By: Saleemul Huq and Richard J.T. Klein


Saleemul Huq and Richard J.T. Klein explain why adaptation to climate change is a necessary and urgent approach to complement mitigation efforts, and how the issue is being addressed at both a national and global level.

The nature of the challenge

The many challenges posed by global climate change, from increased temperatures and extreme weather events to rises in sea level, are now widely recognised in both scientific and policy circles. So far, the main response at both national and international levels has been to focus on initiatives aimed at mitigating — i.e. reducing the potential size of — these effects. Most industrialised countries, for example, have sought to do this by committing themselves, through signing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol, to stabilising or reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and enhancing carbon sinks.

But the lag times in the global climate system mean that no mitigation effort, however rigorous, is going to prevent climate change from happening in the next few decades. The warming now being experienced is the result of emissions that took place decades ago. Indeed the first impacts of climate change on natural systems are already being observed, for example on the life cycles of birds, butterflies, amphibians, alpine herbs and trees [1, 2].

It is therefore increasingly evident that, in addition to policies aimed at mitigation, it is also now necessary to encourage those focused on adaptation to the effects of climate change. By adaptation in this context, we refer to any adjustment in natural or human systems that takes place in response to actual or expected impacts of climate change, and intended either to moderate harm, or to exploit beneficial opportunities [3].

Of course, relying on adaptation alone without taking steps to mitigate climate change could well lead to a situation in which adaptation can only be effectively achieved at high social and economic costs. In other words, adaptation to climate change is not — and should not be seen as — an alternative to mitigation. Nevertheless, both are essential in order to reduce the threats that climate change presents to the social and economic growth of developing countries.

What is adaptation?

Adaptation initiatives can be categorised in various ways. One useful distinction is between 'planned' and 'autonomous' adaptation. Planned adaptation describes the result of decisions that are based on an awareness that conditions have changed – or are about to change - and that some type of action is required to achieve, maintain, or return to a desired state. This could, for example, mean building sea walls in anticipation of a rise in sea level.

In contrast, autonomous adaptation refers to the changes that natural and (most) human systems undergo in response to changing conditions in their immediate environment, irrespective of any broader plan or policy-based decisions. Such changes, for example, can be triggered by observed changes in weather patterns that result in shifting market signals or welfare changes (such as the price of crops and the occurrence of diseases). Examples of autonomous adaptations might include changes in farming practices, the purchase of air-conditioning devices, insurance policies taken out by individuals and private companies, and changes in recreational and tourist behaviour.

Many of the actions taken by individuals, communities and companies as they adapt to climate change are likely to be autonomous (i.e. not requiring external intervention), particularly as such autonomous action has, in the past, been taken in response to variations in climate that have been 'natural', rather than human-induced. Indeed there is currently much interest in whether society can rely on autonomous adaptation to reduce the potential impacts of climate change to an acceptable level, particularly since such initiatives do not require government intervention.

In many parts of the world, however, the future impacts of climate change are likely to be significantly greater than those that have been experienced in the past as a result of natural climatic variability alone. Such impacts may be more than many of those affected are able to handle effectively with autonomous adaptation, particularly given additional constraints such as limited information, inadequate knowledge, and insufficient access to resources.

As a result, it is now widely acknowledged that there is a need to implement policies for planned adaptation aimed at preparing for the impacts of climate change, and at facilitating and complementing autonomous adaptation initiatives.

Some of the forms that such planned adaptation could take are [4]:

·     Increasing the ability of physical infrastructure to withstand the impacts of climate change. One approach, for example, would be to extend the temperature or rainfall range that a system can withstand; another would be to modify a system's tolerance to loss or failure (for example by building higher sea walls as a defence against a rise in sea level);

·     Increasing the flexibility of potentially vulnerable systems that are managed by humans. For example, the capacity of a water reservoir might be increased to deal with fluctuations in rainfall;

·     Enhancing the adaptability of vulnerable natural systems. This could involve reducing stresses due to non-climatic effects, or removing barriers to the migration of plants or animals (for example, by enabling mangrove ecosystems to migrate towards land in order to adapt to rising sea levels);

·     Reversing trends that increase vulnerability. For example by reducing human activity in vulnerable areas such as floodplains and coastal zones;

·     Improving public awareness and preparedness. This can include informing the public about the risks and possible consequences of climate change, as well as setting up early-warning systems for extreme weather events.

Adaptive capacity

In order for a particular country both to draw up an adaptation strategy, and to prioritise the actions that need to be taken within this strategy, it is necessary to start with an idea about the potential impacts of climate change on that country. This in turn requires an understanding of the ways in which both its natural and human systems are vulnerable to the potentially adverse impacts of climate change.

