Skip navigation

Q&A: How to prepare for a warming climate? An assessment of climate change adaptation in the Nordic region

As our planet warms, all nations must grapple with climate change adaptation. This Q&A with SEI Policy Fellow, Mikael Allan Mikaelsson, explores the current state of adaptation in the Nordic region, shedding light on key challenges and potential steps forward.

Mikaelsson authored the country chapters for Sweden and Iceland in the soon to be published Comparative analysis of the adaption policy landscape in the Nordic region.

Mikael Allan Mikaelsson, Ana Calvo / Published on 10 July 2023
Children moving their doll house on cart through flooded street.

Children moving a doll house through a flooded street. Photo: Peter Cade / Getty Images.

The analysis indicates that climate change adaptation is a low political priority across all Nordic countries. Why do you think that is?

The relatively low prioritization of climate change adaptation, in contrast with mitigation efforts like the reduction of greenhouse gases, is not a challenge specific to Nordic countries. It reflects a global imbalance in climate action. There are many factors influencing the current state of affairs, but two stand out:

First, there has been a pervasive assumption that climate change is a problem for the future, not the present. With the growing frequency and severity of extreme weather events, it is becoming clear to governments, businesses and the public that the scenarios we once relegated to the future are already materializing.

Second, a common misperception suggests that climate change will predominantly affect more vulnerable countries in the Global South, making it less relevant for countries in the Global North. This assumption is false. The increased attention given to adaptation at the latest COP reflects a shift in the understanding that climate adaptation and mitigation is not a zero-sum game, we need to do both.

How does this low priority in climate adaptation translate from the national to the local level? 

The impact of a warming climate and the necessary adaptations are often viewed as strictly local issues, which is a misleading perception. At SEI, we strive to change this understanding, as adaptation requires both local and global action.

Much of the work at the local level currently involves civil response and emergency preparedness. However, municipalities must also prepare for future risks by implementing climate adaptation measures, depending on the anticipated climate trajectories.

Our assessment revealed that while Nordic countries recognize the important role of municipalities in climate change adaptation, they often lack ownership of the risks climate change might bring to their area and the individuals living there – especially regarding legal responsibilities. These municipalities frequently lack both the institutional capacity and the financial resources required, even in countries where their responsibilities are more clearly defined. As such, it is vital for national governments to provide adequate support.

Nordic countries are not including transboundary climate risks in their adaptation plans. What could be the first step to address this?

An important first step is for countries to understand their exposure to climate risks that transfer from one country to another, such as through trade or financial systems.

For instance, countries should attempt to quantify their exposure to supply chain risks based on foreign import reliance. Nevertheless, anticipating and quantifying risks from changing transmission patterns of diseases or pests, migration due to population displacement or tourism, remains a challenge. A second step can be to seek support from experts in identifying ways of minimizing the exposure to these risks.

Given our globally interconnected world, international collaboration is crucial to manage these risks. The Nordic countries could play an important role in advocating for better global collaboration in climate change adaptation.

Learn more about transboundary climate risks in the Nordic region

Presentation by Frida Lager at the Nordic Conference on Climate Change Adaptation. Video: NOCCA23.

Are there any positive developments you would like to highlight?

All Nordic countries have well-established scientific communities that can provide a scientific basis for understanding risks, vulnerabilities and adaptation needs. Many have designated scientific advisory bodies on climate change. Notably, Sweden has a monitoring, reporting and evaluation (MRE) system in place, while Finland and Norway are working on establishing more comprehensive systems. Even though there is a lack of appropriate national indicators for the effects of climate change adaptation measures, these are steps in the right direction.

Moreover, Denmark and Norway have particularly active municipalities in climate adaptation work. There has also been some interesting work taking place on the subnational level in Iceland. The City of Reykjavik published a Climate Action Plan for 2021-25 with eight adaptation-oriented action points, incorporating flood risk information into open-access city maps for urban planning.

A call for action

The Nordic countries should adopt a more transformative approach to adaptation policy and better integrate climate risks into other policy objectives and societal goals. This includes foster greater collaboration in the nordic region and internationally to manage climate impacts that transcend countries’ borders

Countries need to establish a more comprehensive system for risk assessment, for monitoring and evaluating progress on adaptation, and strengthen adaptation financing and economic incentives to support adaptation measures on among local authorities and private sector.

In your opinion, what are the key actions to accelerate the implementation of adaptation measures?

Our report identifies a key challenge across all the Nordic countries: the need for economic incentives for climate adaptation work, which are currently scarce. As a result, the private sector has become a blind spot in the Nordics.

Public procurement can be designed to encourage suppliers to adhere to requirements on adaptation to ensure that public sector supply chains are climate resilient. Legal obligations could also drive both private and public sector action on climate adaptation, but measuring progress remains a challenge. For example, should municipalities prepare for the most probable consequences of climate change or the worst-case scenario? How do they know whether their investments are effective or not? Thus, while a legal obligation can drive action, it also makes local governments politically vulnerable.

What practical challenges do you see in climate adaptation that Nordic and other countries must overcome?

Even though there are differences in the level of climate-related policy development across countries, many challenges are similar, such as a lack of mandate, limited incentives for the private sector and data collection for monitoring risk over time.

Measuring progress in climate adaptation is inherently difficult because of a lack of clear definition. What constitutes as adaptation and how do we go about measuring it?. For example, investing in sufficient air conditioning in hospitals and factories could be an effective measure during a heatwave.

These challenges underscore that adaptation policies are still in their infancy; this is not a problem unique to the Nordics.

Key takeaway

Climate adaptation remains a low political priority across the Nordics, yet many climate-related risks previously considered low probability are becoming increasingly likely – and in some cases, are already occurring. Therefore, investing in adaptation measures is essential, regardless of the warming scenario we find ourselves in.

Featured researchers

Mikael Allan Mikaelsson
Mikael Allan Mikaelsson

Policy Fellow

SEI Headquarters

Frida Lager
Frida Lager

Research Associate

SEI Headquarters

Design and development by Soapbox.