Adapting Institutions to Climate Change: Background to the study



The initial stage of the study involved a call for information in October 2007. Following this a call for evidence was issued in July 2008.

High-level Summary

The focus of the study will be on whether the UK has the institutional capacity and arrangements necessary to adapt to changes in the natural environment brought about by climate change. The scope of the study is the UK in an EU context. To help illustrate the issues, the Commission invites evidence based on three exemplar subjects:

  • Biodiversity, nature conservation and protected areas
  • Sea-level and coastal zones
  • Freshwater

The Commission believes these areas and their interconnections are particularly challenging, and will help to illustrate the complexity of adapting the UK to climate change. These arrangements will cover a broad spectrum ranging from formal governance processes for government and large organisations through to informal and local activities. Consideration will be given to the UK’s capacity to understand how climate change is likely to impact on ecosystems and on what time scales; on the way society values the natural environment under changing circumstances; and on the mechanisms that might be employed to manage the natural environment so as to safeguard these values.


The natural environment provides a ‘life-support system’ to society through the services it provides, and as ecosystems, habitats and species respond to climate change it is inevitable that there will be direct and indirect impacts on the human environment through the dependencies on these services. In order to adapt to these changes in the natural environment, society will need to draw on existing institutional capacity and arrangements and also generate new ones as part of the adaptation process. So a key question is ‘does the UK understand what institutional capacity and arrangements it has to adapt to climate change, what are the enablers and barriers, and what institutional arrangements does it actually need?’

Climate impacts generate autonomous adaptation responses in natural systems, whereas humans will make conscious as well as autonomous responses. It will be necessary to understand both the planned and autonomous responses that society has in an attempt to minimise the adverse impacts of climate and environmental change, either as a result of events that have occurred or those that are anticipated. It is not yet clear what the likely positive and negative impacts of adaptation measures will be for both humans and the natural environment. The interactions and feedbacks between social and environmental systems will underpin the effectiveness of adaptation. The ability of individuals and society to recognise the opportunities and beneficial consequences of adaptation, as well as respond to the adverse consequences, without damaging the efforts to mitigate climate change, will be key features of success.

One of the challenges of climate change is uncertainty about the level and rate of impacts that can be expected, and consequently about the levels of risk that society is prepared to tolerate. In addition it should be recognised that the environment and society will continue to change even without climate change. Non-climate impacts will affect the range of suitable options for adaptation.  Despite these complexities and uncertainties, decisions and policies will need to be made that support action now and in the future. There may be existing frameworks for decision making in the face of uncertain or incomplete information that could be relevant to making decisions about adapting to climate change, or it may be that new frameworks are required. In order to understand how best to plan adaptation actions, the institutional arrangements that enable or hinder adaptation must be explored.

The study will, therefore, draw on three exemplar issues to extract and identify the issues associated with adapting to climate change, looking at the interactions between the natural environment and society. The subjects are: biodiversity, nature conservation and protected areas; sea-level rise and coastal zones, and; freshwater. The study will not be looking at the direct impacts of climate change on cities and urban areas generally, or the impacts on infrastructure.

Biodiversity, nature conservation and protected areas

Many species will be able to adjust to climate and environmental change; others will face extinction. Adaptation responses expected from species include changes in key stages in the life-cycle (e.g. flowering time) and migration of species and it is not clear what impact this will have on human activities. Species survivability will depend on other factors, such as the availability of suitable habitats for relocation. Successful adaptation will require a degree of coherent changes in habitats and ecosystems, which may or may not be supported by current and future institutional arrangements designed to provide protected areas for species and habitats. The situation for the natural environment is complex and difficult to predict.

Sea-level and coastal zones

The most dramatic effects of climate change for the coastal environment will be the rise in sea-levels combined with more severe weather events. It is likely that in parts of the UK, the current use of coastal and estuarine land both for agriculture and urban areas will have to change. In some cases, increased defences may be appropriate, whereas in others coastal realignment would be better. In all cases, successful adaptation will depend on a balance being struck between the needs of society, different types of land use, and recognition of the natural forces of the ocean and severe weather. It is in coastal zones that some of the most challenging adaptation questions for society will be highlighted, including questions of equity and livelihoods. The institutional arrangements to tackle adaptation of the coastal environment will be particularly instructive for the study.


Floods and droughts are headline grabbing examples of severe weather events, and projections for climate change in the UK suggest that reduced precipitation overall can be expected, albeit with periods of more intense wet weather. In times of low precipitation, there are significant pressures on human and environmental requirements for water. Adapting to these pressures will require that environmental, social and economic needs are all addressed, and this may require new institutional approaches at a variety of levels. Equally, in periods of intense rainfall, the significant environmental and social impacts of flooding are difficult to manage, and may also require new institutional arrangements. The challenge for adapting to these changes in the natural environment will be to understand the freshwater system, and to implement policies and governance arrangements that can address the competing and varied challenges of water management both in times of excess and drought. 



Page last updated: 27 January 2010

The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution