The impacts of a changing climate are likely to disrupt ecological, social and economic systems, with some regions and sectors in Europe likely to suffer greater adverse effects. New opportunities will also emerge. The European Commission (EC) outlined possible options and priorities for adapting to the impacts of a changing climate at the EU level in 2007.
A growing number of the European Union (EU) member states have developed National Adaptation Strategies (NAS) and have completed vulnerability assessments. A range of adaptation measures has been undertaken in various sectors at the national regional and local levels. The EC proposal for a European Framework for Action on Adaptation of 2009 outlined a comprehensive post-2013 adaptation strategy. It encourages member states to develop national and regional adaptation strategies by 2012, stresses the need for building a knowledge base on climate change (CC) impacts and vulnerability, and recommends the establishment of a clearing house mechanism by 2011 to share existing data and information – the portal Climate-ADAPT was launched spring 2012. These EC studies and the scientific literature conceptualize adaptation as a multi-sector and multi-scale decision making problem3, characterized by substantial uncertainty on the impacts of CC. It is such uncertainty and ambiguity that presents the most critical challenge for the development of robust adaptation strategies in the EU.
Actors within and outside the public sector have to deal with critical factors that can make adaptation strategies fall short of their potential. These factors include significant uncertainties in the spatial and temporal patterns in CC impacts and hence also in the costs and benefits of adaptation measures. The implementation of adaptation measures suffers from uncertainties related to securing medium and long term financing in a volatile economy. Knowledge that could help in reducing uncertainties is scattered and poorly integrated. There are important research gaps concerning behavioral responses to CC and adaptation policies, full economic costs and benefits of adaptation in different sectors, and the factors that facilitate or hinder adaptation efforts.
An important question is how one can provide incentives for innovative autonomous adaptation under such conditions. Addressing this question is crucial for building a sustainable, resource efficient and resilient European society. Adaptation strategies need to integrate sectors which may have different needs, constituencies and vulnerabilities; but moving into “real” world implementation is difficult due to conflicts over existing sector policies, time and resource constraints as well as competing priorities among implementers. Policy strategies balancing human well-being, ecosystem services and economic growth present further challenges. Top-down strategies may lead to a mismatch between national and regional adaptation policy needs and the more context-specific adaptation measures required at local scales.