The undesired consequences of quick-fix climate adaptation

Why short-term adaptation may undermine long-term social-ecological resilience

Coastal erosion near Skipsea, East Yorkshire, UK: landslides cause retreat of the cliff line on average in excess of 2.5 metres per year. Although with the best intentions, coastal community action to protect homes and livelihoods may affect sedimentation and erosion rates on a larger scale down the coast. Photo: Earthwatch/Flickr. C.C
It is a fascinating paradox that the same innovative capacity that has put us in the current environmental predicament is actually what can be used to push us out of it.

This applies for climate adaptation strategies as well, and indeed communities are responding by adjusting economic activities, changing land use practices and changing the design and implementation of infrastructure.

But the array of policy responses to climate change are not all positively contributing to more resilient systems in the long term.
 
Nine policy responses evaluated
In a recently published article in WIRES Climate Change, centre scientific director Carl Folke together with a range of experts on adaptation, governance and climate change research have evaluated nine current regional climate change policy responses to evaluate how much they affect the resilience of various resource systems.

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Out of the nine initiatives analysed, only three had elements that could enhance resilience as much as reducing it. The other six had effects that predominantly reduced the resilience of a system.

Responses such as the increase in harvest rates to deal with pine beetle infestations in Canada and expansion of biofuels globally, have the potential to undermine the resilience of resource systems.
 
Other responses, such as decentralised water planning in Brazil and tropical disaster management in Caribbean islands, have the potential to increase long-term resilience.
 
Short-term benefits can make things worse
Carl Folke and his co-authors found that several of the nine initiatives did not sufficiently take into account the complex range of interacting forces which ultimately affects the resilience and vulnerability of both systems and humans.
 
"There is growing evidence that current policy approaches to climate risks can sometimes focus too much on short-term benefits and seek simple technological fixes to problems that are more complex," says Carl Folke.

"One challenge to enhancing resilience is to identify how responses to any single stressor influence the larger, interconnected social-ecological system. Responses to one risk alone may inadvertently undermine the capacity to address other stressors," he says.
 
For example, coastal towns in eastern England, experiencing worsening coastal erosion because of sea level rise, are taking their own action in order to protect livelihoods and homes.

The problem is that such actions are affecting sedimentation and erosion rates on a larger scale down the coast.
 
"While such actions to protect the coast are effective in the short term, in the long run, the investments to 'hold-the-line' may have diminished capital resources for other adaptations and reduced the adaptive capacity to future sea level rise," Folke warns.

"There are definite trade-offs between narrowly defined adaptation policies and strategies which seek to retain resilience by investing in the underlying capacity to adapt to both climate and other stresses that ultimately affect social-ecological systems," Carl Folke concludes.

Source: Adger, W.N., K. Brown, D. Nelson, F. Berkes, H. Eakin, C. Folke, K. Galvin, M. Goulden, L. Gunderson, K. O´Brien, J. Ruitenbeek, and E. Tompkins. Resilience Implications of Policy Responses to Climate Change. WIREs Climate Change 2:757—766 doi: 10.1002/wcc.133

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references

Adger, W.N., K. Brown, D. Nelson, F. Berkes, H. Eakin, C. Folke, K. Galvin, M. Goulden, L. Gunderson, K. O´Brien, J. Ruitenbeek, and E. Tompkins. Resilience Implications of Policy Responses to Climate Change. WIREs Climate Change 2:757—766 doi: 10.1002/wcc.133

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Professor Carl Folke is Science Director of the centre and has extensive experience in transdisciplinary collaboration between natural and social scientists. He has worked with ecosystem dynamics and services as well as the social and economic dimension of ecosystem management and proactive measures to manage resilience.

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