Introduction - Moving Forward on Adaptation


The vision embodied in this chapter is one of an adaptable and adapting Canadian society that is coping well with climate change through both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting, and is profiting and thriving in the process. Such a vision cannot be achieved with only a spontaneous or laissez-faire approach. Some deliberate and co-ordinated steps forward are necessary. As Canadians adapt to climate change, they require, as a minimum, access to the best scientific information and expert help and advice regarding the choice of adaptation options (Box 1). Successful future adaptation will depend upon maintenance and strengthening of the knowledge base, as well as mechanisms for sharing information. At the same time, efforts towards overcoming barriers to action are needed to create an environment that is more favourable for adaptation. Progress on these actions requires leadership from the public and private sectors, as well as changes in public attitudes and behaviour, and a greater awareness of the potential for adaptation.

There is every reason to be confident that Canadians are capable of achieving this vision. Canada has the wealth, technology, skills, social organizations and institutions that are necessary for success, and a strategic approach to adaptation would help to maximize efficiencies and cost-effectiveness. Additionally Canadians understand that we do not face the challenge of climate change alone. Although the climate is likely to change more in Canada, especially in the north, than in many other regions of the world, our adaptive capacity is great. We are therefore in a good position to adapt ourselves and to help others who are less fortunately positioned to cope with climate change. We also have the resourcefulness to learn from the lessons and experiences of other countries.

What could stand in our way? As the following text makes clear, given awareness and the will, existing barriers can be overcome. As climate change unfolds today, tomorrow and over the coming decades, a great deal of adaptation will be needed to complement efforts to reduce the rate of climate change through mitigation. It is important to recognize, however, that understanding of adaptation and the will to adapt come first. This chapter is an effort to contribute to the further development of that understanding and will.


What is adaptation to climate change?

(modified from Chapter 2)

Adaptation to climate change is any activity that reduces the negative impacts of climate change and/or positions us to take advantage of new opportunities that may be presented. There are many different types of adaptation (Table 1). Adaptation includes activities that are taken before impacts are observed (anticipatory) and after impacts have been felt (reactive; Smit et al., 1999). Both anticipatory and reactive adaptation can be planned (i.e. the result of deliberate policy decisions), while reactive adaptation can also occur spontaneously (i.e. autonomous, without planning). In most circumstances, anticipatory planned adaptations will incur lower long-term costs and be more effective than reactive adaptations. Other dimensions of adaptation include temporary or permanent adaptation measures, and reversible or irreversible adaptation.

Adaptation will usually not take place in response to climate change alone, but in consideration of a range of factors with the potential  for both synergies and conflicts. Successful adaptation does not mean that negative impacts will not occur, only that they will be less severe than would be experienced had no adaptive action been taken. In deciding what adaptation option is most appropriate for  a particular situation, attention must be paid to the feasibility and likelihood of uptake, as well as the mechanisms involved.

Different types of adaptation (modified from Smit et al., 1999).
Based on Type of adaptation
In relation to climatic stimulus
(e.g. unmanaged natural systems)
(e.g. public agencies)
Action Reactive
(From observed modification)
(Prior modification)
Temporal scope Short term
Adjustments, instantaneous, autonomous
Long Term
Adaptation, cumulative, policy
Spatial scope Localized Widespread


This chapter explores how the developing momentum towards adaptation in Canada can be built upon and strengthened. It draws upon the preceding chapters in this assessment, reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the growing body of research on adaptation, as well as steps being taken elsewhere in the world to move adaptation forward. Section 2 of this chapter provides a brief summary of the current status and practice of adaptation in Canada; Section 3 focuses on the momentum towards adaptation and additional efforts required to support adaptation decision-making over the next decade or so; and Section 4 identifies some potential next steps.