A multiscale analysis of social-ecological system robustness and vulnerability in Cornwall, UK

Larissa A. Naylor, Ute Brady, Tara Quinn, Katrina Brown, John Marty Anderies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Understanding social-ecological system (SES) feedbacks and interactions is crucial to improving societal resilience to growing environmental challenges. Social-ecological systems are usually researched at one of two spatial scales: local placed-based empirical studies or system-scale modelling, with limited efforts to date exploring the merits of combining these two analytical approaches and scales. Here, we take a multiscale interdisciplinary approach to elucidate the social dynamics underpinning cross-sectoral feedbacks and unintended consequences of decision-making that can affect social-ecological system vulnerability unexpectedly. We combined empirical place-based research with the Robustness Framework, a dynamic system level analysis platform, to analyse the characteristics and robustness of a coastal SES in Cornwall, UK. Embedding place-based empirical analysis into a broader institutional framework revealed SES feedbacks and “maladaptations”. We find that decentralisation efforts coupled with government austerity measures amplify second-order (reputational) risks. This prompted temporal policy trade-offs, which increased individual and community vulnerability and reduced social-ecological system robustness, impeding local adaptation to climate change. We identify opportunities to ameliorate these maladaptations by (1) implementing coordination rules that can guide policymakers in instances of conflicting coastal management pressures, and (2) recognising how second-order risks influence decision-making. This work demonstrates the strengths of combining local and regional analyses to assess the robustness of social-ecological systems exposed to environmental changes, such as climate change and sea level rise. Our results show how analysis of the multiscale effects of climate policies, decision-making processes and second-order risks can usefully support local climate change adaptation planning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1835-1848
Number of pages14
JournalRegional Environmental Change
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 1 2019


  • Adaptation
  • Climate change
  • Coastal management
  • First- and second-order risks
  • Robustness framework
  • Social-ecological systems
  • Vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change


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