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

TS.5 Current knowledge about responding to climate change

TS.5.1 Adaptation

Some adaptation is occurring now, to observed and projected future climate change, but on a very limited basis.

Societies have a long record of adapting to the impacts of weather and climate through a range of practices that include crop diversification, irrigation, water management, disaster risk management and insurance. But climate change poses novel risks which are often outside the range of experience, such as impacts related to drought, heatwaves, accelerated glacier retreat and hurricane intensity [17.2.1].

There is growing evidence since the TAR that adaptation measures that also consider climate change are being implemented, on a limited basis, in both developed and developing countries. These measures are undertaken by a range of public and private actors through policies, investments in infrastructure and technologies, and behavioural change.

Examples of adaptations to observed changes in climate include:

  • partial drainage of the Tsho Rolpa glacial lake (Nepal);
  • changes in livelihood strategies in response to permafrost melt by the Inuit in Nunavut (Canada);
  • increased use of artificial snow-making by the Alpine ski industry (Europe, Australia and North America);
  • coastal defences in the Maldives and the Netherlands;
  • water management in Australia;
  • government responses to heatwaves in, for example, some European countries.

[7.6, 8.2, 8.6, 17.ES, 16.5, 1.5]

However, all of the adaptations documented were imposed by the climate risk and involve real cost and reduction of welfare in the first instance [17.2.3]. These examples also confirm the observations of attributable climate signals in the impacts of change.

A limited but growing set of adaptation measures also explicitly considers scenarios of future climate change. Examples include consideration of sea-level rise in the design of infrastructure such as the Confederation Bridge in Canada and a coastal highway in Micronesia, as well as in shoreline management policies and flood risk measures, for example in Maine (USA) and the Thames Barrier (UK) [17.2.2].

Adaptation measures are seldom undertaken in response to climate change alone.

Many actions that facilitate adaptation to climate change are undertaken to deal with current extreme events such as heatwaves and cyclones. Often, planned adaptation initiatives are also not undertaken as stand-alone measures, but embedded within broader sectoral initiatives such as water-resource planning, coastal defence, and risk reduction strategies [17.2.2, 17.3.3]. Examples include consideration of climate change in the National Water Plan of Bangladesh, and the design of flood protection and cyclone-resistant infrastructure in Tonga [17.2.2].

Adaptation will be necessary to address impacts resulting from the warming which is already unavoidable due to past emissions.

Past emissions are estimated to involve some unavoidable warming (about a further 0.6°C by the end of the century relative to 1980-1999) even if atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations remain at 2000 levels (see WGI AR4). There are some impacts for which adaptation is the only available and appropriate response. An indication of these impacts can be seen in Tables TS.3 and TS.4.

Many adaptations can be implemented at low cost, but comprehensive estimates of adaptation costs and benefits are currently lacking.

There are a growing number of adaptation cost and benefit-cost estimates at regional and project level for sea-level rise, agriculture, energy demand for heating and cooling, water-resource management, and infrastructure. These studies identify a number of measures that can be implemented at low cost or with high benefit-cost ratios. However, some common adaptations may have social and environmental externalities. Adaptations to heatwaves, for example, have involved increased demand for energy-intensive air-conditioning [17.2.3].

Limited estimates are also available for global adaptation costs related to sea-level rise, and energy expenditures for space heating and cooling. Estimates of global adaptation benefits for the agricultural sector are also available, although such literature does not explicitly consider the costs of adaptation. Comprehensive multi-sectoral estimates of global costs and benefits of adaptation are currently lacking [17.2.3].

Adaptive capacity is uneven across and within societies.

There are individuals and groups within all societies that have insufficient capacity to adapt to climate change. For example, women in subsistence farming communities are disproportionately burdened with the costs of recovery and coping with drought in southern Africa [17.3.2].

The capacity to adapt is dynamic and influenced by economic and natural resources, social networks, entitlements, institutions and governance, human resources, and technology [17.3.3]. For example, research in the Caribbean on hurricane preparedness shows that appropriate legislation is a necessary prior condition to implementing plans for adaptation to future climate change [17.3].

Multiple stresses related to HIV/AIDS, land degradation, trends in economic globalisation, trade barriers and violent conflict affect exposure to climate risks and the capacity to adapt. For example, farming communities in India are exposed to impacts of import competition and lower prices in addition to climate risks; and marine ecosystems over-exploited by globalised fisheries have been shown to be less resilient to climate variability and change (see Box TS.7) [17.3.3].

Box TS.7. Adaptive capacity to multiple stressors in India

The capacity to adapt to climate change is not evenly distributed across or within nations. In India, for example, both climate change and trade liberalisation are changing the context for agricultural production. Some farmers are able to adapt to these changing conditions, including discrete events such as drought and rapid chatnges in commodity prices, but others are not. Identifying the areas where both processes are likely to have negative outcomes provides a first step in identifying options and constraints in adapting to changing conditions [17.3.2].

Figure TS.17 shows regional vulnerability to climate change, measured as a composite of adaptive capacity and climate sensitivity under exposure to climate change. The superimposed hatching indicates those areas which are doubly exposed through high vulnerability to climate change and high vulnerability to trade liberalisation. The results of this mapping show higher degrees of resilience in districts located along the Indo-Gangetic Plains (except in the state of Bihar), the south and east, and lower resilience in the interior parts of the country, particularly in the states of Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka [17.3.2].

Figure TS.17

Figure TS.17. Districts in India that rank highest in terms of (a) vulnerability to climate change and (b) import competition associated with economic globalisation, are considered to be double-exposed (depicted with hatching). From O’Brien et al. (2004) [F17.2].

