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Adaptation to climate change encompasses all strategies to assist society and the environment to adjust to current and future changes in the climate. Adaptation is defined as, “Actions by individuals or systems to avoid, withstand, or take advantage of current and projected climate changes and impacts. Adaptation decreases a system’s vulnerability, or increases its resilience to impacts.” (Pew Center on Global Climate Change, 2009)

As stated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the impacts and risks associated with these changes are real and are already happening in many systems and sectors essential for human livelihood, including water resources, food security, coastal zones, and health. Attention must be given to respond to the impacts of climate change that are already occurring, and, at the same time, prepare for future impacts.

The UNFCCC recommends that the implementation of adaptation be integrated into national and international sustainable development priorities and suggests the following steps for effective implementation at the national level:

  • enhancement of the scientific basis for decision-making;
  • strengthening methods and tools for evaluating adaptation;
  • education, training and public awareness about adaptation;
  • individual and institutional capacity building;
  • technology development and transfer; promotion of local coping strategies.
  • appropriate legislation and regulatory frameworks; and,
  • an adaptive planning process that covers different time-scales, levels (e.g. national, regional), and sectors.

As the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) points out, adaptation to climate change, both present and future, can also be an opportunity to generate valuable co-benefits, such as environmental protection and energy security. The ability of a country to take advantage of this opportunity and, in general, to adapt to climate change, i.e., its adaptive capacity, depends upon its economic wealth, technology, information and skills, infrastructure, and institutions.

Also the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recognizes the need to adapt to climate change at the US federal level. In its report on adaptation from the America’s Climate Choices studies, the NAS concludes that the way to adaptation must consider different possible climate conditions and associated impacts, also those which have not happened in the past. Adaptation to climate change must be planned on federal, state, tribal, and local levels, and must include action also from the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and community groups. However, adapting to climate change now means also facing a lack of information about the opportunities, costs, and effectiveness of the adaptation options and of coordination, as well as uncertainty about future climate impacts at a scale for decision-making.

What does adaptation mean for islands?
The information collected by the IPCC for the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) suggests that, to date, adaptation in islands has been mainly responsive to the effects of changed climate variability and especially to extreme weather events, like storms and sea-level rise. Additionally, it indicates that the measures considered, and their political priority, are closely linked to the community’s most important socio-economic sectors, their key environmental concerns, and/or the most vulnerable areas to climate change. Therefore, the adaptation concerns and needs vary among island communities and include services such as electrical power generation, transport, and waste management (Malta); agriculture and human health (Comoros, Vanuatu, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines); and adjustment to sea-level rise (in low-lying atoll states such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, and the Maldives).

Although there are differences in emphasis and sectoral priorities, the IPCC identifies three issues common to all islands.

  1. Need for financial resources to support adaptation action.
  2. Need to ensure freshwater availability, both in terms of water quality and quantity, and security.
  3. Need for more integrated planning and management, related to water resources, coastal zones, human health, or tourism.

Studies carried on for the IPCC AR4 show that, in the past, many Pacific Island communities have proved to be resilient to alterations in both society and the environment. The reasons for this resilience reside in their institutions and technologies, land and shore tenure regimes, their subsistence economies, and linkages between formal state and decision-making processes.

The adaptive capacity and resilience of island communities can also be strengthened through the application of traditional knowledge and past experience of environmental changes. In the Third Assessment Report (TAR), the IPCC noted that some traditional island assets, including coastal areas containing spiritual, cultural, and heritage sites as well as traditional technologies, skills, knowledge, and community structures, appeared to be at risk from climate change, and particularly sea-level rise. Encouraging the active participation of local communities in capacity building and environmental education is an objective of many sustainable development programs in small islands.

The impacts of climate change are already evident in many island environments and will become increasingly strong. Island communities around the world will be confronted with the need to implement adaptation strategies with growing urgency. Furthermore, other non-climate stresses will simultaneously impact natural and human systems in islands. These include population growth, competition for limited resources, ecosystem degradation, and the dynamics of social change and economic transformation. Therefore, adequate responses to climate change need to be integrated with policies for socio-economic development and environmental conservation, in which the enhancement of island resilience constitutes an essential component of the adaptation strategy. Capacity building, efficient resource allocation and the inclusion of climate risk management into development policies are crucial to avoid the collapse of island communities due to the impacts of climate change.

To learn more about climate policy and adaptation measures, please continue to ICAP’s What We Do and Publications page.

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