Climate Change 2001:
Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
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Adaptation refers to adjustments in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts. It refers to changes in processes, practices, and structures to moderate potential damages or to benefit from opportunities associated with climate change.

Estimates of likely future adaptations are an essential ingredient in impact and vulnerability assessments. The extent to which ecosystems, food supplies, and sustainable development are vulnerable or "in danger" depends both on exposure to changes in climate and on the ability of the impacted system to adapt. In addition, adaptation is an important policy response option, along with mitigation. There is a need for the development and assessment of planned adaptation initiatives to help manage the risks of climate change.

Adaptations vary according to the system in which they occur, who undertakes them, the climatic stimuli that prompts them, and their timing, functions, forms, and effects. In unmanaged natural systems, adaptation is autonomous and reactive; it is the process by which species and ecosystems respond to changed conditions. This chapter focuses on adaptations consciously undertaken by humans, including those in economic sectors, managed ecosystems, resource use systems, settlements, communities, and regions. In human systems, adaptation is undertaken by private decisionmakers and by public agencies or governments.

Adaptation depends greatly on the adaptive capacity or adaptability of an affected system, region, or community to cope with the impacts and risks of climate change. The adaptive capacity of communities is determined by their socioeconomic characteristics. Enhancement of adaptive capacity represents a practical means of coping with changes and uncertainties in climate, including variability and extremes. In this way, enhancement of adaptive capacity reduces vulnerabilities and promotes sustainable development.

Adaptation to climate change has the potential to substantially reduce many of the adverse impacts of climate change and enhance beneficial impacts—though neither without cost nor without leaving residual damage.

The key features of climate change for vulnerability and adaptation are those related to variability and extremes, not simply changed average conditions. Most sectors and regions and communities are reasonably adaptable to changes in average conditions, particularly if they are gradual. However, these communities are more vulnerable and less adaptable to changes in the frequency and/or magnitude of conditions other than average, especially extremes.

Sectors and regions will tend to adapt autonomously to changes in climate conditions. Human systems have evolved a wide range of strategies to cope with climatic risks; these strategies have potential applications to climate change vulnerabilities. However, losses from climatic variations and extremes are substantial and, in some sectors, increasing. These losses indicate that autonomous adaptation has not been sufficient to offset damages associated with temporal variations in climatic conditions. The ecological, social, and economic costs of relying on reactive, autonomous adaptation to the cumulative effects of climate change are substantial.

Planned anticipatory adaptation has the potential to reduce vulnerability and realize opportunities associated with climate change, regardless of autonomous adaptation. Implementation of adaptation policies, programs, and measures usually will have immediate benefits, as well as future benefits. Adaptation measures are likely to be implemented only if they are consistent with or integrated with decisions or programs that address nonclimatic stresses. The costs of adaptation often are marginal to other management or development costs.

The capacity to adapt varies considerably among regions, countries, and socioeconomic groups and will vary over time. The most vulnerable regions and communities are those that are highly exposed to hazardous climate change effects and have limited adaptive capacity. Countries with limited economic resources, low levels of technology, poor information and skills, poor infrastructure, unstable or weak institutions, and inequitable empowerment and access to resources have little capacity to adapt and are highly vulnerable.

Enhancement of adaptive capacity is a necessary condition for reducing vulnerability, particularly for the most vulnerable regions, nations, and socioeconomic groups. Activities required for the enhancement of adaptive capacity are essentially equivalent to those promoting sustainable development. Climate adaptation and equity goals can be jointly pursued by initiatives that promote the welfare of the poorest members of society—for example, by improving food security, facilitating access to safe water and health care, and providing shelter and access to other resources. Development decisions, activities, and programs play important roles in modifying the adaptive capacity of communities and regions, yet they tend not to take into account risks associated with climate variability and change. Inclusion of climatic risks in the design and implementation of development initiatives is necessary to reduce vulnerability and enhance sustainability.

Current knowledge of adaptation and adaptive capacity is insufficient for reliable prediction of adaptations; it also is insufficient for rigorous evaluation of planned adaptation options, measures, and policies of governments. Climate change vulnerability studies now usually consider adaptation, but they rarely go beyond identifying adaptation options that might be possible; there is little research on the dynamics of adaptation in human systems, the processes of adaptation decisionmaking, conditions that stimulate or constrain adaptation, and the role of nonclimatic factors. There are serious limitations in existing evaluations of adaptation options: Economic benefits and costs are important criteria but are not sufficient to adequately determine the appropriateness of adaptation measures; there also has been little research to date on the roles and responsibilities in adaptation of individuals, communities, corporations, private and public institutions, governments, and international organizations. Given the scope and variety of specific adaptation options across sectors, individuals, communities, and locations, as well as the variety of participants—private and public—involved in most adaptation initiatives, it is probably infeasible to systematically evaluate lists of particular adaptation measures; improving and applying knowledge on the constraints and opportunities for enhancing adaptive capacity is necessary to reduce vulnerabilities associated with climate change.

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