Three Ways to Adapt to Climate Change: Nearsighted, Farsighted and Misguided

11/01/2012 11:47 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

We who inhabit this planet's thin fickle atmosphere face two kinds of climate risks: today's and tomorrow's. For millennia, we've grappled with climate variability -- floods, droughts, cyclones, heat waves. Dealing with these risks is an unfinished agenda. Richer countries are more able to cope, but when disasters hit poor countries, people perish and economies buckle.

Now these familiar risks are mutating in the face of human-caused climate change. Variability is becoming more intense. The five hottest summers of Europe's last 500 years all occurred in the last decade. Conditions are changing. Most wheat and maize growing areas today face everyday temperatures which would have been considered extraordinary heat waves just 30 years ago. Completely new threats loom over the longer term. Coastal areas face drowning; coral reefs are succumbing to hotter, more acidic seas; farmers who depend on summer snowmelt are watching glaciers vanish. As the climate system veers into uncharted territory, unexpected challenges may emerge.

There are three ways to adapt to these climate risks.

Closing today's adaptation gap. The first is to help poor countries adapt to today's challenges in a way that makes them more prepared for tomorrow's. While there's a role for dams and seawalls, building up institutions will be critical for this. Agricultural research and extension, disaster risk management systems, river basin management organizations -- improvements in all of these will help right now, and will lay the foundations for the sophisticated organizations that will be needed to confront the unprecedented climate situations of the 2030s and beyond. In sub-Saharan Africa, it is particularly important to build up the hydrometeorological data systems that can help people manage agriculture and disaster risks today, while providing a more solid basis for planning long term investments in hydropower and irrigation systems as the climate changes.

Maladaptation. The second kind of adaptation is a trap to be avoided. Well-meaning efforts to cope with today's climate variability can backfire in the longer run. Planting exotic trees in China's Loess Plateau, for instance, succeeded in boosting farmers' incomes and reducing terrible erosion problems -- but is now recognized as having drawn down scarce groundwater.

Anticipatory adaptation. The third kind of adaptation involves acting now to avert severe but long-term threats, and to keep options open for the future. Shaping land use patterns will be critical for this. Urban populations will swell by hundreds of millions this century, and it would be better if settlements expanded away from the coastal lowlands and floodplains most exposed to risk. To conserve biodiversity, plants and animals will need to be able to migrate upslope and polewards to cooler ground, and it would be better if their escape routes are not blocked by swathes of intensive agriculture. Avoiding these undesirable outcomes is doubly difficult -- first, because it is hard for political systems to exercise such foresight, and second because past experience with land use planning and zoning is not encouraging. A review of World Bank activities found that the Bank and its clients indeed focused much more on here-and-now climate variability adaptation than on anticipatory adaptation.

What can be done to advance the right kinds of adaptation? More investments, certainly. But on top of that, a more strategic focus on results and on learning how to achieve them. The Bank and donors have been concerned with tracking expenditure on adaptation. While money is important, what's needed is more attention to the impacts of that spending on resilience and vulnerability reduction. For instance, it is now possible to directly measure water consumption across a river basin using satellite observations, a practice used in China's Hai Basin. This can flag when land and water management contributes to resiliency, and when it spurs maladaptative overuse of water. Surveys have been used in Ethiopia to assess whether programs actually reduce hunger when droughts hit.

The Sujala watershed project, in Karnataka, India, shows how a focus on learning pays off. The project used rapid feedback on results to improve targeting of antipoverty efforts on women and landless people. It rigorously documented income gains and environmental improvements, leading to widespread scale up of the project's approach.

Learning is critical also for undertaking anticipatory adaptation. This includes testing new incentive, information, and regulatory approaches to shaping long-term land use patterns, and tracking the experience of innovative programs such as that used in South Africa to ensure the long term survival of the Cape Floristic Region, a biodiversity hotspot of global significance.

Closing the adaptation gap is an urgent priority. With eyes on the future, and the right kind of information, the World Bank and its partners can steer clear of maladaptation and promote the challenging but essential anticipatory actions needed to prepare for unavoidable long-term climate impacts.