Climate Adaptation: Managing and Reducing Risk

Prioritizing the management of vulnerability and exposure to extreme weather events

Jeff Bennett
6 min readJan 5, 2022
Photo by Mike Newbry on Unsplash

The deadly flooding, heat waves, wildfires, droughts, tornados, and other extreme weather events of 2021 have underscored the real life current threats that we now face due to climate change. The denial, resistance, and obstructionism from the fossil fuel industry and politicians in taking climate action have dramatically increased our risk of extreme climate disasters.

Because there’s so much carbon in the atmosphere, we have committed ourselves to a warming climate. Even if we miraculously managed to stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere tomorrow, continued warming and extreme weather are a certainty due to what’s already ‘baked in’ since carbon hangs around in the climate system.

Weather disasters have already become five times more common in the last 50 years. Climate change has also made weather disasters more severe. We’ve moved past the ability to focus only on mitigating and curbing carbon emissions. We also need to amplify and accelerate efforts on climate adaptation. Making climate adaptation a priority is long overdue (though not at the expense of amplifying mitigation efforts).

“Climate adaptation is the sad reality of our time. For no matter how many wildfires, heat waves, or droughts we suffer through, no matter how many hurricanes or floods we endure, our political and corporate leaders still have not caught on to the stark reality that the institutions they lead need to drastically reduce carbon emissions. Their failure to act means they’ve turned their backs on climate mitigation and forced us into more extreme climate adaptation.” — Larry Yu

What is Climate Adaptation

To date, most of the energy on climate action has focused on climate mitigation. The aim of climate mitigation is to curb the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere thereby limiting the amount of additional atmospheric warming. Mitigation is accomplished by reducing emissions and capturing and removing carbon from the atmosphere.

The aim of climate adaptation however is to prepare us for the inevitable impacts of climate change — not just in the future, but now. The objective of climate adaptation is to increase our resilience to respond to and recover from the inevitable increase in extreme weather and climate events.

In preparing for the impacts of an increasingly extreme climate, we are working to manage and reduce our risk to disasters like we’ve experienced recently. According to a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “Disaster risk management and adaptation to climate change focus on reducing exposure and vulnerability and increasing resilience to the potential adverse impacts of climate extremes, even though risks cannot fully be eliminated.”

Managing Our Risk and Increasing Our Resilience Through Adaptation

The summer of 2021 was brutal in terms of climate disasters. According to a Washington Post analysis, “Nearly 1 in 3 Americans live in a county hit by a weather disaster” this summer, and nearly 2 in 3 live where there has been a multi day heatwave.

A more extreme and dynamic climate guarantees that we will continue to experience more extreme weather disasters in the future. How we manage our risk to these events depends on two factors: our exposure to the events and our vulnerability to the events. The IPCC special report outlines how “adaptation to climate change can reduce exposure and vulnerability to weather and climate events and thus reduce disaster risk, as well as increase resilience to the risks that cannot be eliminated.”

There’s little we can do in the short term to stop extreme weather events from happening. But, it is within our power as a society to reduce the impacts of those events. To do this, we need to address exposure and vulnerability.

Exposure to Weather and Climate Events

Based on the framework defined by the IPCC report, exposure to a hazard is whether or not we might experience an extreme weather hazard, and if so, to what extent. As the IPCC report explains, “if population and economic resources were not located in (exposed to) potentially dangerous settings, no problem of disaster risk would exist.” For example, a coastal area is more exposed to sea level rise and storm surges than elevated areas. So communities located in coastal areas are more exposed to sea level and storm surge risk than communities located at higher elevations.

Exposure also applies on an individual level. A farm worker in the Central Valley of California is more exposed to heat waves than an office worker who works in an air conditioned building.

Vulnerability to Weather and Climate Events

Vulnerability refers to how well we can absorb and/or recover from the impacts of extreme weather events. The IPCC report defines vulnerability as, “the propensity of exposed elements such as human beings, their livelihoods, and assets to suffer adverse effects when impacted by hazard events.” For example, if someone is exposed to a flood, a wild fire, a heat wave, etc. how will they be affected? Will they lose their home or their job? Or will they be able to absorb the adverse effects?

The distinction between exposure and vulnerability can be tricky and it’s easy to conflate them. But they are distinct. As the IPCC report explains, “Exposure is a necessary, but not sufficient, determinant of risk. It is possible to be exposed but not vulnerable (for example by living in a floodplain but having sufficient means to modify building structure and behavior to mitigate potential loss). However, to be vulnerable to an extreme event, it is necessary to also be exposed.”

There’s an important aspect of vulnerability and exposure to consider as we try to adapt. Looking at factors that amplify a community’s or individual’s risk to extreme weather events, we need to address social and economic inequalities. Economic inequality has an outsized impact on people’s vulnerability. Improving economic equality of individuals and communities lowers their vulnerability.

Many people have the means to reduce their vulnerability and exposure to extreme weather, thereby reducing their risk. Those with means may be able to move away from shorelines or flood plains. Or they may be able to upgrade their homes with solar power and backup generators, or increase their insurance coverage.

But for many, these aren’t options. They don’t have the financial means to reduce their risk. We live in a very inequitable society and those inequities carry over into the impacts of climate change and extreme weather as well. Many people simply do not have the financial means to implement individual adaptations. For this reason, it is imperative that local governments take action to adapt to climate change and reduce vulnerability and exposure to their populations. For example, civil engineering projects to shore up neighborhoods that are at high risk of flooding and sea level rise can be prioritized.

A recent report from Climate Central found that neighborhoods with sparse tree coverage in highly-developed cities can experience temperatures that are 15°F to 20°F hotter than nearby areas with more trees and less pavement. Cities can prioritize planting trees and using reflective pavement to help reduce the risk of heat waves. Cities and municipalities can invest in local climate resilience infrastructure by creating community resilience centers that can offer respite from extreme weather events.

If we are to survive, society needs to learn to adapt to extreme weather and become more resilient. A necessary first step is a basic education on the basics of becoming resilient. Following are resources to learn more about climate adaptation.



Jeff Bennett

Exploring ideas, innovations, and technologies to adapt faster and better in a world of accelerating change.