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date: 06 March 2021

Climate Change Adaptationfree

  • Philipp Schmidt-ThoméPhilipp Schmidt-ThoméGeological Survey of Finland


Climate change adaptation is the ability of a society or a natural system to adjust to the (changing) conditions that support life in a certain climate region, including weather extremes in that region. The current discussion on climate change adaptation began in the 1990s, with the publication of the Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since the beginning of the 21st century, most countries, and many regions and municipalities have started to develop and implement climate change adaptation strategies and plans. But since the implementation of adaptation measures must be planned and conducted at the local level, a major challenge is to actually implement adaptation to climate change in practice. One challenge is that scientific results are mainly published on international or national levels, and political guidelines are written at transnational (e.g., European Union), national, or regional levels—these scientific results must be downscaled, interpreted, and adapted to local municipal or community levels. Needless to say, the challenges for implementation are also rooted in a large number of uncertainties, from long time spans to matters of scale, as well as in economic, political, and social interests. From a human perspective, climate change impacts occur rather slowly, while local decision makers are engaged with daily business over much shorter time spans.

Among the obstacles to implementing adaptation measures to climate change are three major groups of uncertainties: (a) the uncertainties surrounding the development of our future climate, which include the exact climate sensitivity of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the reliability of emission scenarios and underlying storylines, and inherent uncertainties in climate models; (b) uncertainties about anthropogenically induced climate change impacts (e.g., long-term sea level changes, changing weather patterns, and extreme events); and (c) uncertainties about the future development of socioeconomic and political structures as well as legislative frameworks.

Besides slow changes, such as changing sea levels and vegetation zones, extreme events (natural hazards) are a factor of major importance. Many societies and their socioeconomic systems are not properly adapted to their current climate zones (e.g., intensive agriculture in dry zones) or to extreme events (e.g., housing built in flood-prone areas). Adaptation measures can be successful only by gaining common societal agreement on their necessity and overall benefit. Ideally, climate change adaptation measures are combined with disaster risk reduction measures to enhance resilience on short, medium, and long time scales.

The role of uncertainties and time horizons is addressed by developing climate change adaptation measures on community level and in close cooperation with local actors and stakeholders, focusing on strengthening resilience by addressing current and emerging vulnerability patterns. Successful adaptation measures are usually achieved by developing “no-regret” measures, in other words—measures that have at least one function of immediate social and/or economic benefit as well as long-term, future benefits. To identify socially acceptable and financially viable adaptation measures successfully, it is useful to employ participatory tools that give all involved parties and decision makers the possibility to engage in the process of identifying adaptation measures that best fit collective needs.

The term and concept of climate change adaptation is interpreted and defined in several different ways, ranging broadly from theory to application. Consequently, in the international arena, climate change adaptation has no single definition. Here, the focus is primarily on the opportunities and challenges of implementing climate change adaptation. The concept of climate change adaptation, as presently used, is also rather young, dating from the 1990’s. Political documents demanding climate change adaptation began to appear as recently as the beginning of the 21st century. While there have been significant achievements in developing climate change adaptation strategies, and despite their existence on several levels (from over-regional to national and local), their implementation (as adaptation measures) is often lagging. Examples of mal-adaptation to both current climate and climatic extreme events prevail, often despite better knowledge. A critical review of the practical applicability of climate change models in land use planning practices, for instance, leads to a series of examples of how climate change adaptation can be implemented. In each, the key to success lies in the integration of local stakeholders in the adaptation process and the identification and use of measures that are socially acceptable, culturally viable and economically feasible.

Definition of the Term

There is no unanimity to the definition of the term climate change adaptation. In fact, the various definitions have undergone several changes over the last few decades. A leading source, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines adaptation in its 5th Assessment Report as follows:

The process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects. In human systems, adaptation seeks to moderate or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In some natural systems, human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate and its effects. It then breaks adaptation itself into two types: “incremental” and “transformational”:

Incremental adaptation: Adaptation actions where the central aim is to maintain the essence and integrity of a system or process at a given scale.

Transformational adaptation: Adaptation that changes the fundamental attributes of a system in response to climate and its effects. (IPCC, 2014, p. 1758)

This is a further development from the 4th IPCC Assessment report that defined climate change adaptation as follows:

Adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities. Various types of adaptation can be distinguished, including anticipatory, autonomous, and planned adaptation.

Anticipatory adaptation: Adaptation that takes place before impacts of climate change are observed. Also referred to as proactive adaptation.

Autonomous adaptation: Adaptation that does not constitute a conscious response to climatic stimuli but is triggered by ecological changes in natural systems and by market or welfare changes in human systems. Also referred to as spontaneous adaptation.

Planned adaptation: Adaptation that is the result of a deliberate policy decision, based on an awareness that conditions have changed or are about to change and that action is required to return to, maintain, or achieve a desired state.

(IPCC, 2007a, p. 869)

The previous 3rd IPCC Assessment report presented the same definition as the 4th report, but distinguished three more types than the 4th (IPCC, 2001).

The varying definitions of the term climate change adaptation also reflect the different contexts the term is perceived in. The conceptual definitions comprise “practical steps to protect countries and communities from the likely disruption and damage that will result from effects of climate change. For example, flood walls should be built, and in numerous cases, it is probably advisable to move human settlements out of flood plains and other low-lying areas…” (United Nations Framework on Climate Change—UNFCCC, 2015); over “a process by which strategies to moderate, cope with, and take advantage of the consequences of climatic events are enhanced, developed, and implemented” (United Nations Development Programme—UNDP, 2012); to “The process or outcome of a process that leads to a reduction in harm or risk of harm, or realisation of benefits associated with climate variability and climate change” (United Kingdom Climate Impacts Programme—UKCIP). This latter definition is comparable to the definition offered by IPCC (Levina & Tirpak, 2006, pp. 6–7).

