What Is Climate Change Adaptation?

The new phrase "climate change adaptation" is used by scientists to describe actions designed to cushion the effects of global warming. It's not about preventing or limiting climate change, it's simply about coping with its consequences. In this article we explain all you need to know, including how the United Nations is dealing with the issue.
Climate Change Adaptation: Reduce effects of global warming and sea level rise by building house on supports.

Cushioning the Impacts of Global Warming

“Climate change adaptation” means adapting to the effects of global warming such as, sea-level rise, extreme weather events, food and water shortages – so as to cushion their impact on people, homes, infrastructure, businesses and animal habitats.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines adaptation as: “the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects.”

As well as protecting against the harmful impacts of global warming, adaptation also includes the exploitation of any positive opportunities associated with climate change, such as longer growing seasons or higher crop yields.

In addition, to minimizing the effects of global warming on humans, adaptation also involves safeguarding the Planet’s ecosystems and biodiversity, without which human life would be impossible.  

According to the OECD, ambitious adaptation and mitigation policies will reduce future costs of climate change and stabilize the increasing negative risks associated with higher temperatures. 1

Adaptation is not a short-term thing. Even if greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control relatively quickly (which is unlikely), the effects of climate change will last for many years, and adaptation will continue to be necessary in the long term. 2

The type and scale of measures which need to be adopted will vary from place to place, depending on the level of vulnerability to extreme weather or other environmental impacts. 3 4

Adaptation measures are especially urgent in developing countries – such as the Pacific Island states, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia – since they suffer most from the effects of global warming on oceans and have the least resources. 5 In addition, countries with valuable rainforest biomes, such as Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Papua New Guinea, need additional global support in order to conserve their resources.(See also: What’s the difference Between Climate and Weather?)

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations and Chair of the Global Commission on Adaptation, warns us:

“Our climate has already changed, and we need to adapt with it. Mitigation and adaptation go hand-in-hand as two equally important building blocks of the Paris Climate Agreement. Adaptation is not only the right thing to do, it is also the smart thing to do to boost economic growth and create a climate resilient world.”

NOTE: For popular questions and answers on all aspects of our climate crisis, see: 50 FAQs About Global Warming and 50 Climate Change FAQs.

Adaptation Must Go Hand In Hand With Mitigation

Adaptation cannot be effective unless accompanied by a program of climate change mitigation, designed to dial down the greenhouse effect by reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. If climate change is left unmitigated, then in the long run no amount of adaptation is likely to be effective. 6

Taiga Forest: This vital carbon sink needs to be conserved for its climate change adaptation benefits.
The forests of Yugansky nature reserve, Khanty-Mansia, Russia. The taiga forests of the far north constitute the world’s largest biome and the largest carbon reservoir on the surface of the planet. As temperatures rise in the Arctic, the management and protection of these forests becomes an essential element in any climate change mitigation (or adaptation) program. See also: 7 Effects of Climate Change on Plants and Trees. Photo: © Tatiana Bulyonkova, Novosibirsk. CC BY 2.0

Does Climate Adaptation Overlap With Mitigation?

Yes. There is quite a lot of overlap. Take forestry (managing forests), for example. A key objective of this activity is to reduce deforestation and maintain or increase the carbon-capturing capacity of the vegetation concerned (mitigation). At the same time, by supporting the forest ecosystem – especially in rainforests – forestry helps the area to stay cool and moist (adaptation). Tree-Planting is both mitigation and adaptation.

Protecting coastal mangrove forests, seagrasses and salt marshes helps to conserve stores of blue carbon (mitigation), but also helps to protect coastlines from storm surges and sea level rise (adaptation).

Developing cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels, is a climate change mitigation strategy. But by reducing the amount of coal mining and oil drilling, it also reduces the environmental effects of fossil fuels, which helps the local ecosystems to recover and, hopefully, survive higher temperatures.

How Much Will Climate Change Adaptation Cost?

Climate change adaptation will be expensive. Adaptation to the consequences of climate change could cost up to US$500 billion per year worldwide by 2050, according to a recent report released by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The report – “Adaptation Finance Gap Report” (May, 2016) – was compiled by experts from 15 separate organisations, and updates a previous report published by UNEP in 2014.