High adaptive capacity does not necessarily translate into actions that reduce vulnerability. For example, despite a high capacity to adapt to heat stress through relatively inexpensive adaptations, residents in urban areas in some parts of the world, including in European cities, continue to experience high levels of mortality. One example is the 2003 European heatwave-related deaths. Another example is Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf of Mexico Coast and New Orleans in 2005 and caused the deaths of more than 1,000 people, together with very high economic and social costs [17.4.2].

A wide array of adaptation options is available, but more extensive adaptation than is currently occurring is required to reduce vulnerability to future climate change. There are barriers, limits and costs, but these are not fully understood.

The array of potential adaptive responses available to human societies is very large (see Table TS.6), ranging from purely technological (e.g., sea defences), through behavioural (e.g., altered food and recreational choices), to managerial (e.g., altered farm practices) and to policy (e.g., planning regulations). While most technologies and strategies are known and developed in some countries, the assessed literature does not indicate how effective various options are at fully reducing risks, particularly at higher levels of warming and related impacts, and for vulnerable groups.

Table TS.6. Examples of current and potential options for adapting to climate change for vulnerable sectors. All entries have been referred to in chapters in the Fourth Assessment. Note that, with respect to ecosystems, generic rather than specific adaptation responses are required. Generic planning strategies would enhance the capacity to adapt naturally. Examples of such strategies are: enhanced wildlife corridors, including wide altitudinal gradients in protected areas. [5.5, 3.5, 6.5, 7.5, T6.5]

 Food, fibre and forestry Water resources  Human health Industry, settlement and society 
Drying/ Drought 

Crops: development of new drought-resistant varieties; intercropping; crop residue retention; weed management; irrigation and hydroponic farming; water harvesting

Livestock: supplementary feeding; change in stocking rate; altered grazing and rotation of pasture

Social: Improved extension services; debt relief; diversification of income


Leak reduction

Water demand management through metering and pricing

Soil moisture conservation e.g., through mulching

Desalination of sea water

Conservation of groundwater through artificial recharge

Education for sustainable water use


Grain storage and provision of emergency feeding stations

Provision of safe drinking water and sanitation

Strengthening of public institutions and health systems

Access to international food markets


Improve adaptation capacities, especially for livelihoods

Incorporate climate change in development programmes

Improved water supply systems and co-ordination between jurisdictions

Increased rainfall/ Flooding 

Crops: Polders and improved drainage; development and promotion of alternative crops; adjustment of plantation and harvesting schedule; floating agricultural systems

Social: Improved extension services


Enhanced implementation of protection measures including flood forecasting and warning, regulation through planning legislation and zoning; promotion of insurance; and relocation of vulnerable assets


Structural and non-structural measures. Early-warning systems; disaster preparedness planning; effective post-event emergency relief


Improved flood protection infrastructure

“Flood-proof” buildings

Change land use in high-risk areas

Managed realignment and “Making Space for Water”

Flood hazard mapping; flood warnings

Empower community institutions

Warming/ Heatwaves 

Crops: Development of new heat-resistant varieties; altered timing of cropping activities; pest control and surveillance of crops

Livestock: Housing and shade provision; change to heat-tolerant breeds

Forestry: Fire management through altered stand layout, landscape planning, dead timber salvaging, clearing undergrowth. Insect control through prescribed burning, non-chemical pest control

Social: Diversification of income


Water demand management through metering and pricing

Education for sustainable water use


International surveillance systems for disease emergence

Strengthening of public institutions and health systems

National and regional heat warning systems

Measures to reduce urban heat island effects through creating green spaces

Adjusting clothing and activity levels; increasing fluid intake


Assistance programmes for especially vulnerable groups

Improve adaptive capacities

Technological change

Wind speed/ Storminess 

Crops: Development of wind-resistant crops (e.g., vanilla)


Coastal defence design and implementation to protect water supply against contamination


Early-warning systems; disaster preparedness planning; effective post-event emergency relief


Emergency preparedness, including early-warning systems

More resilient infrastructure

Financial risk management options for both developed and developing regions


Although many early impacts of climate change can be effectively addressed through adaptation, the options for successful adaptation diminish and the associated costs increase with increasing climate change. At present we do not have a clear picture of the limits to adaptation, or the cost, partly because effective adaptation measures are highly dependent on specific geographical and climate risk factors as well as institutional, political and financial constraints [7.6, 17.2, 17.4].

There are significant barriers to implementing adaptation. These include both the inability of natural systems to adapt to the rate and magnitude of climate change, as well as formidable environmental, economic, informational, social, attitudinal and behavioural constraints. There are also significant knowledge gaps for adaptation as well as impediments to flows of knowledge and information relevant for adaptation decisions [17.4.1, 17.4.2]. For developing countries, availability of resources and building adaptive capacity are particularly important [see Sections 5 and 6 in Chapters 3 to 16; also 17.2, 17.4]. Some examples and reasons are given below.

a. The large number and expansion of potentially hazardous glacial lakes due to rising temperatures in the Himalayas. These far exceed the capacity of countries in the region to manage such risks.

b. If climate change is faster than is anticipated, many developing countries simply cannot cope with more frequent/intense occurrence of extreme weather events, as this will drain resources budgeted for other purposes.

c. Climate change will occur in the life cycle of many infrastructure projects (coastal dykes, bridges, sea ports, etc.). Strengthening of these infrastructures based on new design criteria may take decades to implement. In many cases, retrofitting would not be possible.

d. Due to physical constraints, adaptation measures cannot be implemented in many estuaries and delta areas.

New planning processes are attempting to overcome these barriers at local, regional and national levels in both developing and developed countries. For example, Least Developed Countries are developing National Adaptation Plans of Action (NAPA) and some developed countries have established national adaptation policy frameworks [17.4.1].