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Indicators in Practice

Jul 27, 2015

Notre Dame-Global Adaptation Index

Using 17 years of data across 45 indicators, the Notre Dame-Global Adaptation Index ranks 177 countries annually to show how vulnerable they are to climate change and how prepared they are to successfully implement adaptation solutions.

Scope: Global, 177 countries

Released: Originally housed by the Global Adaptation Institute in Washington, D.C. and moved to Notre Dame University in 2013

Intended Audience: Business leaders, policymakers, and the general public

Application: To inform strategic and operational decisions on disaster planning, infrastructure development, and ecosystem management around the world; to enhance the world’s understanding of the urgency for adaptation to climate change through private and public investment for vulnerable communities.

Developer: Notre Dame University, Global Adaptation Institute, and civil society partners

Website: http://index.gain.org/


IPCC defines climate adaptation as “the ability of a system to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes) to moderate potential damages, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with the consequences.” All nations will have to adapt to the challenges of climate change. Some will be more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than others. If sea levels rise by 65 feet, the central Pacific island Republic of Nauru will be mostly submerged. Meanwhile, inland countries, like Botswana, might not even notice the rising seas. The Notre Dame-Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN) measures and quantifies countries’ different levels of climate adaptation from two dimensions -- vulnerability and readiness:  

Vulnerability measures a country’s exposure, sensitivity, and capacity to adapt to the negative impacts of climate change. Variables measuring vulnerability cover six life-supporting sectors: food, water, health, ecosystem services, human habitat, and infrastructure (coastal, energy, transportation). A country that has an effective disaster-response system is better prepared for and less vulnerable to extreme weather caused by climate change, compared to a country that needs but lacks such a system.

Readiness measures a country’s ability to leverage investments to become more adaptable to climate change. Readiness is further broken down into economic/fiscal, governance, and social readiness. For example, if a country’s business environment encourages investment to improve its disaster-response system, it is more ready to improve its climate adaptation, compared to countries that discourage such investment.

After a score for Vulnerability and Readiness is each calculated, ND-GAIN combines these two scores using the following formula:

            (Readiness Score-Vulnerability Score+1) x 50 =ND-GAIN

The 2014 result (see figure 1) indicates disproportionate risk globally. Overall, Sub-Saharan Africa assumes the greatest risk, with high vulnerability and low readiness almost across the board. Europe appears to be in a very good position, with moderate vulnerability and high readiness to adapt. According to ND-GAIN analysis, the world’s poorest countries will take more than a century to reach the level of climate change resilience of the richest countries, at current rates.  

ND-GAIN’s individual country ranking also reflects regional differences. Four of the top five are the Nordic nations , with New Zealand rounding out the group. All of the bottom five are countries in Sub-Saharan Africa (Burundi, Central African Rep., Eritrea, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad).

ND-GAIN also informs us about countries’ improvement or deterioration over time. From 2008 to 2013, Rwanda’s readiness to adapt improved the most, especially in governance and social readiness. Mongolia achieved considerable improvement in both readiness and vulnerability scores, translating to a 55.5 point  increase from 2000 to 2013.


ND-GAIN has advantages over other indices that measure climate vulnerability. Many vulnerability indices, such as the Environmental Vulnerability Index and Climate Vulnerability Monitor, rate climate vulnerability only according to countries’ exposures to risks, such as geographical location. ND-GAIN’s Vulnerability index also considers countries’ capacities to cope with risks, such as the disaster-response system. The importance of incorporating both aspects can be understood in a simple example. Coastal countries are generally thought to be vulnerable to climate disruption because they are affected by sea level rise and extreme weather. However, the top five resilient countries are coastal or island countries, while three of the bottom five countries are landlocked. Those bottom countries are among the least developed nations in the world, and their lack of resources and infrastructure, not their placement on the globe, makes them seriously vulnerable to climate disruption.

ND-GAIN considers countries’ current adaptive capacity (measured in Vulnerability) and their ability to leverage future investment to increase resilience (measured in Readiness). For example, Vulnerability scores are similar for China (0.332) and Japan (0.335). According to ND-GAIN, Japan’s business environment, political institutions, and social factors make it more conducive to absorb and mobilize financial resources efficiently to reduce climate change vulnerability. This is reflected in Japan’s higher Readiness score and ND-GAIN ranking, compared to China. The incorporation of both current and future adaptive capacity is missing in many other indices.   

ND-GAIN’s inclusion of the Readiness score expands our frame for looking at climate resilience. Nevertheless, there are limits to the Readiness score because it is not specifically related to climate change. ND-GAIN calculates countries’ economic readiness based exclusively on components of the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom (IEF), which measures countries’ business freedom, trade freedom, fiscal freedom, etc. Countries that have a high score on IEF also perform well on ND-GAIN’s Readiness. This is questionable because countries with great economic freedom in general may have specific policies that discourage future investment to increase climate resilience. The correlation between economic freedom and readiness is not apparent and needs be reinforced with more data and research.  The same problem occurs in ND-GAIN’s calculation of governance and social readiness, both lacking specific connections to climate change.

ND-GAIN was created to inform decision-makers in both private and public sectors. Governments and public interests groups now use ND-GAIN as an assessment tool, for example, to highlight areas in Burundi that need to improve resilience and to study the impacts of early-warning systems for climate-related disasters in Mozambique. Though it has yet to achieve wide application in the private sector, ND-GAIN has the potential to inform business leaders on operational and reputational decisions regarding supply chains, capital projects, and community engagements. This can be a double-edged sword. ND-GAIN can guide businesses to prioritize investments to more efficiently address climate change, but it can also discourage businesses from investing in areas that are most vulnerable for fear of damage to their assets.