On 8 October the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) again sounded the alarm. With the release of the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR15) the international scientific community rejected the notion that 2°C of warming is safe, and argued that we may have as few as 12 years to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

These findings make clear that climate change is no longer a distant threat. It requires swift action to prevent further warming and prepare for the adverse impacts already locked in.

This concerning portrait has been the backdrop for today’s launch of the Global Commission on Adaptation. Led by former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, philanthropist Bill Gates, and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva, the Global Commission will accelerate adaptation by raising its visibility and focusing on solutions. Drawing on rigorous, peer-reviewed research, it will make the case that adapting to climate change improves human well-being and results in better, more sustainable economic development and security for all.

Watch the launch event

Watch the livestream: October 16, 2018, 12:30pm CEST 6:30am EST

The Global Commission will oversee preparation of a flagship research report – to be released in September 2019 – to foster a compelling, evidence-based and widely shared global understanding of the adaptation imperative. The Commission will also catalyse and guide high-impact action tracks on urgent issue areas such as food security and rural livelihoods, infrastructure, and urban resilience. It will then facilitate a Year of Action to implement recommendations from the report and action tracks.

The Global Commission’s work will be underpinned and guided by rigorous research. A network of research partners including SEI will provide research and analysis as input into the flagship report. SEI’s Richard Klein has been seconded to the Global Center on Adaptation – one of the two Managing Partners, along with the World Resources Institute – to serve as the Commission’s Co-Director of Research.

One of the challenging tasks ahead for the Global Commission is to capture key insights from the past thirty years of work on climate change adaptation, scan the horizon for emerging issues, and help all countries enhance adaptation ambition and accelerate action.

Where have we been? Four generations of climate change adaptation research, policy and practice

An SEI working paper from Richard Klein and colleagues used the occasion of a major international conference on adaptation to take stock of how the field of climate adaptation has evolved since the inception of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. The authors argue that adaptation research, policy and practice have seen four successive “generations,” each adding new layers of complexity as it expands on the last.

Four generations of adaptation research

The four generations of adaptation research: generation 1 has descriptive questions; generation 2 has descriptive and normative questions; generation 3 has descriptive, normative and policy; and generation 4 has descriptive, normative, policy and implementation.

The story begins with description and resistance. In the early days of climate policy, concern was widespread that a focus on adapting to climate change would distract from the principal objective of reducing emissions. As only marginal members of the policy debate, experts focused their efforts on modelling, analysing, and describing the would-be impacts of climate change.

As time went on, adaptation became a more central element of climate policy, especially as recognition grew that some climate change impacts were becoming unavoidable. This marked the beginning of a second generation where important normative questions were asked about what it meant to be vulnerable and what successful adaptation looked like.

The third generation of adaptation work saw a turn towards policy. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, it was critical to understand what international institutions and policy processes could support adaptation, especially in the most vulnerable countries in the Global South.

With the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015, adaptation has entered a fourth generation, focused on implementation. With the first-ever global climate accord in place, researchers, policymakers and practitioners have all directed their attention towards action and begun to seek out good practices for building climate resilience and solutions to catalyse transformative change in a wide variety of contexts.

Overall, work on climate change adaptation is growing at a rapid pace and continues to diversify, all while coordination and knowledge exchange at the science-policy interface is becoming ever more crucial.

The four generations of climate adaptation. Video: SEI / YouTube.

Where are we going? Emerging issues for climate change adaptation

With climate change more central to global affairs than ever before, new and important issues for adaptation continue to emerge. The recognition that adaptation is not only a local problem, but a global challenge brings to the fore three key issues where more work and action is quickly needed:

1. Assessing and reducing transboundary climate risks

In today’s globalising world, events in one place can often have consequences for people thousands of miles away; the same is true for climate change. Over the past several years, recognition has grown that climate impacts are not always stationary, but can flow across great distances, including as shared biophysical resources like rivers or streams, in the form of traded goods like agricultural crops, as flows of people, or as financial and investment flows. To ensure effective adaptation to these transboundary climate risks, much more work is needed to understand the magnitude of the risks, locate the places and communities most exposed to them, and answer difficult governance questions about how they can be tackled.

2. The geopolitics of climate change

Naturally, climate change is not the only major issue being faced by the international community in the twenty-first century. Alongside this challenge are significant development needs, growing concerns about agriculture and food security, migration crises, and escalating international conflicts both diplomatic and military. In this context, climate change is but one (major) contributor to global uncertainty and therefore inextricable from broader debates about geopolitics and human security. Recently, the term “climate security” has become popularised as a way of understanding the intersection between international geopolitics and climate change and research is ongoing to better grapple with these complex relationships.

3. Embracing multilateralism for planning, coordination, and support

The multi-dimensional, globalised nature of climate change adaptation underscores a need for unprecedented levels of international cooperation. Successfully adapting to a warming world requires detailed planning processes, beginning with and extending beyond the preparation of National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), exceptional coordination between a wide variety of actors, and significant levels of international technical, policy and financial support. Tackling climate change then compels us to embrace multilateralism and rethink what it means to work together.

The Global Commission on Adaptation is an important initiative – one that can begin to provide the knowledge base for addressing these emerging issues, all while raising the profile of climate change adaptation as a necessary and urgent global priority. SEI looks forward to helping bridge the gap between science and policy by contributing rigorous research to the Global Commission’s work and enhancing adaptation ambition around the globe.