The University of Arizona

Introduction to Climate Change Adaptation

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

In the U.S. significant attention is now being paid to developing solutions to the problem of climate change. Businesses, researchers, trade organizations, community groups, neighborhoods and citizens, and all levels of government are developing and implementing ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, climate change is already underway, and even under relatively ambitious scenarios where global greenhouse gas emissions are significantly reduced over the next several decades, scientists are projecting the Earth’s climate will continue to change with important consequences for the Southwest region1.

photo of the hoover dam's low water level

Drought conditions through the first decade of this century have reduced water in the Colorado River system dramatically. Climate change is projected to worsen the situation.
Credit: ©Reuben Shulz,

As with reducing emissions, there is a need to begin anticipating changes in climate and assess how those changes will affect water resources, forest health, public health, energy demand, and various other issues critical to the sustainability of the region. With this information, government, business, and community leaders can mobilize planning efforts to adapt the various social and natural systems effected by climate change.

Organizations like government agencies, businesses, and community groups will find resources on this Web site that will help them assess risks associated with the impacts of climate change, such as reduced snowpack, increased wildfire, and more prolonged drought conditions, and incorporate climate change into their planning processes. Information about climate adaptation planning and strategy development on this Web site summarizes knowledge and experience from a large and interdisciplinary body of climate change adaptation research, recently developed climate adaptation planning resources, and even more recent adaptation planning efforts in the U.S. involving researchers, government officials, and public and private sector stakeholders.

What does it mean to adapt to climate change?

There are many different ways that organizations can adapt to climate change. Examples abound in the ways we already adapt to weather and climate variability and extremes like drought, floods, heat waves, and extreme cold weather. Adaptation can be subtle— considering seasonal climate forecasts or communicating flood risks during the summer monsoon season—as well as more significant like reinforcing roadways and bridges, thinning forested areas, or implementing additional water conservation codes and ordinances.

It is widely argued that in many cases adaptation occurring in advance of climate change will be more cost effective than reactive adaptation2. For this to happen, organizations must have the resources and experience to use imprecise information, deal with uncertainty, and develop strategies that fit well into existing goals. Fortunately most agencies and other organizations regularly deal with uncertainty and change in the systems they manage: municipal water systems, critical habitat, or public health.

To adequately manage and adapt to climate change over the long term, however, many organizations will need to develop and invest in new assessment and planning resources. In general creating strategies to adapt to a changing climate requires the capacity to perform the following tasks:

  1. Building organizational awareness of climate change and support for adaptation planning.
  2. Assessing and monitoring climate impacts and vulnerabilities.
  3. Identifying adaptation options, costs, and benefits.
  4. Incorporating (2) and (3) into broader planning and decision-making processes.
  5. Evaluating and improving strategies and specific adaptation options.

Actions that build capacity to perform these tasks include creating and funding planning committees; establishing an organization-wide leader for adaptation planning; developing and implementing a communication strategy; including outside researchers, experts, and stakeholders; improving data collection and monitoring programs for assessing climate impacts and vulnerabilities; developing information-sharing partnerships with other organizations; and funding focused impacts and adaptation research and analysis.

Related Links

Climate Change 101: Adaptation. A report by the Pew Center on Climate Change
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  1. Arblaster, J., et al. 2007. Summary for policymakers. In Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.
  2. Easterling, W. E. III, B. H. Hurd, J. B. Smith. 2004. Coping with climate change: the role of adaptation in the United States. Pew Center on Global Climate Change report, 52pp.