Adaptation to Climate Change: International Policy Options

Adaptation to Climate Change cover

Adaptation to Climate Change: International Policy Options

Prepared for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change
November 2006

Ian Burton, University of Toronto
Elliot Diringer, Pew Center on Global Climate Change
Joel Smith, Stratus Consulting Inc.

This report examines options for future international efforts to help vulnerable countries adapt to the impacts of climate change both within and outside the climate framework. Options outlined in the report include stronger funding and action under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, mandatory climate risk assessments for multilateral development finance, and donor country support for climate "insurance" in vulnerable countries.

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From its inception, the international climate effort has focused predominantly on mitigation—reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to prevent dangerous climate change. The next stage of the international effort must deal squarely with adaptation—coping with those impacts that cannot be avoided. This is both a matter of need, as climate change is now underway, and a matter of equity, as its impacts fall disproportionately on those least able to bear them. It also may be a condition for further progress on mitigation. Indeed, substantial new mitigation commitments post-2012 may be politically feasible only if accompanied by stronger support for adaptation.

Ambitious mitigation efforts can lessen, but not prevent, future climate change. While steep reductions in emissions could stabilize atmospheric GHG concentrations at lower levels than under “business as usual,” they likely would be well above current, let alone pre-industrial, levels.2 With higher concentrations will come further rises in temperatures and sea level, changes in precipitation, and more extreme weather. The early impacts of climate change already are being felt worldwide.3 Future impacts will affect a broad array of human and natural systems, with consequences for human health, food and fiber production, water supplies, and many other areas vital to economic and social well being. While certain impacts may in the nearer term prove beneficial to some, in the long term, the effects will be largely detrimental.4

Anticipating and adapting to these impacts in order to minimize their human and environmental toll is a significant challenge for all nations. Meeting it requires action at multiple levels, from the local to the international, within both public and private spheres. This paper explores one critical dimension of this multifaceted challenge—how adaptation can be best promoted and facilitated through future multilateral efforts.

Among the many issues confronting governments, two are especially daunting. The first is equity and its relation to cost. Difficult questions of fairness suffuse the climate debate but are particularly stark in the case of adaptation: those most vulnerable to climate change are the ones least responsible for it. Stronger international adaptation efforts—whatever form they might take, and whether understood as assistance or as compensation—will be possible, let alone effective, only insofar as affluent countries are prepared to commit resources. This is a question not of policy design but, rather, of negotiation and political will. Second, reliable information and relevant experience are in short supply. Relative to mitigation, the adaptation challenge is much less well understood—needs as well as solutions. A high priority in the near term is strengthening the knowledge base with better data and modeling to refine projections of future impacts, and with early insights from the field on the most effective responses.

It is at the same time essential to begin considering how future international efforts can best be structured. This paper examines underlying issues and lays out an array of possibilities. To set the issue in context, it looks first at the history and evolving nature of human adaptation to climate. It then highlights key issues in the design of adaptation policy, and summarizes and assesses international adaptation efforts to date. Finally, the paper outlines three broad and potentially complementary approaches to future international efforts:

  • Adaptation Under the UNFCCC—Initiating new steps under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to facilitate comprehensive national adaptation strategies and to provide reliable assistance for high-priority implementation projects.
  • Integration with Development—Integrating adaptation across the full range of development-related assistance through measures such as mandatory climate risk assessments for projects financed with bilateral or multilateral support.
  • Climate “Insurance”—Committing stable funding for an international response fund or to support insurance-type approaches covering climate-related losses and promoting proactive adaptation in vulnerable countries.

1. This report was prepared initially as input to the Climate Dialogue at Pocantico convened by the PewCenterin 2004-5, and in its final form reflects contributions from the dialogue. The Pocantico dialogue brought together 25 senior policymakers and stakeholders from 15 countries to recommend options for advancing the international climate change effort beyond 2012. The group’s report is available at: /global-warming-in-depth/all_reports/climate_dialogue_at_ pocantico/index.cfm.

2. Metz et al. (2001).

3. Parmesan, C. and G. Yohe (2003); Root, T. L. et al. (2003); Stott et al. (2004).

4. McCarthy et al. (2001).