Meanwhile, several definitions of climate change adaptation can be found; but it seems that, since 2015, the IPCC’s version of the 4th Assessment Report prevails, which is similar to the one used by the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR, 2009). It was adopted by the United Nations and other international bodies working with climate change, including: the UNFCCC (2015), the European Climate Adaptation Platform (Climate-Adapt, 2015), and the Mekong River Commission (2013). In addition, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) follows this definition closely: “In human systems, the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In natural systems, the process of adjustment to actual climate and its effects; human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate” (UNEP, 2014, p. VII).

The Context of Climate Change Adaptation

Climate change adaptation is a term that entered sciences and policy making on a broad scale in 1992, with the UNFCCC (United Nations, 1992), as a policy response to changes in the climate system (Smithers & Smit, 2009). Here, two main policy responses to changing climatic conditions arose: climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation. The two are not exclusive of each other, but in 1992, much more emphasis was given to climate change mitigation than adaptation. Mitigation was defined by the UNFCCC as “…limiting … anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases and protecting and enhancing … greenhouse gas sinks and reservoirs” (United Nations, 1992, p. 6). The term climate change adaptation itself was not really defined in this document, but was generally referred to as actions in response to the adverse effects of climate change. It is interesting to note that, from the initial discussions that formed the UNFCCC report, far stronger emphasis was given to climate change mitigation, meanwhile climate change adaptation played only a minor role.

Before the late 1980’s, adaptation was partly perceived as politically challenging, arguably due to other concepts with which it was associated, such as “social Darwinism” and “survival of the fittest” (Burton, 2009, p. 11), or other biological concepts involving our abilities to adapt—or not adapt—to natural surroundings. Adaptation to natural processes was often also perceived to have an air of “deterministic inevitability encouraging passive acceptance” (Burton, 2009, p. 11).

Still, in the beginning of the 21st century, some leading scientists expressed opposition to the concept of climate change adaptation (e.g., Rahmstorf & Schellnhuber, 2006), stating that climate change mitigation—the reduction of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to preserve Holocene climatic conditions—was the only option available to us. In this regard, climate change adaptation would constitute a reaction to some adverse phenomena that could be avoided by concerted human actions to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and adaptation actions would be unproductive since they distract from mitigation efforts. Climate change adaptation also was perceived as an unjust concept in economic terms: richer countries, the main sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions, could afford adaptation more easily than poorer countries (see Smithers & Smit, 2009). As a result of this position and the debates it caused, climate change adaptation would have to wait until the second half of the first decade of the 21st century to gain significance as a measure of value in scientific communities and political agendas.

When the difficulties of achieving international agreements to reduce the emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases became obvious (e.g., the reluctance to and the non-ratification of several international agreements by major GHG emitting countries, as with the Kyoto Protocol), the understanding of the need for climate change adaptation slowly gained more political attention. Media interest in climate change increased in the beginning of the 21st century after a series of natural hazards that had affected many countries around the world and caused disasters such as the 2002 floods in Central Europe, the 2003 heat wave and fatalities in Paris, and Hurricane Katrina, which flooded large parts of New Orleans in 2005. These natural hazards, which collectively fed the first media hype on climate change (Schmidt-Thomé, Klein, Nockert, Donges, & Haller, 2013), caused a general perception that climate change was a principal causative agent for many such disasters. Also the 3rd and 4th IPCC synthesis report (IPCC, 2001, 2007a) postulated general relationships between higher frequencies and occurrences of certain disasters and climate change, even though these generalized relationships still remain under debate (e.g., Pielke, Gratz, Landsea, Collins, Saunders, & Musulin, 2008; Barredo, 2009, 2010).

Perhaps the most prominent report that contributed to the shift towards climate change adaptation was the Review on Economics of Climate Change, by Nicholas Stern (2006, known as the “Stern Review”), which pointed out the importance of economic aspects in dealing with climate change. The report focused on the costs of inaction of climate change mitigation, but it also clearly showed the need for adaptation, especially by poorer countries. It was this combination of the IPCC reports, the Stern Review, and media attention on the disasters caused by natural hazards that led to political action on climate change adaptation on the transnational level. In the European Union, this was evidenced by the Green Paper From The Commission To The Council, on climate change adaptation (COM, 2007), which was soon followed by the EU White Paper on climate change adaptation (COM, 2009). These policy documents highlight the need for climate change adaptation and point out that adaptation must be implemented at the local level. Several other initiatives on transnational and national scales have led to the preparation of climate change adaptation strategies at different scales, from national to local. To support least developed countries (LDC’s) in their efforts, the UNFCC created the process of the National Adaptation programs of Action (NAPAs). Within this process, the LDCs identify the most imminent climate change adaptation needs, identifying those needs that should not be delayed either because of an increase in vulnerabilities or an increase in costs related to climate change impacts. Once an LDC submits a NAPA, that country is eligible for funding allocated under the Least Developed Country Fund (LDCF), managed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). By the end of 2013, 50 countries had submitted NAPAs to secure appropriate funding (information on the UNFCCC website).

Even though large uncertainties remain about the speed and the impacts of human-induced climate change, changes in climate zones, and subsequently in habitats, are continuously proven scientifically and mapped (e.g., Chen & Chen, 2013; Gerstengarbe & Werner, 2009). Following the logic that anthropogenic GHG emissions contribute to climate change, and since these emissions continue to increase (Mundaca, Markandya, & Nørgaard, 2013), it is quite clear that humans need to improve their adaptation to variances in the climate system and extreme events.

The IPCC has published a comprehensive overview on climate change adaptation needs in its 5th Assessment Report, stating that “Adaptation requires adequate information on risks and vulnerabilities in order to identify needs and appropriate adaptation options to reduce risks and build capacity” (IPCC, 2014, p. 840). The identified needs comprise six categories: Biophysical and Environmental, Social, Institutional, Private, Information, Capacity and Resources. Biophysical and Environmental adaptation needs can be addressed mainly by protecting habitats in their adaptation process. Social adaptation needs focus strongly on engaging different social groups, while respecting those most in need, including minority groups. Institutional adaptation needs address structures and their further development, as well as the importance of cooperation among different levels in developing and applying adaptation measures. Although higher-level institutions commonly set out regulations and incentives for adaptation, local level institutions need to translate those into locally applicable solutions—because it is at the local level where adaptation takes place in practice. From the Private Sector, stronger engagement in climate change adaptation can take place, not only by private firms understanding and protecting their holdings from emerging climate-related risks, but also by supporting the protection of their markets and clients. Information is most vital in understanding adaptation needs and their prioritization, which leads to overall Capacity needs. The latter include Resources, that is, available means (mainly finances) that enable the development and implementation of adaptation projects.

