological
responses (e.g., CARE 2012; Kropp and Scholze 2009). By contrast, the CVCA, VCA,
and LEAP guidance materials do not even mention the word “uncertainty.”
A number of challenges have been identiﬁed in the application of the tools above. All of
the tools we reviewed require community consultation, which requires time and money to
cover facilitation, community participation, data collection, management, and synthesis,
and presentation and application of results. Here we discuss some of the speciﬁc chal-
lenges common to all of the tools we reviewed.
Capacity Limitations. Vulnerability and adaptation tools beneﬁt from staff with a range
of technical capacities, yet often, organizations struggle with a lack of the necessary
expertise to apply the tools. The following capacity limitations were noted in the tools
reviewed: lack of socioeconomic expertise needed for social data collection and analysis,
lack of climate change expertise among community-level facilitators, and lack of experi-
ence in conducting analyses that address social inequality and power dynamics that inﬂu-
ence vulnerability, such as those based on ethnicity, gender, political marginalization,
Community-Based Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation Tools 451
and age. Community engagement efforts may also require skilled planning and facilita-
tion to ensure an inclusive process that does not over-burden participants. Therefore, sub-
stantial investment in building and sustaining capacity to use tools is also crucial
(Rossing, Otzelberger, and Girot 2014).
Length of Time. Nearly all of the tool developers and implementers of the tools, con-
sulted for this article, noted challenges with the length of time and resources needed to
complete the assessment, and several noted challenges maintaining support throughout
the process (e.g., CRiSTAL, VCA). Although substantial time investments are often
anticipated when considering the implementation of participatory and community-based
processes, this commitment should be carefully considered when selecting the most
appropriate tool. Further, it is often necessary to build climate awareness, which makes
the process take longer. Time required to implement these tools ranged from 2 days
(CRiSTAL tool) to 60 days (VCA).
Data Limitations. Data limitations were also identiﬁed across all tools including: data
that do not exist, are incomplete, unavailable, not the appropriate scale, or are incompati-
ble (e.g., datasets of vastly differing resolutions that pose challenges for integration).
Often climate projections are not available at local scales. Changes in demographic pat-
terns and habitat and species distribution and projected ranges also may not be available.
Even if such data are available, uncertainties exist regarding projections of climate
impacts, and how socioeconomic changes will affect social and ecological vulnerability/
adaptation responses. These uncertainties are rarely addressed in vulnerability and adap-
tation tools. Other challenges include difﬁculties accessing local knowledge, which is
often not recorded or shared widely, despite the fact that such information may directly
inform locally relevant adaptation options (Naess 2013). In addition, some tool users sug-
gest that community facilitators conducting climate vulnerability assessments may not
want to use detailed climate data; information, such as “the sea is rising,” may be sufﬁ-
cient to initiate a discussion of adaptation options. Often local data, even when available,
must be simpliﬁed when shared with communities (e.g., maps showing inundation levels).
This processing of data may require input from climate modelers, communicators, train-
ers, and community facilitators.
Integrating Data. Challenges may also arise when attempting to integrate social and
ecological datasets. Conservation organizations may have less expertise collecting and
analyzing social data, and development organizations may have less expertise with natu-
ral resource data, and challenges may develop when attempting to integrate social and
ecological data. The necessary skills for collecting and integrating these data may need to
be developed within implementing organizations. These challenges reinforce the need for
partnerships between development and conservation groups to both develop and apply
vulnerability and adaptation tools, so that they are better able to integrate social and eco-
logical data. Additionally, collecting and analyzing data across multiple sectors (e.g.,
coastal zone, terrestrial, agriculture, water resources, human health), systems (e.g., social
and ecological systems), and disciplines (e.g., development, conservation) can be chal-
lenging in terms of data collection, analysis, and prioritization of issues. Climate risks
interact with other risks and stressors, making it difﬁcult to deﬁne the scope and establish
boundaries for the analysis.
Furthermore, vulnerability is dynamic, requiring ongoing monitoring to track
changes in vulnerability and adaptive capacity over time. Existing tools are generally not
452 E. McLeod et al.
designed to facilitate ongoing monitoring, and it also can be difﬁcult to access the neces-
sary resources to sustain it. Balancing this complexity with the resources and capacity
available to facilitate these processes is a considerable challenge for practitioners. Finally,
due to the complexity of assessing climate vulnerability and adaptation options and the
multiple sectors that are affected, it is challenging to balance capturing this complexity in
a simple tool. There is a risk in making a tool overly complex. Expanding a tool too
much, in an effort to attract new users and more accurately reﬂect the complexity of soci-
oecological systems, runs the risk of alienating core users. Therefore, regular feedback
from users is recommended to strike a workable balance between complexity and usabil-
ity. CRiSTAL’s 2012 update was in response to ﬁve years of feedback, where users
highlighted, among other things, the need to consider more explicitly the implications of
long-term climate change (not just current variability), address gender issues, and offer a
more user-friendly interface.
