Climate adaptation

How technologies, nature-based solutions and policies can help build resilience in communities affected by climate change

What is climate change adaptation?

‘Adaptation to climate change’ refers to the vast range of actions societies can take to reduce the adverse impacts of global warming on the environment, society, public health, the economy and more. Adjusting to these impacts requires practical solutions tailored to each country, region or community. Climate adaptation includes measures such as developing and rolling out new varieties of drought-resistant crops, designing better flood-defence infrastructure to protect coastal cities or riverine communities, improving early warning systems for climate-induced disasters, and restoring ecosystems that act as buffers against extreme weather.

All of these actions require political will and cooperation between governments, businesses and the wider society. They can also come at significant cost. However, despite the lack of an immediate financial return, experts agree that the cost of inaction is far greater than the investment required to build a climate-resilient society.

Why is adaptation necessary?

Human societies have been emitting a lot of greenhouse gases for centuries, since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. Because of this, some of the present and future weather changes cannot be avoided despite our best climate change mitigation efforts.

In their latest landmark report, scientists working for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that changes that have been set in motion “are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.” Adapting to climate change is therefore necessary for the wellbeing of people and the planet’s ecosystems alike.

Climate change adaptation vs mitigation

The climate change challenge is multifaceted. Globally, societies need to decarbonise their industrial activities as fast as possible, to lessen the severity of the climate crisis and curb its worst impacts. Mitigation measures include deploying renewable energy at scale, replacing internal combustion engine cars and motorbikes with electric vehicles, and improving the health of the planet’s forests. These can help slow down the growth, or in certain cases even reduce the concentration, of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. When it comes to climate change impacts that cannot be avoided through mitigation, adaptation can help build resilience and withstand some of the environmental changes that are intensifying as the planet warms. 

There is a clear business model for climate change mitigation, because the implementation of green technologies promises high returns as carbon-intensive ones become obsolete. But less funding and investment have traditionally been devoted to climate adaptation. In the coming years, the challenge will be to even out this funding gap.

Climate change adaptation examples

Examples of climate change adaptation include lab-developed solutions, such as drought-resistant crop varieties that ensure the food industry copes with the dry spells that are expected to become more frequent and intense. Cities around the world have developed extreme heat action plans to protect older people and other vulnerable groups.  These involve better early warning systems and urban environments designed to stay cooler through tree planting and open spaces. As sea level rise increases, strengthening sea walls and planning higher roads and power plants will help build resilience in the hundreds of coastal cities expected to be affected. 

Ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change

As well as using new technologies, humans can use nature-based solutions to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Restoring degraded ecosystems may provide protection against weather extremes. For example, mangrove forests constitute a natural barrier against coastal erosion and storms that are becoming more intense due to warmer oceans. 

Wild crop varieties can be put back into fields, or used to produce new hybrids that are naturally well suited to a particular microclimate. This may help prevent the massive crop failures that can occur when an extensive monoculture is wiped out by a new pest or new adverse climate conditions.

What is the National Adaptation Fund for Climate Change (NAFCC)?

The fund was established in 2015 by the government of India, to help its most vulnerable states pay for the increasing costs of climate change adaptation. The government set aside an initial budget of INR 3.5 billion (USD 47.3 million) for 2016 and 2017. It supports climate change adaptation strategies such as groundwater recharge and spring rejuvenation, eco-friendly livestock management, sustainable agriculture and restoration of coastal habitats.

What is the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP)?

The programme, which ran from 2011 to 2017, involved three institutions focused on researching and raising awareness about climate change: Norway’s Center for International Climate Research (CICERO), the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the communication non-profit GRID-Arendal. It sought to help mountain communities adapt to climate change in one of the most vulnerable and fast-warming regions of the planet. The partnership developed small-scale climate and hydrology scenarios, also analysing the expected impacts of climate change on Himalayan ecosystems and societies. It worked with residents to design and implement strategies to enhance adaptation through better use of local natural resources and ecosystem services.

Disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation

Scientists can now prove that climate change is behind many of the record-breaking natural disasters that have affected countries around the world in recent years. From devastating landslides in the Himalayas and cyclones of unprecedented violence in the Bay of Bengal and India’s west coast, to devastating floods in Europe and wildfires in Siberia and across the United States, no corner of the planet is safe. Now more than ever governments are focusing on climate change adaptation with urgency.

Disaster risk reduction is at the forefront of these efforts. In the Himalayan region, these include studying the impacts of glacial melt on the construction of hydroelectric dams in mountain ranges, which can further destabilise the terrain. Another measure is improving early warning systems to save lives during the increasingly powerful cyclones hitting South Asia’s coasts.

However, adaptation has limits. People can be moved away from the path of a cyclone, but their crops are ruined and livestock die. Parts of coastal South Asia have turned so saline that even salt-resistant varieties of paddy cannot grow. The loss and damage caused by climate change impacts beyond adaptation are subjects of heated debate in global negotiations.

Illustration by Arati Kumar-Rao