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A collaborative project of the University of Montana and the USDA Forest Service

Managing for Social Vulnerability to Climate Change: Challenges and Tools

Lead PI

Ann Moote, Independent Contractor, Natural Resources Policy and Planning

Project summary:

This project includes a problem analysis and rapid assessments of empirical experience with adaptive planning and management to identify process tools and strategies that can assist land managers and community leaders as they manage for social vulnerability to climate change.

Purpose and need:

Land management agencies have been tasked with addressing social vulnerability to climate change, which requires that they work on issues beyond both their expertise and their jurisdictional boundaries. This directive, along with an emerging policy shift to a landscape-scale, all-lands approach to resource management, requires high levels of inter-disciplinary and inter-organizational communication, shared learning, and coordinated management.

Integrated and adaptive planning and management are grounded in social learning processes that engage diverse participants in reflecting on intended outcomes and then discussing what actually occurred, why, and what, if anything, should change. The process is iterative, with actions both preceded and followed by collective reflection. Thus the most effective learning forums are not one-time workshops but ongoing exchanges among people with different experiences and viewpoints.

The capacity of agency staffers and community leaders to engage in such forums is constrained by a number of policies and social norms. These include narrowly defined mandates, prescriptive management procedures, lack of experience with and forums for inter- and intra-organizational communication, public and professional desire for predictable outcomes, and output-driven management targets. From a policy perspective, there is an ongoing challenge to balance needs for flexibility, experimentation, and informal relationships with needs for effectiveness, measurable outcomes, and transparency. Socially, there is a natural tendency for people to prefer to work within their own “communities of practice” with similar values and experiences; communicating with people from diverse backgrounds requires considerable time and patience before participants develop a common language and fully understand each others’ views. Work on social vulnerability to climate change is further inhibited by the complicated nature of and polarization around climate change science, and by a perception that social vulnerability is outside the scope of land management agencies. Perhaps most significantly, declining budgets and staffing directly limit individual and organizational capacities to explore new science and management theories and expand the geographic range of their work.

Planners and managers therefore need strategies and tools for 1) overcoming resistance to addressing both social vulnerability and climate change, 2) engaging in shared learning and collaboration, and 3) working through resource and policy constraints.

Scope of work:

This project is divided into three parts, each building on the other. Although they provide science deliverables in themselves, the parts are also intended to lay a foundation for more in-depth future research and technology transfer, if funding permits.

Part 1 – problem analysis. The problem analysis draws on climate change adaptation guides and case studies, adaptive management and governance literature, social and organizational learning theory, and scoping discussions with individuals working on climate change assessment and adaptation. It identifies commonly encountered social and policy challenges to and process needs for addressing social vulnerability to change through adaptive action.

Part 2 – rapid assessments. The rapid assessments will examine cases where communities and agencies are working to address social vulnerability to climate change, with a specific focus on ways that organizations and individuals have addressed the challenges identified in the problem analysis.

Part 3 - toolkit. The final product, a toolkit for planners and managers, will identify process strategies and tools that can be used to engage in learning about and planning and managing for social vulnerability to climate change.


  1. Written problem analysis
  2. Peer-reviewed manuscript
  3. Toolkit for planners and managers