IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

16.5 Adaptation: practices, options and constraints

16.5.1 Role of adaptation in reducing vulnerability and impacts

It is clear from the previous sections that small islands are presently subjected to a range of climatic and oceanic impacts, and that these impacts will be exacerbated by ongoing climate change and sea-level rise. Moreover, the TAR showed that the overall vulnerability of small island states is primarily a function of four interrelated factors:

  • the degree of exposure to climate change;
  • their limited capacity to adapt to projected impacts;
  • the fact that adaptation to climate change is not a high priority, given the more pressing problems that small islands have to face;
  • the uncertainty associated with global climate change projections and their local validity (Nurse et al., 2001).

Several other factors that influence vulnerability and impacts on small islands have also been identified in the present chapter, including both global and local processes. This combination of drivers is likely to continue into the future, which raises the possibility that environmental conditions and the socio-economic well-being of populations on small islands will worsen unless adaptation measures are put in place to reduce impacts, as illustrated in Box 16.4.

Box 16.4. Future island conditions and well-being: the value of adaptation

Global change and regional/local change will interact to impact small islands in the future. Both have physical and human dimensions. Two groups of global drivers are identified in the top panel of Figure 16.2: first, climate change including global warming and sea-level rise and, second, externally driven socio-economic changes such as the globalisation of economic activity and international trade (Singh and Grünbühel, 2003). In addition to these global processes, small islands are also subject to important local change influences, such as population pressure and urbanisation, which increase demand on the local resource base and expand the ecological footprint (Pelling and Uitto, 2001).

Figure 16.2

Figure 16.2. Drivers of change in small islands and the implications for island condition and well-being under no adaptation and the near-term and mid-term implementation of adaptation. Adapted from Harvey et al. (2004).

In general, both global and local drivers can be expected to show increases in the future. These will probably impact on island environments and their bio-geophysical conditions, as well as on the socio-economic well-being of island communities (Clark, 2004).

Three possible scenarios are illustrated in the lower panel. Implicitly, and without adaptation, environmental conditions and human well-being are likely to get worse in the future (line 1). On the other hand, if effective adaptation strategies are implemented, both the bio-geophysical conditions and socio-economic well-being of islanders should improve. It is suggested that the earlier this is done, the better the outcome (lines 2 and 3).

Source: Harvey et al. (2004).

While it is clear that implementing anticipatory adaptation strategies early on is desirable (see Box 16.4), there are obstacles associated with the uncertainty of the climate change projections. To overcome this uncertainty, Barnett (2001) has suggested that a better strategy for small islands is to enhance the resilience of whole-island socio-ecological systems, rather than concentrating on sectoral adaptation; a theme that is expanded upon in Section 16.5.5. This is the policy of the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS, 2000).

Inhabitants of small islands, individuals, communities and governments, have adapted to interannual variability in climate and sea conditions, as well as to extreme events, over a long period of time. There is no doubt that this experience will be of value in dealing with inter-annual variability and extremes in climate and sea conditions that are likely to accompany the longer-term mean changes in climate and sea level. Certainly, in Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, and in the Arctic, the socio-ecological systems have historically been able to adapt to environmental change (Barnett, 2001; Berkes and Jolly, 2001). However, it is also true that in many islands traditional mechanisms for coping with environmental hazards are being, or have been, lost, although paradoxically the value of such mechanisms is being increasingly recognised in the context of adaptation to climate change (e.g., MESD, 1999; Fox, 2003).