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

17.2 Assessment of current adaptation practices

17.2.1 Adaptation practices

In this chapter, adaptation practices refer to actual adjustments, or changes in decision environments, which might ultimately enhance resilience or reduce vulnerability to observed or expected changes in climate. Thus, investment in coastal protection infrastructure to reduce vulnerability to storm surges and anticipated sea-level rise is an example of actual adjustments. Meanwhile, the development of climate risk screening guidelines, which might make downstream development projects more resilient to climate risks (Burton and van Aalst, 2004; ADB, 2005), is an example of changes in the policy environment.

With an explicit focus on real-world behaviour, assessments of adaptation practices differ from the more theoretical assessments of potential responses or how such measures might reduce climate damages under hypothetical scenarios of climate change. Adaptation practices can be differentiated along several dimensions: by spatial scale (local, regional, national); by sector (water resources, agriculture, tourism, public health, and so on); by type of action (physical, technological, investment, regulatory, market); by actor (national or local government, international donors, private sector, NGOs, local communities and individuals); by climatic zone (dryland, floodplains, mountains, Arctic, and so on); by baseline income/development level of the systems in which they are implemented (least-developed countries, middle-income countries, and developed countries); or by some combination of these and other categories.

From a temporal perspective, adaptation to climate risks can be viewed at three levels, including responses to: current variability (which also reflect learning from past adaptations to historical climates); observed medium and long-term trends in climate; and anticipatory planning in response to model-based scenarios of long-term climate change. The responses across the three levels are often intertwined, and indeed might form a continuum.

Adapting to current climate variability is already sensible in an economic development context, given the direct and certain evidence of the adverse impacts of such phenomena (Goklany, 1995; Smit et al., 2001; Agrawala and Cane, 2002). In addition, such adaptation measures can be synergistic with development priorities (Ribot et al., 1996), but there could also be conflicts. For example, activities such as shrimp farming and conversion of coastal mangroves, while profitable in an economic sense, can exacerbate vulnerability to sea-level rise (Agrawala et al., 2005).

Adaptation to current climate variability can also increase resilience to long-term climate change. In a number of cases, however, anthropogenic climate change is likely to also require forward-looking investment and planning responses that go beyond short-term responses to current climate variability. This is true, for example, in the case of observed impacts such as glacier retreat and permafrost melt (Schaedler, 2004; Shrestha and Shrestha, 2004). Even when impacts of climate change are not yet discernible, scenarios of future impacts may already be of sufficient concern to justify building some adaptation responses into planning. In some cases it could be more cost-effective to implement adaptation measures early on, particularly for infrastructure with long economic life (Shukla et al., 2004), or if current activities may irreversibly constrain future adaptation to the impacts of climate change (Smith et al., 2005).