An introduction to adaptation

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani | published 25th Mar 2011 | last updated 9th Aug 2023

Climate Adaptation Training Annotation

  • Level: Introductory
  • Time commitment: 1-2 hours 
  • Learning product: Definitions 
  • Sector: Multi-sector 
  • Language: English 
  • Certificate available: No 


The impacts of climate change are being increasingly felt around the world. Glaciers are in retreat, cities are overheating and there are various effects on hurricanes and tropical storms. Such impacts can trigger disasters and other adversity and hardship. Climate change adaptation is a means of responding to current climate hazards as well as preparing for impacts that are linked to potentially even greater warming. However, climate change can also provide opportunities, and a vital part of adaptation is taking advantage of these opportunities.


Examples of adaptation

Clockwise from top left: testing soil health in Kenya in climate-smart agriculture trials Credit: Georgina Smith / CIAT; Green roofs providing cooling properties in cities, eg. in Singapore Credit: Chuttersnap / Unsplash; men repairing sections of embankment in Sri Lanka Credit: Dominic Sansoni / World Bank; mangrove planting to reforest coastal areas in the Philippines and protect people from storms Credit: Jessie F. Delos Reyes / USAID


Adapting to climate change involves structural, physical, social and institutional approaches. Adaptation activities include structural and physical adaptation (i.e. engineering and built environment, technological, ecosystem-based and services); social adaptation (i.e. educational, informational, behavioural); and institutional adaptation (i.e. markets, laws and regulations, government policies and programmes).

These activities might include, for example: 

  • improvement of availability and accuracy of climate forecasts and services 
  • promoting the introduction and uptake of drought-tolerant crops 
  • reforestation or other land management practices to protect coastal zones 
  • provision of technologies and training in climate-smart agriculture 

There is no exhaustive list of adaptation actions, however, examples are provided in tables for different sectors (in Noble et al. 2014). 

What is and what is not adaptation? Climate change adaptation is: 

  • A long-term view recognising current (competing) priorities
  • Innovation, doing something differently
  • Motivated and informed by climate factors and their interaction with other risks and trends
  • Choice of action explicitly considers current and future climate conditions 

Adaptation is not ‘business as usual’ development, nor short-term coping’ strategiesboth of which can reduce risks but also carry maladaptation risks or may have longer term trade-offs. 

There are different levels of decisions and actions on adaptation from local to global. However, in practice, most adaptation happens at local levels. The local level is where the greatest needs are, as well as most of the expertise. Communities have always adapted to climate variation and change; what is new is the speed of changes taking place due to human pressures. Community-based adaptation is an area of expertise that is often the best place to start understanding adaptation processes. 

Climate adaptation is now taking place in every corner of the world. UNEP's 2020 Adaptation Gap Report reviewed almost 400 projects implemented using climate funds under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC); this is just a small but well documented sample of the overall activity. Global reviews such as the Adaptation Gap Report help to share lessons across projects and put them in a wider context. It is also important to understand how adaptation fits into the bigger picture of climate change and development globally. 

Global warming, adaptation and mitigation

Global warming - increase in global average surface temperature above pre-industrial levels  is currently about 1.2 °C and is currently on track to increase by 2.7 to 3.1 °C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 (Climate Action Tracker). However, the pace of changes in the earth's natural and climate systems, and the effectiveness of policies to counteract these changes, are uncertain. Climate change mitigation which aims at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and removing them from the atmosphere, is needed to avoid dangerous climate change becoming a reality. Because mitigation and adaptation can (conceptually) be seen as prevention and cure to this problem, actions have tended to be undertaken separately. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), adopted in 1992, focused mostly on mitigation.

However, climate change is an inter-related set of issues/problems. It can be thought of as a wicked policy problem: the search for straightforward answers or solutions is confounded by conflicting interests and different interpretations – the solutions proposed by different parties may be part of what defines the problem. For example, ‘loss and damage’ (L&D) has proved to be one of the most contested issues in the UNFCCC. Low income countries and their populations, which are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, argue that they must be financially compensated for unavoidable impacts of climate change for which they are not responsible. Rich nations, which have high historical emissions, argue that better sustainable development and more funding to climate adaptation must be used to reduce the risk of L&D. Part of the disagreement is semantic: what is ‘unavoidable’ and where is the line between adaptation and L&D? Part of it is political; does finance need to be in the form of compensation, without conditions, to “victims” of climate change, or should it not bear any liability and compensation claims?

