Special issue on climate change adaptation and development

Climate change is real, it is happening, and it is man-made (IPCC WGI 2013). We also know that we have already put so many greenhouse gas (GHG) pollutants into the atmosphere that we will see significant and long-term change that we need to adapt and adjust to (IISD 2014). It is fundamentally important for all development practitioners to understand these impacts and to get to grips with the challenge of how and when to adapt to climate change.

As this special issue went to print, the international science community gathered to discuss their understanding of climate change impacts and to produce an update of the assessment that was made five years ago (IISD 2014).

There are plenty of grim presentations1 of what the extremes of the possible climate scenarios will throw at us over the next 100 years, but not all change will be disastrous; some change will be beneficial, but much of the change will happen at an unprecedented rate that will require the best possible analysis and understanding of how and when we should adapt to climate change.

This is particularly important for development practitioners as we invest in ensuring that poverty is reduced and eliminated and the well-being of everyone is improved. Many countries and communities around the world are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, but developing economies may on one hand be less resilient to the impact, but could on the other hand be in a better position to make their development climate smart by adapting at the right time and in the right places to make the most efficient use of their economic resources.

The articles in this special issue shine a light on the complexity and the multi-dimensional aspects of climate change adaptation. They gather some of the experiences of addressing climate change impacts in a development context. I would like to highlight a few facets of adaptation and development that are covered by these articles. These are aspects that I believe are important for actions and for the debate and discussion of priorities and approaches.

Dealing with uncertainty

When development practitioners are faced with decisions that involve adaptation to climate change we must balance a series of uncertainties. We do not know how effectively the world community will address the need to reduce GHG-emissions or how fast low carbon technologies2 will be introduced – how well we, as a world, will be able to mitigate further climate change. We know that we are currently on a pathway slightly worse than the ‘business as usual’ scenarios (IPCC WGI 2013), but we also know that efforts to reduce emissions are accelerating in the industrialised countries and that growth in carbon emissions is slowing. This could be consistent with the reduction scenarios in the IPCC report on the physical climate science (RCP 2.6 and RCP 4.5), but only if additional and significant action is taken over the next few years

In addition, climate sensitivity is uncertain with temperature increases ranging from 1.5–4.5°C. This range was lowered slightly by the IPCC report in September 2013, compared to previous years' assessments. Finally, the global science community is just beginning to understand how nature and people react to such changes, and the most recent IPCC report on climate impacts was released as this special issue went to press. There is still a huge range in assessments of the economic impact of additional temperature increases of approximately 2°C, putting global aggregate economic losses somewhere between 0.2 and 2.0% of income. Losses will accelerate with additional warming. A recent World Bank (2013) report estimated global adaptation costs to be in the range of US$70–100 billion per year in developing countries from 2010 to 2050. This figure is often disputed, but probably still the most accurate estimate that exists. Both of these estimates are still incomplete and have recognised limitations. The headlines from the latest IPCC (2014) report (the Summary for Policy Makers of the Working Group II report on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability) show that:

This is the most comprehensive and rigorous assessment of the impacts of climate change ever produced, reflecting the consensus of hundreds of the world's leading scientists, based on more than 12,000 peer reviewed articles and agreed by more than 120 governments following an extensive review process.

The impacts of climate change are expected to slow down economic growth, erode food security, and make poverty alleviation more difficult.

Unmitigated climate change poses great risks to global food and water security, human health, natural ecosystems, and economic development. The poor and marginalised are most vulnerable. Urban areas, low-lying areas, and emerging hotspots of hunger are most at risk.

Effective and inclusive climate change adaptation can help to build a richer, more resilient world in the near-term and beyond.

Adaptation is essential in dealing with the risks of climate change, but there are limits to what adaptation can achieve, so urgent action is also needed to reduce emissions.

Effectively dealing with the impacts of climate change is about good risk management.

Many of the articles in this special edition address parts of this complexity of uncertainty. Last year, DFID published a Topic Guide on decision-making under uncertainty (Ranger 2013) to help practitioners avoid the worst trap of all: to defer, avoid, or delay decisions because of the uncertainty of some aspects of change and adaptation.

To begin the issue, Wheeler sets out the imperative for investing in better climate adaptation and resilience as part of development assistance programmes. Ranger et al. look at the quality of those decisions by major funders and address how these organisations fare when it comes to assessments of the vulnerability of the people they provide assistance for.

Making good vulnerability assessments

With the uncertainties that exist, it can be a challenge to ensure good vulnerability assessments as a foundation for development interventions. Two articles look into the experience of vulnerability assessments in two different settings where only limited research has taken place: fragile and conflict settings and the emerging area of urban development. These pieces by Vivekananda and Smith and Papchristodoulou et al. both explore areas where practitioners are in need of more research, particularly as both are likely to be the target of more development interventions in the future.


Three articles follow on from this to help us understand how building resilience to the impacts of climate change plays a central role in safeguarding development outcomes. Moench links the vulnerability assessments to a framework for analytical assessments and an iterative planning process developed for urban processes but with wider application for all climate resilience interventions. Rai et al. offer interesting insights from Bangladesh, one of the countries with perhaps the most developed experience in building resilience to weather variability and climate change.

The adaptation deficit

Khan's article on basic services for resilience opens an interesting angle that involves a rapidly-evolving concept: that of the adaptation deficit. This is the notion that interventions that need to be made irrespective of climate change impacts, either because they represent good practice in managing natural resources or a requirement for human well-being, will in themselves be effective measures to adapt to climate change and create resilience. The first paper by Sharma et al similarly explores how a focus on improving local governance systems, an important development goal outside climate change, creates the foundation for good climate adaptation. For many years, the joint UNEP/UNDP Poverty and Environment Initiative (PEI) has explored this area, and the paper by Latif et al. has collected useful learning from several areas covered by the programme.

Urban and rural

Several papers address the particular context of urban development, as mentioned above and the two contexts (urban and rural) in which interventions to build climate resilience take place are explored in three papers. Kutter and Westby look at the holistic landscape approach to ensuring well-integrated rural interventions. The second Sharma et al. paper also focuses on the experience in the rural context.

There are distinct differences in the approach needed in rural and urban climate change adaptation, and both are essential for a good understanding of effective climate resilience. Karanth and Archer offer a useful contribution to addressing these twin pillars of adaptation.

Guest Editor
1 For example, see “Official prophecy of doom: Global warming will cause widespread conflict, displace millions of people and devastate the global economy”, in the Independent Online, Tuesday 18 March 2014

2 Renewable energy, emission reduction technology, such as carbon capture and storage and energy efficiency measures.

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