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

7.6.6 Social issues

There has been a recent shift in perceptions of how settlements and society can better adapt to climate related disasters, away from humanitarian and post-disaster actions toward more anticipatory integrative risk reduction measures that include environmental management, structural measures, protection of critical facilities, land-use planning, financial instruments and early warning systems (UNISDR, 2004). These strategies recognise (a) linkages between risks, vulnerability and development, (b) the importance of creating community assets and capacity to face sudden and slow onset disasters, (c) the key role of a democratic implementation of such strategies, and (d) the need to relate those actions to sustainability goals (UNISDR, 2004; Velásquez, 2005). This approach is practised successfully in countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Cuba, Vietnam, Malaysia, Switzerland and France (UNISDR, 2004). In Manizales and Medellin, Colombia, and Uganda, for example, the economic damage and death toll due to landslides and floods has diminished noticeably, thanks to actions such as reforestation, improved drainage systems, poverty reduction and decentralisation of risk avoidance planning (Velásquez, 2005). On the other hand, the experience of a disaster is likely to reduce the adaptive capacity of the affected society for a time; adaptive capacity is often reduced during periods of recovery.

The most difficult challenges occur when decision makers lack training and access to information about climate-change implications, risk management and possible responses, when fiscal constrains limit local flexibility, and when infrastructure, technological and institutional capacities for coping with any major challenge are inadequate (UN-Habitat, 2003). However, in the best-case scenarios, policy focusing on adaptation has the potential to create positive synergies between outcomes (better managed natural and social systems) and processes (governance that promotes democratic decision making, participatory management strategies, equity, transparency and accountability), which in turn will result in more resilient systems (UNISDR, 2004; Adger et al., 2005b).

Yet adaptation is not limited to purposeful actions to reduce societies’ sensibility to climate change, alter the exposure of the system to it, and increase the resilience of the system to it (Smit et al., 2000). It also includes spontaneous actions which can be implemented at different scales, from individuals to systems, and are not uniform. Individual adaptations may not produce systemic adaptation, and adaptation at a system level may not benefit all individuals (Thomas and Twyman, 2005). Indeed, some adaptations (e.g., warning systems) may not reach poor communities or not fit their information needs (Ferguson, 2003). They may increase the vulnerability of some peoples and places. For example, coastal planning for increased erosion rates includes engineering decisions that potentially impact neighbouring coastal settlements through sediment transport and other physical processes (Adger et al., 2006). As climate change and adaptation becomes a widespread need, there is likely to be competition for resources – investment in one place, sector or risk will reduce the funds available for others, and possibly reduce funding for other social needs (Winchester, 2000).

One challenge to both private (including businesses and NGOs) and public actors is how to build adaptive capacity in the context of current institutional reforms, new trade agreements and changing relationships between the private and public sectors (Lemos and Agrawal, 2003), including roles of environmental organisations. On the one hand, the emergence of new governance structures at the global level (such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - UNFCCC) and across the public-private divide (such as public-private partnerships) has provided new tools for policy design and implementation that may build adaptive capacity (Mitchell and Romero Lankao, 2004; Sperling and Szekely, 2005; Eakin and Lemos, 2006). On the other hand, a transfer of authority from the state to lower levels (through decentralisation and privatisation), in some cases related to developments with international regimes and organisations, may have diminished national government capacities to implement adaptation policies (Jessop, 2002; UN-Habitat, 2003). For example, while decentralisation in Latin America, in principle, allows for better decision-making at the local level, it also constrains the state’s ability to regulate and distribute critical resources to adaptation (Eakin and Lemos, 2006). Similarly, West African pastoral Peulhs or Fulbes lost access to water and pastures at the hands of settled agricultural people who gained local power in the process of decentralisation (Van Dijk et al., 2004). In contrast, the design of participatory, integrated and decentralised institutions such as in Brazil’s recent water reform is likely to build adaptive capacity to climate change in settlements and societies by improving availability and access to technology, involving stakeholders, and encouraging sustainable resource use (Lemos and Oliveira, 2004).

Adaptive capacity is highly uneven across human societies (Adger et al., 2005a, 2006). Among communities that rely on the exploration of natural resources, adaptation practices may benefit some parts of the community more than others. Even within countries with seemingly high capacities to adapt (based on aggregate national indicators for GDP, education levels and technology), there are likely to be some regions and groups that face barriers and constraints to adaptation (O’Brien et al., 2006). For a discussion of strategies for reducing vulnerabilities of the poor to climate change through adaptation, see UNDP et al. (2003).

Among rural communities in Africa and Latin America, one strategy to build adaptive capacity has been to diversify livelihood strategies (Thomas and Twyman, 2005; Eakin, 2006). Rural settlements can cope with a seasonal downturn in rainfall or a mid-season drought by moving livestock, harvesting water, shifting crop mixes and migrating (Scoones et al., 1996); however, without occasional high rainfall periods, and without institutional support, longer-term livelihood sustainability is severely compromised (Eakin, 2006; Eakin and Lemos, 2006). Measures focussed on reducing poverty and increasing access to resources (e.g., the referred landslide management programmes) may enhance the resilience of affected communities or economic sectors.