Increasingly, climate change issues have come to be seen as development issues, and the least developed countries started to make adaptation a core demand at the UNFCCC negotiations (as well as compensation for L&D). Whilst scientists tend to work separately on adaptation and mitigation, it is now well-recognised that both kinds of expertise are needed for an effective science-based policy. The Paris Agreement, published in 2015, recognised the importance of pursuing both climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation. It includes a Global Goal on Adaptation which has accelerated national adaptation planning by committing to “enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change”. It is helpful to further understand some of this terminology, which draws on a range of academic literature since the 90’s.

Defining adaptation

IPCC Definition of Adaptation

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), adaptation is the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects. In human systems, it is the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects, in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In natural systems, it is the process of adjustment to actual climate and its effects; human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate (adapted by Global Centre for Adaptation based on IPCC AR5 Summary for Policymakers, 2014, p. 5 and IPCC AR5 Technical Summary, 2014, p. 40).

In the UNFCCC process, particularly from around 2008 with the Bali Plan of Action, we see a growing understanding of the necessity for adaptation in face of climate changes we are already committed to. Many of the older frameworks and concepts are unchanged in climate change adaptation (CCA) but in addition a number of newer ideas and terms have come into wider use. 

Vulnerability is one of the most important concepts underpinning CCAThe IPCC defines vulnerability as “the propensity or predisposition to be adversely affected. Vulnerability encompasses a variety of concepts including sensitivity or susceptibility to harm and lack of capacity to cope and adapt". See Glossary(IPCC, 2014). Important concepts of dynamic and multi-stressor vulnerability  as well as framings from natural hazards research that proceeded and informed the IPCC definition are also useful background.

‘Loss and damage’ (L&D) refers to irreversible losses (e.g. loss of life, species, land) and costly damages (e.g. destroyed infrastructure, assetsfrom climate impactsIt includes impacts that are not being tackled through adaptation and risk reduction strategies alone. The concept thereby recognises limits to what people or natural systems can adapt to.  

Adaptation limits - the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC describes adaptation limits as the point at which an actor’s objectives (or system needs) cannot be secured from intolerable risks through adaptive actions. 

  • Hard adaptation limit: No adaptive actions are possible to avoid intolerable risks.
  • Soft adaptation limit: Options are currently not available to avoid intolerable risks through adaptive action.

'Climate resilience' is a newer term which in some circles means the same thing as adaptation. The promotion of the term resilience "offers the opportunity for more holistic and proactive responses” (O'Brien et al., 2011) based on local knowledge and capacity. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR) has also adopted the term resilience, describing coping and recovery processes and but also the ability to adapt/change. See introduction to resilience for background.

Climate services is another relatively new term which signifies a shift from supply-driven (i.e. science-driven) information products to a demand-driven production system that takes greater account of users needs and the different formats of delivery. Climate services are varied in their structure and objectives. They are set up to help users cope with current climate variability and limit the damage caused by climate-related disasters. They also contribute to adaptation planning in a changing climate. Some examples can be found on this theme on using climate information.

Transformative (sometimes termed transformational) adaptation is another concept that has emerged as counterpoint to incremental adaptation, sometimes seen as insufficient to tackle climate change. 

Maladaptation, on the other hand, is the counterpoint to successful adaptation. It describes the situation where adaptation interventions lead to an unexpected or unintended increase in climate risk or vulnerability in non-target groups or locations (Juhola et al. 2016).

These more recent concepts enrich the scientific discourse on climate change adaptation. They add to our existing understanding on the different nuances of concepts such as adaptation vs coping (ie. short term adjustment). There is also a deep intersection between adaptation and development - in terms of the concepts, definitions and frameworks used  but also in terms of the design of an intervention. In climate change adaptation, crucially, the choice of action explicitly considers current and future climate conditions in terms of risks and vulnerabilities, and that’s what sets adaptation apart from ‘normal’ development. Climate change adaptation is part of the move toward sustainable development and frequently aims to deliver similar outcomes.