Previous figures released in 2010 by the World Bank warned that global adaptation strategies could cost between US$70 and US$100 billion per year for the 2010-2050 period. The new U.N. estimates indicate that costs could reach between US$140 billion and US$300 billion by 2030, and between US$280 billion and US$500 billion by 2050.

The OECD estimates that, by 2100, global adaptation and mitigation policies is likely to cost the equivalent of 1-3 percent of annual global GDP. However, having no adaptation or mitigation plans will cost up to 10 percent of global GDP.

To put these adaptation statistics into perspective, global wartime expenditures during the 6 years of World War II amounted to roughly $1.3 trillion, the equivalent in today’s money of about $18 trillion. This figure takes no account of post-war expenditure, needed to rebuild much of Russia, Germany and Japan from scratch. Nor does it reflect the economic loss of 80 million people, or the hospitalization costs of treating millions of disabled soldiers and civilians. If governments were able to pay for this global disaster without a single computer to help them, it should be able to tackle today’s climate crisis and resource an effective campaign of climate change adaptation in the 21st century.

Is Climate Change Adaptation Taken Seriously By Governments?

According to the IPCC, climate change adaptation is becoming a higher priority for governments.

For example, they are finally beginning to deal with key questions, including: how to protect low-lying coastal urban areas and agricultural land from a rise in sea levels and consequent storm surges; how to manage the increasingly severe weather disasters and their associated risks; how to best manage land, especially forests; how to safeguard water supplies; how to develop heat-resistant crop varieties, how to protect public infrastructure, and how to maintain a continuous supply of energy. 7

However, given their continuing interest in the mining of fossil fuels, along with the lack of serious investment in renewable energy sources, it’s hard to take this new focus too seriously.

NOTE: For more about the likelihood of climate action, see: Root Cause of Climate Change.

When Are Adaptation Plans Needed?

They’re needed now. For adaptation plans to be effective, they need to be drawn up, financed and implemented as soon as possible. Large scale flood prevention measures take years to build. Likewise engineering projects to safeguard public health services against extreme heat, or new infrastructure needed to safeguard food and water supplies, and so on.

Thames Flood Barriers. An important part of climate change adaptation efforts to reduce the impact of floods in the London area.
Thames Flood Barrier, London. Adapting to higher tides & storm surges. Photo: © Andy Roberts. CC BY 2.0

As of 2020, the world is on course to be 2°C (3.6°F) hotter than preindustrial times by 2050. For the city of London, for example, this means an average increase of 5.9°C in the temperature of its hottest month, by 2050.

For Seattle, the increase is 6.1°C; for Madrid, 6.4°C. In general, Northern Hemisphere cities will acquire the climates of cities located 1,000 kilometers further south. What’s more, 22 percent of cities will experience climates that are not presently being experienced by any major city. 8

See also: Why Does A Half-Degree Rise in Temperature Make Such a Difference to the Planet?

Global Commission On Adaptation

The Global Commission on Adaptation was founded in 2018 with the support of 17 states, including Canada, China, and the UK, along with low-lying countries vulnerable to global warming including Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific. The Commission has 28 Commissioners who represent all areas of the globe and all sectors of industry and development.

Its recent report, entitled: “Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience” emphasizes the need to invest in a massive effort to adjust to climatic conditions that are now inevitable: higher temperatures, rising seas, more severe storms, and more acidic oceans. 9

Why Is Climate Change Adaptation Important?

It’s important for humanitarian reasons. But also, for environmental and economic reasons.

Humanitarian Benefits

According to the Global Commission on Adaptation, immediate climate change adaptation is a human, environmental, and economic imperative. If we don’t adapt, the report says:

  • By 2050, climate change may depress growth in agricultural yields by up to 30 percent. The worst-affected will be the 500 million small farms around the world. (See also: Why is Soil So Important to the Planet?)
  • By 2050, the number of people without sufficient water, for at least 4 weeks a year, will jump from 3.6 billion today to more than 5 billion.
  • By 2050, rising seas and higher storm surges are likely to make hundreds of millions of coastal city dwellers homeless, costing societies more than $1 trillion each year by 2050.
  • By 2030, global warming is likely to drive more than 100 million people in developing countries below the poverty line. 9

Environmental Benefits

The natural environment is our first line of defense against storm surges, heatwaves and other extreme weather events. But, one in four species is facing extinction, 25 percent of all ice-free land is now degraded, while both ocean temperature and acidity are rising.

