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Cultural knowledge and local vulnerability in African American communities


Policymakers need to know what factors are most important in determining local vulnerability to facilitate effective adaptation to climate change. Quantitative vulnerability indices are helpful in this endeavour but are limited in their ability to capture subtle yet important aspects of vulnerability such as social networks, knowledge and access to resources. Working with three African American communities on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, we systematically elicit local cultural knowledge on climate change and connect it with a scientific vulnerability framework. The results of this study show that: a given social–ecological factor can substantially differ in the way in which it affects local vulnerability, even among communities with similar demographics and climate-related risks; and social and political isolation inhibits access to sources of adaptive capacity, thereby exacerbating local vulnerability. These results show that employing methods for analysing cultural knowledge can yield new insights to complement those generated by quantitative vulnerability indices.

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Figure 1: African American communities at risk from sea-level rise on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Figure 2: Underlying dimensions of community MDS plots.


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This research was financially supported in part by a grant from the NOAA Climate and Societal Interactions–Coasts Program (NA110AR4310113). While conducting this research and writing this manuscript, C.D.M.H. was supported by an EPA STAR Fellowship (FP—91749201-0). The researchers would like to thank E. Douglas for her leadership on the NOAA project and the African American communities of St Michaels, Dorchester County and Crisfield for their participation in this study.

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Both authors were involved in designing the research. C.D.M.H. conducted the fieldwork. Both authors carried out the analysis. C.D.M.H. wrote the text and made the figures. M.P. contributed to the text.

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Correspondence to Christine D. Miller Hesed.

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Miller Hesed, C., Paolisso, M. Cultural knowledge and local vulnerability in African American communities. Nature Clim Change 5, 683–687 (2015).

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