Climate change adaptation describes how people or the environment respond to climate change, or anticipated climate change, to reduce its effects. In some cases, the responses might be to take advantage of the effects of climate change.
Adaptation might occur naturally in the environment, for example when birds start nesting earlier to take advantage of the warmer spring temperatures. Or it might be action taken by people, for example by growing different crops that can cope with drier summers.
To promote conservation of the natural environment, adaptation might include the creation of space for wildlife to enable it to move in response to changing temperatures. We may need to manage sites for new species as well as modifying our management techniques to help existing ones.
Carbon dioxide released stays in the atmosphere for up to 100 years. Even if we stopped all our emissions of greenhouse gases today, we would have the effects of 30-40 years of temperature rises and over a century of sea-level rise to cope with. We have already had nearly 0.8ºC of temperature rise since the 1850s, so we need to take action now to deal with those changes.
But mitigation – reducing greenhouse gas emissions – is also important so that we avoid dangerous levels of climate change in the future.
It is essential that any adaptation action is 'sustainable'. This means that any responses by society should not actually add to climate change, cause detrimental impacts or limit the ability of other parts of the natural environment society or business to carry out adaptation elsewhere.
Natural England was a major contributor to a joint report in 2007 on how to help the environment to adapt to climate change, published by Defra.
Resilience to climate change
The concept of resilience to climate change is an important one and a cornerstone of most approaches to adaptation, but it can be difficult to translate theory into practice. We set out our approach to developing resilience in a recent paper in the Journal of Applied Ecology: Resilience to climate change: translating principles into practice
Natural England’s Character Area Climate Change Project commenced in 2007 to examine the vulnerability of the natural environment at a finer spatial scale. It began with a set of four pilot studies based around four National Character Areas (NCAs).