Based on established adaptation needs, adaptation options then are set out. These are grouped by IPCC (2014) as Structural/Physical, Social, and Institutional, each of which has several subgroups. Structural/Physical adaptation options are mainly composed of engineering and technological solutions (e.g., dams for flood protection, or changes in fruits and crops) that speak to ecosystem needs (environmental protection and conservation) and services (e.g., water and sanitation). Social adaptation options comprise education (from pre-school to adult education, as well as raising awareness on all levels), information (from hazard mapping to local scenario building), and behavior (from adapting life styles and agricultural patterns to evacuation planning). Institutional adaptation options address economic issues (e.g., fund incentives), laws and regulations (e.g., zoning, building standards and environmental protection), and government policies and programs (e.g., adaptation plans on all levels). Several climate change adaptation measures appear comparatively easy to implement (e.g., by integrating information and rising awareness into school and university curricula), other requirements are rather complex and challenging. This is especially true for the justification for investments and/or restrictions for possible future developments and events versus short-term investment and benefit interests and the overall uncertainty of climate change impacts on the living environment, its different habitats, and extreme events.

Climate change adaptation is closely linked to societal resilience. To successfully implement climate change adaptation, it is therefore necessary not only to seek for technological solutions (e.g., flood protection), but to embed the concept of (continuous) adaptation to changing climatic conditions into societal and organizational structures (e.g., Agder, Arnell, & Tompkins, 2005; Berkhout, 2012; Collins & Ison, 2009). Since human beings have lived throughout the quaternary glaciations (which included rather warm, interglacial, periods) it is obvious that climate change adaptation can occur “unintentionally.” But in a deeply interlinked modern society, with limited space and political barriers that challenge free migration from one place to another, it is preferred to seek for purposeful adaptation concepts. Independent of scales, such planned adaptation is based on three cornerstones to cope with climatic changes (Agder, Arnell, & Tompkins, 2005): reduction of the overall sensitivity, alteration of the exposure, and increase of the resilience. Limitations to climate change are not only born by geographical or political obstacles, such limitations are also deeply rooted in our societal structures and behavior (Biesbroek, Klostermann, Termeer, & Kabat, 2013; Eisenack et al., 2014; Moser & Ekstrom, 2010). Such social limitations, or constraints, to adaptation might be born on ethics (e.g., values), comprehension (knowledge), risk (perception), and social structures (cultures) (Adger, Arnell, & Tompkins, 2005; Grothmann & Patt, 2005). Society’s response to climatic changes is very much influenced by local cultural dimensions and inherited structures (political, economical, religious, etc.). Since risks are perceived differently among societies, and climate change adaptation mainly addresses risks, cultures respond in different ways. Therefore cultural structures may support or challenge both planned and spontaneous adaptation efforts and processes (Adger, Barnett, Brown, Marshall, & O’Brien, 2013), and the challenge is to identify pathways to embed climate change adaptation into societal structures, also under varying cultural settings.

The following sections review the applicability of climate change adaptation measures and their implementation from a practical point of view.

From Theory to Practice

Taking coastal zone management as one example for climate change adaptation, options to adapt to sea level rise are either to accommodate, protect, or retreat (IPCC, 1990, and see Figure 1 below). Since 1990, these three options have become more complex and have been subdivided into several measures (e.g., IPCC, 2007a), but the underlying three options still remain valid as the basic attitude to (changing) climatic conditions and extreme weather event patterns. In fact, they are derivable also to extreme events, such as floods, droughts, storms, etc., as the human being always has the option to safely accommodate people, their assets and economic structures (e.g., agriculture), and/or to protect those (e.g., by technological solutions such levees (floods) and water storage (droughts), and/or to retreat (partly or totally).

Figure 1. Climate change adaptation options from coastal protection perspective (modified, based on IPCC, 1990).

Examples for all these concepts can be found from historical settlements towards modern climate change adaptation policies and implementations. Observing the location of the original nuclei of historical old towns, it is noticeable that these were originally accommodated to respect extreme events. For example, only the ports of the important coastal cities in Southern Europe were located at the seashore—but not the city centers, as a safety distance from the shoreline was kept to prevent from diseases (e.g., malaria) and floods. Ancient churches and other buildings remain standing, despite earthquakes, because they were built on hard rock, instead of soft soil (liquefaction). Coastal settlements, such as Castro, on the Island of Chiloe (Chile), and in the Ton Le Sap Lake (Cambodia), are still built on high pillars to give room to daily or periodically changing tides and floods.

There is a globally observable pattern that many modern buildings (often 20th or 21st century) are situated on soft soils and in or near flood prone areas, while the old city foundations are located on hard rock and/or above flood prone areas. The pressure of a growing population to move into hazardous areas is only partly true, as hazardous areas are also being built up in Europe, which actually faces population decrease. One major problem is the steady population increase in urban areas, especially coastal urban areas (United Nations, 2014).

Staying with the example of coastal protection, modern policies or strategies react differently to adapt to extreme events and climate change impacts. The city of Hamburg, Germany actively discusses accommodation with the support of different flood compartments (Knieling & Schaerffer, 2013). However, the first master plan for coastal and flood protection of the German Federal State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern acknowledges that retreat is an option, as it mentions that the coastline is a mosaic in space and time, its character is variation (Ministerium für Bau, Landesentwicklung und Umwelt Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, 1993). Indeed, in some areas of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, sea walls are removed, re-creating salt marshes as flood retention areas. The New York City Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency (2013) on the other hand states that “The city cannot, and will not, retreat” (p. 7). On the other hand New York City does not aim for complete protection, as the report also outlines concepts of “living with water.”

