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Conservation Organizations Need to Consider Adaptive Capacity: Why Local Input Matters

This article discusses why adaptive capacity assessment represents a critical tool supporting conservation planning and management. It also evaluates key factors guiding conservation NGOs.
Manuel Rangasa


Conservation organizations are increasingly applying adaptive capacity assessments in response to escalating climate change impacts. These assessments are essential to identify climate risks to ecosystems, prioritize management interventions, maximize the effectiveness of conservation actions, and ensure conservation resources are allocated appropriately. However, despite an extensive literature on the topic, there is little agreement on the most relevant factors needed to support local scale initiatives, and additional guidance is needed to clarify how adaptive capacity should be assessed.

This article* discusses why adaptive capacity assessment represents a critical tool supporting conservation planning and management. It also evaluates key factors guiding conservation NGOs conducting these assessments in tropical island communities, and explores alternative priorities based on input from academic experts and key local stakeholders.

Our results demonstrate that important differences exist between local stakeholders and nonlocal academic experts on key factors affecting adaptation and coping mechanisms. The exclusion of local community input affects the validity of adaptive capacity assessment findings, and has significant implications for the prioritization and effectiveness of conservation strategies and funding allocation.

*download available from the right-hand column and via the link provided udner further resources. A brief (abridged) overview of the background, method and conclusions are provided below. Please refer to the full text for much more detail.

Adaptive Capacity

Adaptive capacity is the ability of systems, institutions, humans, and other organisms to adjust to potential damage, to take advantage of opportunities, or to respond to consequences (IPCC 2014). Folke et al. (2003) identified four dimensions of adaptive capacity:

  1. learning to live with change and uncertainty;
  2. nurturing diversity for resilience;
  3. combining different types of knowledge for learning; and
  4. maintaining opportunity for self-organization toward socioecological sustainability.

Recently, there has been an increasing awareness of the importance of social capital, social networks, institutions, and governance in determining a social system’s ability to adapt to climate change (Engle 2011; Cinner et al. 2013; Lockwood et al. 2015). However, despite the well-developed literature on adaptive capacity, key challenges facing conservation organizations include understanding why it is important to assess and which factors should be assessed. This article has three aims:

  1. highlight the importance of assessing adaptive capacity to inform conservation planning and management;
  2. generate a list of prioritized factors for evaluating adaptive capacity to guide conservation NGOs in conducting assessments in tropical island communities; and
  3. explore potential differences in prioritization between academic experts located in developed countries and local stakeholders from a developing nation in the Pacific.

Why conservation organizations need to assess adaptive capacity

Conservation organizations are increasingly assessing the adaptive capacity of ecosystems and the human communities that depend upon them to identify risks and prioritize management interventions. This has been fueled by two important shifts in conservation: (1) an increasing emphasis on human well-being; and (2) the recognition that communities with reduced adaptive capacity have greater potential for environmental degradation (Marshall, 2010). The more adaptive capacity a system has, the more likely it will be resilient to climate change (Engle, 2011). Understanding how systems are positioned to cope with climate impacts is essential for understanding and reinforcing the potential effectiveness of conservation actions, identifying strategies to adapt to climate change, and knowing where to prioritize conservation investments.

Methods and Tools

Two methods were utilized to evaluate adaptive capacity factors in this study: the Delphi method and a focus group comprised of local stakeholders in Pohnpei, Micronesia.

The Delphi method was selected to develop a prioritized list of adaptive capacity factors. Twelve vulnerability and adaptation experts were selected. Experts participated in three rounds of the Delphi exercise. They were asked to address gaps in the list of adaptive capacity factors from the literature review, and to refine and prioritize the factors in the context of tropical island communities. They rated the importance of adaptive capacity factors using a 5-point Likert scale.

The focus group:Focus groups were conducted with 17 community members from 5 villages: who included key stakeholders (local chiefs, government officials, and conservation workers). The focus groups were asked to brainstorm factors likely to affect the capacity of a community to adapt to climate change and discussed definitions of climate change. Each focus group was given the list of factors from the Delphi assessment , asked to include any missing factors based on the brainstorming exercise, and finally asked to rank factors influencing adaptive capacity.

