Even with the most aggressive mitigation measures, we already face inescapable changes in climate and associated phenomena that will occur over the next centuries as a result of the greenhouse emissions taking place now, and those of the past. In other words, even if all emissions stopped immediately (which is, of course, impossible), the global climate would very likely continue changing for a time. Earth's climate system is slow to respond, and there is a lag between our actions and the effects that they cause. Therefore, being prepared to adapt to climate change is prudent, even as we strive to reduce the factors that cause it. It is increasingly recognised that the world needs to develop strategies for adaptation, with effective assessment of their attendant risks and impacts. Below, we discuss:

Adaptation strategies

Adaptation to changes in mean climate and climate variability can take many forms. It can vary in its timing, scale, and nature. In terms of timing, adaptation can occur in anticipation of impacts, or as a reaction to existing impacts or vulnerabilities. In terms of scale, adaptation can be decentralised, occurring as a dispersed, uncoordinated and varied response at the local level by individual businesses, householders or communities. Or it can occur at the regional or national level as a centralised and coordinated strategy. In terms of nature of response, adaptation can occur as behavioural changes, as a restructuring of economic frameworks or policy, or as technological changes or responses. These different responses are not mutually exclusive, and it is likely that all will occur to different degrees in different places.

The following features have been identified as being important components of an effective adaptation strategy:

  • Information flow. In order to make informed and effective decisions about adaptive strategies, individuals, businesses, communities and governments will need accurate estimates of climate change projections and their various environmental and socioeconomic effects. Interactive effects and the influences of mitigation and adaptation responses can also be estimated and will help to guide responses. Governments will need to ensure that appropriate information is available to allow individual, local or business initiatives to develop that are tailored to specific community or industry issues.
  • Flexibility. An effective adaptation response will require inbuilt flexibility to respond to new information and changing circumstances. Risk management approaches allow for such flexibility through regular reviews of effectiveness of adopted strategies and update of risks.
  • Anticipatory planning. It has been argued that the high uncertainties inherent in projections of both climate change and economic conditions preclude formulation of a cost-effective adaptation strategy. However, most analysts conclude that delayed action will be much more costly than anticipatory action. Investment in climate-proofing of new infrastructure and housing, for example, is much cheaper than retrofitting or rebuilding later.
  • Mainstreaming. Mainstreaming is the integration of climate change issues and responses into broader sectors such as water resource planning, disaster management, urban planning and coastal defence. Many climate change adaptation measures are synergistic with other planning and development priorities. Responding to risks presented by climate variability and natural disasters, for example, can strengthen resilience against long-term climate change.

There are many examples of adaptation measures that have already been implemented or where climate change has been factored into planning and development. Such measures include upgrade of levees and accommodation of projections of sea level rise into coastal infrastructure and land management and development policies; establishment of health-watch warning systems to give advance warning of heat waves; investment in climate-proofing of buildings and infrastructure; development of comprehensive risk assessment tools within the insurance industry; and investment in drought-proofing measures to increase water security.

Adaptation in developing countries

The extent of adaptation that will occur in different communities, regions and countries will depend heavily on the capacity of that community, region or country to adapt. The reality is that developed countries, which are together responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions to date and hence for instigating irreversible climate change, have a much greater capacity to adapt and respond to the impacts of climate change than developing countries. Furthermore, studies indicate that adverse impacts of climate change are likely to disproportionately affect developing countries (for example countries with already limited food and water resources, those subject to extreme floods or droughts, and low-lying coastal or island states).

Hence, the combination of lower adaptive capacity, higher exposure and sensitivity to adverse impacts of climate change in developing countries means that their vulnerability is much higher. As Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said in his address to the high-level segment of the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali in December 2007, '[t]he issue of equity is crucial. Climate change affects us all, but it does not affect us all equally. Those who are least able to cope are being hit hardest. Those who have done the least to cause the problem bear the gravest consequences.'

The map below shows the global distribution of vulnerability to climate change, from a Columbia University study that combined various models and vulnerability/resilience indicators with the IPCC climate change projections and emissions scenarios. The map illustrates a disproportionate burden faced by developing nations, and a similar story emerges from other vulnerability studies (see also our page on regions most at risk).

