COP 26: Does adaptation actually reduce risk? New global study probes for answers

COP 26: Does adaptation actually reduce risk? New global study probes for answers
3 November 2021

by the Climate Centre

(A full rundown of Red Cross Red Crescent engagement at COP 26 is online, including D&C Days on 9 and 10 November and its five themes of agriculture, early action, a resilient future, cities, and nature; it’s not too late to register.)

Climate adaptation is mostly fragmented and incremental, undertaken primarily by individuals and households rather than comprehensively by communities and institutions.

That was the main conclusion of a study published last week in the journal Nature Climate Change and involving nearly 130 researchers worldwide.

Described as the most comprehensive assessment of human adaptation to climate change yet conducted, A systematic global stocktake of evidence on human adaptation to climate change finds that behavioural adjustments by individuals “are more prevalent than any other type of response, largely motivated by drought and precipitation variability.”

Lead author Professor Lea Berrang Ford, of the University of Leeds Priestley International Centre for Climate, said: “Our results provide a warning call: we found very little evidence of widespread and rapid preparedness at a scale that we think is likely to be adequate to avoid severe climate impacts.”

‘Hopefully, this is just the beginning of data
that can help evidence-based decisions
that take global efforts into account’

Co-author Paige Fischer, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, said the study had surveyed more than 48,000 papers published between 2013 and 2020; it also included input from Climate Centre experts.

“The Paris Agreement commits parties…to track progress toward adaptation,” Fischer said in a press release, “but until now little has been known about the actual extent of adaptation, despite a large landscape of research on human response to climate change and associated stressors.”

Local government and civil society are engaging in risk reduction across all sectors and regions, particularly in response to flooding, the authors say, and adaptation to flood risk in Europe and farming in Africa and Asia feature prominently.

But despite increasing evidence of adaptation responses, University of Delaware co-author A.R. Siders said the study found “very little evidence” that current adaptation efforts actually reduce risk.

“I am encouraged by how much adaptation we found: the idea that people, communities, and nations are taking action across a wide range of hazards and sectors is encouraging. At the same time, I was surprised by how incremental that adaptation is: how much of it looks like business as usual.

“In this paper, we didn’t assess whether current adaptation is sufficient to deal with climate change, but I think the fact that so much adaptation was incremental should raise concerns and should inspire us to make assessing adaptation a priority.”

Evidence gap

Study co-author Alexandra Lesnikowski, an assistant professor at Concordia University, agreed: “Our results really highlight the gaps in our understanding about the effectiveness of current adaptation responses for risk and vulnerability reduction.

“Only a small fraction of the literature that we reviewed evaluated these outcomes, which means that we still don’t have a clear picture of how adaptation efforts are reducing key risks in diverse places and sectors. This points to a big evidence gap in the scientific literature.”

Siders added that this evidence gap had already inspired further research, concluding: “Hopefully, this is just the beginning of data that can help governments and practitioners make evidence-based decisions that take global efforts into account.”

German Red Cross personnel distribute relief in Schuld village, Rhineland-Palatinate state this year, after the devastating floods that were made more likely by climate change. A new study finds adaptation to flood risk in Europe and farming in Africa and Asia feature prominently in research, but questions the overall effectiveness. (Photo: Philipp Köhler/DRK)