IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Adaptation and global integration

This last theme is also developed by Pelling and Uitto (2001), who suggest that change at the global level is a source of new opportunities, as well as constraints, for building local resilience. They argue that small island populations have been mobile, both historically and at present, and that remittances from overseas relatives help to moderate economic risks and increase family resiliency on home islands. They also recognise that this is a critical time for small islands, which must contend with ongoing development pressures, economic liberalisation, and the growing pressures from risks associated with climate change and sea-level rise. They conclude, following a case study of Barbados, that efforts to enhance island resilience must be mainstreamed into general development policy formulation, and that adaptations should not be seen as separate or confined to engineering or land-use planning-based realms (Pelling and Uitto, 2001).

Barnett (2001) discusses the potential impact of economic liberalisation on the resilience of Pacific island communities to climate change. He argues that many small island societies have proved resilient in the past to social and environmental upheaval. The key parameters of this resilience include: opportunities for migration and subsequent remittances; traditional knowledge, institutions and technologies; land and shore tenure regimes; the subsistence economy; and linkages between formal state and customary decision-making processes. However, this resilience may be undermined as the small island states become increasingly integrated into the world economy through, for example, negotiations for fishery rights in their Exclusive Economic Zones, and international tourism (Barnett, 2001).

These global economic processes, together with global warming, sea-level rise, and possibly increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, make it difficult for autonomous small islands to achieve an appropriate degree of sustainability, which Barnett and Adger (2003) suggest is one of the goals of adaptation to climate change. They maintain that for the most vulnerable small island states (those composed of low-lying atolls), this combination of global processes interacting with local socio-economic and environmental conditions puts the long-term ability of humans to inhabit atolls at risk, and that this risk constitutes a ‘dangerous’ level of climatic change that may well undermine their national sovereignty (see Box 16.6).

Box 16.6. Climate dangers and atoll countries

“Climate change puts the long-term sustainability of societies in atoll nations at risk. The potential abandonment of sovereign atoll countries can be used as the benchmark of the ‘dangerous’ change that the UNFCCC seeks to avoid. This danger is as much associated with the narrowing of adaptation options and the role of expectations of impacts of climate change as it is with uncertain potential climate-driven physical impacts. The challenges for research are to identify the thresholds of change beyond which atoll socio-ecological systems collapse and to assess how likely these thresholds are to be breached. These thresholds may originate from social as well as environmental processes. Further, the challenge is to understand the adaptation strategies that have been adopted in the past and which may be relevant for the future in these societies.”

Source: Barnett and Adger (2003).

This discussion highlights the role of resilience – both its biophysical and human aspects – as a critical component in developing the adaptive capacity of small island states, a role that has effectively emerged since publication of the TAR. In a recent study of the Cayman Islands, Tompkins (2005) found that self-efficacy, strong local and international support networks, combined with a willingness to act collectively and to learn from mistakes, appeared to have increased the resilience of the Government to tropical storm risk, implying that such resilience can also contribute to the creation of national level adaptive capacity to climate change, thereby reducing vulnerability.