Due to the rather short time span (less than a decade) of recent climate change adaptation strategies, the concrete implementation of climate change adaptation measures at local levels is often still lagging. The problem with many politically and institutionally demanded climate change adaptation measures is their lack of practical applicability at the local level. Another challenge is the inherent uncertainties in emission scenarios and climate models. One argument, often mentioned by stakeholders and decision makers, involves our need to react and adapt “now” and “before it is too late”—a near mantra that has infused the basic content of most discussion about climate change and its effects.

Climate change impact assessments usually conclude that there are far more negative than positive impacts (e.g., Hitz & Smith, 2004; IPCC, 2014). However, measurements show that anthropogenic GHG emissions had already surpassed “worst case” IPCC emission scenarios by 2004 (Le Quéré et al., 2009; Raupach et al., 2007) (see also below). In June 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, 2015) reported that the global GHG concentration in the earth’s atmosphere surpassed 400 ppm (from 280ppm in 1850). Following the argumentation that anthropogenic GHG emissions strongly increase the atmosphere’s greenhouse effect, this means that continuous global warming will continue, for several decades at least (e.g., Archer & Brovkin, 2008). Humans will inevitably have to adapt to rising temperatures and the consequences (IPCC, 2001, 2014). The comparatively small amount of literature on the benefits of global warming (for example in the respective IPCC assessment report chapters by Smit et al., 2001 and Smith, Woodward, & Campbell-Lendrum, 2014) induces that it seems not politically correct or ethically acceptable to openly discuss potential positive effects of climate change. But why should stakeholders and investors only focus on the potentially negative effects of climate change and not also debate the opportunities that a changing climate makes available at the local level on a broader basis? As it is scientifically proven that the climate is changing, it could be beneficial to publicly evaluate and discuss the potential benefits of climate change, while discussing adaptation measures. In light of the money that will be needed for necessary adaptation measures, there is justification to discuss more intensively, not only what negative consequences climate change might lead to, but also how the potentially positive impacts from climate change can be used beneficially, from a socio-economic point of view. The interests of investors could have positive influences or spin-off effects for adaptation measures. For example, investments in tourism can be tied to adaptation measures, as investments adjacent to flood prone areas must include flood prevention measures. Investments in the food sector might lead to the development of crops that are better adapted to climate variability, and so forth.

The Scientific Background

The underlying chain of argument and the scientific background for climate change adaptation are usually based on estimations of future changes in climatic conditions, with the main focus on temperature changes in the troposphere and in the upper layers of the oceans, brought about by anthropogenic GHG emissions (radiative forcing). The evaluation of other changing environmental parameters, such as global and local sea-level rise, needs those climate parameters as input. The climate of any area or region is defined by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) as the 30-year average of meteorological parameters (e.g., temperature, precipitation, wind). Since 1979, satellites have supported global meteorological data collection; but prior to this, weather and meteorological observations were collected only on location, from meteorological stations. Regular weather observations have been conducted for roughly the last 100 years, and the observation points are steadily growing. Nevertheless, there are regions with high densities of observation points (often densely populated areas) and others with sparse densities (usually less densely populated regions). This inequality of distribution leads to lags in temporal and spatial coverage and is particularly strong over oceans.

General Circulation Models (GCMs) use historic records and current data sets to model the global climatic conditions over longer periods. Different parameters and algorithms generate different models, and therefore, different calculations of global and regional climatic conditions. For regional purposes (usually the atmospheric component of) GCMs are downscaled to Regional Climate Models (RCMs) (e.g., Northern Africa) as well as to local levels.

To estimate changes in regional climatic conditions, 30-year time slices of various model results are combined with future estimations of changes in climatic conditions. These estimate changes are largely based on estimations of future anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, or radiative forcing, so called emission scenarios.

First estimations of future anthropogenic emissions were made within the framework given by IPCC. The Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES) (IPCC, 2000) estimated, in 40 different scenarios, the world’s economic development until 2100 and the resulting anthropogenic GHG emissions. The SRES scenarios are grouped into four scenario families (A1, A2, B1, and B2), the first representing higher, and the latter, lower than imaginable anthropogenic GHG emissions. Reacting to economic developments since the 1990’s, IPCC has regularly updated its emission scenarios; the most recent ones are the so-called Representative Concentration Pathways (RCP’s) (Meinshausen et al., 2011; van Vuuren et al., 2011). These RPCs were too recent to be analyzed for most of the climate change impact scenarios within the 5th IPCC assessment report (IPCC, 2014).

The Problem of Uncertainties

The most pessimistic SRES scenario, the one with the highest anthropogenic GHG emissions, is the so-called A1FI (fossil fuel intensive) scenario. The emissions estimated by this A1FI scenario were already reached and partly surpassed by 2004/2005 (Le Quéré et al., 2009; Raupach et al., 2007). And the anthropogenic GHG emissions continue to rise, making the goal of reaching a low carbon economy a continued challenge, at least in the near future (Mundaca, Markandya, & Nørgaard, 2013).

Another example of uncertainty involves the episode of the global “hiatus,” a supposed slowing of the warming trend, between 1998 and 2015. This phenomenon was not included in any climate change model issued by IPCC, which, in 2001, portrayed several models with steadily increasing rates in global warming throughout the 21st century. In its 5th assessment report, IPCC stated that the continuous warming trend had been much slower between 1998 and 2014, the so-called hiatus of global warming, than over the time span of the past 60 years (IPCC, 2014). Several scientists promptly retro-analyzed the hiatus (e.g., Fučkar, Volpi, Guemas, & Doblas-Reyes, 2014; Guemas, Doblas-Reyes, Andreu-Burillo, & Asif, 2013), delivering explanations as to why this slowdown in global warming was not seen as possible by earlier modeling efforts. These explanations were issued retrospectively and included calculations on a restart of the warming process. Karl et al. (2015) published a recalculation of global temperature trends postulating that this so-called hiatus of global warming in fact never occurred, and that it was a wrong interpretation of data based on biases. It is certainly scientifically correct to calculate and publish modeling and data interpretation results, including critical reviews, modifications, and corrections. But the back-and-forth of information on how much the planet heats up, or does not—or again does—emphasizes the uncertainties in climate change data, the models, and their interpretations. These discussions and uncertainties do not remain within the scientific community; they find entrance into the media, where they are noticed by decision makers, stakeholders, and the private sector.

