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    Enhancing Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems: A Quantifiable Framework for

    Adapting to Change

    Meha Jain


    A majority of the literature discussing human adaptation to climate change in social-

    ecological systems has not been quantitative in nature; discussions of adaptation are typically

    based on theory or anecdotal case studies. It is, however, important to analytically identify which

    factors lead to successful adaptation to climate change, in order to better determine how

    communities can cope with climate shocks. This paper reviews the most highly cited studies that

    empirically identify the drivers of adaptation to climate change, from the fields of human

    ecology, anthropology, psychology, and economics. The primary factors that are cited are 1)

    strong institutions and networks, 2) social memory and previous exposure to disturbance, 3)

    access to capital, 4) cognitive factors, such as perceived risk and ability to adapt, and 5)

    diversification of livelihoods. While these studies offer insights into the possible drivers of

    adaptation, there are several ways in which future studies should be improved: new studies

    should consider 1) biophysical factors that may constrain communities’ ability to adapt, 2)

    multiple factors within the same multivariate analysis, and 3) the spatial and temporal scale at

    which these factors may influence adaptation. Based on these considerations, a new analytical

    framework for identifying the drivers of successful adaptation is outlined.

    Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems

    Social-ecological systems, or systems where ecosystems and humans are inextricably

    linked, are facing unpredictable pressures and shocks due to global change and unsustainable

    human use of resources (Chapin et al., 2010). These shocks may be internal to the system, such

    as overuse of a particular natural resource, or external, such as possible impacts of climate

    change. It is difficult to predict the effects of these shocks on social-ecological systems, given

    that there are often thresholds and non-linearities in the system’s response to disturbance (Liu et

    al, 2007; Burkett et al, 2005). This inability to predict and respond to future shocks is

    problematic since it may result in the irreparable loss of ecosystem functions and services, and a

    subsequent collapse of dependent human livelihoods (Olson, 2003). Scholars and policy makers

    have called to make social-ecological systems more resilient to change (Smit and Pilifosova,

    2001; Box 1). This will enhance the system’s capacity to respond to a wide range of shocks, and

    ensure that the fundamental ecological and societal functions of the system are not compromised.

    Although building resilience appears to be a possible strategy to cope with shocks, a clear

    analytical framework to quantify which factors increase the resilience of a system does not

    currently exist. Without knowing which system variables to measure or ensure are resilient to

    shocks, it is almost impossible to determine how to best manage a social-ecological system for

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    resilience. A new quantifiable framework, therefore, should be created that is based on the

    empirical work that has been done to date on social-ecological resilience. This framework should

    be inter-disciplinary, given that building resilience in social-ecological systems is an inter-

    disciplinary problem (Liu et al, 2007). For example, studies have suggested that the stability of

    small-holder agricultural systems to climate variability depends on 1) biophysical (i.e. soil and

    climate), 2) social (i.e. community institutions), 3) economic (i.e. market prices for crops), and 4)

    ecological (i.e. pest control) factors (Morton, 2007; Howden et al., 2007). Studying resilience in

    these complex coupled human and natural systems requires a new sustainability science that is

    inherently cross-disciplinary and team-based (Folke et al, 2002).

    To help elucidate a possible analytical framework, this paper reviews studies that have

    examined resilience to climate change in social-ecological systems from the disciplines of human

    ecology, anthropology, economics, and psychology. The review specifically focuses on climate

    change given that previous empirical resilience literature is predominately focused on climate

    change. It is also important to understand resilience to climate change because climate shocks are

    predicted to affect many communities worldwide. This paper will identify which factors may

    increase communities’ resilience to climate change. Doing this will help determine which factors

    should be considered in future inter-disciplinary studies of resilience, and possible ways to

    quantify and consider these variables within a broader framework. This is necessary given that

    few if any reviews have simultaneously considered the different disciplinary works on resilience.

    It is also timely to create a new analytical framework given that many social-ecological systems

    are being used unsustainably and are threatened by new, unpredictable shocks such as climate


    Linking Resilience, Adaptive Capacity, and Vulnerability

    Although there is a growing body of literature examining the factors that contribute to

    resilience in social-ecological systems, many of these studies use different terminology to

    describe similar processes. The terms resilience, adaptation, maladaptation, adaptive capacity,

    and vulnerability (Box 1) are often used interchangeably, since a universally-accepted

    framework for defining these terms and their relationships to one another does not exist

    (Gallopin, 2006). Figure 1 describes how these terms are related within a social-ecological


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    Consider an agricultural system. Climate variables, such as precipitation, vary from year

    to year. Precipitation impacts human livelihoods, since agricultural production is tied to the

    amount of water available in a system. If a farmer is entirely dependent on rainfall for his crop

    production, he may have high income and yields during ideal precipitation years but low income

    and yields when the precipitation is too high (i.e. floods) or too low (i.e. droughts). This farmer is

    said to be vulnerable to changes in climate, since his livelihood is very dependent on the

    variability in climate. However, a farmer could become less vulnerable to climate by adapting

    his livelihood strategies; he could adapt by switching to less climate-dependent livelihoods such

    as salaried professions, gaining access to irrigation, or altering cropping strategies to suit current

    climate patterns. Adaptation ensures that the farmer maximizes his income despite the variability

    in climate. This farmer, whose income is not as heavily dependent on climate, is said to be

    resilient to climate change. On the other hand, a farmer may also undergo maladaptation if he

    alters his livelihood strategies in a way that make him less resilient to climate change. Certain

    farmers are better able to adapt to climate change than others. For instance, a wealthy farmer

    who can afford irrigation is better able to adapt to climate change than a poor rain-fed farmer.

    This wealthy farmer who has an increased ability to adapt is defined as having increased

    adaptive capacity.

    Considering this framework, adaptive capacity is seen as one of the primary factors that

    promotes the resilience of a system: a system with higher adaptive capacity will be more resilient

    to disturbance (Nelson et al., 2007). On the other hand, systems are considered to be vulnerable

    if they have low resilience and are greatly impacted by variable climates (Smit and Wandel,

    2006). By reviewing studies that identify which factors enhance resilience or decrease

    vulnerability, I will modify Figure 1 to create an analytical framework for identifying these

    factors and their relative importance.

    Factors Facilitating Resilience

    I reviewed the most cited literature on adaptation, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability to

    climate change to identify common drivers that are predicted to enhance adaptive capacity and

    limit vulnerability. Specifically, I conducted three different searches in the ISI Web of

    Knowledge database using the terms “human adaptation climate change”, “human vulnerability

    climate change”, and “adaptive capacity climate change” respectively. Each of these searches

    returned between 300 to 500 journal articles. I then read through each article’s title and abstract

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    to determine whether the paper actually empirically identified factors associated with adaptation

    and resilience using either case studies or regional-scale analyses. In addition, this review only

    considers papers that were cited ten or more times to control for quality. In sum, over one-

    hundred papers that match the above criteria are considered in this review.

    To determine what factors may be important for adaptation and resilience, I read through

    each paper and identified what drivers were considered to be important for resilience based on