Adaptation involves planning for climate impacts, building resilience to those impacts, and improving society’s capacity to respond and recover. This can help reduce damages and disruptions associated with climate change. Adaptation might also help with existing threats due to current weather patterns (e.g., routine and severe weather events) or from other natural and human-induced disasters unrelated to climate change. This represents an important potential cobenefit of efforts to build adaptive capacity to climate change.

Adaptation also has potential limits or downsides. It is possible that some climate impacts will be too severe to manage through adaptation. Efforts to promote adaptive capacity could also prove maladaptive (counterproductive) due to uncertainties over future climate projections and the expected impacts of climate change on physical systems, biological resources, and social institutions.

Adaptation policy can include regulation to decrease vulnerability (e.g. through land use planning and building codes); response planning; disaster recovery; impact assessment for critical systems and resources (e.g., water, health, biological systems, agriculture, and infrastructure); observations and monitoring; and efforts to minimize compounding stresses such as traditional air pollution, habitat loss and degradation, invasive species, and nitrogen deposition.

Implementing adaptation policies successfully may require detailed consideration of location-specific factors because climate change impacts will vary geographically and depend on the uneven distribution of societal resources and institutions. As a result, centralized policy responses may be somewhat more limited for adaptation than for mitigation or geoengineering.

Nevertheless, centralized regulations have potential to promote adaptive capacity by altering land-use patterns on a wide scale (e.g., floodplain development, management of coastal zones, and insurance practices) in ways that increasingly account for potential climate change impacts. Similarly, centralized approaches to disaster relief efforts, the establishment and design of wildlife reserves, and management of water and agricultural resources could all help account for vulnerabilities anticipated by climate change.

In addition, centralized adaptation policies can potentially promote decentralized efforts by creating broadly useful sources of 1) scientific information about climate change impacts and vulnerabilities; 2) information about the potential advantages and disadvantages of particular adaptation measures and the specific conditions under which different options work best; 3) support for (or incentives to) encourage local and or regional-level adaptation planning and implementation, including the provision of technical expertise and/or financial resources; and 4) monitoring and reporting on the effectiveness of adaptation efforts.

Numerous adaptation efforts are underway within the United States including efforts at state and local levels of government. Federally, the 1990 Global Change Research Act (GCRA) requires a National Assessment of climate change impacts and response options every four years. The GCRA also established the U.S. Global Change Research Program, to increase knowledge and understanding. In 2013, President Obama established a Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which provides interagency coordination of federal adaptation efforts, and released a Climate Action Plan, which seeks to prepare the United States for the impacts of climate change.