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Climate change: the losers, the winners and how to adapt

Global warming: is adaptation possible?

Jean-Paul Vanderlinden, Professor of Ecological Economics and Environmental Studies at Université Paris-Saclay and Vincent Viguié, Researcher in Climate Economics at CIRED
On May 16th, 2023 |
4 min reading time
Jean-Paul Vanderlinden
Jean-Paul Vanderlinden
Professor of Ecological Economics and Environmental Studies at Université Paris-Saclay
Vincent Viguié
Vincent Viguié
Researcher in Climate Economics at CIRED
Key takeaways
  • Adaptation is the process of adjusting to the current or expected climate and its effects, in order to mitigate damage or exploit beneficial opportunities.
  • Coupled with mitigation, adaptation is useful in many areas, such as territorial risks or food security.
  • The role of the state is key in coordinating actors and disseminating the right information.
  • Transformational adaptation is about changing the fundamental characteristics of a system, as opposed to incremental adaptation.
  • The Global Commission on Adaptation estimates that investing $1.8 billion between 2020 and 2030 can generate $7.1 billion in benefits.

+1.1°C: that is how much warmer the glob­al tem­per­a­ture is now than it was in the peri­od 1850–1900. It is becom­ing urgent to reduce green­house gas (GHG) emis­sions as quick­ly as pos­si­ble: this is called mit­i­ga­tion. But the effects of glob­al warm­ing are already here: more fre­quent floods and heat waves, longer droughts, ris­ing sea lev­els, etc. Mit­i­ga­tion is essen­tial, but it is not enough. 

Anoth­er lever is need­ed: adap­ta­tion. Adap­ta­tion is defined by the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change (IPCC) as “the process of adjust­ing to the cur­rent or expect­ed cli­mate and its impacts in order to mit­i­gate harm or exploit ben­e­fi­cial oppor­tu­ni­ties”. It cov­ers many sec­tors and activ­i­ties: for exam­ple, in the case of coastal haz­ards, strate­gic retreats, dykes, ele­vat­ed hous­ing and improved drainage can be imple­ment­ed. For food secu­ri­ty, adap­ta­tions can include chang­ing the tim­ing or vari­ety of crops, estab­lish­ing local food chains or adopt­ing veg­e­tar­i­an diets.

Linking politics to climate issues

Sci­en­tists have been inter­est­ed in this issue since the 1990s, and the num­ber of pub­li­ca­tions on the sub­ject is sky­rock­et­ing (+28.5% of pub­li­ca­tions per year1). Gov­ern­ment poli­cies are also address­ing the issue. As ear­ly as 1992, at the Rio Sum­mit, adap­ta­tion and mit­i­ga­tion were men­tioned joint­ly. In 2015, the Paris Agree­ment set a glob­al adap­ta­tion objec­tive, which the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion trans­posed into the Green Pact in 2021. In France, the first nation­al adap­ta­tion strat­e­gy was adopt­ed in 2006 and now the Nation­al Pol­i­cy for Adap­ta­tion to Cli­mate Change (PNACC‑2) is being imple­ment­ed. The role of the State is key, as Vin­cent Vigu­ié explains: “it con­sists in par­tic­u­lar of coor­di­nat­ing the par­ties involved and dis­sem­i­nat­ing the right infor­ma­tion”. Jean-Paul Van­der­lin­den adds: “adap­ta­tion con­cerns every­one. States, asso­ci­a­tions, cit­i­zens, and com­pa­nies all have a role to play. But respon­si­bil­i­ty is dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed: it is impor­tant that action does not weak­en the groups or rein­force pre-exist­ing inequalities.”

So far, the lack of adap­ta­tion is glar­ing. “Of course, there are mea­sures, such as the PNACC or the PCAET [ter­ri­to­r­i­al cli­mate-air-ener­gy plan] in France,” adds Vin­cent Vigu­ié. “But for the lat­ter, the infor­ma­tion on adap­ta­tion is very basic!” In France, the High Coun­cil for the Cli­mate2 points out the lack of pre­cise guid­ance in nation­al strate­gies and plans. The same is true through­out the world accord­ing to the UN3. The con­se­quences of this delay? Some sys­tems are already at an impasse. Coral reefs, some trop­i­cal forests and many island com­mu­ni­ties have reached their lim­its: adap­ta­tion will no longer be able to lim­it the impacts of cli­mate change4. The Glob­al Com­mis­sion on Adap­ta­tion5 esti­mates that, with­out adap­ta­tion, 500 mil­lion small farms will be affect­ed by reduced yields by 2050, 5 bil­lion peo­ple will suf­fer from lack of access to water and 100 mil­lion peo­ple will fall below the pover­ty line by 2030 in devel­oped countries.

Mitigation and adaptation, a beneficial combination

Many syn­er­gies – more than trade-offs – exist between adap­ta­tion, mit­i­ga­tion, and sus­tain­able devel­op­ment accord­ing to the IPCC. Take the exam­ple of build­ing insu­la­tion: it improves ther­mal com­fort and mod­er­ates the increase in the num­ber of heat waves. It also reduces GHG emis­sions by lim­it­ing the use of air-con­di­tion­ing, and meets sev­er­al sus­tain­able devel­op­ment objec­tives (pover­ty alle­vi­a­tion, bet­ter health and well-being, etc.). “This illus­trates the extent to which the cli­mate issue is not iso­lat­ed and the need to respond to envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges in an inte­grat­ed man­ner,” says Jean-Paul Van­der­lin­den. The impli­ca­tion is that with­out glob­al think­ing, the risks can increase. “In Ho Chi Minh City, the clean­ing of canals effec­tive­ly pro­tects peo­ple from flood­ing,” illus­trates Jean-Paul Van­der­lin­den. “But these are occu­pied by pre­car­i­ous hous­ing, and the prob­lem of the pover­ty of these relo­cat­ed pop­u­la­tions may seem to some to be a sep­a­rate or even sec­ondary issue.”

