World Resource Institute

Informing Adaptation

By Diana Liverman, University of Arizona and University of Oxford

Question Six: What types of information are needed for adaptation decision making?

This paper identifies the types of information most needed in order to deal with the impacts of climate change: basic climate information, economic costs and benefits of adaptation, adaptation options and best practices, and public perception of the risk of climate change. The author stresses the importance of including vulnerability information to enable effective responses to both current climate impacts and future trends. Arguing that information systems for adaptation must be focused on the end user, she also provides guidelines for information delivery and communication about climate change impacts.

An increasingly wide range of organizations – governments at many levels, firms, environmental and humanitarian groups, and individuals – are beginning to plan for and implement adaptation to climate change.   The decisions they make can reduce the impacts of climate change on landscapes and livelihoods, contributing to sustainable development and species survival for decades to come.  Adapting well depends on reliable, understandable and timely information tailored to the needs of users. The information needed to support adaptation decisions varies across different groups and levels of decision making and includes not only information about how climate is changing but also about impacts, costs, vulnerabilities, and effective response strategies.   In order to generate public support for policies, and to encourage individual actions, information should be clearly communicated to the general public in ways that are understandable and relevant to their lives. Because adaptation is a process and there are uncertainties about how climate, policy, and society will change over time information must be constantly updated and should include information that can be used to assess whether decisions or responses are effective or should be revised in the light of experience, emerging conditions, public reaction, or new knowledge.   This process of identifying risks, appraising response options, making decisions, monitoring the results, reassessing conditions and adjusting decisions is termed iterative risk management where good information is needed at all steps in the process[i].  

Making climate and other information useful to decision makers usually requires that data and knowledge be processed and integrated through tools that range from simple graphs and maps to complex environmental and economic models.   These decision support tools can be helpful but also incorporate many assumptions – about uncertainty and costs for example – that can influence decisions in ways that are not always accessible or transparent.  For example, the well known Stern review on the Economics of Climate Change included assumptions about the distribution of climate impacts, the risks of catastrophic climate change, the monetized value of non market sectors such as ecosystems and the appropriate discount rates for future impacts that heavily influenced the results of the study[ii].  Although these assumptions were explicit, the use of complex integrated assessment models made understanding the implications very challenging.

Even apparently simple decisions about what information to use can have notable long term implications.  For example the choice of a baseline year for assessing change over time or the selection of the spatial scale and measurement units for future projections of climate will have enduring influences on debates and decisions.  The clearest example is probably that of greenhouse gas emissions where the somewhat arbitrary selection of 1990 as the baseline year for emission reduction commitments in the Kyoto protocol benefited some countries (such as Germany and Russia whose economies and associated emissions collapsed soon after) and penalized others (such as Japan who had made many efficiency gains prior to 1990).  The baseline was even manipulated politically to allow some countries to select different baselines.   Baseline years for adaptation would become important if funding levels somehow derived from some starting level of impacts or vulnerability.  Selecting national rather than more local scales for assessing vulnerability or allocating adaptation funds could easily result in overlooking pockets of extreme vulnerability within countries.

These examples illustrate the growing significance of information as adaptation becomes a topic of political negotiation, funds become available for allocation, and agencies are required to track the effectiveness of adaptation investments.  Just as MRV (Monitoring, Reporting and Verification) has become a focus within international negotiations about emission reductions and in greenhouse gas trading markets, auditing of adaptation decisions is likely to require more rigorous, consistent, transparent, and independently verified information about how climate is changing and the effectiveness of adaptation actions and investments.  Auditing adaptation is, however, much more challenging than measuring greenhouse gas reductions because of the difficulties in separating out the impacts of anthropogenic climate change from other influences on vulnerability and impacts, projecting the implications of the no-action or business as usual option, or on distinguishing the effects of adaptation decisions and investments from more general policies and development funding.

