Climate Change 2001:
Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability
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18.6. Enhancing Adaptive Capacity

The adaptive capacity of a system or nation is likely to be greater when the following requirements are met:

  1. The nation has a stable and prosperous economy. Regardless of biophysical vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, developed and wealthy nations are better prepared to bear the costs of adaptation than developing countries (Goklany, 1995; Burton, 1996).
  2. There is a high degree of access to technology at various levels (i.e., from local to national) and in all sectors (Burton, 1996). Moreover, openness to development and utilization of new technologies for sustainable extraction, use, and development of natural resources is key to strengthening adaptive capacity (Goklany, 1995).
  3. The roles and responsibilities for implementation of adaptation strategies are well delineated by central governments and are clearly understood at national, regional, and local levels (Burton, 1996).
  4. Systems are in place for the dissemination of climate change and adaptation information, nationally and regionally, and there are forums for the discussion and innovation of adaptation strategies at various levels (Gupta and Hisschemöller, 1997).
  5. Social institutions and arrangements governing the allocation of power and access to resources within a nation, region, or community assure that access to resources is equitably distributed because the presence of power differentials can contribute to reduced adaptive capacity (Mustafa, 1998; Handmer et al., 1999; Kelly and Adger, 1999).
  6. Existing systems with high adaptive capacity are not compromised. For example, in the case of traditional or indigenous societies, pursuit of western/European-style development trajectories may reduce adaptive capacity by introducing greater technology dependence and higher density settlement and by devaluing traditional ecological knowledge and cultural values.

18.6.1. Adaptive Capacity and Sustainable Development

Ability to adapt clearly depends on the state of development (Berke, 1995; Munasinghe, 1998). As Ribot et al. (1996) illustrate, underdevelopment fundamentally constrains adaptive capacity, especially because of a lack of resources to hedge against extreme but expected events. The events are not surprises: "It is not that the risk is unknown, not that the methods for coping do not exist…rather inability to cope is due to lack of—or systematic alienation from—resources needed to guard against these events" (Ribot et al., 1996).

The process of enhancing adaptive capacity is not simple; it involves "spurts of growth inter-dispersed with periods of consolidation, refocusing and redirection" (Holmes, 1996). Enhancement of adaptive capacity involves similar requirements as promotion of sustainable development, including:

Because actions taken without reference to climate have the potential to affect vulnerability to it, enhancement of adaptive capacity to climate change can be regarded as one component of broader sustainable development initiatives (Ahmad and Ahmed, 2000; Munasinghe, 2000; Robinson and Herbert, 2000). Hazards associated with climate change have the potential to undermine progress with sustainable development (Berke, 1995; Wang'ati, 1996). Therefore, it is important for sustainable development initiatives to explicitly consider hazards and risks associated with climate change (Apuuli et al., 2000).

Clearly, adaptive capacity to deal with climate risks is closely related to sustainable development and equity. Enhancement of adaptive capacity is fundamental to sustainable development. For example, in the drought-stricken region of northeastern Brazil, an assessment of past successes and failures has indicated that a comprehensive sustainable development strategy is needed to increase regional and societal capacity to face present and future climate variability (Magalhães, 1996). By assessing differences in vulnerability among regions and groups and by working to improve the adaptive capacity of those regions and groups, planned adaptation can contribute to equity considerations of sustainable development. In the context of African agriculture, Downing et al. (1997) conclude that enhancement of present resource management activities is necessary to prepare for potential impacts of climate change. In Malawi, as in many other places, the UNFCCC's objectives to "ensure food production is not threatened, and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner" also are central to the nation's development policies (Theu et al., 1996). Thus, progress to reducing vulnerability to climate risks is consistent with Malawi's planning and development initiatives.

Notwithstanding the considerable literature on the impacts of climate change as described throughout this volume, very little attention has been devoted to the interaction of adaptation to climate change with ongoing development projects and programs. Because vulnerability to climate depends on the adaptive capacity of a wide range of attributes, it may be unrealistic to focus on development programs that deal with adaptation to climate alone (Cohen, et al., 1998; Rayner and Malone, 1998). Yet there is surprisingly little recognition of climate hazards and risks associated with climate change in established development projects and programs (Berke, 1995; Burton and Van Aalst, 1999). O'Brian and Liverman (1996) show how climate change can have serious implications for development projects planned or underway in Mexico, including hydroelectric and irrigation initiatives. Torvanger (1998) shows how climate flexibility considerations that can be built into development investments at modest incremental costs are applicable regardless of the uncertainties of climate change and with immediate value because of existing risks.

18.6.2. Capacity Enhancement by Scale

The vulnerabilities and anticipated impacts of climate change will be observed at different scales and levels of society—and enhancement of adaptive capacity can be initiated at different social scales (Ribot et al., 1996; Handmer et al., 1999). In Bangladesh, Ahmed et al. (1999) distinguish between four scales: mega, macro, meso, and micro. Using the example of sea-level rise as a climate change impact, the authors describe adaptation options at each scale. The process of sea-level rise occurs at the mega-scale and is global in its effect. At the macro-scale, an associated increase in surface water and groundwater has the potential to similarly effect neighboring rivers and flood plains in China, Nepal, India, Bhutan, and Pakistan. Adaptive capacity at this scale is a function of international economic and political structures, with implications for the nations' capital and technological resources and institutions. At the meso-scale, different communities within Bangladesh are differentially vulnerable, depending on adaptive capacity and physiographic characteristics. At this scale, location-specific adaptation options would need to be considered. Finally, at a micro-scale, family units and individuals would experience vulnerabilities irrespective of the origin of the processes and would employ adaptations within their particular economic and sociocultural constraints.

Because the vulnerabilities of climate change occur at various scales, successful adaptation will depend on actions taken at a number of levels. Examples of initiatives to enhance adaptive capacity at various scales follow:

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