Guest Article #84

Evolving Research on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change

The scientific research on the impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change has evolved considerably over the last two decades as evidenced by the periodic assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This article charts the evolution of the science on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change over the last two decades.

The first assessment report of the IPCC produced in 1990, focused mainly on the potential impacts of a global atmospheric temperature rise of several degrees Centigrade over the next century and what that would mean in different parts of the world. It showed that certain regions such as the poles and the drought-prone mid continents and low lying islands and deltas would be particularly adversely impacts by an increased atmospheric temperature rise of several degrees Centigrade over the next 50 to 100 years. This was done mainly using global impact models and projections over five to ten decades in a top-down manner.

The second phase of studies, reported in the second assessment report of the IPCC in 1995, took a more bottom-up approach to the topic of vulnerability, which combined the top-down impact assessments with bottom-up vulnerability assessments of the conditions in each country and region. Thus, for example, both the Netherlands and Bangladesh look to be equally impacted from top-down impact models but when the local vulnerability of the country and communities are taken into account, then the Netherlands can be seen to be less vulnerable due to its higher technological and financial ability to cope with the same physical impacts.

The third phase of the science then moved on to the topic of adaptation to the adverse impacts of climate change, which were reported for the first time in the third assessment report of the IPCC in published in 2001. This highlighted the need to focus on adaptation to the potential adverse impacts of climate change in the future and the fact that the need to for adaptation was higher in the poorer countries and regions of the world.

In the fourth assessment report of the IPCC published in 2007, the need for integrated approaches to both adaptation as well as mitigation was highlighted along with the need to focus on building adaptive capacity of the most vulnerable communities and countries.

There was a parallel policy making activity under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process with the creation of the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) in the Marrakech Accords agreed at the seventh session of the Conference of Parties (COP 7) held in Morocco in 2001 to support the least developed countries (LDCs) to prepare National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs).

This process then led to the Cancun Adaptation Framework agreed at COP 16 in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010, where all developing countries were to be supported to prepare National Adaptation Plans (NAPs). The difference between the NAPAs and NAPs was that the former were meant to be for LDCs only and were to identify some urgent and immediate adaptation projects, while the latter were meant for all developing countries and are supposed to be longer term.

At the same time, the scientific community carrying out research on adaptation to climate change (based on impacts and vulnerability assessments) has also grown considerably and has been holding a series of international conferences on Adaptation Science. The first took place in the Gold Coast in Australia in 2010, and the second in Arizona, US, in May 2012. These international conferences on Adaptation Science are now going to be held every two years, with the next one scheduled to be held in Fortaleza, Brazil, in 2014.

In order to facilitate and promote further research on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change around the world, UNEP, WMO and UNESCO came together in 2011 to set up PROVIA as a vehicle to provide advice and inputs to research funders. UNEP has supported PROVIA since its inception. It has already commissioned two reports: one on the research gaps on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation carried out by Columbia University in the US; while the other provides an update on guidelines and methodologies for carrying out assessments of impacts, vulnerability and adaptation from the earlier ones that were over a decade old. The latter was prepared by a team of experts under the leadership of the Stockholm Environment and Institute (SEI) in Sweden.

The growing community of researchers on impacts, vulnerability and adaptation presents several interesting features. The first is the rapid increase in researchers from developing countries joining the initial set of researchers who were mainly from the developed countries. The second feature of adaptation is that it requires the inputs from not just researchers but also practitioners and planners, and is much of a learning-by-doing realm of knowledge generation. The third feature of adaptation science is that it started mainly in the LDCs and other developing countries but has now moved into the developed countries as well, as they realise that they will also have to face the adverse consequences of climate change and hence have to enhance their knowledge on how to adapt.