Why we adapt to climate change

Detailed image of stacked sandbagsClick to enlarge
A common measure in the event of flooding is the stacking of sandbags.
Source: Susanne Kambor/KomPass

The climate has already changed. Climate change is noticeable in Germany, too. Extreme weather events such as heat waves or heavy precipitation have become more frequent and severe. The hot summer of 2003 is just one of many examples. This trend is bound to increase in the future. Climate change adaptation enables to deal with climate change impacts and benefit from its potential opportunities.

Table of Contents


What does "Climate Change Adaptation" actually mean?

The climate is changing. Even though we often only become aware of climate change after torrential rains and severe storms, in the long run, the more subtle changes will have a particularly large impact on our country. Greenhouse gases that can currently be found in our atmosphere will continue to have an impact for several decades or centuries and affect our climate. Even if we actually manage to protect the climate, it will continue to change.
The consequences are manifold: Climate change has an impact on our housing situation, employment and health conditions. Here are some of the questions that arise in this context:

  • How can we protect ourselves against excessive heat exposure? Will Germany have to equip more houses and offices with air conditioners? How much energy will we need for that purpose?
  • How can we ensure that our cities will manage to cope with heavy rain and flooding? Will it be necessary to adapt sewer systems? Are there other ways to collect the water and divert it out of the cities? How can companies compensate potential production downtimes?
  • What impact does climate change have on our health? How does it affect various diseases and disease vectors to which we are exposed momentarily or in the future?

The good news is: several different measures can be taken. We can deal with the already visible effects of climate changes and effectively prepare for future impacts. However, this requires that measures are taken immediately. Timely and active adaptation to climate change can reduce or even prevent damages. Adaptation can also mean to take advantage of opportunities that result from climate change. What opportunities arise in, for example, the construction industry if winters are milder in the future and the respective work does not have to be interrupted during frost?
Thus, adaptation is important. And everyone is called on to take actions in that regard. Climate change adaptation measures must be adopted at all political levels and by companies, organisations as well as individuals.

Who has to adapt?

Climate change influences many areas of our everyday life and there are several different ways to adapt to it. Therefore, various actors are involved in effective adaptation measures. Here are some examples:

  • Politics: The German government adopted the German Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change (Deutsche Anpassungsstrategie an den Klimawandel; DAS) in December 2008. In 2011, the Adaptation Action Plan (Aktionsplan Anpassung; APA) followed. It determines the measures needed to further develop and implement the DAS. By the end of 2014, a report on the progress made in implementing the strategy shall be published. In addition, several federal states have already delivered adaptation strategies. The EU Strategy will be transformed from 2013 onwards.
  • Municipalities: Municipalities play an important role as far as climate change adaptation is concerned. Many measures are implemented at the local level. Often central components of our infrastructure such as roads, sewer systems, public buildings and hospitals are owned by municipalities. Thus, they have many opportunities to advance climate change adaptation.
  • Companies: Companies will also be affected by climate change. Rising temperatures can, for example, influence production conditions. Extreme weather events can disrupt supply chains and damage the infrastructure. Heat affects the well-being of the companies' staff. It can also limit the availability of cooling water. In principle, different economic sectors have to deal with different climate impacts. Therefore it is important to develop industry-specific strategies and measures to deal with such impacts.
  • Individuals: Last but not least, everyone can adapt to climate change. We can, for example, shade houses if they heat up too much in the summer. We can drive to the Mediterranean during the Easter holidays if we find it too hot there in summer – or of course resort to the North and Baltic Sea. Furthermore, we can exercise in the morning or evening if temperatures during the day strain our circulation. This is just a small selection of the many options for individual adaptation.

Examples for Climate Change Adaptation

The above-mentioned examples show that there are two types of measures for climate adaptation. There are passive protective measures such as the construction of dams against floods, on the one hand, and changes in behaviour, on the other hand. Examples for the latter include, for example, planting adapted fruit varieties or deciding not to build in flood-risk areas.
Often the reasons for a failure to adapt to climate change are lack of information, excessive costs or limited individual benefits resulting from the respective adaptation measure. Nevertheless, there are already many examples of successfully implemented adaptation measures. Some of them can be found in our Tatenbank (“bank of deeds”) database.

Does that mean that we have stopped protecting the climate?

No. Despite having several ways of dealing with climate change, we may not fail to protect the climate. The climate is a complex system and we are unable to predict with certainty what will happen if we continue to emit more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Especially crossing the climate system’s so-called tipping points may have irreversible consequences. Tipping points are reached if minor changes lead to a sudden and strong response of the climate system. However, even if the climate system’s initial state could be restored, this would take a very long time.
Apart from that, climate protection is also a question of economic viability. Adaptation measures are expensive. However, several studies have shown that adaptation to unrelented climate changes will be even more expensive. Thus, adaptation is only useful, if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced at the same time. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change illustrates this by attributing the same value to climate protection and adaptation to climate change.

How do we deal with uncertainties?

We have an idea of how the climate will develop under different circumstances. However, we are unable to predict the developments with certainty. The remaining uncertainties also affect the planning of adaptation measures. Often uncertainties can be met by using so-called no regrets measures. These measures are also useful if the climate change turns out to be lower than anticipated.


Important terms used in the context of adaptation

The terms mentioned below will be used frequently on the following pages:

  • Actor: This concept is often used in order to summarise key decision makers and agents such as governments, companies, organisations and individuals
  • Climate robustness: Climate robustness describes the ability of systems/actors to deal with different climatic conditions. Robust systems/actors face lower or fewer negative climate change impacts. In addition, they can also deal with a broader range of climatic conditions.
  • Sensitivity: Sensitivity indicates the degree to which systems/actors are affected by climate change.
  • Adaptive capacity: The adaptive capacity, or adaptive capability, of systems/actors determines in how far they are capable of adapting to occurred climate changes or future changes and the respective impacts. Successful adaptation measures reduce their vulnerability to climate change.
  • Vulnerability: Vulnerability indicates how vulnerable systems/actors are to climate change impacts. They are particularly vulnerable if they are unable or hardly capable of dealing with such impacts. The vulnerability depends on the adaptive capacity, the sensitivity but also on the expected climate change.
  • Areas of activity (sectors): The German Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change (DAS) defines several areas of activity that are assessed in terms of climate impacts and adaptation measures. Among these sectors are, for example, health, agriculture, water, energy, transport and tourism.
  • Integrated approach: The German Strategy for Adaptation to Climate Change (DAS) and the Adaptation Action Plan (APA) adopted an integrated approach. This means that evaluations of climate change impacts and adaptation measures are not limited to the respective fields of action but address also potential interactions between these fields.