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

17.3.2 Differential adaptive capacity

The capacity to adapt to climate change is unequal across and within societies. There are individuals and groups within all societies that have insufficient capacity to adapt to climate change. As described above, there has been a convergence of findings in the literature showing that human and social capital are key determinants of adaptive capacity at all scales, and that they are as important as levels of income and technological capacity. However, most of this literature also argues that there is limited usefulness in looking at only one level or scale, and that exploring the regional and local context for adaptive capacity can provide insights into both constraints and opportunities. Adaptive capacity is uneven across societies

There is some evidence that national-level indicators of vulnerability and adaptive capacity are used by climate change negotiators, practitioners, and decision makers in determining policies and allocating priorities for funding and interventions (Eriksen and Kelly, 2007). However, few studies have been globally comprehensive, and the literature lacks consensus on the usefulness of indicators of generic adaptive capacity and the robustness of the results (Downing et al., 2001; Moss et al., 2001; Yohe and Tol, 2002; Brooks et al., 2005; Haddad, 2005). A comparison of results across five vulnerability assessments shows that the 20 countries ranked ‘most vulnerable’ show little consistency across studies (Eriksen and Kelly, 2007). Haddad (2005) has shown empirically that the ranking of adaptive capacity of nations is significantly altered when national aspirations are made explicit. He demonstrates that different aspirations (e.g., seeking to maximise the welfare of citizens, to maintain control of citizens, or to reduce the vulnerability of the most vulnerable groups) lead to different weightings of the elements of adaptive capacity, and hence to different rankings of the actual capacity of countries to adapt. It has been argued that national indicators fail to capture many of the processes and contextual factors that influence adaptive capacity, and thus provide little insight on adaptive capacity at the level where most adaptations will take place (Eriksen and Kelly, 2007).

The specific determinants of adaptive capacity at the national level thus represent an area of contested knowledge. Some studies relate adaptive capacity to levels of national development, including political stability, economic well-being, human and social capital and institutions (AfDB et al., 2003). National-level adaptive capacity has also been represented by proxy indicators for economic capacity, human and civic resources and environmental capacity (Moss et al., 2001). Alberini et al. (2006) use expert judgement based on a conjoint choice survey of climate and health experts to examine the most important attributes of adaptive capacity and find that per capita income, inequality in the distribution of income, universal health care coverage, and high access to information are the most important attributes allowing a country to adapt to health-related risks. Coefficients on these rankings were used to construct an index of countries with highest to lowest adaptive capacity.