Planning to Implementation Gap. In many cases, vulnerability and adaptation assess-
ments have led to the development of adaptation plans and/or the integration of adapta-
tion into local development or conservation plans. However, there is still a lack of overall
compatibility between tools designed for assessments and those designed for planning
(Rossing, Otzelberger, and Girot 2014), and there continue to be challenges in ﬁnancing
the implementation of the plans. To address this planning to implementation gap, it is
important to consider phasing the steps in a plan, engaging stakeholders more fully in the
planning process, and ensuring that mechanisms that support implementation are incorpo-
rated into a plan (e.g., mentoring and sustainable ﬁnancing options). However, few tools
provide guidance on costing adaptation or incorporate costing exercises, despite growing
interest in the ﬁeld of identifying costs for adaptation actions (Hammill and Tanner
2011). Further, sometimes the available funding drives the emphasis on planning instead
of implementation (e.g., there is often funding available to conduct vulnerability assess-
ments but not sufﬁcient funding to support the implementation of adaptation options).
Additionally, it is also important to integrate or “mainstream” climate concerns and adap-
tation into development and management plans and policies that drive resource alloca-
tion. Recent analyses suggest that just as development plans should incorporate climate
concerns (i.e., climate smart development), climate adaptation strategies also need to
account for non-climate stressors (USAID 2010). It may also be useful to integrate disas-
ter risk management with adaptation planning. Finally, the inclusion of guidance on mov-
ing from assessment to action in vulnerability and adaptation tools is critical as it will
help facilitate the implementation of adaptation actions.
Monitoring and Evaluation
Few of the tools reviewed in this article provide guidance on the monitoring and evalua-
tion (M&E) of adaptation options. The latest version of CRiSTAL has a step that
acknowledges the importance of M&E and prompts the user to develop outcomes state-
ments, but does not go much further. While recognized as an important part of the process
in all of the tools, and a critical component of the adaptation process more broadly (Bours,
McGinn, and Pringle 2014; Lamhauge, Lanzi, and Agrawala 2012; Spearman and
McGray 2011), the emphasis in the tools above is placed on the assessment itself, as
opposed to follow-up monitoring. Recent efforts have demonstrated that monitoring and
evaluation systems are essential for ensuring the success of adaptation interventions (e.g.,
Mainstreaming Adaptation to Climate Change [MACC] project). A key challenge is that
Community-Based Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation Tools 453
because monitoring and evaluation for community-based adaptation is a relatively new
ﬁeld, limited guidance exists to support their implementation (but see GIZ  and
Spearman and McGray  which provide practical frameworks for developing moni-
toring and evaluation systems that can track the success and failure of adaptation
A number of lessons learned have been identiﬁed through the application of community-
based vulnerability and adaptation tools. These lessons are useful to inform the develop-
ment of new tools and the reﬁnement of existing tools. Applications of these tools have
made clear that social science skills and capacities are essential to guide the participatory
community process and analysis. Additional guidance is needed to help users carry
assessments through to completion, including analysis and the identiﬁcation and imple-
mentation of adaptation options. With additional documentation of case studies, lessons
can be more broadly communicated across and between organizations to support future
applications. Here, we present suggestions for future actions based on lessons learned
from the application of the tools above.
Building Strategic Partnerships
Some organizations implementing climate vulnerability and adaptation assessments have
indicated that it is challenging when communities identify priority issues that fall outside
of their organizational mandate or capacity. Addressing this requires planning prior to the
assessment to identify key partners from different sectors likely to be prioritized by a
community (e.g., health, youth, disaster management, water resources). By building stra-
tegic partnerships with multiple sectors and including these partners in the assessment
and resulting adaptation responses, organizations are better able to address the diverse
needs of communities in response to climate change. The importance of establishing these
strategic partnerships prior to implementing an assessment has been identiﬁed by tool
users, in addition to clarifying what a given group can and cannot offer in terms of adapta-
tion support both prior to, during, and after an assessment has been completed.
