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

14.5.2 Mainstreaming adaptation

One of the greatest challenges in adapting North America to climate change is that individuals often resist and delay change (Bacal, 2000). Good decisions about adapting to climate change depend on relevant experience (Slovic, 2000), socio-economic factors (Conference Board of Canada, 2006), and political and institutional considerations (Yarnal et al., 2006; Dow et al., 2007). Adaptation is a complex concept (Smit et al., 2000; Dolan and Walker, 2006), that includes wealth and several other dimensions.

Experience and knowledge

The behaviour of people and systems in North America largely reflects historic climate experience (Schipper et al., 2003), which has been institutionalised through building codes, flood management infrastructure, water systems and a variety of other programmes. Canadian and U.S. citizens have invested in buildings, infrastructure, water and flood management systems designed for acceptable performance under historical conditions (Bruce, 1999; Co-operative Programme on Water and Climate, 2005; UMA Engineering, 2005; Dow et al., 2007). Decisions by community water managers (Rayner et al., 2005; Dow et al., 2007) and set-back regulations in coastal areas (Moser, 2005) also account for historic experience but rarely incorporate information about climate change or sea-level rise. In general, decision makers lack the tools and perspectives to integrate future climate, particularly events that exceed historic norms (UNDP, 2001).

Examples of adaptive behaviour influenced exclusively or predominantly by projections of climate change are largely absent from the literature, but some early steps toward planned adaptation have been taken by the engineering community, insurance companies, water managers, public health officials, forest managers and hydroelectric producers. Some initiatives integrate consideration of climate change into the environmental impact assessment process. Philadelphia, Toronto and a few other communities have introduced warning programmes to manage the health threat of heatwaves (Kalkstein, 2002). The introduction of Toronto’s heat/health warning programme was influenced by both climate projections and fatalities from past heatwaves (Koppe et al., 2004; Ligeti, 2006).

Weather extremes can reveal a community’s vulnerability or resilience (RMS, 2005a) and provide insights into potential adaptive responses to future events. Since the 1998 ice storm, Canada’s two most populous provinces, Ontario and Québec, have strengthened emergency preparedness and response capacity. Included are comprehensive hazard-reduction measures and loss-prevention strategies to reduce vulnerability to extreme events. These strategies may include both public information programmes and long-term strategies to invest in safety infrastructure (McBean and Henstra, 2003). Adaptive behaviour is typically greater in the communities that recently experienced a natural disaster (Murphy et al., 2005). But the near absence of any personal preparedness following the 2003 blackout in eastern North America demonstrated that adaptive actions do not always follow significant emergencies (Murphy, 2004).

Socio-economic factors

Wealthier societies tend to have greater access to technology, information, developed infrastructure, and stable institutions (Easterling et al., 2004), which build capacity for individual and collective action to adapt to climate change. But average economic status is not a sufficient determinant of adaptive capacity (Moss et al., 2001). The poor and marginalised in Canada and the U.S. have historically been most at risk from weather shocks (Turner et al., 2003), with vulnerability directly related to income inequality (Yohe and Tol, 2002). Differences in individual capacity to cope with extreme weather were evident in New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina (Kunreuther et al., 2006), when the large majority of those requiring evacuation assistance were either poor or in groups with limited mobility, including elderly, hospitalised and disabled citizens (Murphy et al., 2005; Kumagi et al., 2006; Tierney, 2006).

Political and institutional capacity for autonomous adaptation

Public officials in Canada and the U.S. typically provide early and extensive assistance in emergencies. Nevertheless, emergency response systems in the U.S. and Canada are based on the philosophy that households and businesses should be capable of addressing their own basic needs for up to 72 hours after a disaster (Kovacs and Kunreuther, 2001). The residents’ vulnerability depends on their own resources, plus those provided by public service organisations, private firms and others (Fischhoff, 2006). When a household is overwhelmed by an extreme event, household members often rely on friends, family and other social networks for physical and emotional support (Cutter et al., 2000; Enarson, 2002; Murphy, 2004). When a North American community responds to weather extremes, non-governmental organisations often coordinate support for community-based efforts (National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, 2006).

An active dialogue among stakeholders and political institutions has the potential to clarify the opportunities for adaptation to changing climate. However, public discussion about adaptation is at an early stage in the U.S. and Canada (Natural Resources Canada, 2000), largely because national governments have focused public discussion on mitigation, with less attention to adaptation (Moser, 2005). Some public funds have been directed to research on impacts and adaptation, and both countries have undertaken national assessments with a synthesis of the adaptation literature, but neither country has a formal adaptation strategy (Conference Board of Canada, 2006). Integrating perspectives on climate change into legislation and regulations has the potential to promote or constrain adaptive behaviour (Natural Resources Canada, 2000). North American examples of public policies that influence adaptive behaviour include water allocation law in the western U.S. (Scheraga, 2001), farm subsidies (Goklany, 2007), public flood insurance in the U.S. (Crichton, 2003), guidance on preservation of wetlands and emergency management.