Rural communities have long been using ecosystems to sustain their livelihoods, especially in times of disasters when forests act as safety nets and natural buffers. However, it is less clear how climate variability influences changes in land uses, and their implications for human well-being. We examined how forests and trees can reduce human vulnerability by affecting the three components of vulnerability: exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. A total of 24 focus group discussions and 256 household surveys were conducted in two smallholder-dominated rural landscapes in Indonesia, which were affected by floods, drought and disease outbreaks. Our results suggest that forests and trees are important in supporting community resilience and decreasing their vulnerabilities to climate-related stresses in different ways. The role of trees varied according to the type of ecosystem service, whether provisioning or regulating, in relation to the phase of the climatic hazard, either in the pre-disaster phase or in the post-disaster recovery phase. It is therefore important to distinguish between these elements when analyzing people’s responses to climatic variability in order to fully capture the contribution of forests and trees to reducing people’s vulnerability. Landscape spatial characteristics, environmental degradation and community awareness of climate variability are crucial because if their linkages are recognized, local people can actively manage natural resources to increase their resilience. Interventions related to forests and trees should take into consideration these aspects to make ecosystem services a valuable option for an integrated strategy to reduce disaster risks and climate-related vulnerabilities.