Information for adaptation

The type of information needed for effective adaptation is dependent on the nature of the decision and capacity and jurisdiction of a decision maker.   It is important to recognize that while some users – farmers, water managers, scientists, insurance companies, disaster response organizations - regularly use climate information in their decisions others are less familiar with the use and limitations of different sorts of information.   Even skilled users of climate data or forecasts may find it difficult to apply broad scale climate model projections based on a range of socioeconomic scenarios to interdisciplinary and multi-sectoral assessments of vulnerability for effective local long term planning and implementation of adaptation.   In addition, anthropogenic climate change driven by increasing greenhouse gases has impacts beyond changes in temperature and precipitation and beyond the range of experience of even accomplished users – for example through changes in ocean acidity, ice cover, or sea level rise.    

What are the information needs for adaptation?  Most analysts assume that the basic tool kit should include information on current climate, observed changes underway, and projections of future climate based on alternative trajectories of greenhouse gas emissions – usually a business as usual scenario and others that assume some efforts to reduce emissions.  At the global scale examples include maps and graphs that show widespread warming over the last few decades, and climate model projections that indicate warming of at least 2°C by 2050 if emission continue to increase.  

There are several immense challenges in providing and using even this basic set of information.  First, data on observed climate changes depends on a patchy network of observations that has considerable geographic gaps (especially in the developing world), is influenced by factors other than anthropogenic emissions (such as urbanization) and has significant year to year variability.  Second, the major climate models do not agree on how climate may change at the regional and local scale not only because of the use of alternative scenarios but because models include different assumptions about basic processes and initial environmental conditions.   For example, the latest IPCC report included a summary map on projected changes in precipitation that showed that many of the models do not even agree on whether it will get wetter or drier over significant regions of the world including large parts of Latin America, Africa and Asia.    Third, scaling down the results of global climate models for use at the local scale is very difficult – partly because the global models do not include local landscape details or atmospheric processes - although scientists are working hard to try and provide the best possible projections, especially for critically important river basins such as the Colorado, Amazon and Ganges.   Fourth, many of the variables of importance to adaptation decisions – such as the frequency of extreme events, the beginning of the rainy season, or the timing of sea level rise – are not well modeled as yet.    While a few climate service groups – such as the UK Climate Impacts Programme (UKCIP)[iii] – provide detailed output on regional climate change projections and uncertainties, many decision makers are relying on a limited range and aggregate scale of climate change information for their adaptation planning.

Information on the impacts of climate change is essential to designing adaptation policies, and while many scientific studies, such as those reviewed in IPCC Working Group 2, provide examples or global assessments of impacts there is a critical need for ongoing, local studies on the impacts of ongoing and projected climate change.   Information needs include estimates of climate change impacts on water, food systems, health, ecosystems, infrastructure, and energy – studies that in themselves require detailed assessments and data, and which may be difficult to keep up to date as conditions and climate projections change.  Some of the most compelling information is that on impacts already underway – such as observations of changes in the distribution of plant and animal populations, shifts in the seasonality of crops, or changes in the frequency and intensity of disasters.   Awareness of such changes can be built through citizen science efforts whereby reports on changes in seasons or distributions, such as those from birding or gardening groups, contribute to overall assessments of ongoing impacts.  Of course, there is always a risk that observed changes are not attributable to climate change.

Because the impacts of climate change depend as much on vulnerability as they do on the specific changes in temperature or precipitation, it is possible to advance adaptation through an understanding of how climate change and vulnerability interact to create impacts on different systems and places.   The importance of vulnerability is clear in the case of disasters such as the floods in Pakistan or droughts in the Horn of Africa where poor and marginal populations are usually more seriously affected because they live in risky environments or lack the resources to cope with extreme events.   The impacts of ongoing climate change on water resources or protected areas are also heavily influenced by non-climatic factors that create vulnerability – increasing water demand or land use changes around reserves for example.   Famine early warning systems are one example where vulnerability information is incorporated in data on nutrition, health, migrations, and markets which can anticipate crises and help target relief.

