Adaptation (Global Warming)

Adaptation in social, cultural, and economic contexts is also an important component of thinking about societal response to climate change. As such, adaptation is defined in many ways. It can be defined as a process that enables people to minimize the adverse effects of climate on their health and well-being. It also refers to the capacity of people or societies to take advantage of the changes that the climate might provide. Adaptation can also mean the adjustments in behavior and economic structures that will reduce societal vulnerability to climate change impacts.

This can include changes to social and cultural structures or mores within society, so that vulnerability to climate variability and potential extreme events is reduced. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) defines adaptability as "the degree to which adjustments are possible in practices, processes, or structures of systems to projected or actual changes of climate," and notes, "adaptation can be spontaneous or planned, and can be carried out in response to or in anticipation of a change in conditions."

Of great interest to policymakers, however, is the ability of societies to implement adaptations. The IPCC reiterates that adaptation is more than just finding a technical "fix," but should incorporate a combination of strategic and technical options. This is generally discussed in the literature as adaptive capacity. The IPCC report (2001) on adaptive capacity notes that the capacity to adapt, as with vulnerability, is a result of the integration of wealth, scientific and technical knowledge, information, skills, infrastructure, institutions, and equity. This report also states that adaptations will be more beneficial if they are incorporated into existing strategies such as coastal zone management, disaster mitigation, land use planning, and sustainable development programs, a process referred to elsewhere in the literature as mainstreaming.


Adaptation can take many forms. It can work from the bottom up or top down. It can be reactive to changes or impacts, or it can be predictive, as in responding in advance to anticipated impacts. Adaptations can also be differentiated by whether or not they are autonomous or planned, occur in natural or socioeconomic systems, are anticipatory or reactive, and take technological, institutional, or behavioral forms. Adaptation can also be structural, such as the building of dykes or levees to combat flooding or sea level rise associated with climate change. Adaptation can also take the form of policy measures or approaches such as integrated coastal zone management.

An example of adaptation in practice is the adaptive management of sea-level rise. The six most important bio-geophysical (or natural system) effects of sea-level rise are: increasing flood-frequency probabilities, erosion, inundation, rising water tables, saltwater intrusion, and biological effects. Without adaptation, the consequences of global warming and sea-level rise would be disastrous, a point reiterated by the IPCC in its Fourth Assessment Report, 2007.

There are a number of technical options designed to respond to sea-level rise: retreat, accommodate, or protect. Retreat involves the removal of all artificial structures from the potentially affected area, providing the shoreline with space to move. Accommodation is where coastal developments try to adapt to sea-level rise by doing things such as introducing building standards, and only allowing removable homes to be built in high risk areas.

Protection, also called defense, includes not only the erection of coastal defense structures such as seawalls and dikes, but also leaving all existing structures in potentially affected areas, and even encouraging more development to be built. However, there are environmental, social, and economic aspects of all three options that have to be considered carefully before approving or discarding any of them.

In 2001, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) adopted a seven-step adaptation framework for addressing the problems of sea-level rise and climate change: define the problem, select the method, test the method, select scenarios, assess the bio-geophysical and socioeconomic impacts, assess the autonomous adjustments, and evaluate adaptation strategies. While the UNEP specifically outlines a suite of strategic responses to sea-level rise, it cautions that before applying these strategies, policymakers must decide if their adaptation is to be autonomous or planned, and reactive or pro-active.

Policy makers can also use adaptive measures to manage climate change. One adaptive strategy is known as the no-regret or win-win approach. This approach allows policy makers to implement strategies that benefit all parties, and are politically feasible because of minimal risk. Another strategy is the precautionary strategy, where adaptation becomes part of ongoing management planning, thus ensuring that any future impact of climate change is anticipated. For example, local governments might factor in requirements for development applications to plan for climate change, even before the predicted effects of climate change occur in that region.


Some researchers interpret adaptation by examining the relationship between human and organizational behavior and adaptation strategies. For example, research based on nine case studies of companies in the United Kingdom showed that adaptation processes have many synergies with organizational learning. Researchers demonstrate that business adaptation techniques that affect organizational adaptive behavior provide lessons to policymakers for implementing climate change actions. Suggested business adaptation techniques include: changes to the firm’s commercial strategy (commercial adaptation), changes to technologies used to provide products or services (technological adaptation), changes in financial management systems (financial adaptation), changes in data-gathering and monitoring trends, and information and monitoring of climate stimuli and search processes for adaptation measures.

Some policy makers construct adaptation as a space, providing the opportunity to implement well-established adaptation options, as well as options that are novel and not yet fully explored. The adaptation space is conceptualized as dynamic, growing, and evolving as new options are generated. Within the adaptation space, four alternative climate adaptation strategies can be identified. These include the wait and see approach, which is a strategy of deferral, based on skepticism or uncertainty about the possible impact of climate change and the benefits of adaptation.

Risk assessment and options appraisal is another strategy designed to evaluate options in preparation for adaptation of organizational routines. Bearing and managing risks is a strategy of handling risks and opportunities arising from climate impacts employing organizational resources and capabilities. The fourth strategy is one of sharing and shifting risks, a process of seeking to externalize risks associated with climate impacts through insurance and collaboration.


