With the release of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, climate change has again been identified as an important driver of change. Coasts are particularly vulnerable, as they are directly affected by rising sea levels, storminess and other climate drivers: this is accentuated by other issues and changes such as urbanization, including indirect landward and seaward influences (for example, reduced water and sediment input due to dams). Adverse consequences include increased flooding, salinization, erosion, and wetland and biodiversity loss.

Several recent extreme meteorological events, such as Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy, have caused catastrophic human and economic losses in coastal areas. Although coasts have always been hazardous places to live, global economic losses have significantly increased in recent decades. Climate change is exacerbating those risks. This commentary demonstrates how successive IPCC coastal chapters have shifted from impacts towards adaptation, assessing the relative role of climate change within a broader environmental framework, with increasing clarity and nuance, despite continuing uncertainties.

Multidisciplinary systems approaches to planning and sustainability practices puts coastal zone adaptation into a wider perspective. Adaptation pathways recognize multiple futures, partly shaped by decision-making. The IPCC perspective reflects a growing focus on integrated approaches to reducing risk that rely on flexible adaptation options and management. These aim to be effective regardless of how environments change.

Coastal managers now need to implement a further shift to planning and implementation, with an emphasis placed on resilience, cost-effectiveness and working with nature. Furthermore, adaptive, sustainable planning should be undertaken in a wider socioeconomic development framework, taking into account human needs – many of which are more immediate than climate change.

Finally, adaptation will reduce risk, but not eliminate it. Nevertheless, we can shift our expectations to better understand multiple interacting drivers of change and plan and implement more effective adaptive responses.

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