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What is climate change adaptation?

This Q&A is part of the Guardian’s ultimate climate change FAQ.

It is published here under a Creative Commons licence:

Grantham Research Institute and Duncan Clark
guardian.co.uk, Monday 27 February 2012 10.19 GMT

There are two main policy responses to climate change: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation addresses the root causes, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while adaptation seeks to lower the risks posed by the consequences of climatic changes. Both approaches will be necessary, because even if emissions are dramatically decreased in the next decade, adaptation will still be needed to deal with the global changes that have already been set in motion.

Humans have been adapting to their environments throughout history by developing practices, cultures and livelihoods suited to local conditions – from the Mediterranean siesta to the Vietnamese practice of building homes on stilts to protect against monsoonal rains. However, climate change raises the possibility that existing societies will experience climatic shifts (in temperature, storm frequency, flooding and other factors) that previous experience has not prepared them for.

Adaptation measures may be planned in advance or put in place spontaneously in response to a local pressure. They include large-scale infrastructure changes – such as building defences to protect against sea-level rise or improving the quality of road surfaces to withstand hotter temperatures – as well behavioural shifts such as individuals using less water, farmers planting different crops and more households and businesses buying flood insurance.

The IPCC describes vulnerability to climate change as being determined by three factors: exposure to hazards (such as reduced rainfall), sensitivity to those hazards (such as an economy dominated by rain-fed agriculture), and the capacity to adapt to those hazards (for example, whether farmers have the money or skills to grow more drought-resistant crops). Adaptation measures can help reduce vulnerability – for example by lowering sensitivity or building adaptive capacity – as well as allowing populations to benefit from opportunities of climatic changes, such as growing new crops in areas that were previously unsuitable.

Low-income countries tend to be more vulnerable to climate risks and some adaptation measures – such as increasing access to education and health facilities – will overlap with existing development programmes. But adaptation goes beyond just development to include measures to address additional risks specifically caused by climate change, such as raising the height of sea defences. It is still unclear how expensive these measures will be or who will pay for them, but the World Bank suggests adaptation could cost the same again as the world currently spends on development assistance.

• This article was written by Susannah Fisher of the Grantham Research Institute at LSE in conjunction with the Guardian.