Although case studies of the application of vulnerability and adaptation assessments have
been developed, it can be difﬁcult to access these, as they are often buried in grey litera-
ture (e.g., in project reports). Efforts need to be made to make them more accessible both
internally (links to case studies on project websites) and externally (links to case studies
on Web portals that support vulnerability and adaptation work (e.g., http://weadapt.org;
http://www.solutionexchange-un.net/paciﬁc/; www.cakex.org; www.eldis.org). Such case
studies are important to help project planners and managers understand how a given tool
has been applied and used to inform adaptation options, and therefore can be helpful in
determining whether or not to use a particular tool. While clearinghouse websites for vul-
nerability and adaptation are extremely useful, it has been recommended that having one,
simple, clearinghouse for tools is necessary to make tools more readily available to users,
to expose users to the range of tools available, and to help identify the most appropriate
tool to address speciﬁc needs (Hammill and Tanner 2011). Finally, case studies are
needed that articulate what speciﬁc adaptation actions were taken based on results of a
454 E. McLeod et al.
vulnerability assessment, and how such actions have affected existing projects, plans, or
Skills and Training
All of the tools above require extensive community consultations. Providing training on
facilitation skills, participatory processes, and tool implementation is critical. Experiences
implementing climate adaptation tools demonstrate the importance of hands-on training,
even when well-developed guidance materials are available (e.g., websites, user’s man-
uals, and online communities of practice to provide support and feedback on a tool’s
use). A recent analysis found that both tool users and developers noted the crucial need
for training and facilitation in applying tools, and support for training and facilitation,
including introductory training events for new users and follow-up events for existing
users (Hammill and Tanner 2011). Social science expertise is required for effective com-
munity consultations, in addition to expertise on climate change and communicating cli-
mate impacts and responses to communities. Therefore, organizations committed to
carrying out vulnerability and adaptation assessments need to prioritize investments in
social science and climate change expertise and training. Concerns have been raised that
without proper guidance, the use of certain tools could contribute towards maladaptation
(Hammill and Tanner 2011).
Many organizations have noted challenges completing a vulnerability and adaptation
assessment through the analysis phase. Suggestions to help accomplish this include: the
development of streamlined processes for data management and analysis; investments in
capacity-building for organizations carrying out assessments; and development of a com-
mon understanding of the analytical framework and research questions before community
consultations are completed.
Another lesson is the need for managing expectations of what a tool can and cannot
provide. Some users may use a computer tool and assume that the tool will do the analy-
sis. Most of the tools above are frameworks, which can be used to support data analysis,
but the user still must complete the analysis and with communities consider how the out-
puts point toward speciﬁc adaptation actions.
In response to the growing impacts of climate change and corresponding need to identify
impacts and adaptation responses, conservation and development organizations have
developed new partnerships and tools. These partnerships are providing opportunities for
collaboration and knowledge sharing across sectors and disciplines in the development
and application of community-based climate vulnerability and adaptation tools. The tools
are being applied to help communities and ecosystems adapt to climate impacts and to
support the integration of climate change into their organizational objectives. This article
reviews a number of community-based vulnerability and adaptation assessment tools and
describes their primary differences and advantages and limitations to help planners and
managers make informed decisions about tool selection. It also includes challenges noted
in tool implementation and lessons learned.
Community-Based Climate Vulnerability and Adaptation Tools 455
While the overarching objectives of the tools reviewed in this article are similar and
in some cases overlapping, key differences exist regarding how different organizations
frame climate vulnerability and adaptation (e.g., greater emphasis on disaster risk reduc-
tion, natural resources management, alternative livelihoods). Additionally, while all of
the tools above rely on participatory methods of data collection, the types of resources
differ from step-by-step guides (LEAP, CEDRA, CVCA), to toolboxes including concep-
tual frameworks and multiple resource documents (VCA) to desktop applications that
help users identify climate adaptation actions (CRiSTAL).
Key challenges have been identiﬁed for all of the tools analyzed above including
issues with limited capacity (time, funding, and expertise), data (lack of climate, socio-
economic, and ecological data at appropriate scales) and challenges getting from planning
to implementation of adaptation actions. In addition, a number of lessons learned have
been noted including the importance of building strategic partnerships with multiple sec-
tors prior to conducting assessments, synthesizing case studies and making their results
more accessible, the need for continued capacity development on tool implementation,
guidance on incorporating adaptation costs, and guidance on monitoring and evaluation.
Although this analysis is limited to ﬁve commonly used vulnerability and adaptation
tools, the challenges and recommendations apply to a broader range of existing climate
vulnerability and adaptation tools used by development, conservation, and donor
This study is an outcome of a project that is ﬁnancially supported by the Nature Conser-
vancy and the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and
Nuclear Safety (BMUB). This study is part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI);
the BMUB supports this initiative on the basis of a decision adopted by the German Bun-
destag. The manuscript contents are solely the opinions of the authors and do not consti-
tute a statement of policy, decision, or position on behalf of NOAA or the US
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