Vulnerability as a means of developing agency

Prof. Tim Smith1, Assoc. Prof. Dana Thomsen1

1University Of The Sunshine Coast, Sippy Downs, Australia


Dominant approaches to vulnerability focus on the avoidance of risk. In the case of climate change impacts many current responses are projected to have diminishing returns over time through manipulation of social-ecological systems (e.g. the construction of sea walls) resulting in maladaptation (e.g. exacerbating inequities). Such short-term responses are predicated by a range of factors including previous infrastructure and development decisions, political terms, and individual self-interest. These perspectives on vulnerability and pathways of response limit the development of agency and achievement of sustainable adaptation. This paper is focused on conceptions and actions relating to vulnerability and adaptation, including the implications for future path dependencies, values, and authentic learning experiences to enable adaptive capacity and adaptation.


Professor Tim Smith (PhD, GradCert (Higher Ed), BAppSc (hons), GAICD), is a human geographer focused on coastal management and climate change adaptation. His research aims to discover innovative coastal governance approaches that embrace vulnerability and change. He holds an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship, is a Lead Author of the upcoming IPCC Assessment Report, and a member of the scientific steering committee for Future Earth Coasts. Professor Smith is also an Adjunct Professor with Brock University, Canada, an Adjunct Professor with Southern Cross University, and a Senior Research Associate with Uppsala University, Sweden.



The Institute of Australian Geographers (IAG) is the principal body representing geographers and promoting the study and application of geography in Australia. It was founded in 1958 and since then has promoted, supported and defended Australian geography.

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