In many cas­es, adap­ta­tion requires major struc­tur­al changes: this is called trans­for­ma­tion­al adap­ta­tion. It con­sists of mod­i­fy­ing the fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tics of a sys­tem in antic­i­pa­tion of the impact of cli­mate change. Incre­men­tal adap­ta­tion is based on main­tain­ing the exist­ing sys­tem. In the face of ris­ing sea lev­els, for exam­ple, it is pos­si­ble to build a sea wall to pro­tect coastal pop­u­la­tions (incre­men­tal adap­ta­tion) or imple­ment a strate­gic retreat pro­gramme (trans­for­ma­tion­al adap­ta­tion)6. “Incre­men­tal adap­ta­tion can be use­ful in the short term, such as the ‘heat wave plans’ deployed fol­low­ing the sum­mer of 2003,” com­ments Jean-Paul Van­der­lin­den. But in many cas­es, trans­for­ma­tion­al adap­ta­tion is the only answer to long-term cli­mate issues. The dif­fi­cul­ty? Trans­form­ing sys­tems requires a high lev­el of sup­port from the pub­lic. How­ev­er, despite the avail­abil­i­ty of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge about the com­mon good, indi­vid­u­als are dri­ven by self-inter­est: the need to fit in with the val­ues of those around them7. “Moral val­ues slow down the imple­men­ta­tion of trans­for­ma­tion­al adap­ta­tion,” adds Jean-Paul Vanderlinden.

More funding, better governance

The good news? The effec­tive solu­tions are well known. But lack of financ­ing is a major prob­lem: pub­lic and pri­vate financ­ing for fos­sil fuels is still high­er than for mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion8. The major­i­ty of cli­mate finance is ded­i­cat­ed to mit­i­ga­tion. Yet the eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits are sig­nif­i­cant: the Glob­al Com­mis­sion on Adap­ta­tion esti­mates that invest­ing $1.8 bil­lion between 2020 and 2030 can gen­er­ate $7.1 bil­lion in ben­e­fits. These invest­ments include ear­ly warn­ing sys­tems, resilient infra­struc­ture, improved yields in dry­lands, pro­tec­tion of man­groves and water resilience.

“Finance is a nec­es­sary con­di­tion, but gov­er­nance is the major lever,” adds Jean-Paul Van­der­lin­den. The imple­men­ta­tion of delib­er­a­tive and par­tic­i­pa­tive demo­c­ra­t­ic forms is essen­tial. The Cit­i­zens’ Cli­mate Con­ven­tion is a very good exam­ple of appro­pri­ate gov­er­nance when it is fol­lowed by action. The last major lever point­ed out by the IPCC is knowl­edge. Jean-Paul Van­der­lin­den con­tin­ues: “State actors and sci­en­tists have a par­tic­u­lar respon­si­bil­i­ty: to iden­ti­fy the cli­mate sig­nal pre­cise­ly in order to imple­ment the appro­pri­ate means for the adap­ta­tion process.”

The oppo­si­tion between mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion is over. “A few years ago, peo­ple feared that adap­ta­tion would lim­it mit­i­ga­tion,” recalls Vin­cent Vigu­ié. “It is now clear that the two process­es are com­ple­men­tary.” Espe­cial­ly since mit­i­ga­tion alone is not enough, and some sys­tems are already reach­ing their lim­its. The IPC­C’s con­clu­sions are clear: “Beyond the lim­its [of adap­ta­tion], only mit­i­ga­tion can [meet these challenges].”

Anaïs Marechal
1Nalau, J., E. Tora­bi, N. Edwards, M. Howes and E. Mor­gan, 2021: A crit­i­cal explo­ration of adap­ta­tion heuris­tics. Clim. Risk Man­ag., 32, 100292.
2Haut Con­seil pour le cli­mat, juin 2021, Ren­forcer l’atténuation, engager l’adaptation, Rap­port annuel 2021
4IPCC, 2023, Syn­the­sis report of the IPCC sixth assess­ment report, Longer report.
5Glob­al com­mis­sion on adap­ta­tion, sep­tem­bre 2019, Adapt now : a glob­al call for lead­er­ship on cli­mate resilience.
6Ara Begum, R., R. Lem­pert, E. Ali, T.A. Ben­jamin­sen, T. Bernauer, W. Cramer, X. Cui, K. Mach, G. Nagy, N.C. Stenseth, R. Suku­mar, and P. West­er, 2022: Point of Depar­ture and Key Con­cepts. In: Cli­mate Change 2022: Impacts, Adap­ta­tion and Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Con­tri­bu­tion of Work­ing Group II to the Sixth Assess­ment Report of the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change [H.-O. Pört­ner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tign­or, E.S. Poloczan­s­ka, K. Minten­beck, A. Ale­gría, M. Craig, S. Langs­dorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, Cam­bridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, pp. 121–196, doi:10.1017/9781009325844.003.
7Kahan, D.M., et al. (2012), The polar­iz­ing impact of sci­ence lit­er­a­cy and numer­a­cy on per­ceived cli­mate change risks, Nature Cli­mate Change Let­ters, DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE1547
8IPCC, 2023, Syn­the­sis report of the IPCC sixth assess­ment report, Longer report.

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