By demanding the need for adaptation to uncertain climate changes, the debate on the local level quickly turns into questions of conducting or prohibiting investments that might be, or might as well not be, affected by climate change impacts. From the perspective of municipalities and investors, a horizon, for example, of 17 years (the yearly measure of the hiatus period in global warming) covers approximately three election periods, and extends beyond the profit horizon of many investments (e.g., of the tourist industry in coastal areas that might be affected by sea level rise). Why would a municipality forbid such investments in its own area when an investor might be given the permission in a neighboring municipality?

Stakeholders and decision makers of all kinds, as well as investors and representatives of the private sector, tend to ask these questions in climate change adaptation meetings: How reliable are the emission scenarios and climate change models, and how high are the uncertainties? How reliable are derived climate change impacts on the living environment and hydro-meteorological extreme events?

One aspect of the uncertainties is that IPCC reports (2007, 2014) usually state what impacts might happen, underlying the statements with high, medium, or low likelihoods, certainties, and agreements. However, the reports seldom state that these effects might as well not happen. Even though there is a so-called scientific consensus (IPCC, 2014) that human GHG-induced climate change appears to lead to unprecedented rates of climatic changes, these must still be seen in the human (geologically very short term) perspective—because there is also evidence of natural rapid climatic changes (Rial et al., 2004). Meanwhile, any abrupt climate changes most likely have a strong impact on socio-economic systems (Claussen, 2008); the timeframe of such (geologically rapid) changes are yet not comparable to the even shorter timeframes of day-to-day politics, decision making, and investments.

Investments lead to jobs and, subsequently, tax income—on which municipalities eventually depend. Decision makers, stakeholders, and local private sector actors certainly also want to protect their communities and areas as well as their investments from potential damages. But they are also in a constant competition with other municipalities and need to remain attractive for investments to secure their own socio-economic development. Many discussions with local stakeholders have shown that there certainly is awareness of climate change and its potential impacts. But there is also knowledge about the uncertainties and the time span perspectives. It definitely plays a major role for a municipality when investments to prevent potential future hazard patterns are politically or scientifically required on the one hand, but the municipality encounters financial thresholds or resistance on the other hand. The question is how adaptation to climate change can be planned and implemented, respecting both inert uncertainties and economic developments.

There are, however, numerous examples of mal-adaptation practices, not only to climate change impacts, but also to current extreme event patterns, scarce natural resources, and agricultural practices. An appropriate recommendation, therefore, is to analyze human vulnerabilities and adaptabilities to local climates from a general perspective, with examples of mal-adaptations, before developing and implementing climate change adaptation measures.

Human Adaptability, Mal-Adaptation, and Accepted Risks

As a species, humans are spread more widely across the climate zones of this world than any other mammalian species. Humans have been permanently and self-sufficiently settling into all climate zones and on all but one continent, from the Arctic over all climate zones, north and south of the equator, and in nearly all altitudes, from below sea level (e.g., Dead Sea) to over 4,000 m above sea level (e.g., Andes). Since the first appearance of humans, climate has undergone several changes, including several Quaternary glaciation cycles.

For humans to survive and thrive across such diverse environments and climates, adaptability is necessary. One contemporary example of the capacity for humans to adapt to different climates is displayed by the daily mortality rates versus temperature effects for the age group of 65 and above in Europe. Temperatures of around 25 °C and above in northern Finland lead to the highest mortality rates of that age group, whereas these temperatures bear the lowest mortality rate of the same age group in Greece. For the same age group, temperatures of around 5°C in the United Kingdom lead to the highest mortality and to the lowest in northern Finland (Keatinge et al., 2000). It might be deduced that humans as a species will adjust to changing temperatures, at least in the course of generations. This means that, as long as climatic conditions on planet Earth are such that human life is possible, humans will adjust and adapt.

The IPCC definitions of climate change adaptation are based on human-induced climate change and are certainly justifiable within the concept of recent climate changes in the Holocene, especially in connection with anthropogenic GHG emissions. But it can be argued that these definitions do not fully grasp adaptation in its entire complexity. The overall definition mentions the “moderation of harm” or the exploitation of “beneficial opportunities,” which presupposes that humans have a clear knowledge of both the climatic changes to be expected and their potential impacts. This definition somehow skips one of the most essential parts of adaptation to climatic stimuli: the ability of nature and humans to spontaneously and promptly adjust to (changing) climatic and environmental conditions and maintain a living environment, including necessary food supplies. The mention of “various types of adaptation” (IPCC, see above) even more strongly presupposes human knowledge about potential impacts in climatic changes and optimal adaptation measures, whether these be anticipated, planned, or spontaneous. From a purely theoretical point of view, these definitions might be correct. But as humans adapt to be able to live in certain climate settings, they all too often increase their own vulnerabilities by putting their assets and lives, as well as vital natural resources at risk by mal-adaptation practices. Examples can be found in nearly all climate zones and cultures, and independently from economic conditions.

Examples include settlements in hazardous areas, mal-adapted agricultural practices, and overuse of natural resources. These examples enlarge the contextual frame of climate change adaptation and interlink it with vulnerability and risk, especially with the concept of acceptable risk. Over millennia any human society in any part of the world has somehow adapted to a certain climate and climatic changes. Despite excellent information, experiences, statistical records, and scientific knowledge on underlying hazards, vulnerabilities, and resulting risks, examples of mal-adaptation are continuously found within nearly all societies.

