Adaptation and resilience

Adaptation and resilience

What is adaptation and resilience?

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 often outside the range of experience, such as impacts related to drought, heatwaves, accelerated glacier retreat and hurricane intensity .

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 permafrostmelt by the Inuit in Nunavut (Canada); and increased use of artificial snow-making by theAlpine ski industry (Europe, Australia and North America) . A limited but growing set of adaptation measures also explicitly considers scenarios of future climate change. Examples include consideration of sea-level rise in design of infrastructure such as the Confederation Bridge (Canada) and in coastal zone management (United States and the Netherlands).

There is 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. 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.

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. The capacity to adapt is dynamic and influenced by economic and natural resources, social networks, entitlements, institutions and governance, human resources, and technology. Multiple stresses related to HIV/AIDS, land degradation, trends in economic globalisation, 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; marine ecosystems overexploited by globalised fisheries have been shown to be less resilient to climate variability and change.


Assessment of Adaptation Practices, Options, Constraints and Capacity Adger, W.N., S. Agrawala, M.M.Q. Mirza, C. Conde, K. O'Brien, J. Pulhin, R. Pulwarty, B. Smit and K. Takahashi, 2007: Assessment of adaptation practices, options, constraints and capacity. Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, M.L. Parry, O.F. Canziani, J.P. Palutikof, P.J. van der Linden and C.E. Hanson, Eds., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 717-743.

Key questions for this area

If you already are teaching or studying in this area, or are looking to include content with regards to climate change adaptation and resilience, here are a few questions that you should be able to answer and/or consider:

  • How have societies adapted to climate change in the past?
  •  What do the authors consider we should do in the future to adapt to climate change?
  •  Is the climate really changing?
  • What are the externalities in relation to adaptation using such resources and air conditioners?

Useful resources 

If you are interested in finding out more about this topic, check out our resources for inspiration.

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