Measuring progress on adaptation

How is progress measured? Typically, adaptation projects have multiple objectives focusing on reducing current and future climate risks, increasing incomes, improving wellbeing and other benefits. Some projects may focus on building awareness and increasing adaptive capacity which may help improve opportunities and/or strengthen institutions. These aims reflect the priorities of the funders, government and other stakeholders involved and not all are easily appraised. Project design documents (describing the outcome targets) and evaluations (measuring or appraising success against those targets), or research studies may use a range of tailored, or project-specific indicators to measure adaptation outcomes at different scales (e.g. individual, community, municipal) or in different sectors.

Measuring progress on adaptation is difficult because of the complexity of the projects, their entanglement with other social and economic factors and the fact that progress is only visible on longer timeframes. Whilst effectiveness of mitigation is commonly assessed as a measure of greenhouse gas emission reduction per unit of funding, no such metric is available for adaptation. However, there are a number of frameworks that have been successfully used , and guidance is available on how to tailor these frameworks to particular adaptation interventions. See for example:

Monitoring and evaluation of adaptation is also done at higher levels of aggregation, for example nationally, sectorally or across donor portfolios of development agencies (USAID etc.) or international climate funds (Green Climate Fund etc.). For further information see the introduction to monitoring and evaluation article.

There are also efforts to look at progress in planning for adaptation. The latest Adaptation Gap Report 2020, published in early 2021, found that most countries (72%) have national climate plans, policies or other planning instrument in place. National adaptation planning (NAP) processes are supported internationally by the NAP Global Network. The NAP process was launched in Less Developed Countries (LDCs) in 2015, building on earlier National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs) which focused on “urgent and immediate adaptation needs”. Adaptation targets and planning are also an important component of the Nationally Determined contributions that countries are obliged to submit in support of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The Paris Agreement also requires countries to report on progress made on these targets. The Global Stocktake is an instrument of the Paris Agreement which aims to periodically assess collective progress, and is important for increasing the global ambition for climate action on both adaptation and mitigation. Specifically on adaptation, it will recognise the adaptation efforts of developing countries, enhance implementation of adaptation, and review the effectiveness of adaptation. The Global Stocktake synthesis report is due in 2023, however current research suggests that the Global Goal on adaptation has  not yet been operationalized  and global adaptation governance is still weak.

The Adaptation Gap Report 2020 showed that there is still very limited evidence of climate risk reduction resulting from implementation of adaptation activitiesalthough there is clear evidence of a rise in implementation. COVID-19 is expected to negatively affect the ability of countries to plan, finance and implement activities on climate adaptation for many years to come. The financing of adaptation activities -  high on the agenda of the UNFCCC since the beginning – is steadily increasing but the terms and principles of that funding have not metclimate justice demands of many partners.

Climate adaptation and national development planning strategies

NAPs, as well as countries’ NDCs submitted so far show an increasing coherence with other national priorities for development planning (including SDGs etc) though this varies greatly from country to country. Important sectors where coordination is generally needed are water, agriculture, environment, spatial & urban planning, infrastructure, and energy. How adaptation is integrated into each of these areas, i.e. “mainstreaming into established policies, plans, strategies and institutions is also a complicated question. On one hand, if climate adaptation concerns are taken onboard in development plans and policies across different sectorsthen adaptation goals (of risk reduction, etc.) are more likely to be attained, and funding is more likely to be effective. On the other hand, it becomes more difficult to identify which activities can actually be called “adaptation”, and whether funding is new and additional to other spending and budgets. This distinction is important for monitoring and evaluating international funding for adaptation to low- and middle-income countries. 

Among the sectors which are most important to equip with an understanding of adaptation are: disaster risk reduction and management; ecosystem management/Nature-based Solutions; water management; and agriculture.   For example, adaptation has strong relevance for disaster risk reduction and management (DRR/DRM). Many people consider the main part of CCA to be itself part of the longstanding effort on DRRwhich is itself a sub-field of development. There are strong similarities in the goals, strategies and actors involved. In the past two decades, climate change adaptation has become an increasingly prominent and visible area for research, planning and actionCCA’s political momentum and progress in creating a mechanism for international negotiations and agreements is something that DRR could build on (e.g. through Sendai framework). Alignment between the goals, policies and the scientific work in the two areas is happening slowly and is not keeping pace with the opportunities or openings. Moreover, there is still a lot of confusion around the terminology employed – somewhat separately - in these fields, although taxonomies are starting to appear as a basis for sharing data and knowledge. 

