Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

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17.5. Future Requirements, Information, and Research Needs

Although good progress has been made in understanding the vulnerability and adaptation potential of small island states to climate change, the foregoing discussion highlights critical information gaps and uncertainties that still exist. It has been established that small island states constitute a very high-risk group of countries as a consequence of their high vulnerability and low adaptive capacity. Climate change is inevitable, even if any global agreement to limit GHG emissions were swiftly implemented. Thus, the need to focus on adaptation options and requirements already is critical for small islands, given that these countries are projected to suffer disproportionately from the effects of climate change (Bijlsma, 1996; Nurse et al., 1998; Nicholls et al., 1999; Gillespie and Burns, 2000). The agenda set out below therefore is designed not only to fill existing knowledge gaps but also to help identify opportunities for minimizing the adverse effects of climate change (including avoidance of maladaptation), as an important component of adaptation planning in these islands:

  • For most small islands, the lack of geographical detail is a critical shortcoming. Outputs from GCMs currently used to assess climate change impacts in small islands are coarse and do not provide adequate information for countries at the scale of small islands. Hence, there is an urgent need for downscaling the outputs of the GCMs to better define and understand island-scale processes and impacts.
  • Research into the sensitivity of small islands to climate change, employing an integrated approach, should continue. Studies on the vulnerability of human and biophysical systems to climate change and their interaction with and response to natural and human stresses (including extreme events ) need to be integrated because the more common "reductionist" approaches tend to be deficient in their treatment of interactive effects.
  • Some small island states have initiated efforts to reduce the impact of natural disasters and to use seasonal to interannual climate analysis and climate forecasts to reduce the impacts of natural hazards. Because long-term climate change may result in a more El Niño-like state, with more frequent and severe extreme climate events, support to build on these past efforts could help to reduce the vulnerability of these islands to climate change.
  • Although small islands have many characteristics in common, the heterogeneity factor should not be overlooked. Local conditions on widely varying island types (e.g., tectonic changes, shorelines with large sediment availability versus those with sediment deficits, highly fragmented versus single-island states) may increase or decrease climate change impacts, so the outcomes could be dramatically different in each small island setting. Climate change assessments under such varying circumstances would improve present understanding of vulnerability and adaptation requirements in small islands.
  • Given their wide geographical dispersion, there is a need for a coordinated monitoring program for small islands that evaluates the long-term response of ecosystems to climate variability and change. The focus of such an effort should be on the complex interactions that may occur within human and natural systems to modify the frequency and magnitude of impacts expected and to identify ecosystems that may be in danger of collapsing, so that timely adaptive action might be taken. Such work would help to improve our understanding of the concepts of homeostasis, resilience, and feedback mechanisms, which—though frequently alluded to in the literature—are poorly understood and are critical for adaptation planning at the local and regional scale.
  • Although the susceptibility of small islands to climate change impacts is high and adaptive capacity is low, the overall level of vulnerability varies within and among states. Thus, vulnerability indices being developed and refined specifically for small islands [Crowards, 1999 (Caribbean Development Bank); Kaly et al., 1999 (SOPAC)] have the potential to make a significant contribution to adaptation planning and implementation in this constituency. Countries therefore might wish to consider continuation of this work among their research priorities.

Finally, there is some uneasiness in the small island states about perceived overreliance on the use of outputs from climate models as a basis for planning risk reduction and adaptation to climate change. There is a perception that insufficient resources are being allocated to relevant empirical research and observation in small islands. Climate models are simplifications of very complex natural systems; they are severely limited in their ability to project changes at small spatial scales, although they are becoming increasingly reliable for identifying general trends. In the face of these concerns, therefore, it would seem that the needs of small island states can best be accommodated by a balanced approach that combines the outputs of downscaled models with analyses from empirical research and observation undertaken in these countries.

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