Presently, climate change adaptation is mainly discussed in the context of recent Holocene climatic changes, but it should be analyzed and understood in a broader context. This broader context should include earlier (rapid) climate changes, human reactions to those, as well as adaptation to extreme events, scarce natural resources, and respective mal-adaptation practices. Human vulnerabilities, and their exposure to adverse characteristics of their living environment and extreme events, play a key role in understanding risks. To understand risk patterns, it is crucial to assess social vulnerabilities and their many variables (Cutter, Boruff, & Shirley, 2003), as well as the motivations and capabilities of local actors and networks (Schmidt-Thomé & Peltonen, 2006). Most importantly, these vulnerabilities need to be assessed on several levels, from the national to the local level (Cutter, Mitchell, & Scott, 2000), and they should be assessed not just from a purely damage-oriented approach (e.g., losses calculated by insurance companies).

When analyzing and developing climate change adaptation options and strategies one question needs to be asked.

How Well Are Humans Adapted to the Current Climate of a Specific Region, Including Extreme Events?

Before analyzing the ability to adapt to changing climatic stimuli, both the resilience of societies and the vulnerability to extreme events should be analyzed. Factors such as availability and use of natural resources should be taken in to consideration. Human beings tend to blame disasters related to mal-adaptation practices on other reasons or circumstances besides their own mismanagement.

Growing overall losses and rising local vulnerabilities related to natural hazards and subsequent disasters (e.g., Munich Re, 2015) cannot be attributed only to climate change impacts (e.g., Barredo, 2009, 2010; IPCC, 2012). Losses grow because people continue to settle and expand settlements in hazardous areas, not only in poor regions with a potential shortage of land due to expanding populations, but also in richer countries. Despite knowledge of rising sea levels, urban agglomerations continue to grow strongly in coastal areas globally (United Nations, 2014). After a disaster, the one to blame is searched for—it is usually not found to be one’s own wrongdoing. Interestingly, the one to blame has changed over the centuries, as the following example displays.

It is well documented that tropical cyclones occasionally run up the East coast of the United States and lead to severe flood events in New England. Following a hurricane landfall in September 1815, and associated devastating floods that engulfed and destroyed vast areas and took many lives, the blame for the disaster was attributed either to god’s will, or the will of his opponent (Whipple, 1983). When a similar storm hit New England 100 years later, in September 1938, the then recently created U.S. Meteorological service was blamed for not issuing timely warnings (Whipple, 1983). And when hurricane Sandy hit the East coast of the United States in 2013, the blame was primarily put on climate change (see various newspapers and blogs published after the storm, and Sobel, 2014). Due to its morphology and experiences of historically recorded events, New England is considered to be flood prone. Despite this knowledge, the blame for the mentioned disasters is always attributed to something other—today climate change—than the simple fact of people exposing themselves and their assets to extreme events.

It is also interesting to observe that flood-prone areas are continuously further developed and densely settled, despite the existence of climate change adaptation strategies. Finland was the first country to adopt a National Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change in 2005 (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 2005), and the adaptation policies and measures were evaluated for implementation in 2009 and 2013 (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 2009, 2013). This led to an updated national climate change adaptation strategy, a draft version of which was published in 2014 (Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 2014). The Helsinki Metropolitan Area developed a climate change adaptation strategy in 2012 (HSY, 2013). Earlier, the city of Helsinki had developed strategies for floods (City of Helsinki, 2010) and a flood risk management act (620/2010), both of which were based on the EU floods directive (2007/60/EY).

Despite guidelines available to the public, recommending that the lowest elevation of the ground floor of buildings in Southern Finnish coastal areas should not be located below 2.6 m above mean sea level (Ollila, 2002), several new town areas were planned and built below this level, after the publication of the guidelines in flood-prone areas, within the Helsinki Metropolitan Area (Schmidt-Thomé & Klein, 2011). These developments continued until the Winter Storm Gudrun hit Helsinki in January 2005, flooding several newly built houses. This extreme event contributed to the further development and implementation of the climate change adaptation strategies mentioned above. A newer guide, by Parjanne and Huokuna (2014), raises the minimum elevation to 2.8 m. Nonetheless, in 2014, houses continued to be built on the Helsinki Metropolitan Area shorelines, often less than 1 m above sea level. According to the architects responsible for issuing building permits, the investors building close to sea level were informed that these buildings are located in flood-prone areas. Despite these guidelines, and knowing that they were building in a flood prone area, private investors perceived that the benefit of living on the shoreline outweighed the risks to which they exposed their assets. The cooperation of the private sector in developing and implementing climate change adaptation strategies in urban areas Finland is rather weak (Klein, Mäntysalo, & Juhola, 2015). According to Finnish insurance companies, many wealthy persons do not mind that their flood prone assets are not insurable. In the case of flood events, assets are protected with sand bags. Afterwards, the flood damages are repaired at the owner’s expense. In some cases, repairs are necessary annually, but the fact of living close to the sea outweighs risks and costs.

Per definition, extreme events occur only seldom (from a human perspective). Still, their impacts are often disastrous. The problems, obstacles, and/or negligence in adapting to such events lead to the conclusion that it should be feasible to discuss (mal-)adaptation to the (current) climate and its extremes first, before heading straightforward into climate change adaptation. The message on climate change conveyed by IPCC’s summary for policy makers (IPCC, 2007b, 2014) is that hydro-meteorological natural hazards will, with high confidence, increase on nearly all continents, in both intensities and frequencies. Therefore the statement above might also be asked the other way round:

If Everything Will Be Really Bad in the Future, Does That Mean Everything Is Going Really Well Now? In Other Words: Do We Not Experience Disasters Caused by Natural Hazards Nowadays?

Since many societies are obviously unwilling or unable to adjust properly to the current climate and its extremes, why would they suddenly be willing or able to adjust to potential changes that might occur in the future? Instead of arguing about the potential climate change impacts, much can be learned from current mal-adaptation practices. Vulnerabilities and risks are often neglected despite better knowledge and because of perceived benefits that outweigh the risks.

