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

17.3 Assessment of adaptation capacity, options and constraints

17.3.1 Elements of adaptive capacity

Adaptive capacity is the ability or potential of a system to respond successfully to climate variability and change, and includes adjustments in both behaviour and in resources and technologies. The presence of adaptive capacity has been shown to be a necessary condition for the design and implementation of effective adaptation strategies so as to reduce the likelihood and the magnitude of harmful outcomes resulting from climate change (Brooks and Adger, 2005). Adaptive capacity also enables sectors and institutions to take advantage of opportunities or benefits from climate change, such as a longer growing season or increased potential for tourism.

Much of the current understanding of adaptive capacity comes from vulnerability assessments. Even if vulnerability indices do not explicitly include determinants of adaptive capacity, the indicators selected often provide important insights on the factors, processes and structures that promote or constrain adaptive capacity (Eriksen and Kelly, 2007). One clear result from research on vulnerability and adaptive capacity is that some dimensions of adaptive capacity are generic, while others are specific to particular climate change impacts. Generic indicators include factors such as education, income and health. Indicators specific to a particular impact, such as drought or floods, may relate to institutions, knowledge and technology (Yohe and Tol, 2002; Downing, 2003; Brooks et al., 2005; Tol and Yohe, 2007).

Technology can potentially play an important role in adapting to climate change. Efficient cooling systems, improved seeds, desalination technologies, and other engineering solutions represent some of the options that can lead to improved outcomes and increased coping under conditions of climate change. In public health, for example, there have been successful applications of seasonal forecasting and other technologies to adapt health provisions to anticipated extreme events (Ebi et al., 2005). Often, technological adaptations and innovations are developed through research programmes undertaken by governments and by the private sector (Smit and Skinner, 2002). Innovation, which refers to the development of new strategies or technologies, or the revival of old ones in response to new conditions (Bass, 2005), is an important aspect of adaptation, particularly under uncertain future climate conditions. Although technological capacity can be considered a key aspect of adaptive capacity, many technological responses to climate change are closely associated with a specific type of impact, such as higher temperatures or decreased rainfall.

New studies carried out since the TAR show that adaptive capacity is influenced not only by economic development and technology, but also by social factors such as human capital and governance structures (Klein and Smith, 2003; Brooks and Adger 2005; Næss et al., 2005; Tompkins, 2005; Berkhout et al., 2006; Eriksen and Kelly, 2007). Furthermore, recent analysis argues that adaptive capacity is not a concern unique to regions with low levels of economic activity. Although economic development may provide greater access to technology and resources to invest in adaptation, high income per capita is considered neither a necessary nor a sufficient indicator of the capacity to adapt to climate change (Moss et al., 2001). Tol and Yohe (2007) show that some elements of adaptive capacity are not substitutable: an economy will be as vulnerable as the ‘weakest link’ in its resources and adaptive capacity (for example with respect to natural disasters). Within both developed and developing countries, some regions, localities, or social groups have a lower adaptive capacity (O’Brien et al., 2006).

There are many examples where social capital, social networks, values, perceptions, customs, traditions and levels of cognition affect the capability of communities to adapt to risks related to climate change. Communities in Samoa in the south Pacific, for example, rely on informal non-monetary arrangements and social networks to cope with storm damage, along with livelihood diversification and financial remittances through extended family networks (Adger, 2001; Barnett, 2001; Sutherland et al., 2005). Similarly, strong local and international support networks enable communities in the Cayman Islands to recover from and prepare for tropical storms (Tompkins, 2005). Community organisation is an important factor in adaptive strategies to build resilience among hillside communities in Bolivia (Robledo et al., 2004). Recovery from hazards in Cuba is helped by a sense of communal responsibility (Sygna, 2005). Food-sharing expectations and networks in Nunavut, Canada, allow community members access to so-called country food at times when conditions make it unavailable to some (Ford et al., 2006). The role of food sharing as a part of a community’s capacity to adapt to risks in resource provisioning is also evident among native Alaskans (Magdanz et al., 2002). Adaptive migration options in the 1930s USA Dust Bowl were greatly influenced by the access households had to economic, social and cultural capital (McLeman and Smit, 2006). The cultural change and increased individualism associated with economic growth in Small Island Developing States has eroded the sharing of risk within extended families, thereby reducing the contribution of this social factor to adaptive capacity (Pelling and Uitto, 2001).