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

17.3.3 Changes in adaptive capacity over time

Adaptive capacity at any one scale may be facilitated or constrained by factors outside the system in question. At the local scale, such constraints may take the form of regulations or economic policies determined at the regional or national level that limit the freedom of individuals and communities to act, or that make certain potential adaptation strategies unviable. There is a growing recognition that vulnerability and the capacity to adapt to climate change are influenced by multiple processes of change (O’Brien and Leichenko, 2000; Turner et al., 2003; Luers, 2005). Violent conflict and the spread of infectious diseases, for example, have been shown to erode adaptive capacity (Woodward, 2002; Barnett, 2006). Social trends such as urbanisation or economic consequences of trade liberalisation are likely to have both positive and negative consequences for the overall adaptive capacity of cities and regions (Pelling, 2003). For example, trade liberalisation policies associated with globalisation may facilitate climate change adaptation for some, but constrain it for others. In the case of India, many farmers no longer plant traditional, drought-tolerant oilseed crops because there are no markets due to an influx of cheap imports from abroad (O’Brien et al., 2004). The globalisation of fisheries has decreased the resilience of marine ecosystems (Berkes et al., 2006). Exploitation of sea urchins and herbivorous reef fish species in the past three decades in particular have been shown to make reefs more vulnerable to recurrent disturbances such as hurricanes and to coral bleaching and mortality due to increased sea surface temperatures (Hughes et al., 2003; Berkes et al., 2006).

In the Canadian Arctic, experienced Inuit hunters, dealing with changing ice and wildlife conditions, adapt by drawing on traditional knowledge to alter the timing and location of harvesting, and ensure personal survival (Berkes and Jolly, 2001). Young Inuit, however, do not have the same adaptive capacity. Ford et al. (2006) attribute this to the imposition of western education by the Canadian Federal Government in the 1970s and 1980s which resulted in less participation in hunting among youth and consequent reduced transmission of traditional knowledge. This resulted in a perception among elders and experienced hunters, who act as an institutional memory for the maintenance and transmittance of traditional knowledge, that the young are not interested in hunting or traditional Inuit ways of living. This further eroded traditional knowledge by reducing inter-generational contact, creating a positive feedback in which youth is locked into a spiral of knowledge erosion. The incorporation of new technology in harvesting (including GPS, snowmobiles and radios), representing another type of adaptation, has reinforced this spiral by creating a situation in which traditional knowledge is valued less among young Inuit.

Among wine producers in British Columbia, Canada, Belliveau et al. (2006) demonstrate how adaptations to changing economic conditions can increase vulnerability to climate-related risks. Following the North American Free Trade Agreement, grape producers replaced low quality grape varieties with tender varieties to compete with higher-quality foreign imports, many of which have lower costs of production. This change enhanced the wine industry’s domestic and international competitiveness, thereby reducing market risks, but simultaneously increased its susceptibility to winter injury. Thus the initial adaptation of switching varieties to increase economic competitiveness changed the nature of the system to make it more vulnerable to climatic stresses, to which it was previously less sensitive. To minimise frost risks, producers use overhead irrigation to wet the berries. The extra water from irrigation, however, can dilute the flavour in the grapes, reducing quality and decreasing market competitiveness.

The vulnerability of one region is often ‘tele-connected’ to other regions. In a study of coffee markets and livelihoods in Vietnam and Central America, Adger et al. (2007) found that actions in one region created vulnerability in the other through direct market interactions (Vietnamese coffee increased global supply and reduced prices), interactions with weather-related risks (coffee plant diseases and frosts) and the collapse of the International Coffee Agreement in 1989. In Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras, the capacity of smallholder coffee farmers to deal with severe droughts in 1997 to 1998 and 1999 to 2002 was complicated by low international coffee prices, reflecting changes in international institutions and national policies (Eakin et al., 2005). Concurrently, market liberalisation in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras reduced state intervention in commodity production, markets and prices in the region. There were also constraints to adaptation related to a contraction of rural finance, coupled with a strong cultural significance attached to traditional crops. Since coffee production is already at the upper limit of the ideal temperature range in this region, it is likely that climate change will reduce yields, challenging farmers to switch to alternative crops, which currently have poorly developed marketing mechanisms.

The capacity of smallholder farmer households in Kenya and Tanzania to cope with climate stresses is often influenced by the ability of a household member to specialise in one activity or in a limited number of intensive cash-yielding activities (Eriksen et al., 2005). However, many households have limited access to this favoured coping option due to lack of labour and human and physical capital. This adaptation option is further constrained by social relations that lead to the exclusion of certain groups, especially women, from carrying out favoured activities with sufficient intensity. At present, relatively few investments go into improving the viability of these identified coping strategies. Instead, policies tend to focus on decreasing the sensitivity of agriculture to climate variability. This might actually reinforce the exclusion of population groups in dry lands where farmers are reluctant to adopt certain agricultural technologies because of their low market and consumption values and associated high costs (Eriksen et al., 2005). Eriksen et al. (2005) conclude that the determinants of adaptive capacity of smallholder farmers in Kenya and Tanzania are multiple and inter-related.

In summary, empirical research carried out since the TAR has shown that there are rarely simple cause-effect relationships between climate change risks and the capacity to adapt. Adaptive capacity can vary over time and is affected by multiple processes of change. In general, the emerging literature shows that the distribution of adaptive capacity within and across societies represents a major challenge for development and a major constraint to the effectiveness of any adaptation strategy. Some adaptations that address changing economic and social conditions may increase vulnerability to climate change, just as adaptations to climate change may increase vulnerability to other changes.