Are we adapting to climate change? New study provides better understanding of human adaptation activities worldwide

Published: 4 November 2021

There is a growing evidence that people and organizations are responding to climate change with a wide range of actions. However,  evidence in the academic literature on the effectiveness of these actions to reduce climate risks is limited. This is one of the main findings of a study which was published on 28 October by an international group of 126 scientists - amongst which also a scientist from Deltares - from across the globe.

The study is published in Nature Climate Change and is part of the global adaptation mapping initiative.
48,000 academic articles were screened resulting in a database of 1,682 academic studies describing the type of adaptation actions, actors involved, hazards, evidence of implementation & transformation. The aim of the study was to better understand human adaptation activities to date and to inform future responses and research.

Warning call

Lead study author Lea Berrang Ford, Professor and Priestley Research Chair in Climate and Health at University of Leeds’ Priestley International Centre for Climate said: “Our results provide a warning call. We found very little evidence of widespread and rapid preparedness at a scale that we think is likely to be adequate to avoid severe climate impacts.” The study shows adaptation responses across all global regions, with the greatest number of papers reporting responses in Asia (35% of articles) and Africa (32%). Responses were most frequently documented about food and agriculture in all regions, except for Oceania and Europe, for which health (both) and adaptation in urban areas (Europe) were more prominent. In cities worldwide, flooding and sea level rise are most frequently cited as key motivating hazards. The type of actions considered were mostly behavioral with technological or infrastructure changes close behind, but this varies by region.

Socio-ecological systems

‘Evaluating the progress on implementation of adaptation actions is an important way to facilitate learning on best practices, identify knowledge and implementation gaps, hold governments accountable of their climate ambitions, and support prioritization of adaptation finance.’ says Robbert Biesbroek, Associate Professor at Wageningen University and Coordinating Lead Author of the IPCC 6th assessment. Very limited evidence of risk reduction was found, making it difficult to assess if the right and right amount of actions are taken. Reported adaptation was mostly small scale, fragmented and incremental. However, with increasing climate change adaptation may need to be transformational, with responses going beyond business as usual or incremental changes to activities that change the fundamental attributes of socio-ecological systems.

Key priorities

The authors have identified 8 key priorities to adaptation research: assess the effectiveness of adaptation actions, explore limits to adaptation, empower individuals & civil society to adapt, include missing places, engage and understand private sector responses, improve synthesis methods, assess adaptation at different temperature thresholds, and improve the inclusion of timescale and dynamics of responses. ‘It is encouraging to see adaptation is taking place. However, this research also shows the need for evidence on the effectiveness of risk reduction of adaptation options across warming levels, and exploring not only incremental adaptation but also transformational adaptation options. At Deltares we have experience with such analysis by assessing the climatic conditions at which thresholds, limits and opportunities for adaptation options will occur. We aim to expand these activities in our strategic research,’ says Marjolijn Haasnoot researcher climate adaptation at Deltares, Associate Professor at Utrecht university and lead author of the IPCC 6th assessment.

Previous Deltares studies

The Paris Agreement commits parties to track progress on climate change adaptation under the global stocktake. Even when global mean temperature stays below 1.5C, adaptation is still needed. For example in a recent paper we have shown that countries need to adapt sooner or later to sea level rise and that an adaptation commitment is necessary. In a European study we showed that threequarters of the countries with a coast are planning for adaptation to sea level rise, but that the amount of rise and time horizons considers varies a lot across these countries.

COP26

The article comes at an important moment. From 1 november-12 November world leaders meet in Glasgow at the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) to discuss the Global Stocktake and adaptation more broadly.