Rising temperatures are accelerating the loss of natural resources across the globe. There may still be time to work with nature to build resilience and reduce climate risks, but the window is closing. 9

See also: Global Temperature Projections for 2100.

Wuhan - a model sponge city with green infrastructure and architecture to reduce the effects of flooding.
China’s Sponge City Project has begun in Wuhan, the first of 16 cities to be used as test sites in a major government initiative. The “Sponge City” concept is the perfect climate change adaptation plan to lessen the effects of abnormally high rainfall caused by global warming. This concept has been adopted by authorities in China, a country where urban flooding has doubled in recent years. According to Kongjian Yu, the Dean of Peking University’s College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture – instead of funnelling rainwater away, a sponge city retains it for its own use, within its own boundaries. Photo: Andrew Horne/CC BY-SA 3.0

Why Do We Need To Worry About The Environment?

Because we humans depend for our survival upon the activity of plants and ocean phytoplankton. These living organisms supply us with nearly all our oxygen, and they act as the base for the global food chain, without which we and all other creatures would starve. In turn, these organisms depend upon other species, who in turn rely on other species, and so on. This is why Earth’s web of biodiversity is so important for human survival.

It’s all a matter of maintaining the balance. For example, sharks keep coral reefs healthy by preventing larger fish from eating all the small herbivores, who eat the macroalgae that adversely affect the coral. And if corals die, as many as 1 in 4 of all marine organisms will suffer. 10

Another interesting example of balance comes from oil palm plantations. Scientists summoned to a plantation to deal with a family of Macaque monkeys, who ate more than 12 tons of oil palm fruits per year (0.56% of the overall oil palm production), discovered that they also ate thousands of rats, who were causing losses of about 10 percent of palm production. 11

In rainforests, plants depend upon a wide range of animals (e.g. gorillas, orangutans, lemurs, sun bears, wild pigs, tapirs, and civets) as well as birds to scatter their seeds and maintain their growth as a species. 12 Some trees team up with insects. The Swollen Thorn Acacia Tree provides Azteca ants with food, water and shelter. In return, the ants protect the trees from predators, including vines and other encroaching plants that might otherwise strangle it. 13

The moral? The food chain is maintained by a healthy environment which in turn depends upon biodiversity at all levels. Without a food chain to support them, humans could not survive. That’s why adaptation plans must include protection of the environment.

Economic Benefits

The report highlights five areas that are ideal candidates for investment. The five areas include: (a) early warning systems, (b) climate-resilient infrastructure, (c) improved dryland agriculture, (d) mangrove protection, and (e) investments in making water resources more resilient.

The report claims that investing $1.8 trillion globally in these areas over the 10-year period 2020 to 2030, could generate $7.1 trillion in total net benefits. Failure to act on these and other opportunities, the report says, would forego trillions of dollars in potential prosperity. 9

What Climate Change Adaptation Is Needed?

Food

Global demand for food is set to increase by 50 percent, by 2050, while crop yields may decline by up to 30 percent, without effective action on climate adaptation. To make food supply lines more resilient, a significant increase in agricultural research and development is needed – an enhancement which has already shown benefit-cost ratios ranging from 2:1 to 17:1. It also requires significant improvement in access to information, innovative technologies, and also finance to strengthen the resilience of 500 million small farmers whose livelihoods are most critically affected by climate change.

Estafeta Drought Resistant Soybean. Climate change adaptation in agriculture.
Estafeta, an early-ripening species of soybean with enhanced drought resistant attributes, along with resistance to diseases and pest. (Developed by Plant Production Institute, Ukraine.) The development of plants capable of surviving in arid, drought-like conditions will become an essential part of climate change adaptation strategies. Photo: © Institute of Roslinnitsva ім. V. Ya. Yur’eva. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Natural Environment

Despite being the foundation for the resilience of communities and economies, natural ecosystems and their resources are rapidly being degraded. Large-scale conservation of natural resources needs immediate remedial action to meet existing national commitments, such as those made via the Convention on Biological Diversity. As usual, it also requires a higher valuation to be placed on natural assets, as well as an increase in public and private resources to safeguard them. Many nature-based adaptation solutions also double-up as climate mitigation solutions and can provide 33 percent of the climate mitigation required between now and 2030 to keep global warming below 2°C.