An information system that includes information on vulnerability can promote effective responses even where the specific details of climate change are uncertain because policy can focus on filling the ‘adaptation gap’ where vulnerability to current climate variability could be reduced or on influencing trends, in poverty, water use or use of land for example, that are increasing future vulnerabilities.   Because there is, as yet, no clear consensus on a distinct set of vulnerability measures and although there are several indices in use[iv], prescribing a general vulnerability information system is difficult and should in any case be sensitive to local circumstances.   It is imperative that information on vulnerability be dynamic (rather than a static snapshot) because vulnerability can change rapidly over short periods of time as a result, for example, of economic crisis or conflicts.

Costing adaptation and valuing its benefits is a real challenge in designing information systems for adaptation. Showing the economic costs and benefits of adaptation as compared to inaction or mitigation or estimating the costs of adaptation for budgeting purposes underpin important decisions about policy priorities and allocations.   The publication of several adaptation cost estimates in the run up to Copenhagen illustrates the importance and uncertainties of information.  On the one hand estimates that adaptation could cost more than $150 billion a year supported decisions to establish fast track funding of $10 billion a year and a goal of $100 billion a year by 2020 for responding to climate change[v].  But the range of estimates also illustrated the uncertainties and varying assumptions about adaptation costs – including those about whether estimates are for infrastructure or investments only, include the adaptation gap, include ecosystems, and whether the cost targets adaptation to a warming of 2°C or greater.  Economic information is also a key to the design of effective insurance instruments that can reduce vulnerability so long as insurance premiums are affordable and payouts sustainable.

Information about adaptation options and best practices is a priority when many decision makers have little familiarity or experience with adaptation.  These options and practices can be top down policies from government or international organizations – building climate resilient infrastructure for example – or local level initiatives such as water and soil conservation.  Information can be shared in many ways ranging from web sites to posters, films or demonstration projects, and is often most useful when examples include not only technical information about what was done, but also about how things were organized and measures of effectiveness.  Examples of information efforts to diffuse adaptation examples include the UNFCCC local coping strategy database, the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange, and WeADAPT [vi].

Decision making about adaptation requires that those making decisions, and the policy makers and publics that influence them be convinced that adaptation is necessary.   Hence, information about public and decision maker perceptions and attitudes regarding adaptation can also be a useful component of an iterative risk management system for climate change.  The majority of surveys and polls have focused almost exclusively on perceptions as to whether climate change is occurring or a serious risk, or on the needs for mitigation.   

Local decision makers need more than local information to adapt effectively to climate change.  For example, many farmers are now operating within a global trading system where the prices they receive are determined by conditions in other regions.  Climate change elsewhere may shift comparative advantage such that a farmer may receive a high income despite lower yields for an internationally trade crop.  Many other sectors now operate within international supply chains where information on international climate change, impacts, vulnerabilities and response strategies can help inform local adaptation.   

Ensuring effective information use

Adaptation cannot rely on outdated models of information delivery that assume that scientists are best placed to know what is needed and that if they make it available through publications it will be used.   Information systems for adaptation must be user centered, seeking to provide information that is tailored in time, space and focus to the needs of decision making.  Identifying user needs often needs more than a survey or assessment of current practices – it should involve a two way dialog in which a common language, the limits of data and the details of what is most helpful are discussed and revisited between providers and users.  In some cases the most effective information and decision tools are developed collaboratively through a process of interaction, trust building and shared analysis.  Often the process is as important as the product in building confidence and usable information systems. 

Intermediary organizations can be helpful in informing adaptation when they serve to provide more accessible or locally relevant information and provide feedback to both providers and users.  These boundary organizations include NGOs, local universities, extension services and consultants but it is crucial that they have the understanding, communication skills and credibility to maintain the legitimacy of the information flow.   Programs to build the capacity of these intermediary organizations to translate the information for adaptation are a priority.

Equitable access to information is also a concern. If some gain access to information before others they may be able to gain advantages that magnify social and economic inequalities.   For example, in agricultural markets, those who obtain advance forecasts of harvest failures can speculate on commodity futures to the disadvantage of producers locked into contracts or consumers who must spend most of their income on food. Similarly information on adaptation options that is only provided through the internet, consultants or in dominant languages may not reach the most vulnerable.