Source: G. Yohe et al., ‘A synthetic assessment of the global distribution of vulnerability to climate change from the IPCC perspective that reflects exposure and adaptive capacity’, Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University, 2006.

To address the inequity in vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity, various international funds have been established for adaptation and capacity-building programs in developing countries. At the Marrakesh Climate Change Conference in November 2001, an agreement was reached to assist Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in preparing and implementing National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) to address their urgent and immediate needs to adapt to climate change. The Least Developed Countries Fund was established for this purpose. As of October 2008, NAPAs from 38 of the LDCs had been submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat.

As part of the Kyoto Protocol, the Adaptation Fund was negotiated as a 2 per cent levy on the Clean Development Mechanism (whereby developed countries can invest in emissions-reduction programs in developing countries to offset their own emissions). The details of the operation of this fund were finalised at the Bali Climate Change Conference in December 2007, and the final arrangements allowing it to become operational were approved in Poznan in December 2008. While there are other funds for adaptation established under the UNFCCC, the Adaptation Fund is expected to be the largest.

Australian adaptation initiatives

The National Climate Change Adaptation Framework, endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in April 2007, outlines strategies for building capacity to adapt to climate change and reducing vulnerability in key sectors and regions. The framework guides action for generating knowledge to understand and manage climate change risks to various sectors, providing decision-makers with information and tools required to assess and address climate change impacts, and facilitating implementation of adaptation measures.

In accordance with the Adaptation Framework, the Australian Government established the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility in 2008. The Facility will generate and synthesise knowledge, coordinate research activities and provide information for decision-makers to manage the risks of climate change impacts.

In October 2008, the Australian Government announced funding for seven Adaptation Research Networks within the Adaptation Research Facility. These networks will look at the effects of climate change and identification of adaptation strategies in the areas of terrestrial and marine biodiversity, water resources, settlements and infrastructure, disaster management and emergency services, health, and socioeconomic dimensions. A National Adaptation Research Plan is being developed for each theme, with one already finalised and two in draft stage.

CSIRO's Climate Adaptation Flagship has been established under its National Research Flagships Program to assess the risks and impacts of climate change and develop adaptation strategies. The four research themes within the Flagship are:

Australia has committed $150 million over three years for its 'Adaptation to Climate Change Initiative' to address adaptation needs in vulnerable countries, particularly targeting Australia's neighbouring island nations. This builds on several existing programs under Australia's climate change adaptation aid theme. Australia has also made significant contributions to the Least Developed Countries Fund to assist Pacific Island nations and Southeast Asian nations in preparing and implementing their National Adaptation Programs of Action (see Adaptation in developing countries above).


Further reading:

National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, an initiative of the Australian Government.

Council of Australian Governments, National Climate Change Adaptation Framework, 2007.

Department of Climate Change, 'Adapting to climate change', Australian Government.

Department of Climate Change, Climate Change Adaptation Programme, Australian Government.

CSIRO, 'Climate Adaptation Flagship'.

CSIRO, An overview of climate change adaptation in Australian primary industries—impacts, options and priorities, February 2008.

CSIRO and the Sydney Coastal Councils Group, Mapping climate change vulnerability in the Sydney Coastal Councils Group, 2008.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate change 2007—impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, 'Chapter 17—Assessment of adaptation practices, options, constraints and capacity', 2007.

United Nations Development Programme, 'Adaptation to climate change'.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Climate change—impacts, vulnerabilities and adaptation in developing countries, 2007.

Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Adaptation Programme, 'Building resilience to climate change'.

S. Huq, A. Rahman, M. Konate, Y. Sokona and H. Reid, Mainstreaming adaptation to climate change in least developed countries (LDCS), International Institute for Environment and Development, April 2003.

T. Mitchell and T. Tanner, Adapting to climate change—challenges and opportunities for the development community, Institute of Development Studies, 2006.

B. Preston, R. Suppiah, I. Macadam and J. Bathols. Climate change in the Asia Pacific region—a consultancy report prepared for the Climate Change and Development Roundtable, CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, 2006.

World Bank, East Asia Environment Monitor 2007—adapting to climate change, 2007.

Center for International Earth Science Information Network, 'Global geographical distribution of vulnerability to climate change', Columbia University.

J. H. Matthews and T. Le Quesne, Adapting water to a changing climate—an overview, WWF, 2008.

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