Results of the Delphi and focus group discussions

A graph showing the results of the Delphi and focus group discussions is shown in the main image, at the top of the page (click to enlarge).

When the focus groups’ results were compared with the Delphi results, a number of similarities emerged, but there were also differences. Some factors that were identified as very important to both groups were capacity to plan, learn, and reorganize; presence and effectiveness of formal and informal learning processes supporting adaptation; local knowledge, practices, and mechanisms to cope with climate impacts; and effectiveness of adaptation leaders. Both groups identified perception of equity in accessing resources as one of the least important.

There were also some key differences between the two groups. For example, with regard to ecosystem-specific adaptive capacity factors, 18% of Delphi panelists identified the level of biodiversity as least important, compared to 36% of the Focus group community members who identified it as very important. Major divergence also existed between how the Delphi group and the Focus group ranked effectiveness of and access to institutions supporting adaptation. The Delphi group ranked it as one of the most important, while the local stakeholders ranked it as one of the least important. The Delphi group also ranked how well natural resources are currently managed, and access to financial, material, and technological resources to help cope with disaster as more important than the community.

One of the most critical distinctions between the groups was the ranking of community awareness of climate change, e.g., the Delphi group ranked this near the bottom of the list (15th), whereas the local stakeholders ranked it at the top (1st).


Ultimately, the effectiveness of conservation actions in an era of climate change depends on the ability of communities and local organizations to be innovative, learn through uncertainty or crisis, develop and maintain a collective memory of resource management approaches, link different knowledge systems to support learning and adaptation, and collaborate to maintain organizational and institutional diversity (Armitage & Plummer, 2010). Conservation organizations need to understand the highly contextual variables that influence adaptive capacity, and reinforce the most important factors that enable effective community responses that enhance social and ecological resilience. Adaptive capacity assessments are necessary to ensure conservation strategies are locally relevant and incorporate local knowledge critical to conservation planning (Huntington, 2000). These assessments can also inform adaptation funding decisions and build local support for conservation actions and policies.

Adaptive capacity assessments also have an important global role in prioritizing conservation investments. Approximately $25bn is allocated to climate adaptation each year, with a majority flowing from developed to developing countries (UNFCCC, 2011). The allocation of adaptation funds is often based on the results of assessments developed by experts from developed countries. Conservation organizations, development agencies, and adaptation funders need to recognize that local input is a critical factor in adaptive capacity assessment; and enhancing local input in these assessments has the potential to both change and improve the way that adaptation projects are prioritized, funded, and completed. Such groups also have an important role to play in pushing for greater transparency and accountability in the development and application of adaptive capacity assessments at local, national, and international levels.

Suggested Citation

Mcleod, E., Szuster, B., Hinkel, J., Tompkins, E. L., Marshall, N., Downing, T., Wongbusarakum, S., Patwardhan, A., Hamza, M., Anderson, C., Bharwani, S., Hansen, L. and Rubinoff, P. (2015), Conservation Organizations Need to Consider Adaptive Capacity: Why Local Input Matters. Conservation Letters. doi: 10.1111/conl.12210

Author Information

  • Elizabeth Mcleod: The Nature Conservancy, USA
  • Brian Szuster: University of Hawaii, USA
  • Jochen Hinkel: Global Climate Forum, Berlin Workshop in Institutional Analysis of Social-Ecological Systems (WINS), Humboldt-University, Germany
  • Emma L. Tompkins: University of Southampton, UK
  • Nadine Marshall: CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, Adjunct at School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, James Cook University, Australia
  • Thomas Downing: Global Climate Adaptation Partnership, UK
  • Supin Wongbusarakum: University of Hawaii, NOAA IRC, NMFS/PIFSC/ESD/Coral Reef Ecosystem, USA
  • Anand Patwardhan: University of Maryland, USA
  • Mo Hamza: The University of Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Cheryl Anderson: University of Hawaii, USA
  • Sukaina Bharwani: Stockholm Environmental Institute, UK
  • Lara Hansen: EcoAdapt, USA
  • Pamela Rubinoff: University of Rhode Island, USA​​

Thumbnail image:Children of the Sao Felix community in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Neil Palmer/CIAT for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

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