University of Michigan: Global network takes stock of human adaptation to climate change

As society experiences increasingly frequent and severe natural hazard events and environmental stressors—while making little progress at reducing carbon emissions—the need to adapt to the changing climate has become starkly clear.

But what actions are we taking to adapt to climate change around the world, and how successful are our efforts? A global network of 126 researchers sought to answer those questions, producing the most systematic and comprehensive assessment of implemented human adaptation to climate change to date.

The study, published online Oct. 28 in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that adaptation, as documented in the scientific literature, is mostly fragmented and incremental, undertaken primarily by individuals and households, rather than comprehensive and coherent efforts by communities and institutions.

“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,” said Lea Berrang Ford, lead study author and professor and Priestley Research Chair in Climate and Health at University of Leeds’ Priestley International Centre for Climate.

Study co-author Paige Fischer, an associate professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, noted that the researchers arrived at their findings by employing a sophisticated methodological approach to take stock of climate change adaptation efforts as documented in the scientific literature from 2013-2020—screening more than 48,000 research articles in the process. They then used systematic literature review methods to synthesize the resulting set of 1,682 articles to identify who, where, and how people are engaging in adaptation.

The release of the study proved timely—just ahead of the 26th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.

“The Paris Agreement commits parties participating in COP to track progress toward adaptation, 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,” Fischer said.

Drilling down on the specific findings of the study, the researchers noted that behavioral adjustments by individuals and households are more prevalent than any other type of response, largely motivated by drought and precipitation variability. Local governments and civil society are engaging in risk reduction across all sectors and regions, particularly in response to flooding. Urban technological and infrastructural adaptations to flood risk are prevalent in Europe, while shifts in farming practices dominate reporting from Africa and Asia.

Despite increasing evidence of adaptation responses, however, University of Delaware disaster researcher and study co-author A.R. Siders notes that the study found very little evidence that current adaptation efforts actually reduced 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,” Siders said. “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.”

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,” Lesnikowski said. “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 said the “evidence gap” discovered in the study’s findings has already inspired further research, and she hopes that more will follow in the future.

“What was really remarkable about this project was the scale of the collaboration,” she said. ““Working with more than a hundred global scholars meant that our analysis and data could draw on a wide range of perspectives and experiences, and I think we see that breadth of experience coming through in the spin-off papers that draw on the same Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative database to explore a wide range of topics.”

Siders was optimistic: “Hopefully, this is just the beginning of data that can help governments and practitioners make evidence-based decisions that take global efforts into account.”

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