Almost all countries have now carried out at least a preliminary assessment intended to do this, and have reported the conclusions to the UNFCCC secretariat. Such assessments have provided an initial identification of the regions, sectors and communities within a country that would be particularly affected by climate change, and (in some cases) have identified possible adaptation strategies.

So far, however, most of these assessments (particularly those made by developing countries) have not gone much further than simply listing adaptation options, and provide little detailed analysis of their implications [5].

It should also be remembered that countries vary greatly in the level of human, technical, financial and other resources they can afford to devote to adaptation strategies. This in turn means that a country's vulnerability to climate change is determined not only by the direct impacts that it potentially faces, but also by its ability to find the resources needed to adapt to these impacts.

A country's ability to plan, prepare for and implement adaptation initiatives is usually referred to as its 'adaptive capacity' [6]. The factors that determine such adaptive capacity include a country's economic wealth, its technology and infrastructure, the information, knowledge and skills that it possesses, the nature of its institutions, its commitment to equity, and its social capital (for example community networks that provide support and assistance to the most vulnerable).

It is therefore not surprising that most industrialised countries have higher adaptive capacities than developing countries. For example, Bangladesh and The Netherlands share a similar physical susceptibility to sea level rise. But Bangladesh lacks the economic resources, technology and infrastructure that The Netherlands can call on to respond to such an event.

It is unlikely that the current level of adaptive capacity in developing countries will be sufficient to cope with the impacts of climate change that they will face in the long run. Thus in addition to increased efforts to limit climate change, and to assess its potential impact on natural and human systems, an improvement in all factors that determine adaptive capacity is required to reduce the vulnerability of countries to such impacts.

Funding/criteria for adaptation

Consideration of such issues leads directly to the question of who should pay for developing countries to develop adaptation strategies and improve adaptive capacity. Initially, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) — the financial mechanism intended to facilitate the implementation of decisions taken under the UNFCCC — was mandated by international climate change negotiations to provide some funding for developing countries to carry out analyses of their vulnerability to climate change.

Three stages in the adaptation process were identified by the first conference of the parties (COP) of the UNFCCC that took place in 1995. The first stage — which includes studies of possible impacts of climate change — has involved identifying countries or regions that are particularly vulnerable to climate change, as well as policy options for both direct adaptation and appropriate capacity building.

The second stage covers measures — including further capacity building — which may be taken to prepare for adaptation. The third and final stage is intended to finance measures to facilitate adequate adaptation to climate change, such as insurance.

Success with this approach has been mixed. Funding under the first stage has been successfully used to allow many developing countries to carry out assessments of their vulnerability, and many have as a result been able to submit reports on this to the UNFCCC. However, very few projects belonging to the second stage have been funded, and funding for projects in the third stage still awaits formal approval by the signatory states to the convention.

One result is that, up to now, with relatively little funding going into adaptation initiatives, GEF funding related to climate change has been used almost exclusively to support mitigation initiatives. Another reason for this imbalance in funding is that GEF has had difficulty in applying the eligibility criteria that were initially designed to assess applications for mitigation-related projects to those dealing with adaptation [7].

In response to these problems, and reflecting a growing international recognition of the need to support adaptation strategies, the signatories to the climate convention agreed in 2001 to complement the funding directly available from GEF. At their seventh meeting (COP7), held in Marrakesh, they set up three additional funds to support adaptation initiatives in developing countries. 

One of these so-called 'Marrakesh Funds' is aimed specifically at supporting National Adaptation Programmes of Action in the least developed countries (LDCs). A second is the Special Climate Change Fund, which supports adaptation as well as mitigation actions. This fund is supposed to begin operating in 2005 and its criteria for supporting adaptation and mitigation action are due to be finalised at COP9 in December 2003.

The third, known as the Adaptation Fund, is intended to support what are described as “concrete adaptations”. This is to be financed by a levy on projects agreed under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). But as the Kyoto Protocol still awaits ratification by a sufficient number of countries to come into legal force, no funds are likely to be available before 2008 at the earliest [8].

The guidelines for these new funds suggest that financial support will no longer be restricted to the three-stage approach adopted for GEF. Indeed the Marrakesh Accords list a number of adaptation activities that appear to go beyond Stage III activities, but would still be eligible for funding. These include:

  • The prompt implementation of adaptation activities, where sufficient information on the need for such activities is already considered to be available, for example in water resource management, agriculture, health, infrastructure development, fragile ecosystems, and integrated coastal zone management;
  • Improved monitoring of diseases and vectors affected by climate change, as well as related forecasting and early-warning systems where this is likely to lead to improved disease control and prevention;
  • Capacity-building, including strengthening of institutional capacity to take preventive measures;
  • Planning, preparedness and management of disasters relating to climate change, including contingency planning, particularly for droughts and floods in areas that are prone to extreme weather events; and
  • Strengthening and, where necessary, creating national and regional centres and information networks to provide a rapid response to extreme weather events, making as much use as possible of information technology.