In most countries the traditional provider of weather and climate information is the national meteorological or weather service who provide data on historical conditions and short term (1 to 10 day) forecasts.  Although some meteorological services have expanded into seasonal forecasts and may provide some basic information about climate change, in many cases climate change is a responsibility of environmental agencies, information does not include vulnerability assessments or adaptation options,  and few countries have a functioning ‘climate service’ designed to support adaptation to climate change.   In 2009 the World Climate Conference agreed to a Global Framework of Climate Services in which nations would collectively strengthen climate observing systems, deliver sector oriented information to support adaptation, and foster interactions between providers and users of information.   But because many nations have poorly funded or inadequate meteorological services and observational networks, and lack capacity in the assessment of climate change and adaptation options, such a global vision will require a major investment in information systems and expertise including in social science expertise and data needed for vulnerability assessments.   In most cases information for adaptation will be found in many different government agencies as well as in the private sector including, for example, environment, agriculture, health, emergency management and housing departments, and water, energy, and food companies.

Barriers to using information include concerns about the credibility of information sources and about high levels of uncertainty.  Credibility can be undermined by climate skeptics and enhanced by transparency, standards and institutional stability.  

Those providing information for adaptation can benefit from remembering some of the basic principles of effective communication and understanding some of the challenges in communicating climate change.  Some of these principles are summarized in the accompanying table drawn from the recent US National Academies report on Informing Decisions and modified for a more international audience.



Know your audience

There are different audiences among the public. Learn what people (mis)understand before you deliver information and tailor information for each group.

Understand social identities and affiliations

Effective communicators often share an identity and values with the audience (e.g., a fellow CEO or local leader, parent, coworker, religious believer, farmer).

Get the audience’s attention

Use appropriate framing (e.g. climate adaptation as a development, environment, disaster reduction, or health issue) to make the information more relevant to different groups. 

Use the best available, peer-reviewed science

Use recent and locally relevant research results.

Be prepared to respond to the latest debates about the science.

Translate scientific understanding and data into concrete experience

Use imagery, analogies, and personal experiences including observations of changes in people’s local environments and examples from past events.

Make the link between global and local changes.

Discuss longer time scales, but link to present choices.

Address scientific and climate uncertainties

Specify what is known with high confidence and what is less certain. Set climate choices in the context of other important decisions made despite uncertainty (e.g., financial, insurance, security, etc.).

Discuss how uncertainty may be a reason for action rather than a reason for inaction.

Avoid scientific jargon and use everyday words

Depending on the country use degrees F rather than degrees C

“Human caused” rather than “anthropogenic”

“Range of possibilities” rather than “uncertainty”

“Likelihood” or “chance” rather than “probability”

Maintain respectful discourse

Climate change decisions involve diverse perspectives and values.

Encourage participation

Do not overuse slides and one-way lecture delivery.

Leave time for discussion or use small groups. Let people discuss and draw their own conclusions from the facts.

Use popular communication channels

Understand how to use new social media, the internet, the media or community theater and the arts to get ideas across

Evaluate communications

Assess the effectiveness of communications, identify lessons learned, and adapt.

Provide choices and solutions

Present the full range of options (including the choice of business as usual) and encourage discussion of alternative choices


[i] This essay is based partly on two reports of the National Academy of Sciences study on America's Climate Choices including ‘Informing an Effective Response to Climate Change’ (chaired by the author) and ‘Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change’ (

[ii] Stern, N. 2006. The Stern review report on the economics of climate change. Cambridge University Press.

[iii] UKCIP provides a wide range of tools to help UK stakeholders adapt well to climate change including probabilistic climate projections on a 25km grid and various adaptation ‘wizards’ to guide decision makers through the process of adaptation  (see,uk)

[iv] For example the NatureServe index for identifying plant and animal species at risk and for human populations the the Environment Vulnerability Index or the Climate Vulnerability Initiative index.

[v] Note that this is for both mitigation and adaptation