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Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change: A Critical Policy Challenge

What do you do when extended droughts make your family’s traditional farming vocation harder and harder to sustain? Or when your town’s water supply is no longer sufficient for people to draw water from their wells, forcing them to buy water from private suppliers? Or when the weakening agricultural economy leads families to pull their children out of school to do household chores, as their fathers seek seasonal work farther and farther from home?

If you represent the national or local government in a developing country, you are beginning to face more climate-related questions like these, making decisions on resource allocation increasingly difficult. You always have to start with the present – to support farmers during droughts, find ways of improving water services and see how children of poor families can be protected. However, you sense that you are not dealing with temporary phenomena, but with the foreboding of longer-term change. What if your immediate response may actually worsen people’s ability to manage such challenges over the long term? Should you plan for fundamental shifts in agricultural policies, or seek to enhance nature’s ability to provide the water that we need, or build employment generation and social protection schemes, rather than supporting systems that may no longer be sustainable? And if so, where will the funds for these investments come from?

These questions are all about adaptation to changes that are already happening. But they are only examples; there are endless variations on the theme. Your specific questions will vary depending on your local natural environment, as well as the economic, social, and political boundaries within which you operate. Your options for action will depend on whether you represent a government, business, or civil society group, or if you are just someone trying to do what is best for your family. But all of us are now making decisions for a future where none of us has been.

For the World Resources Institute, adaptation to climate change represents a critical challenge. Time has come to move beyond our work on global adaptation policy to more practical applications in developing countries. Policies, plans, and practices throughout the developing world will need to incorporate new ideas for adapting to the changing climate. To that end, WRI launched a new Vulnerability & Adaptation (V&A) Initiative in 2011 to help developing countries systematically integrate adaptation into decision making. The initiative builds on our past work, but with the development of a new strategic objective, the recruitment of two co-directors, and a gradual expansion of staff, it signifies a new action-oriented focus and a heightened ambition.

The new V&A Initiative recognizes that many governments face a tension between addressing near-term challenges and managing the process of adaptation, for which success often can only be measured in the long term. Moreover, as WRI described in World Resources 2010-2011: Decision Making in a Changing Climate, adaptation is complex. It involves a wide range of sectors, institutions, and activities; requires long-term and iterative strategies that can be adjusted to continuously altered circumstances; and, given the uncertainty of future climate change impacts, must be undertaken on the basis of incomplete information.

To help developing country policymakers untangle the adaptation knot, WRI’s V&A Initiative will focus on three key areas:

  • Information: What information can best support effective decision-making under climatic uncertainty?

  • Institutions: What changes in the structure and function of national and local institutions can help reconcile near-term needs with long-term changes in the climate?

  • Finance: How can governments best design systems through which to generate, access, disperse, and track funding for adaptation?

Together with governments and partner organizations in East Africa and India we are now scoping out the details of our adaptation initiative. Follow our progress on this website and read periodic posts about our three themes, as we turn ideas into action for addressing the adaptation challenge.

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