Next steps

As our understanding of the need to adapt to climate change — and the possible strategies for achieving this — has grown, so has awareness that the implementation of adaptation strategies must closely be linked with broader development goals and objectives, as well as policies for achieving them.

The initial three-stage approach to adaptation funding agreed in 1995 did not address this link (indeed this may have contributed to the relative lack of its success so far). In contrast, the newly agreed Marrakesh Funds seem to offer greater promise, at least in principle, of forging a working relationship between adaptation and development policy.

It will only be possible to judge whether this happens in practice once additional funds have become available. Nevertheless, it now appears that the components of a potentially effective international policy regime on adaptation to climate change are in place. As a result, countries must now consider how they can best incorporate climate-related issues into their development strategies.

Particularly important in this context is the LDC Fund, which will be used partly for the development of National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs). Agreement on the need for such programmes were reached at COP7, and about half of the 49 LDCs have already been provided support from this fund through GEF to start work on them.

These programmes of action are expected to be completed over the next two years, and provide a vehicle by which LDCs can communicate priority activities that address their immediate needs and concerns relating to adaptation to climate change. Indeed the Marrakesh Accords explicitly state: "The rationale for developing NAPAs rests on the low adaptive capacity of LDCs, which renders them in need of immediate and urgent support to start adapting to current and projected adverse effects of climate change. Activities proposed through NAPAs would be those whose further delay could increase vulnerability or lead to increased costs at a later stage."

The agreements reached in Marrakesh therefore seem to have removed a number of major barriers to international funding for the development of adaptation strategies, at least for the LDCs. Nonetheless, it remains clear that the activities outlined in the Marrakesh Accords, as well as those to be identified in the NAPAs, can only be implemented if sufficient additional funding is made available.

It is important that "mainstreaming" of adaptation issues should aim to ensure the long-term sustainability of investments. It should also seek to reduce the sensitivity of development activities to climate-related factors [9]. To achieve both goals, an Adaptation Policy Framework, currently being drawn up by the United Nations Development Programme, will provide guidance to countries on policies for adaptation, and on how to incorporate these into their development strategies.

As the case for adaptation becomes stronger, progress is needed simultaneously on scientific and political fronts. Scientifically, we need to improve our understanding of how adaptation can be achieved, in particular how a country's adaptive capacity can best be enhanced. And on the political side, international efforts must continue to support adaptation initiatives by countries and communities, especially those that are the most vulnerable to climate change.

Saleemul Huq is director of the climate change programme at the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development. Richard J.T. Klein is coordinator of the environmental vulnerability assessment project at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.


[1] Parmesan, C. and G. Yohe, 2003: A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems. Nature, 421(6918), 37–42.

[2] Root, T.L., J.T. Price, K.R. Hall, S.H. Schneider, C. Rosenzweig, J.A. Pounds, 2003: Fingerprints of global warming on wild animals and plants. Nature, 421(6918), 57–60.

[3] Smit, B., O. Pilifosova, I. Burton, B. Challenger, S. Huq, R.J.T. Klein and G. Yohe, 2001: Adaptation to climate change in the context of sustainable development and equity. In: Climate Change 2001Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, J.J. McCarthy, O.F. Canziano and N. Leary (eds.), Contribution of Working Group II to the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 877–912.

[4] Klein, R.J.T., 2003: Adaptation to climate variability and change: what is optimal and appropriate? In: Climate Change and the Mediterranean: Socio-Economics of Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation, C. Giupponi and M. Schechter (eds.), Edward Elgar, Cheltenham, UK, 32–50.

[5] Burton, I., S. Huq, B. Lim, O. Pilifosova and E.L. Schipper, 2002: From impacts assessment to adaptation priorities: the shaping of adaptation policy. Climate Policy, 2(2–3), 145–159.

[6] Smith, J.B., R.J.T. Klein and S. Huq, 2003: Climate Change, Adaptive Capacity and Development. Imperial College Press, London, UK, viii+347 pp.

[7] Klein, R.J.T. and T.E. Downing, 2002: Towards an International Funding Strategy for Climate Adaptation—A Contribution from Adaptation Science. Background paper to the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility, presented at the STAP Expert Group Workshop on Adaptation and Vulnerability, 18–20 February 2002, Nairobi, Kenya, 32 pp + apps.

[8] Huq, S., 2002 The Bonn-Marrakesh agreements on funding, Climate Policy 2(2–3), 243–246.

[9] Klein, R.J.T., E.L. Schipper and S. Dessai, 2003: Integrating Mitigation and Adaptation into Climate and Development Policy: Three Research Questions. Tyndall Working Paper, Tyndall Centre, Norwich, UK, 15 pp.

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