Water

Climate adaptation is integrally connected to water supplies. Effective action on adaptation will necessitate scaled-up investment in establishing resilient water infrastructure, improvements in water use, and protection against floods and droughts. Research indicates that more efficient water allocation and use is vital to economic growth against a backdrop of global warming. Without close attention to water resources, the GDPs of India, China and Central Asia are likely to be 7-12 percent lower, and much of Africa about 6 percent lower, by 2050. Conversely, countries who make water management a top national priority, are more likely to adapt and prosper. (See also: What is the Water Cycle?)

Cities

Urban areas are now home to over half the world’s population and have become centers of opportunity and innovation. Adaptation efforts should exploit this transformative urban energy in order to generate significant economic returns. In coastal cities, for example, the cost of effective climate change adaptation is one-tenth the cost of no action. To plan and deliver more resilient urban services, cities everywhere need to invest in better information sharing services and platforms, and in nature-based solutions to tackle flooding as well as heat risks, and in upgrading the day-to-day living conditions of the 880 million people living in informal settlements that are particularly vulnerable to rising temperatures.

Switching from internal combustion vehicles (ICVs) to electrically powered cars, buses and trucks is another policy that is essential for the environmental health of our cities. This is because, when driven, electric vehicles (EVs) emit zero pollution and, if recharged using renewable power, produce zero carbon emissions.

Infrastructure

Almost all infrastructure – ports, roads, power, sanitation, sewer, and communications systems – is at risk from climate change. Climate-proofing existing infrastructure while building new infrastructure that is more climate resilient makes sound economic sense. On average, the benefits of this action exceed costs by 4:1. Investments in infrastructure must incorporate climate resilience, whether for storm-water drainage or protecting coastal communities against sea-level rise

United Nations Climate Adaptation

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement included, for the first time, a Global Adaptation Goal. The 2017 UN Climate Conference in Bonn showed its support for the same objective. Now nations across the world are now developing their own National Adaptation Plans (NAPs).

The UN Climate Change Adaptation Unit concentrates on 4 priority areas:

1. Ecosystem-Based Adaptation (EbA)

A healthy ecosystem can lower the negative impacts of global warming. Coastal habitats, like mangroves, for example, provide natural defences against hurricanes, storm surges and floods; protected lakes act as water sources during drought; and healthy forests carry a lower risk of wildfires.

Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) is a policy approach that exploits these ecosystem features as part of a holistic adaptation strategy. EbA can protect vulnerable communities from extreme weather events while at the same time offering a variety of ecological benefits, such as clean water and food. Though primarily an adaptation program, EbA also contributes to climate change mitigation by reducing the loss of carbon storage that results from ecosystem degradation.  (See also our article: How Do Oceans Influence Climate?)

2. Knowledge, Analysis And Networking

The U.N. Global Adaptation Network (GAN), founded in 2010, is a knowledge-sharing platform specifically aimed at climate adaptation. GAN connects a large number of adaptation organisations into a common worldwide network across most continents, enabling the exchange of vital information. Whenever new solutions are developed, GAN ensures they are shared with those who need them. The Global Adaptation Network has a very close relationship with the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) through a variety of connections, such as the Adaptation Committee, the Talanoa Dialogue and the Lima Adaptation Knowledge Initiative.

Other U.N. agencies concerned with climate change adaptation include: the UN Climate Resilience Initiative (A2R), which champions more investment in analyzing progress in building resilience; and the Global Centre of Excellence on Climate Adaptation (GCECA), which works to mobilize adaptation authorities through workshops, webinars and conferences. It identifies specific projects as examples of best practices and publicizes these lessons across the globe.

3. World Adaptation Science Program

The World Adaption Science Programme (WASP) has five founding partners, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Green Climate Fund (GCF), and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). Its overall mission is to ensure policy-makers understand the climate science and have the knowledge to create effective adaptation programs. Its work focuses mainly on the provision of climate science and policy services to support the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and other bodies.

