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Vulnerability and Adaptive Capacity

(Canada in a Changing Climate)    

Adaptive capacity in Canada is generally high but is unevenly distributed between and within regions and populations.
As a prosperous country with high levels of education, access to technology, and strong and effective institutions, Canada is well positioned to take action on adapting to climate change. However, there are significant differences in this ability to adapt among different subregions and population groups, resulting in differing vulnerabilities to climate change The IPCC AR4 has concluded that, in all regions of the world, no matter how prosperous, there are certain areas, sectors and communities that are particularly vulnerable to climate change (Wilbanks et al., 2007).
Within Canada, differences in adaptive capacity and the perception of the risks presented by climate change have been noted between urban centres and rural/remote communities. Both urban and rural centres have characteristics that enhance or limit adaptive capacity (Table SR-4). Urban centres tend to be places of greater wealth, higher education and skill sets, with easier access to technology and institutions. However, urban centres also tend to have greater reliance on critical energy, transportation and water infrastructure, more severe heat stress and air quality problems, and larger numbers of poor and elderly residents that result in vulnerabilities not shared by most rural communities. Northern Canada, with its sparse, widely distributed population, evolving governance and institutions, and significant subsistence economy, has unique limitations to adaptive capacity. Among population groups, the poor, the elderly, recent immigrants and Aboriginal peoples tend to face greater challenges in coping with climate changes, often due to limited financial resources, health problems and difficulties accessing technology and institutional services.

Table SR-4: General differences in adaptive capacity, which affect vulnerability to climate change, between urban and rural communities
(Note: These do not apply in all cases)



  • Greater access to financial  resources
  • Diversified economies
  • Greater access to services (eg.  health  care, social services, education)
  • Higher education levels
  • Well-developed emergency response capacity
  • Highly developed institutions

  • Strong social capital
  • Strong social networks
  • Strong attachments to community
  • Strong traditional and local knowledge
  • High rates of volunteerism

  • Higher costs of living
  • More air quality and heat stress issues
  • Lack of knowledge of climate change impacts and adaptation issues
  • High dependence on critical, but aging infrastructure
  • Issues of overlapping jurisdictions that complicate decision-making processes

  • Limited economic resources
  • Less diversified economies
  • Higher reliance on natural resource sectors
  • Isolation from services and limited access
  • Lower proportion of population with technical training

What is vulnerability and adaptive capacity?
Vulnerability to climate change "is the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes” (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007, p. 21). Three factors influence the vulnerability of any system: 1) the nature of the climate changes to which it is exposed; 2) the climate sensitivity of the system; and 3) the capacity of that system to adapt to changed climate conditions. Therefore, while a sector, community or population may be exposed to significant climate changes, it is not considered vulnerable unless those climate changes result in significant negative impacts, and it does not have the capability to undertake adaptation actions that would significantly reduce those impacts.

Although extensive research efforts have focused on projecting the magnitude and rate of climate changes, and on understanding the relationships between climate and biophysical systems, the characterization of adaptive capacity is a relatively new area of study. Adaptive capacity is influenced by a number of location-specific social, economic and institutional factors that act to either constrain or enhance the ability to adapt.

Within Canada, there are significant differences in the climate sensitivity of major economic sectors. Among the most sensitive sectors are those dependent upon renewable natural resources, including agriculture, fisheries, forestry and non-commercial food supply, as well as many aspects of tourism and recreation. Adaptive capacity similarly varies widely between sectors, communities and populations. Assessment of vulnerability must consider variability in all these factors.

Since vulnerability refers to the susceptibility of a system to harm, it does not consider the benefits that may result from changing climate. However, the ability to take advantage of such opportunities is also a function of adaptive capacity. Finally, where vulnerability is considered relatively low due to a high capacity to adapt, significant negative impacts may still occur if appropriate adaptation actions are not implemented. As noted in the IPCC AR4, although many societies have high adaptive capacity and the necessary financial resources, they have not taken effective action on adaptation to climate change, variability and extremes (Adger et al., 2007; Field et al., 2007)

Resource-dependent and Aboriginal communities are particularly vulnerable to climate changes. This vulnerability is magnified in the Arctic.

Although agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting do not account for a large percentage of Canada's GDP, they are vitally important for the economic well-being of many subregions and communities where land- and resource-based activities remain the foundation of economic life. More than 1600 communities in all regions of Canada obtain 30% or more of their employment income from these sectors. The economic impacts of climate change at the community scale can be significant. The vulnerability of resource-dependent communities to climate change reflects the high climate sensitivity of many natural resource–based industries, limited economic diversification, and more restricted access to services.

Aboriginal communities, many of which retain strong linkages to the land for both economic and cultural well-being, are also particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. The subsistence economy may constitute up to 50% of the total income in these communities. This vulnerability is magnified in Arctic regions, where rates of warming have been, and are projected to be, the greatest in the world. Changes in snow cover and sea-ice conditions, along with ecosystem impacts, are affecting access to traditional food supplies, while permafrost degradation and coastal erosion are affecting community infrastructure. The adaptive capacity of many Aboriginal communities is presently being eroded by social, cultural, political and economic changes taking place in response to a range of stresses. Significant impacts on traditional ways of life are unavoidable.
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