Humans have always settled in areas affected by natural hazards. When disasters hit, settlements were rebuilt, often on the very same spot. There are virtually no examples of any larger city that was given up or relocated due to risks related to hydro-meteorological hazards. Adopted protective measures, whether engineering solutions such as dams, or regulative one’s such as zoning, cannot mitigate all risks. People accept risks because the perceived benefits of locations outnumber the potential risks. The nature of extreme events, and their rare occurrences, often catches societies off guard and cause substantial disasters. Several overlaying factors can determine the extent of disasters. For example, certain flood heights have never been recorded in human history, or they have simply been forgotten. Upstream changes in river catchments, such as deforestation, sand mining, and riverbed straightening, change flood patterns. When hazards (floods, droughts, etc.) do not occur for a longer time frame (from a human perspective), development does take place in hazardous areas. When disasters do occur, the search for someone (or something) to blame starts.

Because people perceive great benefits from settling in potentially hazardous areas, and because they accept the risks rather than avoiding them, a feasible solution would be to minimize the risks while allowing maximum benefits. Valuable input on the debate on adaptation concepts can be derived from the coastal reconstruction along the Indian Ocean after the tsunami in 2004. A meeting of international experts in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Bangkok, Thailand counted with the presence of the then Thai Prime Minister and the Minister for Tourism. One group of geoscientists pledged that, because of the tsunami hazard, the tourism industry should not be allowed to rebuild damaged installations on the coast but only in higher, flood-proof areas. Such a relocation of tourist industries would lead to substantial losses from this important source of income for Thailand, especially since Malaysia had already announced that it would not retreat from beach resorts. After a hefty debate, the expert group agreed on the proposal to regulate the land use in such a way that tourist installations remain on the beaches remain, but that rescue and other vital infrastructures would be located on higher grounds. Local people would be trained on the tsunami hazard, evacuation routes would be planned and installed, and a tsunami early warning system would be set up. The tsunami hazard land use and emergency regulations follow those of Hawaii (Johnston & Dudley, 2009). The former Thai Minister for Tourism was satisfied with this proposal and accepted it. In the meantime, said regulations have been implemented in Thailand (Johnston & Dudley 2009). It would be advisable to follow such examples of disaster risk reduction and carefully consider financial and other benefits for local economies implementing climate change adaptation practices. This tsunami-related disaster risk management also serves as a good example of the potential to build synergies with mutual benefits between the two concepts of disaster risk management (DRR) and climate change adaptation (CCA) (IPCC, 2012; Pollner, Kryspin-Watson, & Nieuwejaar, 2008; Solecki, Leichenko, & O’Brien, 2011).

Implementing Sustainable Climate Change Adaptation Measures

How can climate change adaptation measures be implemented successfully and sustainably? Strategies and regulations on climate change adaptation will only be accepted and implemented if a majority of the involved and affected persons perceive these as beneficial to them and do not perceive them as a financial burden. Only a broad understanding of the need for and usefulness of climate change adaptation measures will lead to a successful and sustainable implementation. Raising of institutional awareness and the development of regulations are necessary. International bodies, such as the IPCC, contribute valuable knowledge and overall frameworks. Institutions like the EU Commission contribute guidelines. Acts and decrees are developed on a national level and implemented on the local level. Local stakeholders, decision makers, and the private sector need to understand uncertainties and agree on local vulnerabilities and resulting risk patterns, to be able to develop tailored and acceptable solutions (Schmidt-Thomé & Kaulbarsz, 2008). To be successful, implemented measures must fit into local cultural and political settings and be financially bearable. The development of climate change solutions should follow and respect local legislations, regulations, cultures, and interests. The implemented measures will be sustainable only if they are perceived as beneficial to the local socio-economic and cultural settings, because local people will ensure their maintenance. It has been proven that so-called no-regret measures present the most feasible solutions, even though IPCC (2014) criticizes this as non-sufficient for climate change adaptation. No-regret measures are of benefit immediately after their installation, even in the absence of climate change impacts. Such measures can, for example, protect areas from current floods and from future, potentially higher floods (e.g., Petersell, Suuroja, All, & Shtokalenko, 2013). Some flood retention areas are designed multi-functionally, as a recreational park, for instance, which raises the overall value of the entire neighborhood (e.g., Rimkus, Kažys, Stonevičius, & Valiuškevičius, 2013). No-regret measures to protect from current and potential future urban flood patterns can be designed to improving local living environments (Jarva et al., 2014). No-regret measures are thus win-win solutions that are best achieved by interdisciplinary communication.

Experience has shown that it is easier for decision makers to invest in adaption measures to current problems, such as extreme event patterns, rather than investing in adaption measures to climate change effects that might take place in 50 years or more. While investing to protect from current hazard patterns, it is possible also to take potential climate change impacts into account. Ideally, climate change adaptation measures have social acceptance right from the start. If local climate change adaption measures also protect from current hazard patterns and if living conditions improve, decision makers can easily justify investments and achieve two goals at the same time.

Once climate change impacts to hazard patterns become visible and start to affect livelihoods, these protective measures can be re-designed gradually. The analysis of sea level rise impacts on shallow groundwater aquifers in the City of Hanko (Finland) yielded the results that the current water intakes are vulnerable to sea level rise and consequent salinization (Luoma, Klein, & Backman, 2013). An analysis with local waterworks did not lead to the immediate decision to relocate groundwater intakes merely because of potential future risks. Part of the discussion took into account the future socio-economic and population trends of this city: How will local industries develop, will water demand grow or decrease, and how many people will live in this city in a couple of decades? Currently no decisions or investments on relocating water intakes have been taken. This example shows that it is valuable to conduct both vulnerability and risk analysis under climate change scenarios, but to also keep in mind future uncertainties, in terms of socio-economic developments, before making decisions hastily that might lead to futile investments.