Implementing adaptation strategies for climate change requires decision makers to incorporate and deal with the issue of uncertainty. Uncertainty is one of the key difficulties for policy makers in assessing both how climate change will manifest and the resulting extent, diversity, regularity, distribution, and magnitude of its impacts. Uncertainty arises from insufficient, inaccurate, or unavailable data; external developments and cross-boundary issues; and the unpredictability of human behavior. Part of the solution to dealing with uncertainty lies in ensuring that adaptation policy is robust, and anticipates future impacts based on a wide array of predictions. By building social and economic capacity to respond to diverse sets of circumstances, it is possible to incorporate uncertainty in planning frameworks. Adaptation strategies are, thus, a very important part of climate change management.

Adaptive management

Building on the notions of adaptation and adaptive capacity is the concept of adaptive management. It is a process that embeds greater fluidity and flexibility within conventional environmental management systems. Adaptive management is based on the assumption that as circumstances change, so must management strategies. It is a technique that provides a framework for continually improving management practice and delivering environmental outcomes within socioeconomic contexts.

Adaptive management also builds on environmental assessment techniques to deal with uncertainty, and access information sets on partially-known processes, making it ideal for climate change management. The fluid nature of adaptive management also suits the dynamics of working with the changing quality of environmental processes. Adaptive management means management that is flexible and based on the principle of continuous improvement. Employing adaptive management techniques enables policy makers to focus on variation over time within policy, rather than the more conventional spatial variation. For example, within local government, planners can use adaptive management techniques to review their planning schemes periodically, and ensure that they deal with variations over time. Adaptive management can be viewed as a process with consecutive stages including: information collection, systems analysis and vision, plan making, implementation of management actions, and monitoring and reviewing.

Adaptation assessment

In planning for what types of adaptation to use at any given time, decision makers must consider these aspects: adaptation to what, who or what adapts, and how adaptation occurs. Decision makers must also determine the attributes for differentiating adaptations, such as purposefulness, timing, temporal and spatial scope, effects, form, and performance. In this context there is a distinction between two types of adaptation assessment: positive and normative. Positive assessment is predictive; the likelihood of adaptations that will be required is based on the assessment of likely impact scenarios. Normative assessment builds on the positive approach by evaluating likely adaptation options, and enables input into policy recommendations.

A protective approach to the adaptive management of sea-level rise retains old structures and even backs more development

A protective approach to the adaptive management of sea-level rise retains old structures and even backs more development

Many techniques can be applied to determine which adaptation type to implement. For example, adaptation trials in Egypt show that multi-criteria analysis and decision-matrix approaches based on questionnaire surveys to determine adaptation priorities and options, are useful tools. Other studies use participatory vulnerability assessment (PVA) tools to identify the adaptation strategies most appropriate for communities that will allow incorporation of political, cultural, economic, institutional, and technological factors. PVA also facilitates a dynamic interplay among various exposures, sensitivities, and adaptive capacities over time, because what is vulnerable in one period is not necessarily vulnerable (or vulnerable in the same way) in the next.

The choice and implementation of different adaptive measures is also contingent on the decision processes that frame them. Decision-making processes must ensure that adaptation and knowledge of climate impacts are both considered. Also, it is important that adaptation decisions are not impractical or prohibitively expensive. For example, in low-lying areas subject to flooding as a result of sea-level rise, the cost of adaptation could amount to at least 5 to 10 percent of Gross Domestic Product. The appropriate mechanism for implementation of adaptation strategies also depends on the particular response. One response within the United Kingdom to sea-level rise has been to develop shoreline management plans (SMP). The English coastline is divided into 11 cells, which are divided further into sub-cells. The divisions are made according to the transport of sand and other sediments. For each sub-cell a SMP has been defined. Each SMP is designed to take a strategic view of shoreline defenses and is based on a decision to pursue one or a combination of the following adaptation options: do nothing, advance the line, hold the line, or retreat the line. In Bangladesh, soft adaptation measures have been tried, such as the planting of mangroves along vulnerable coasts, beach nourishment, and coral transplanting. Hard measures include the building of seawalls and coastal dykes, such as in Japan or the Netherlands.

Ensuring the most appropriate adaptation in each case is the key. For example, in some places beach nourishment is implemented as a short-term, flexible strategy as an alternative to building sea walls. In cases where saline water intrusion threatens groundwater supplies, longer-term adaptation strategies, such as demand reduction initiatives like the improved maintenance of water reticulation systems to prevent and remedy leaks, conservation education, and plumbing, might be more appropriate.


Climate change adaptation strategies have been tried worldwide. A number of key lessons have been learned that will help future decision makers when planning for, and adapting to, climate change. These lessons include: adaptation should build on previous experiences in relation to disaster management; adaptation can be autonomous or planned, reactive or proactive; adaptation takes time and, therefore, should not be postponed; there is a need to build diverse information/knowledge bases that will support adaptation processes; social vulnerability needs to be canvassed; adaptation technologies need to be developed and applied; institutional arrangements must support adaptation; and priority should be given to adaptation in catchments where the water is close to full utilization.

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