Strategies for adapting to climate change impacts vary significantly from country to country—and even community to community. So creating effective, localized adaptation plans can create significant challenges for both scientists and planners.

The new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—released last night—reveals several findings that decision-makers can keep in mind—both in order to understand current and future climate impacts, as well as develop strategies to help societies become more resilient to them. Here are a few takeaways that can inform the future of climate change adaptation:

The Impacts of Climate Change Threaten Many Communities Around the World

While climate impacts vary significantly geographically, communities around the world face common and significant water-related risks. At the moment, 17 percent of the world’s population—or 1.2 billion people—already face water scarcity . According to the IPCC report, each degree of warming is projected to decrease renewable water resources by at least 20 percent for an additional 7 percent of the global population.

In fact, if climate change continues unabated, people in most regions will face the risk of either flooding or droughts. Many parts of Africa, for example, grapple with overexploitation of water. According to the IPCC, a warmer climate would exacerbate this risk, threatening the continent’s food supply. Asia is already the most flood-prone region in the world, with the 2012 floods affecting 78 percent of the population. The IPCC report states that by 2100, millions of people in Asia will be displaced by coastal flooding. While Europeans will face increased flooding of river basins and rising sea levels in a warmer world, they’ll also likely face water restrictions due to reduction in water availability from rivers and groundwater sources, in combination with increased demand for water. In Central and South America, water scarcity will be an issue in semi-arid areas and glacier-melt dependent regions. And small island states such as the Marshall Islands, Antigua, and the Maldives will be particularly vulnerable to sea level rise. The cost of these water-related disasters would significantly affect countries’ GDP—as well as their future development—unless countries take significant, immediate actions to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

Although water will be a critical natural resource to manage under a changing climate, it is also important to understand threats to natural resources at the systems level. For example:

  • Coastal systems—and the communities that rely on them— will face many new risks in a warmer world, according to the IPCC. Sea level rise will lead to submergence, coastal flooding, and erosion. If current climate change and development patterns continue, by 2100, hundreds of millions of people are predicted to be displaced if adaptation measures are not in place, especially in Asia.

  • Marine systems will also suffer. If the world continues along a high-emissions trajectory, spatial shifts will occur by mid-21st century. Higher latitudes will see more biodiversity, while fish and other marine creature populations will decline in tropical latitudes. This may lead to significant food insecurity as the distribution of seafood shifts.

  • Land-based food systems may also fluctuate under future emissions projections. Food insecurity will be seen in rural areas where most of the world’s food production still occurs. Food insecurity can grow due to weather events, such as floods and droughts that affect conditions for sustainable food production. Although food systems face growing risks in rural areas, food insecurity may also rise in urban areas. IPCC calls these urban areas “emerging hotspots of hunger.” Changes in food systems would not only worsen hunger, it would exacerbate poverty, particularly in low and lower-middle income countries as species distribution and growing seasons change.

The extent to which communities are able to adapt to these risks depends heavily on context, how vulnerable a population is to the specific impacts in question, and the various coping mechanisms that exist to minimize effects like flooding and water shortages.

Adapting to a Changing World

While the IPCC report provides sobering statistics on the impacts we may face in the not-so-distant future, it also offers insights on how vulnerable populations can adapt to these changes. Two points in particular are useful for those of us working to build climate-resilient societies:

Mitigation and Adaptation Linkages

While many people tend to treat adaptation and mitigation as two separate issues, the IPCC report highlights how the two processes can have important synergies. In fact, in order to rise to the climate change challenge, mitigation and adaptation activities need to be examined within the same system. Take agriculture, which contributes 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. One could look at reducing agriculture’s emissions as strictly a mitigation measure. However, some agricultural adaptation measures—such as planting trees on farms to help retain or restore water retention in soil as temperatures increase –can also help capture greenhouse gas emissions. IPCC calls for such “climate-resilient pathways,” which are defined as “sustainable development trajectories that combine adaptation and mitigation to reduce climate change impacts.” In order to address intertwined issues of adaptation and mitigation, synergies and trade-offs will need to be carefully examined.

3 “Entry Points” for Adapting to Climate Impacts

Adaptation options will no doubt differ by context. The IPCC report, however, suggests that there are three general “entry points” to implementing adaptation projects, which apply across a range of locations and sectors.

  • The first is reducing communities’ vulnerability to climate impacts through system-based planning. This includes addressing human development, poverty alleviation, livelihood security, disaster risk management, ecosystem management, and spatial or land-use planning. This could include creating weather-based insurance schemes, installing early warning systems for weather events, and protecting watersheds. This entry point is critical in developing coping mechanisms, and require “no or low-regret” measures to improve human well-being.

  • The second entry point is by directly addressing climate change impacts through incremental adjustments to institutions, social systems, and physical structures. For instance, this may include building sea walls (physical change), passing laws to support disaster risk reduction (institutional change), or crop diversification due to a changing climate (social/behavioral change).

  • The third entry point is transformational adaptation, which refers to changing fundamental attributes of a system in response to climate and its effects. This requires change to happen at a large scale through social and technical innovation; political shifts that minimize risk and vulnerability; or personal changes in belief systems that lead to climate change responses. For example, the explosion in the use of cell phones represents a technical innovation that could transform the ability of millions of people to make better climate risk decisions based on rapid receipt of weather information.

Developing Adaptation Solutions

As these findings show, adaptation is a complex and multi-faceted issue. Addressing adaptation throughout the world will ultimately require a diverse set of local-level, context-specific solutions—solutions that are hopefully paired with significant mitigation actions. By helping local and national decision-makers understand the current and future impacts before them, the IPCC report provides guidance on where to focus our attention in order to help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change.

  • LEARN MORE: Read a statement from WRI's president, Dr. Andrew Steer, on the implications of the new IPCC report.