A Stitch in Time: General Lessons from Specific Cases

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date



Center for Sustainability Education



Publication Title

Climate Change and Adaptation


We can adapt to climate change and limit the harm, or we can fail to adapt and risk much more severe consequences. How we respond to this challenge will shape the future in important ways.

The climate is already hazardous; indeed it always has been so. Variations and extremes of climate disrupt production of food and supplies of water, reduce incomes, damage homes and property, impact health and even take lives. Humans, in an unintended revenge, are getting back at the climate by adding to heat-trapping gases in the Earth's atmosphere that are changing the climate. But the changes are amplifying the hazards. And we cannot in short order stop this. The physical and social processes of climate change have a momentum that will continue for decades and well beyond.

This undeniable momentum does not imply, however, that efforts to mitigate climate change, meaning to reduce or capture the emissions of greenhouse gases that drive climate change, are wasted. Nor is a call for adaptation a fatalistic surrender to this truth. The magnitude and pace of climate change will determine the severity of the stresses to which the world will be exposed. Slowing the pace of human caused climate change, with the aim of ultimately stopping it, will enable current and future generations to better cope with and adapt to the resulting hazards, thereby reducing the damages and danger. Mitigating climate change is necessary. Adapting to climate change is necessary too.

The challenges are substantial, particularly in the developing world. Developing countries have a high dependence on climate-sensitive natural resource sectors for livelihoods and incomes, and the changes in climate that are projected for the tropics and sub-tropics, where most developing countries are found, are generally adverse for agriculture (IPCC, 2001 and 2007a). Furthermore, the means and capacity in developing countries to adapt to changes in climate are scarce due to low levels of human and economic development and high rates of poverty. These conditions combine to create a state of high vulnerability to climate change in much of the developing world.

To better understand who and what are vulnerable to climate change, and to examine adaptation strategies, a group of case studies was undertaken as part of an international project, Assessments of Impacts and Adaptations to Climate Change (AIACC). The studies span Africa, Asia, Central and South America, and islands of the Caribbean, Indian and Pacific Oceans. They include assessments of agriculture, rural livelihoods, food security, water resources, coastal zones, human health and biodiversity conservation. Results from the studies about the nature, causes and distribution of climate change vulnerability are presented in a companion to this volume (Leary et al, 2008). In this volume, we collect together papers from the AIACC studies that explore the challenge of adaptation.

Comparison and synthesis of our individual contributions have yielded nine general lessons about adaptation, as well a many more lessons that are specific to particular places and contexts. The general lessons, formulated as recommendations, are as follows: (1) adapt now, (2) create conditions to enable adaptation, (3) integrate adaptation with development, (4) increase awareness and knowledge, (5) strengthen institutions, (6) protect natural resources, (7) provide financial assistance, (8) involve those at risk, and (9) use place-specific strategies. The lessons are briefly outlined below, followed by a more detailed examination of their nuances and supporting evidence from the case studies.


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