The University of Arizona is recognized nationally and internationally as a leader in the science of adaptation to climate change, and associated research and outreach to understand climate change, its observed and potential impacts, and possible responses.
Adaptation is a powerful force in nature. It is about having the capacity to change structures, behaviors and relationships to respond to both current and unknown future threats in the environment. Developing an adaptable capacity to effectively respond to climate change and its impacts is the goal of our adaptation work at the University of Arizona.
Adaptations are actions taken by individuals, institutions, and governments to reduce vulnerabilities or increase resilience to the potential impacts of climate change. In the best possible cases, adaptations may provide economic and other benefits to society.
Societies have been coping with climate variability for centuries by adopting, for example, new agricultural practices, erecting sea walls to minimize coastal flooding, and developing public health campaigns to reduce the transmission of disease during times of the year when disease vectors, such as mosquitoes, are more active.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) defines adaptation as the "adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates, harm or exploits beneficial opportunities."
The National Academy of Sciences notes that “climate change adaptation choices involve deciding how to cope with climate changes that we cannot, or do not, avoid so that possible disruptions and damages to society, economies, and the environment are minimized and—where possible—so that impacts are converted into opportunities for the country and its citizens.”
Why do we need to adapt to climate change?
Much of modern society’s experience of managing resources and protecting people and infrastructure has occurred during a period of relatively stable climate. In the most recent decades, we have observed a cascade of impacts associated with temperature increases. In the Southwest, these include changes in snow hydrology (earlier snowmelt; less late winter precipitation received as snow), in the timing of plant and animal life cycle events (called phenology), and in the severity of drought impacts (such as large-scale forest mortality). Projected future climate changes and impacts may lie outside the range of climate variation that we have observed and may have more serious consequences for society and the environment. Anticipating projected changes will allow society to identify response options across a range of vulnerabilities and manage the risks associated with projected climate changes.
Who needs to adapt?
According to a 2010 National Academy of Sciences report, “Adaptation to reduce vulnerabilities associated with likely impacts of climate change cannot be accomplished by the federal government or any other single decision-maker alone. The challenges are too diverse, the contexts are too different, and too many parties have knowledge and capacities to contribute. Given the diversity of climate impacts, vulnerabilities, and available adaptation options across the United States…adaptation planning and action will be required across all levels of government as well as within the private sector, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and community organizations.”