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Adapting to a Changing Climate

This content is from the Forest Service Climate Change Resource Center's education module series on climate change. You can view the interactive learning module Responses to Climate Change: What You Need to Know for even more in depth information.

Climate change effects are already being observed, and these effects are expected to continue—and intensify—in the future. Adaptation means taking action to prepare for anticipated changes and respond to effects. Preparing human and natural systems for climate change involves assessing information about the vulnerabilities and risks associated with climate change and then choosing a course of action that best fits the management goals and the needs of the system.

There is no single “right” way to respond to climate change, just as there is no single right way to manage resources. Natural resource management is diverse and will continue to be diverse with climate change.

Some of the actions we are already taking to manage natural resources will likely help ecological systems adapt to changing conditions, even though climate change may not have been a specific consideration in developing those actions. However, it is risky to automatically assume that our current management plans and actions will work in a changing climate with warmer temperatures, altered precipitation patterns, and other expected effects. Given the potential challenges of climate change, it is important to act with intentionality, which means explicitly considering and addressing the climate change effects that could impact our management goals and actions. Deliberately including climate change in our work makes plans and actions more robust. How well do current actions already address the expected effects of a changing climate? Are there other actions that we may want to consider?

There are three different options that are helpful for thinking about climate change adaptation: resistance, resilience, and transition. Resistance and resilience emphasize management for the persistence of existing systems, and transition promotes system change.

The first adaptation option is resistance. Resistance actions improve the defenses of a system against anticipated changes, or directly defend the system against disturbance so that the system remains relatively unchanged.

The second adaptation option is resilience. Resilience actions enhance the ability of a system to return to prior conditions after a disturbance. Although some degree of change may occur, the intent is for the system to return to a state similar to what it was before the disturbance.

The third adaptation option is transition. Transition actions intentionally accommodate change, enabling a system to adaptively respond in a deliberate way. By encouraging a gradual and intentional transition, it may be easier to maintain important functions and values over time, even as the character of a system changes.