The University of Arizona

Developing Adaptation Strategies

By Joe Abraham | The University of Arizona | June 17, 2009

Faced with the possibility of reduced water supplies, increased public health risks, and more extreme weather, government agencies, businesses, communities, and other organizations are starting to think about how to adapt to these and other climate change impacts. All other things being equal, a planned, proactive strategy to address climate change is likely to be less costly and allow more time and input to develop more effective adaptation options.

photo of a hand drawing a diagram

Credit: ©Brian A. Jackson,

Strategies for adapting to change impacts are generally based on a climate impact assessment and an assessment of vulnerability. Organizations initiating a planning process can also draw on several climate change planning guides that provide a range of approaches for assessing impacts, assessing vulnerability, and developing an adaptation strategy.

Using impact and vulnerability assessments to identify adaptation options

Climate impact and vulnerability assessments help organizations understand what they may need to adapt to, identify, and select specific adaptation options. Impact assessments tend to focus on physical consequences of climate change, like the occurrence of heat waves or reduced snowpack. Vulnerability assessments focus more on how specific systems, such as critical habitat and municipal water, are sensitive to impacts and how they can adapt—or be adapted—to reduce their vulnerability to climate change.1

In some cases impact and vulnerability assessments may provide enough information for organizations to identify how existing programs and activities could be modified or expanded to address changes. For example, projections of warmer temperatures and drier winters may prompt cities to reduce future outdoor water demand by changing development codes.

In other cases assessments may reveal the need for more information to identify targeted adaptation actions. For example, a county or state health agency may decide to work more closely with researchers to collect more data and develop better models for predicting the future abundance of disease vectors like mosquitoes.

Recent climate adaptation planning activities and strategy development

Climate planning activities are starting up and accelerating across a wide range of agencies and organizations. The governor of California, for example, initiated a statewide climate adaptation planning process that includes six working groups assessing impacts, vulnerabilities, and adaptation options in the following areas:

  • Biodiversity and habitat
  • Infrastructure (roads, levees, buildings, etc.)
  • Oceans and coastal resources
  • Public health
  • Water
  • Forestry and agriculture

Several other U.S. states and local governments have developed or are in the process of developing climate adaptation plans.2,3

The following examples illustrate how government, researchers, non-profits, and the public are working together to develop strategies to adapt to various impacts of climate change. Emphasis is placed on collaborative activities in the Southwest, but examples from outside the region are also included.

photo of a low reservoir

Scientists, water resource managers and others are working collaboratively to develop strategies that would help avoid water shortages as a result of climate change.
Credit: ©Mike Dabell,

Strategies for adapting to impacts affecting water resource management

In 2006 the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization initiated a statewide planning process that identified options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to climate change impacts on Colorado’s water supplies like reduced snowpack, more drought, and earlier snowmelt. A panel of researchers and representatives from government, business, and the public finalized a report in 2007 that included 14 policy options for adapting to impacts on water supplies.
Read about Colorado's water strategies.

Following an executive order from Governor Bill Richardson, the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer convened a workgroup comprised of numerous university researchers, agency and trade group representatives, consultants, and citizen stakeholders to assess climate change impacts on the state’s water supply and its ability to manage water resources. The state engineer produced a report in 2006 that identifies impacts like warmer temperatures, less snowpack, and decreased summer streamflow, and includes possible tools, policies, and strategies for adapting water management to climate change.
Read about New Mexico's water strategies.

In 2008 the Arizona Water Institute, in collaboration with Arizona State University and The University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment, organized a workshop for local, state, tribal, and federal water resource managers, who discussed and identified adaptation strategies to adapt to climate change impacts that will affect the demand and supply of groundwater and surface water supplies.
Read about strategies from the AWI workshop.

In October 2008 the California Department of Water Resources published a report that included a series of adaptation strategies to improve the capacity of state and local water managers to contend with climate change impacts like reduced snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, more frequent and intense droughts, and worsening winter and springtime flooding.
Read about California's water strategies.

The Western Governor’s Association is working with the Western States Water Council, federal agencies, and others to plan for a wide variety of issues affecting water in the arid West, including climate change. In 2008 the WGA produced a report that included a number of recommendations aimed at states, federal agencies, the climate research community, and water managers at all levels that will help adapt water management in the West to climate change.
Read the WGA report.

Strategies for adapting to impacts affecting natural landscapes and wildlife habitat

In 2007 The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico, the Climate Assessment for the Southwest, and The University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment organized a workshop with local, state, tribal, and federal natural resource managers and agency and academic scientists to discuss resource management options for adapting to climate change. Results of this meeting included identifying four key strategies for buffering natural ecosystems from climate change: develop landscape-scale adaptation pilot projects; identify, share, apply, and test practical management practices for natural resource managers; develop a regional training network; and improve regional monitoring of climate changes and impacts.
Read the workshop's executive summary.

photo of a wildfire

Forest and wildlife managers will need to manage forest ecosystems differently under a changing climate.
Credit: ©Dave Parsons,

In 2007 the Western Governor’s Association launched a wildlife corridors initiative, a multi-state and collaborative effort in which six work groups were charged with developing recommendations on various aspects of wildlife corridors and crucial habitat in the West. The work groups finalized a report in 2008 that identified several barriers to maintaining wildlife corridors and habitat as a result of climate change. The report proposed a number of strategies states and governors can implement to adapt to climate change impacts, including increasing the connectivity of critical habitat throughout the region.
Read the work groups' 2008 report.

Tahoe National Forest officials recently conducted an evaluation of their own management policies to determine possible proactive climate adaptation management actions and opportunities to enhance current and future proactive management in the face of climate impacts including longer fire seasons, greater occurrence of higher-elevation insect and disease events, and lower water levels in lake and streams in late summer.
Read about the Tahoe National Forest's evaluation.

The non-profit Heinz Center produced a report in 2008 that discussed 18 adaptation strategies for natural resource managers related to land protection, species conservation, monitoring and planning, and law and policy. The report is based on a synthesis of academic research and public policy documents, and addresses climate impacts including shifts in species distributions, changes in the timing of life history events or phenology, and increased spread of wildlife diseases.
Read the Heinz Center report.

Adaptation strategies for local governments

ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability works with local governments in the U.S. and around the world, including many in the Southwest, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate impacts. Through its Climate Resilient Communities program, ICLEI is working with member local governments in the U.S. to accelerate adaptation planning and strategy development at the local level.
Read about the ICLEI's climate adaptation program.

The Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP) launched its Urban Leaders Adaptation Initiative in 2006 and is working with representatives from 10 local governments in the U.S. (including Phoenix) and Canada to identify ways to adapt to climate change impacts. In 2009 CCAP released a report that identified actions and steps that participating local governments have taken and how other local governments can adapt.
Read about the Urban Leaders Adaptation Initiative.

Related Links

Pew Center on Global Climate Change Web page on climate federal, state, and local adaptation policy and activities in the U.S.
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  1. Preston, B.L. and M. Stafford-Smith. 2009. Framing vulnerability and adaptive capacity assessment: Discussion paper. CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship Working Paper No. 2.
  2. Pew Center on Global Climate Change. 2009. Adaptation planning: what U.S. states and localities are doing. Pew Center Working Paper Series.
  3. Pew Center on Global Climate Change. Status of U.S. state adaptation plans. Site accessed June 25, 2009.