4. Access To Adaptation Finance

The Climate Change Adaptation Unit helps countries to acquire finance for climate resilience works, by facilitating access to various funds managed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). This much-needed funding permits threatened developing nations to proceed with their National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). The UN Environment Programme, via its connections with over 200 institutions, including banks, insurers and fund managers, also helps countries to submit project proposals to the Fund, and provides advisory services to facilitate access to financial support.

Under the Paris Climate Agreement (2015), developed countries agreed to support developing countries financially in their efforts related to climate change mitigation and adaptation to the tune of $100 billion per year from 2020 onwards. For more on this, see: the Ethics of Climate Change.

However, by 2030, costs are expected to jump to US$140-300 billion per year, and by 2050, to $280-500 billion per year. This gap, between amounts pledged in Paris, and those actually needed, could increase dramatically if additional funding is not organized from public and private sources. 14 For the sad story of climate discussions and negotiations over the past 30 years, see: UN Climate Talks & Timeline.

References

  1. “Adapting to the impacts of climate change.” OECD Policy Perspectives. (PDF) https://www.oecd.org/env/cc/Adapting-to-the-impacts-of-climate-change-2015-Policy-Perspectives-27.10.15%20WEB.pdf (1) []
  2. Adapting to Climate Change: Who Should Pay?” Daniel A. Farber (2007). Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law. 23: 1. (2) []
  3. An assessment of climate change impacts and adaptation for the Torres Strait Islands, Australia”. Green, Donna; Alexander, Lisa; Mclnnes, Kathy; Church, John; Nicholls, Neville; White, Neil (11 December 2009). Climatic Change. 102 (3–4): 405–433. (3) []
  4. “Most atolls will be uninhabitable by the mid-21st century because of sea-level rise exacerbating wave-driven flooding.” Curt D. Storlazzi, Stephen B. Gingerich, Ap van Dongeren, Olivia M. Cheriton, Peter W. Swarzenski, Ellen Quataert, Clifford I. Voss, Donald W. Field, Hariharasubramanian Annamalai, Greg A. Piniak, Robert McCall. Science Advances Vol. 4, no. 4. eaa p9741. (4) []
  5. “Unprecedented Impacts of Climate Change Disproportionately Burdening Developing Countries, Delegate Stresses, as Second Committee Concludes General Debate.” U.N. General Assembly. October 8, 2019. (5) []
  6. “Synthesis report”. Sec 6.3. Responses to climate change: Robust findings. IPCC Fourth Assessment Report 2007. (6) []
  7. IPCC 2014. Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (page 8). Fifth Assessment Report. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (8) []
  8. Understanding climate change from a global analysis of city analogues.” Jean-Francois Bastin, Emily Clark, Thomas Elliott, Simon Hart, Johan van den Hoogen, Iris Hordijk, Haozhi Ma, Sabiha Majumder, Gabriele Manoli, Julia Maschler, Lidong Mo, Devin Routh, Kailiang Yu, Constantin M. Zohner, Thomas W. Crowther. PLOS ONE 14(10): e0224120. July 10, 2019. (9) []
  9. “Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience.” Global Commission on Adaptation. Executive Summary. Sept 2019. https://cdn.gca.org/assets/2019-09/GlobalCommission_Report_FINAL.pdf (10) [][][][]
  10. “Predators as Prey: Why Healthy Oceans Need Sharks.” Oceana. July 2008. (11) []
  11. Macaques can contribute to greener practices in oil palm plantations when used as biological pest control” Anna Holzner, Nadine Ruppert, Filip Swat, Antje Engelhardt, Hjalmar Kuhl, Anja Widdig. Current Biology. Vol 29, Issue 20, PR1066-R1067, October 21, 2019. (12) []
  12. Availability of large seed-dispersers for restoration of degraded tropical forest.” Lindsell, J. A.et al; Tropical Conservation Science Vol.8 (1): 17-27. (13) []
  13. “Fact Sheet – Rainforest Animals.” Susan Silber, William Velton, Rainforest Action Network. (14) []
  14. “Climate adaptation.” United Nations Environment Programme. 2018. (15) []
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