Are We Adapting to Climate Change? A Global Perspective

By Jessi Kershner

Climate change adaptation research and on-the-ground work is occurring across the globe, but who is adapting and how? What is motivating adaptation? Does adaptation differ among countries, regions, or sectors? A recent paper by Berrang-Ford et al. (2010) attempts to answer these questions by examining over 1700 peer-reviewed articles published between 2006-2009 to assess how adaptation is occurring at a global level. 
 Map showing distribution of reporting on climate change adaptation. Numbers indicate amount of publications on adaptation activities in each country (Berrang-Ford et al. 2010).

Question 1: Who is adapting to climate change? Proactive vs. reactive responses

Proactive – These types of adaptations were more frequently reported from developed or high-income countries and were more likely to be stimulated by long-term changes in climatic averages or isolated extreme events. In addition, long-term proactive planning was more likely to be undertaken by higher levels of government and involve non-resource sectors (e.g., infrastructure, transportation). Common adaptation actions included preparing for projected impacts, monitoring, increasing awareness, building partnerships, and improving learning. Check out our case studies on the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange (CAKE): Climate Change Adaption Policy for the Water Sector in Mexico, the U.S. Climate Ready Water Utilities Program, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program for examples of higher-level adaptation actions.

Reactive – These types of adaptations were more frequently reported from low-income countries and were more likely to arise in response to things such as financial stimuli or resource availability. In addition, reactive adaptation actions tended to occur at the individual or household-level and included things such as avoiding or retreating, coping, adjusting, spreading risk, and securing resources. Check out our case study on food security in the Canadian Arctic, as well as our Tsiigehtchic and Paulatuk case studies to find out what these communities are doing to adapt to climate change impacts.

Question 2: What is motivating adaptation?

Increased climate variability such as decadal variability or extreme events were more likely to stimulate adaptation actions compared to long-term changes in average climatic conditions. This is likely due to the fact that extreme events provide readily observable ‘evidence’ that climate change is happening, and thus motivates adaptation responses in human systems. The most dominant stimulus motivating adaptation was changes in precipitation.

Question 3: Does adaptation differ among countries, regions, or sectors? Gaps in adaptation efforts

A disproportionate amount of adaptive action and research occurs in higher income countries as well as highly vulnerable low-income regions; less focus is placed on lower-middle or upper-middle income regions. In addition, elderly, women, and children have been identified as particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts, however only 3% of publications referred to these groups. North American indigenous populations are more frequently reported on than other indigenous populations, particularly those related to Arctic or sub-Arctic populations.

For a global perspective on indigenous people adapting to climate change, check out our case study on the Indigenous People’s Global Summit on Climate Change.

While these trends provide important insight into where and why adaptation is occurring across the globe, more specific information on how adaptation is occurring is needed. What strategies are people trying? What’s working for them and what isn’t? As those of us at EcoAdapt work to expand the CAKE resource to include more of this type of information, help us out by sharing your own case study and adaptation insight (plus get free ice cream)! 

Finally, the authors bring up an important point - adaptation action can take place in response to many different stimuli including climate, thus there is a need for ‘mainstreaming’ or ‘no-regrets adaptation’ where actions have multiple climatic and non-climatic benefits. Adopting this type of approach to adaptation helps ensure support from stakeholders at all levels.