Timescales strongly affect the points of view of stakeholders and are important for decision making. Some geo-hazards and related geo-risks may never occur during a human lifespan, others might occur rather frequently. The periodicity, geological processes, and impact delays are, therefore, very important issues in the communication of geosciences. It is often forgotten that climate change is a slow, ongoing process, and its impact occurs steadily, not suddenly at the end of the 21st century. Human impacts on the living environment and the exploitation of natural resources are often stronger than climate change signals and occur more quickly than climate change impacts. It is certainly possible that climate change contributes adverse impacts, but it is also possible that these might never occur. Climate change impacts might end up being completely different than currently estimated, due to uncertainties of models and due to human impacts. It is very important, therefore, to keep timescales and changes to land use and socio-economical and political frameworks in mind. For example, some investments that yield short term revenues might never be affected by climate change—and if they were affected, they might as well be decommissioned. It is one important part of climate change adaptation to keep the time-scales of anthropogenic and geological processes in mind.

There are possibilities to decrease the effect of uncertainties in climate change adaptation measures by developing adaptation measures at community levels. Such adaptation measures do not decrease the uncertainties in climate change models per se, but the focus on local vulnerability patterns leads to improvements of adaptive capacities and to improvements in local resilience (van Aalst, Cannon, & Burton, 2008). Optimally, such analyses of vulnerability focus on disaster potential caused by extreme events, as these are most commonly remembered, and the potential impacts are based on real experiences. Derived disaster risk management options can then be used to further develop protective or adaptive measures to cope with changing climatic patterns (intensifying cloudbursts, longer dry spells, etc.) (Schmidt-Thomé, Nguyen, Pham, Jarva, & Nuottimäki, 2014). In this way, mutual benefits and cross-feeding between political and institutional demands can accomplish disaster risk management and climate change adaptation (e.g., IPCC, 2012; Pollner et al., 2008; UNISDR, UNDP, 2012). There are numerous examples of successful adaptation practices from the community level. In such so-called bottom-up approaches (vs. top-down approaches), local people evaluate the vulnerabilities of their local environments and socio-economic settings to climate change impacts. Such community-based climate change adaptation practices usually use participatory approaches to develop tailored adaptation measures (van Aalst et al., 2008).

Participatory Approaches for the Development and Implementation of Climate Change Adaptation Measures

Participatory approaches focus on governance issues, as the involvement of citizens in decision-making practices is becoming more important from a basic democratic and social justice perspective. By involving various interest groups, a more complex understanding of the issues at stake may be achieved, and socially accepted solutions to problems may be found by taking into account the various interests, motivations, and expertise. Early integration of manifold expertise and interests minimizes the risk of costly adjustments at a later stage, even though it might seem time consuming and challenging (Slocum, 2003; Wollenberg, 2000). In addition, the integration of relevant stakeholders reduces the amount of potential resistance and leads overall to a faster implementation of measures (e.g., Rimkus et al., 2013; Petersell et al., 2013). The integration of local stakeholders and interdisciplinary approaches in participatory tools have proven effective in successfully developing and implementing climate change adaptation measures (Hinkel, Bisaro, & Swart, 2015) and may lead the way to mainstreaming climate change adaptation in practice.

Decision making under changing climatic conditions often requires weighing different adaptation options to reach an agreement on a best-fit and socio-economically viable solution. There are many participatory approaches for weighing non-mathematical variables and options, for example the Delphi Method, Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA), and the Multi Criteria Decision Analysis (MCDA). Experience has shown that these have been applied to several decision-making processes, involving different options and the opinions of various stakeholders, decision makers, and local people. Many of these tools do not necessarily require an immediate interaction between the persons involved and can be conducted online. To reach agreements acceptable to all involved, experience has shown that the endorsement of communication and fostering of the interaction of different interest groups can be most valuable. Sustainable climate change adaptation solutions can be reached by achieving a generally accepted understanding, by all involved interest groups and stakeholders, of the necessity to adapt to changing climatic conditions in any given area or place. This acceptance can be reached by the joint evaluation of options and their respective pros and cons. Among the great variety of participatory tools, scenario workshops have proven to be successful at providing a tool that supports communication among stakeholders, scientists, and decision makers. According to Slocum (2003), scenario workshops are useful when dealing with uncertainties related to climate change as they focus on and support long-term decision making by developing alternative options for future developments. Scenario workshops develop long-term story lines of possible future developments and are suitable to integrate natural hazards and climate change impacts into land-use planning. (Schmidt-Thomé et al., 2014).


Climate change adaptation largely takes place in an environment characterized by inherent uncertainties of climate models. It has proven most successful to use current extreme event patterns to analyze local vulnerabilities and resulting risks to achieve an understanding of adaptation needs, challenges, and potentials.

The future is and will remain uncertain, no matter how sophisticated models might be one day. It is virtually impossible to foresee economic or climatic developments and their variances over longer time spans, though general trends and their impacts can be estimated. These estimates can serve as valuable sources to derive climate (change) adaptation policies and measures. Since climate change adaptation measures are implemented mainly at the local level, it will always remain crucial to tailor the measures according to current and short term socio-economic interests and demands. Adaptation measures have to respect local conditions and should support local development; otherwise, they might become socio-economically unbearable. If adaptation measures are too costly, they might be counter-productive, leading to economic downturns and making themselves obsolete.

There are many potential futures that do not depend only on climate change. Local politics and economics, as well as social decision making are shaping factors for the future. Climate change models are valuable tools, but communication is the most important factor in making decisions on climate change adaptation measures. To achieve the implementation of sustainable climate change adaptation measures, the integration of large numbers of stakeholders, decision makers, and the private sector is key. Solutions should be structured in a way that climate change adaptation measures are not investments into a distant future. Where feasible, close cooperation with natural hazard mitigation and disaster risk management will support the justification of climate change adaptation measures, such as land use restrictions, investments in protective measures, and many others. Immediate benefits should be palpable, despite potential climate change impacts (e.g., Schmidt-Thomé, Ivanona, & Schäfer, 2013; Schmidt-Thomé et al., 2014) and ideally, no-regret measures that serve and improve current living conditions are generally perceived as beneficial to the living environment of an area.


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