About adaptation

Adaptation is an essential part of addressing the impacts and opportunities created by our changing climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines adaptation as:

“adjustments in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities”.

Despite efforts to limit the man-made causes of climate change, a level of change in our climate is unavoidable.

Adaptation is vital in reducing the risks of climate change impacts on our wellbeing, business and society as well as allowing us to take advantage of the opportunities a changing climate could provide.

The adaptation process

Adaptation is a process of on-going adjustments in response to climate and non-climate drivers. For over ten years, UKCIP has worked to understand better this process to help society make effective decisions in a changing climate.

UKCIP has been a leading advocate of risk-based approaches to climate adaptation, which are now widely used around the world. The UKCIP Risk framework was one of first adaptation decision support tools, later refined and streamlined to create the UKCIP Adaptation Wizard.

UKCIP Adaptation Wizard

The UKCIP Adaptation Wizard is a tool to help your organisation adapt to climate change. It takes you through a 5-step process to help you assess your organisation’s vulnerability to current climate and future climate change. It also helps you to identify options to address your organisation’s key climate risks, and help you develop and implement a climate change adaptation strategy. The Wizard is also a guide to the information, tools and resources available from UKCIP that can be used to help organisations plan how to adapt.

Managing Adaptation

UKCIP’s Managing Adaptation guidance discusses the important issues you should take into account when moving from awareness to adaptation action. It is written for anyone tackling a risk-based assessment as part of an adaptation work programme, emphasising the importance of the scoping phase.

Some of the most important decisions and judgements are made during this phase, and can profoundly influence the depth of an assessment and the shape of subsequent work. If this process is not examined in depth, either wrong assumptions can be made, or fixed routes created which limit the flexibility of adaptation planning.

This document can be read on its own, or in conjunction with steps 1 and 2 of UKCIP’s Adaptation Wizard.

Good adaptation

The following principles have evolved through experience and will help you to develop a good adaptation strategy:

  • Work in partnership – identify and engage your community and keep them well informed.
  • Understand the risks and thresholds you have identified, including any associated uncertainties.
  • Before you begin, decide on and communicate SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented, and time-bound) objectives.
  • Use a balanced approach to manage climate and non-climate risks – your adaptation measures should be implemented within the overall sustainability and development objectives of your organisation/project.
  • Identify key climate risks and opportunities, and focus on actions to manage priority risks
  • Address risks associated with today’s climate variability and extremes as a starting point
  • Use information on your current climate vulnerability to help you address risks and opportunities associated with longer-term climate change.
  • Adaptive management – or “learning by doing, and adapting based on what’s learned” – will help you cope with uncertainty and improve your decision-making.
  • The precautionary approach, where you suspect there is a problem but are unable to prove it, is an appropriate way to manage adaptation.
  • Recognise the cost effectiveness and multiple benefits of no/low regrets and win-win adaptation options.
  • Avoid actions that limit future adaptations or restrict adaptive actions of others.
  • Monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of your adaptation decisions as well as any changes in risk.

Adaptation types

Adaptation can be classified by what drives it:

  • Anticipatory or proactive adaptation takes place before any impacts of climate change are observed.
  • Autonomous or spontaneous adaptation is triggered by changes in natural systems, and by market or welfare changes in human systems.
  • Planned adaptation is a deliberate policy decision, based on an awareness of changing conditions and understanding that action is required.

Adaptation can also be described as either:

  • Building adaptive capacity by creating the information (research, data collecting and monitoring, awareness raising), supportive social structures (organisational development, working in partnership, institutions), and supportive governance (regulations, legislations, and guidance) that are needed as a foundation for adaptation action; or
  • Delivering adaptation actions that help to reduce vulnerability to climate risks, or to exploit any opportunities.

Building adaptive capacity is vital to delivering responsive adaptation actions, and can be initiated by:

  • Understanding the nature of the issue and the risks
  • Identifying and engaging the affected community and players
  • Assessing risks and thresholds and likely adaptive responses.

Delivering adaptation actions requires you to consider the purpose and feasibility of adaptation. Adaptation is usually needed when a system is unable to cope with existing or projected climate risks, or where there is a will to make the most of climatic opportunities. These are usually described as:

  • Living with and bearing losses or risks – accepting that existing systems, behaviours and activities are no longer sustainable.
  • Preventing the effects of or reducing exposure to risks – either relocating, changing what is exposed, or building climatic resilience to allow existing activities to continue. It also includes changing to a different use to eliminate exposure. Building resilience covers living with risk by being better prepared for the effect of climate impacts and helping recovery after a climate-related event.
  • Sharing responsibility for any losses or risks – reducing losses or exposure to risk by using insurance, sharing the costs of adaptive responses, and relief efforts.
  • Exploiting opportunities – changing use or location, and taking advantage of more favourable conditions for existing products or activities as well as introducing new lines.
  • Transformative adaptation – managing a more fundamental change process rather than protecting or restoring a particular environmental and social state.

In practice, adaptation involves a mixture of response strategies:

  • Building climatic resilience, e.g. enhanced design specifications
  • Living with risks, e.g. increased preparedness and contingency planning
  • Acceptance of loss, e.g. accepting occasional losses or reductions in quality.

Each case will use a different combination of strategies according to the risk aversion, values and capacity of the organisation, and may include measures that exploit opportunities.

Long-term investments (e.g. infrastructure, buildings, forest plantations etc.) need to build in flexibility and resilience to cope with projected changes in climate.

To reduce the costs and potential disruption, it is sensible to introduce adaptation measures at the same time as other maintenance or upgrading, or take advantage of unscheduled breakdowns.