4sea, Oceans

Adaptation 4(the)sea: why coastal areas need adaptation

 This article is part of the 4sea Project.


Climate change has severe impacts on the environment and societies. Especially coastal regions are under risk. In order to reduce the impacts of climate change there are two essential approaches: mitigation and adaptation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific working group on climate change of the United Nations, defines mitigation as “an anthropogenic intervention to reduce the anthropogenic forcing of the climate system” [1] (i.e : reduction of greenhouse gas sources and emissions or enhance greenhouse gas sinks). In addition, the IPCC refers to adaptation as an “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities “.[2] In other words adaptation is the behaviour to adjust to impacts of climate change, while mitigation reduces the causes and the impact of climate change. It is important to understand that both mitigation and adaptation strategies are essential in order to reduce the threats that climate change presents.

Why is climate change adaptation important ?

Today many countries, especially the poorest and most vulnerable ones, are already experiencing the impacts of climate change since the impacts of this global phenomenon differ locally. Depending on their location populations have to cope with changes in rainfall patterns, sea level rise, floods, droughts and/or water scarcity. In this context, climate change adaptation is not only an important concept to debate, it is already a reality and a necessity for many countries. At the same time, climate change poses in particular issues to coastal areas which are densely populated [3]. There is an urgency to defend the populations from threats : We observe frequent and enhanced storm surges in Bangladesh, the Philippines or in Sylt where they cause flooding and coastal erosion. Also at the US Atlantic Coast sea-level rise makes coastal cities vulnerable.[4] As a consequence populations and cities will need to alter the way of living, adjust to changing environments and higher climate risks. Countries and states like Bangladesh in the Indian Ocean, Florida in the Atlantic Ocean or Tunisia in the Mediterranean have different approaches to do so.

Another reason for adaptation despite security is that adaptation is linked to development and countries´ economies. The consequences of climate change can be harmful for both the people and infrastructures causing millions of dollars of loss and damages. Hence those countries of the Global South currently struggling to “develop” would have to face many challenges which would enhance their difficulties to develop and their vulnerability. This is the reason why adaptation is urgent for vulnerable populations.

Adaptation strategies

The IPCC distinguishes various types of adaptation strategies, including :

maxresdefault (1)1) Anticipatory adaptation : adaptation that takes place before impacts of climate change are observed. These include, inter alia, water storage, construction of groynes and seawalls, enhancement and preservation of natural protection,insurance, community-based disaster risk reduction and so on. This type of adaptation is especially difficult to pursue since it requires, for example, information on the sea level rise of the next 100 years.

2) Autonomous adaptation : adaptation that does not constitute a conscious response to climatic stimuli but is triggered by ecological changes in natural systems and by market or welfare changes in human systems. These include, among others, changes in farming practices, the purchase of air-conditioning devices, insurance policies taken out by individuals and private companies, etc.[5]

3) Planned adaptation : adaptation that is the result of a deliberate policy decision, based on an awareness that conditions have changed or are about to change and that action is required to return to, maintain, or achieve a desired state. This could, for example, mean building sea walls in anticipation of a rise in sea level.[5]

This a theoretic distinction which is not exhaustive. All three types of adaptation strategies can be found in the same country. They are locally based, each adaptation strategy is site-specific, taking into account its ecosystems, culture, etc. The diversity of climate change adaptation strategies occurs in various sectors and on various levels. In 2015, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) published a summary of the key adaptation sectors prioritized in the Parties´ Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), meaning their national ambitions and policy plans (see Figure 3). Hereby “Parties” in the UNFCCC are all countries who signed the Convention on Climate Change. In the INDCs coastal adaptation (61%) is found in the centre span between agriculture and water (91% and 88%) and infrastructure and tourism (42% and 29%).




The Adaptation Gap

Although in recent years attention and funds towards adaptation have increased, mitigation strategies are still the main approach taken to tackle climate change. Thus there is no Global Goal on Adaptation, either, such that many vulnerable countries still do not adapt sufficiently to climate change like we have seen in the case of the El Nino catastrophe (which is a topic for an upcoming article soon). This is a drawback given that the Paris Agreement in 2015 places adaptation on par with mitigation and therefore 50% of the climate finance should go to adaptation. In practice only 25% are dedicated to adaptation processes. Adaptation finance is not only complex (see here) but its funds are not easy accessible for countries of the Global South, either. During the UN Climate talks in May, this topic was contentious (see this article). Truth is that, despite the urgency of adaptation, this topic is not enough dealt with within international negotiations which is one point in common with oceans. Let’s hope the Fijian Presidency takes the lead and finally action on those burning issues during COP 23!


Photo Sofia Kabbej

About the author: Sofia Kabbej has a background in political-science and sustainable development. She is the Project Coach of the Negotiation Tracking project within CliMates and very passionate about adaptation, ACE and gender issues.


This article has been written in the context of 4sea. 4sea, a project about the importance of the world oceans, addresses the interdependence between the oceans and climate change, entraining everyone to become ocean lovers – for now through articles and videos on this blog and in November on our own platform. 4sea is a joint project between the youth organisations CliMates, Youth for Ocean and Vitamin Sea. Love it? Stay tuned for our platform!

[1] IPCC, Publications and data, Glossary A-D,  https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/annexessglossary-a-d.html, (accessed 06/07/2017)
[2] IPCC, Publications and data, Glossary A-D,  https://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/annexessglossary-a-d.html, (accessed 06/07/2017)
[3] Reckermann, Marcus/ Omstedt, Anders/ Pawlak, Janet F./ von Storch, Hans (2014): Climate change in the Baltic Region. What do we know?, In: Martinez, Grit/Fröhle, Peter/ Meier, Hans-Joachim (Eds.): Social Dimensions of Climate Change Adaptation in Coastal Regions (p.27)
[4] Gade, Melanie (2012): Sea-Level Rise Accelerating on U.S. Atlantic Coast. Link: https://soundwaves.usgs.gov/2012/10/research.html (Accessed: 07.07.2017).
[5] Sci Dev Net, Saleemul Huq and Richard J.T. Klein (2003), Policy Bried, Adapting to climate change why and how,  http://www.scidev.net/global/policy-brief/adapting-to-climate-change-why-and-how.html,( accessed 06/07/2017)

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