Climate change adaptation actions can provide benefits and often fulfill other societal goals, including sustainable development, disaster risk reduction, and improvements in quality of life.

Although there is uncertainty about the rate and magnitude of projected temperature increases and future climate-related impacts, adaptive actions can provide benefits. Climate change adaptation actions often fulfill other societal goals, such as sustainable development, disaster risk reduction, and improvements in quality of life. Therefore, adaptation strategies can provide multiple benefits when incorporated into existing decision-making processes. Both “bottom up” indigenous community planning and participation in “top down” regional and national strategies may help Tribal Nations deal with climate-related impacts such as flooding and associated risks to infrastructure, prolonged drought, and degradation of culturally important places. 

A diverse range of approaches to adaptation planning requires cross-boundary coordination at multiple levels to meet the unique needs of tribes across the nation. Such coordination can promote equitable partnerships with tribal communities and faciliate collaborative efforts among federal and state programs. One mechanism to achieve this goal is represented by the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy (NFWPCAS) to assist fish, wildlife, plants, and ecosystems in adapting to changing conditions. NFWPCAS assists tribal managers who work with federal, state, and local government, nonprofits, and other conservation partners to apply best practices and coordinate innovation for dealing with new challenges posed by climate change. Tribes may partner with other tribes or conservation groups to implement recommended strategies in their communities, or work with Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) to tackle large-scale, long-range conservation and adaptation challenges.

Adaptive management

Adaptation actions can be implemented reactively, after changes in climate occur, or proactively, to prepare for projected changes. Proactive preparation can reduce the vulnerability from climate-related impacts such as shifting temperature and precipitation patterns for agricultural crops, thawing permafrost and melting sea ice, and increasingly intense extreme events. Adaptive management is one method to facilitate a more rapid and efficient response to climate change by taking small, stepwise actions as changes are perceived to occur. Adaptive management has received renewed attention as a tool for helping communities make informed decisions relevant to whole systems, rather than focusing on addressing a single impact without considering side effects a solution may have on complex, interrelated human and ecological systems and at different scales of the problem.

New adaptation planning and implementation initiatives often emphasize cooperation between scientists sharing research, federal agencies providing tools and funding, regional cooperators, and tribal participants sharing traditional knowledges (TKs) to focus efforts on culturally significant impacts. For more information on TKs, see the Tribal Nations topic discussion and the Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives tool. By incorporating diverse ways of knowing to develop integrated adaptation strategies, adaptive management may incrementally improve resilience to even unanticipated climate shocks.

Ecosystem-based adaptation

A related adaptation strategy, called ecosystem-based adaptation, uses biodiversity and ecosystem services as part of an overall adaptation strategy, which may be particularly applicable to helping indigenous communities adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. An example is the explicit use of storm-buffering coastal wetlands or mangroves rather than artificially fabricated infrastructure like seawalls or levies to protect coastal regions. Wildlife corridors to connect fragmented wildlife habitat can be an important way to strengthen biodiversity. Other adaptation strategies to protect biodiversity include:

  1. Habitat manipulation,
  2. Conserving populations with higher genetic diversity or more flexible behaviors or morphologies,
  3. Re-planting with species or ecotypes that are better suited for future climates,
  4. Managed relocation (sometimes referred to as assisted migration) to help move species and populations from current locations to those areas expected to become more suitable in the future, and
  5. Offsite conservation, such as seed banking, biobanking, and captive breeding.

Additional approaches focus on identifying and protecting features that are important for biodiversity and are less likely to be altered by climate change. The idea is to conserve the “stage” (the biophysical conditions that contribute to high levels of biodiversity) for the primary “actors” (species and populations) that may find these areas suitable in the future.

Whole systems management

Whole system management is one aspect of effective and forward-thinking adaptation planning. For example, addressing a host of ecological phenomena on a system-wide scale, rather than focusing on one species at a time, is a more comprehensive and effective approach that can help reduce the risks and vulnerabilities to wildlife, natural assets, and human well-being that can be caused by climate disruptions. Similarly, adaptation can promote achievable multiple water resource objectives through improved infrastructure planning, integrated regulation, and planning and management approaches at regional, watershed, and ecosystem scales. Infrastructure planning, especially for the long-term planning and operation horizons, can be improved by incorporating climate change as a factor in new design standards and in asset management. Furthermore, rehabilitation of critical and aging facilities that emphasize flexibility and redundancy can prove effective as a component of whole-systems management strategies to address climate impacts. Using a combination of these adaptation strategies may improve resilience efforts in tribal communities, especially if a focus on traditional knowledges is carefully incorporated into every adaptation process in every stage of development.

The preceding text was excerpted and adapted from the report Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment (Chapter 28: Adaptation and Chapter 8: Ecosystems, Biodiversity, and Ecosystem Services; Key Message 5: Adaptation) and from The National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy homepage and Highlights Brochure.

Banner Image Credit: 
Michael Montoya, Sovereign Nations Service Corps, Mescalero Apache Tribe. Used with permission
Last modified: 
7 July 2016 - 3:57pm