Climate Change 2001:
Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
Other reports in this collection

18.1. Introduction: Adaptation and Adaptive Capacity

Figure 18-1: Places of adapatation in the climate change issue (Smit et al., 1999).

Adaptation is adjustment in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli and their effects or impacts. This term refers to changes in processes, practices, or structures to moderate or offset potential damages or to take advantage of opportunities associated with changes in climate. It involves adjustments to reduce the vulnerability of communities, regions, or activities to climatic change and variability. Adaptation is important in the climate change issue in two ways—one relating to the assessment of impacts and vulnerabilities, the other to the development and evaluation of response options.

Understanding expected adaptations is essential to impact and vulnerability assessment and hence is fundamental to estimating the costs or risks of climate change (Fankhauser, 1996; Yohe et al., 1996; Tol et al., 1998; UNEP, 1998; Smit et al., 1999; Pittock and Jones, 2000). Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) refers to "dangerous" human influences on climate in terms of whether they would "allow ecosystems to adapt, ensure food production is not threatened, and enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner." The extent to which ecosystems, food supplies, and sustainable development are vulnerable or "in danger" depends on their exposure to climate change effects and on the ability of impacted systems to adapt. Thus, to assess the dangerousness of climate change, impact and vulnerability assessments must address the likelihood of autonomous adaptations (see Figure 18-1).

Adaptation also is considered an important response option or strategy, along with mitigation (Fankhauser, 1996; Smith, 1996; Pielke, 1998; Kane and Shogren, 2000). Even with reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, global temperatures are expected to increase, other changes in climate—including extremes—are likely, and sea level will continue to rise (Raper et al., 1996; White and Etkin, 1997; Wigley, 1999). Hence, development of planned adaptation strategies to deal with these risks is regarded as a necessary complement to mitigation actions (Burton, 1996; Smith et al., 1996; Parry et al., 1998; Smit et al., 1999) (see Figure 18-1). Article 4.1 of the UNFCCC commits parties to formulating, cooperating on, and implementing "measures to facilitate adequate adaptation to climate change." The Kyoto Protocol (Article 10) also commits parties to promote and facilitate adaptation and deploy adaptation technologies to address climate change.

Adaptive capacity is the potential or ability of a system, region, or community to adapt to the effects or impacts of climate change. 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 (Goklany, 1995; Burton, 1997; Cohen et al., 1998; Klein, 1998; Rayner and Malone, 1998; Munasinghe, 2000; Smit et al., 2000).

Considerable attention has been devoted to the characteristics of communities, countries, and regions that influence their propensity or ability to adapt and hence their vulnerability to risks associated with climate change. These determinants of adaptive capacity relate to the economic, social, institutional, and technological conditions that facilitate or constrain the development and deployment of adaptive measures (e.g., Bohle et al., 1994; Rayner and Malone, 1998; Kelly and Adger, 1999).

Other reports in this collection