Can We Measure Successful Climate Adaptation?

As countries take longer to cut emissions, adaptation will require more extreme measures. How will countries successfully adapt? What does successful adaptation look like? Can adaptation be quantified and tracked?

While COP26 sequestered at the Scottish Events Center (which one attendee likened to a large wing of an airport), the streets of downtown Glasgow filled with thousands of protesters from around the world. They marched and chanted, demanding that Parties take radical action. Signs and placards read “Act Now!” and called to keep warming less than 1.5°C.

Cutting emissions—mitigation—is the most important part of grappling with climate change. Unsurprisingly, it receives the lion’s share of attention among advocates, the media, and side events at COP.

The other arm of climate management, adaptation, has thus far been overshadowed. But, as mitigation takes longer, adaptation becomes more critical. Why? Adaptation seeks to create or protect the capacity for human and non-human systems to flourish in the context of the climate changes that have already and will yet be caused. Slow mitigation will lead to more .

Thus far, governments at the national and sub-national levels have tended toward a wait-and-see approach to adaptation. It can be hard to garner political will for building new infrastructure, reorganizing institutions, or changing funding and financing mechanisms in anticipation of either slow-onset climate change or future extreme events. Attitudes may be beginning to shift as more places feel and identify local climate impacts.

A remaining challenge is that small or incremental changes to infrastructure, institutions, and financial capacity are likely not going to be sufficient to accommodate non-linear climate impacts. At some point (and, indeed, the ambiguity on the timing is the big issue), many places will feel acute climate impacts. To prepare for this before an emergency and to make smart, cost-effective, and inclusive adaptation decisions, many places must start planning now.

Globally, the UNFCCC seeks to drive adaptation through the Adaptation Division’s National Adaptation Planning (NAP) process, mandated by the Cancun Adaptation Framework. Through this process, by the 154 members identified as developing countries (developed countries are not asked to submit NAPs, though many have prepared them).

NAPs contain mid- to long-range strategies to accommodate impacts of climate change at the country level. Many different aspects of adaptation are covered within these NAPs, such as plans to ensure water and food security, improve disaster resilience, protect biodiversity, rearrange institutions horizontally or vertically, or develop new country-level financial tools. As of COP26, approximately 30 of the 154 developing countries have submitted NAPs.

An open question is how to evaluate the quality and sufficiency of country-level adaptation. One method could be by examining the NAPs themselves, but NAPs may not reflect on-the-ground activities. In some cases, NAPs may be aspirational. In other cases, NAPs may fail to capture the full range of adaptation actually happening.

NAP program manager, Paul Desanker, explains that one barrier to evaluating adaptation is that there is no fixed operational definition of what adaptation really is. He notes that work from the National Academy of Sciences suggests that adaptation can be evaluated across five categories:

  1. Input
  2. Process
  3. Output
  4. Outcome
  5. Impact

Desanker says that, thus far, most efforts to measure adaptation have focused on the first three: inputs, processes, and outputs. There has not yet been a focus on directly observed impacts, though there is a recent study that systematically documents reported impacts.

Measures of adaptation need to develop further. The first Global Stocktake (GST) of the Paris Agreement is taking place from 2021-2023, and then will be repeated every five years. In the context of the GST, there will be an effort to evaluate implementation of adaptation to assess adequacy, effectiveness, and need for further support.

With the GST in mind, during COP26, I joined Desanker; Leo Zulu, an associate professor at Michigan State University; David Stevens, a UN independent expert; and others from the World Metrological Organization’s Group on Earth Observations, NASA, and several universities to explore methods of directly observing country-level adaptation.

The research is motivated by the idea there may be untapped potential in using remotely sensed and other passive global datasets to identify impact without the biases introduced by uneven reporting. Are there observed adjustments or transformations? Are there resilient supply or value chains? Is it possible to quantify impacts of adaptation efforts? The group discussed potentially useful indicators, which we will evaluate further in the coming months.

One hopeful eventual outcome is to be able to observe adaptation impact and then back into the processes that led to the most successful impacts. The science of evaluating adaptation and preferred adaptation strategies is nascent. It is possible, however, that the next turn in the climate debate will focus on how to best adapt.

Allison Lassiter

Assistant Professor, City and Regional Planning
Allison Lassiter is an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the Weitzman School of Design. Her work examines opportunities to use landscape infrastructure and emerging technologies to build resilience and increase adaptive capacity in cities.