Adapting to Climate Change

Adaptation is about changing the way we live, to better take advantage of challenges and opportunities arising from inevitable changes in climate.  Adaptation may require changes in how we build our roads and buildings to ensure that our infrastructure is designed to withstand new climate conditions. It may also require changes in how we prepare for, and respond to, extreme events like storms, floods and droughts, since these impacts are expected to worsen.

Why should we adapt?

  • Prevent costly damages – it is usually more cost-effective to prevent damages from occurring in the first place rather than having to pay for damages after the fact.
  • Seize emerging opportunities – tourism for example, may expand in the summer months or farmers may be able to grow new crops that they couldn’t grow before.
  • Lessen liability - by taking action to lessen the impacts of climate change on vulnerable groups or systems, we can ensure that due diligence has been taken.
  • Enhance resilience – the more adaptable we are to changing circumstances, the more resilient our institutions, our structures, and our people will be.

What are the different types of adaptation?

  • Anticipatory – taking proactive measures before climate impacts occur. Examples include: emergency preparedness plans or early heat alert warning systems.
  • Natural – happens on its own. Examples include: new construction moves inland as sea level rises or species moving north with warmer weather.
  • Planned – requires immediate action to address a current impact or vulnerability. Examples include: strengthening a building which has weathered an extreme event or re-topping a dyke to ensure that it doesn’t flood again.

What are the approaches to adaptation?*

  • Risk-based - identifying hazards, assessing the severity of the hazards and the probability of their occurrence and then ranking hazards from lowest to highest risk.  The goal is to find a way to mitigate the most severe risks in the most cost-effective and efficient way and/or to invest in initiatives which enhance capacity to deal with the risks.  This approach gives preference to managing climate risks which we can know and measure.
  • Vulnerability-based - understanding how sensitive or exposed particular ecosystems or populations are to climate change.  An impact assessment of this kind, would look at how highly fragile ecosystems or vulnerable populations, such as the poor, the elderly and the young will be effected by climate change.  This will be determined in part by the risks they face, but more importantly, by how sensitive they are to climate changes.  The strategy would focus on addressing the underlying causes of their vulnerability.
  • Resilience-based - considering the capacity of the entire socio-economic and ecological network in any given region or sector to adapt to climate change, with a particular focus on assessing how much disturbance a society or ecological system can take before it starts to lose its capacity to function as a system.  A strategy based on resilience, would focus on building the capacity of systems to withstand disturbance and change, by making the systems more robust, more flexible, and more diverse.

What are the challenges facing adaptation?

  • Information Gaps - we may not have the necessary information or expertise to understand and prepare for climate impacts.  The information we have may not reduce our uncertainty about future impacts and what we should do to prepare.
  • Competing policy priorities - our governance structures and resources may not be adequate to allow us to invest time and money into adaptation.  There may also be other competing priorities or issues.
  • Management Challenges - adaptation may require long-term changes that go beyond short-term planning horizons, government terms, or investment return periods.  This means that important long-term adaptation strategies may get shelved in favour of immediate short-term strategies.
  • Disbelief in Climate Change - climate change may not be well-understood, accepted or seen to be an immediate problem.

* Eakin et al., 2009