A linkage of particular concern to developing countries is between adaptation and poverty reduction. Poverty is a key driver of social vulnerability which also underpins multiple climate risks.  Climate change impacts disproportionally affect poor people in low-income communities; if disasters occur they can exacerbate poverty even further.

Climate adaptation examples under different themes on weADAPT

The IPC(Oppenheimer et al, 2014) considers 3 categories of actions to be (1) structural and physical adaptation (2) social adaptation; and (3) institutional adaptation. We can also consider actions within important sectors as mentioned above. Some recently published examples of climate change adaptation research under different themes on weADAPT (e.g urban, community, national, nature-basedare :

Co-designing climate services to integrate traditional ecological knowledge: a case study from Bali, Indonesia. This report discusses efforts to help Indigenous People adapt to climate change by combining their traditional ecological knowledge with scientific and technological sources of information about agriculture and climate change. Read the complete Case Study on weADAPT

Integrating ecosystem-based adaptation and integrated water resources management for climate-resilient water management. This study explores how ecosystem-based adaptation and integrated water resources management can be merged to achieve greater climate resilience in watersheds. Read the complete Article on weADAPT

Transformative adaptation of rivers in an urban context: An ecological infrastructure and socio-ecological toolkit. Ecological infrastructure plays an important role in the overall health of rivers. This toolkit supports users to design, plan, implement and finance ecological infrastructure.  

Co-designing climate services to support adaptation to natural hazards: two case studies from Sweden. Drawing on two Swedish case studies, this brief aims to understand how the co-design of climate services can support adaptation planning and decision-making. Read the complete Article on weADAPT

For other examples, please see the following pages:

Further reading

There is a huge amount of literature available on adaptation. For overview material, a good place to start could be the synthesis products that summarise a lot of this work and experience, include a wide range of sources, and are based on the inputs of many contributors. There are a few high-level products such as:

The IPCC (Working Group II) reporting. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produce regular syntheses of the state of knowledge on climate science and its implications for adaptation and mitigation actions. Five Assessment Reports (AR) have been published since establishment in 1988.

The latest synthesis report from the IPCC entitled Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 ºc highlights outstanding knowledge gaps both in the underlying science on climate change impacts and our understanding of the pathways to action.

BRACED SR1.5 Guide for policymakers and practitioners

UNEP’s Adaptation Gap Report series

This series of reports (2014, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2020*) looks at the gap between implemented adaptation and the needs for adaptation – as defined by adaptation targets, plans, preferences and capacities in response to current climate change and future evolution.

*The latest Adaptation Gap Report 2020, which focused on Nature-based Solutions, was published in early 2021 (see also Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative)

Please find the most up to date glossaries that might help you interpret the world of climate change adaptation.


  • Lonsdale, K., Pringle, P. & Turner, B. (2015) Transformative adaptation: what it is, why it matters & what is needed. UK Climate Impacts Programme, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.
  • O’Brien, K. (2012). Global environmental change II: from adaptation to deliberate transformation. Progress in Human Geography36(5): 667-676. DOI:
  • Kates RW, Travis WR, Wilbanks TJ (2012) Transformational adaptation when incremental adaptations to climate change are insufficient. Proc Natl Acad Sci 109:7156–7161.
  • Juhola, S., Glaas, E., Linner, B.O., Neset, T.S. (2016) Redefining maladaptation. Environmental Science and Policy 55:135-140 
  • Oppenheimer M, Campos M, Warren R, et al (2014) Emergent risks and key vulnerabilities. In: Climate change 2014: impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability. Part A: global and sectoral aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In: White and LL (ed). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 1039–1099
  • Khan, M., Robinson, Sa., Weikmans, R. et al. (2020) Twenty-five years of adaptation finance through a climate justice lens. Climatic Change 161, 251–269.
  • Vulturius, G. and Davis, M. (2016). Defining Loss and Damage: The Science and Politics Around One of the Most Contested Issues within the UNFCCC. Discussion Brief. Stockholm Environment Institute, Stockholm
  • Noble, IR, S Huq, YA Anokhin, et al. (2014). “Adaptation Needs and Options.” In Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, In:  Field CB, Barros VR et al. (ed). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp 833–68
  • Wikipedia contributors, "Climate change adaptation," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed June 11, 2021).