Adapt or Die: 8 Things You Must Know for An Effective Resilience Roadmap

By Debra Tan 23 March, 2022

The just released IPCC AR6 WG2 paints a bleak future of mankind but there is still a narrowing window to limit the onslaught of climate impacts. CWR's Tan highlights 8 survival must knows from the report

The report could not be clearer: the clock is ticking & the grand re-design of economies, cities, energy, food & lifestyles must start now; 50-75% of global population could be exposed to periods of “life-threatening climatic conditions” by 2100
There's a 50% chance we will reach 1.5°C before 2040 & even if we did stay within can’t eliminate all impacts; yet, we are woefully unprepared & our fragmented adaptation & short-term timelines will not protect us
Need new low regret adaptation strategies that don't look to past; the financial sector can be the catalytic in accelerating effort but we still need an 'all-together' transformative approach towards 'Climate Resilient Development'

It cannot be clearer, the just released Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR6 Working Group 2 Report (AR6 WG2) on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability paints a bleak picture of the future of mankind. Yet, its somber warnings received hardly any attention, drowned out by the drumbeat of war in Ukraine. How to avoid the “end of the world” has taken a back seat to rising inflation, securing oil supplies and increasing military spending.

AR6 WG2 paints a bleak future of mankind…

That millions have had to flee Ukraine is truly horrific. Sadly, even more horrifying is that the number of people fleeing climate impacts could be up to 143 million by 2050, if we do not take action now – and that’s just for Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. We are not just talking about extreme weather – in many parts of the world, we will be struggling to find water, scrabbling for food, suffering from rising diseases and hiding from sweltering temperatures that could kill us. All these could lead to violent conflicts in the near-term (2021-2040) if not well managed.

The leisurely pace at which we are ‘Racing to Net Zero’ means this “end of the world” future described in the AR6 is not going away – as the UN secretary-general Guterres said it’s an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”.

Our planet is sick and there is limited time to find treatment. If global leaders really do want an equitable and inclusive future for all (like they say they do), they must immediately put aside political rhetoric and entrenched views and strive for peace … not just in Ukraine but all around the world.

…50-75% of global population could be exposed to periods of “life-threatening climatic conditions”

Why? Because “3.3 to 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change”, worse still is that 50-75% of the global population could be exposed to periods of life-threatening climatic conditions due to extreme heat and humidity by 2100. Given these numbers, we should unite and focus on the battle we should all be fighting – the war against climate change – to ensure the survival of humankind and our only home, Earth.

This might sound dramatic but the crux of the 3,675-page AR6 WG2 is this … not acting is no longer an option – we are racing against an onslaught of climate impacts and right now we are losing. We urgently need transformative actions; fragmented and small-scale actions are not going to cut it anymore.

The clock is ticking…

…the grand re-design of economies, cities, energy, food & lifestyles must start now

The clock is ticking – the grand re-design of our economies, cities, energy & food systems as well as lifestyles must start now and the AR6 WG2 shows us how. But it’s a difficult and depressing read littered with increasingly severe, interconnected and often irreversible impacts of climate change on ecosystems, biodiversity, and human systems”. Yet, it also shows us “how to best reduce adverse consequences for current and future generations … here are 8 things you must know from the AR6 WG2 on how to build a resilience roadmap:

1. Building resilience takes time and needs to start now. Don’t wait because it’s here, it’s big and it’s bad!

The first rule of survival is to know what we are up against – the AR6 WG2 says no matter what we do, there’s a greater than 50% chance that we will reach 1.5°C before 2040. With global leaders preoccupied with the possibility of a prolonged war in Europe, the chances of near-term actions that would deliver 1.5°C andsubstantially reduce projected losses and damagescompared to higher warming levels, are falling.

50% chance will reach 1.5°C before 2040…

…even if did stay within, can’t eliminate all impacts

The heightened urgency in the report is palpable as it goes on to warn that even if we did stay within 1.5°C, we cannot eliminate them all”. The AR6 WG2 delivers a massive dose of realism – climate change is not something in the future, the impacts are here right now – they are already bigger, more frequent, accelerating and compounding. Yet, they will be worse still across all those fronts.

Just look at the start of this year – the extreme events we highlighted in Trend 1 in our Year of the Tiger predictions have already impacted over 1 million people. And since then, Malaysia, Brazil and Australia were all hit again with record rains forcing people to flee from severe floods.

These are not small island states – everyone will be impacted – see our summary of AR6 WG2 escalating risks, irreversible trends and points of no return here.

We are woefully unprepared

It is clear that we are woefully unprepared, but now that we have guidance from the latest IPCC tome, there are no more excuses.

Building resilience requires long lead times for planning and also long implementation times. It is not something to do later, we must start now. Tick tock – there’s no time to waste – as the AR6 WG2 says “Risks can be anticipated, planned, and decided upon, and adaptation interventions can be implemented over the coming decades”.

2. We are adapting! But beware: fragmented action will not protect against complex cascading risks ahead

Some good news first: growing public and political awareness of climate impacts and risks means that 170 countries and many cities have included adaption in their climate policies and planning processes. Pilot projects and local experiments are being implemented across different sectors.

Fragmented adaptation efforts will not protect against risks ahead

Indeed, the AR6 WG2 provides many examples of sector and regional adaptation efforts that generate multiple benefits – from planting trees “in the right place”; restoring watersheds/ mangroves/ wetlands/ etc; smart irrigation to fight droughts; to inland & coastal flood defences plus more. We know because we drafted some of these as a contributing author.

But are they successful? And now, the bad news: The AR6 WG2 finds that adaptation progress is unevenly distributed with observed adaptation gaps”. Sadly, these gaps will only widen as Climate change impacts and risks are becoming increasingly complex and more difficult to manageplus there is the question of finance … which we cover later in point 5. The following quote says it all …

General state of adaptation … still far from effective

“Most observed adaptation is fragmented, small in scale, incremental, sector-specific, designed to respond to current impacts or near-term risks, and focused more on planning rather than implementation.

IPCC AR6 WG2, 2022

In short, piecemeal and fragmented efforts will not protect against complex cascading risks ahead – we need transformative holistic efforts … more on this in point 8 below.

See what Malaysia’s Dr Renard Siew, climate change advisor from Cent-GPS have to say on past and future adaptation efforts after the 1-100 year floods.

There is no “one size fits all answer” in building resilience, so a holistic approach must be in place which considers the interests of the whole society to ensure that “no-one is left behind”.

Worse still, some of these fragmented solutions could lead us to shoot ourselves in the foot, bringing us to the next point… maladaptation.

3. Maladaptation limits transformation & future solutions – use the right timelines when assessing risks!

The IPCC devotes a substantial amount of its Summary to Policymakers (SPM) to maladaptation and its pitfalls highlighting the problem of ignoring long-term impacts and adaptation commitments…

Maladaptation warning … let’s not shoot ourselves in the foot!

Actions that focus on sectors and risks in isolation and on short-term gains often lead to maladaptation if long-term impacts of the adaptation option and long-term adaptation commitment are not taken into account.” 

 “Maladaptation refers to actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes, including via increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased or shifted vulnerability to climate change, more inequitable outcomes, or diminished welfare, now or in the future. Most often, maladaptation is an unintended consequence.”

IPCC AR6 WG2, 2022

We could well end up with maladaptation because of our shortsightedness – we favour the short term and so our systems from business to finance also favour the short term. Our decision-making on adaptation is thus identified by the IPCC asdriven by short-term thinking or vested interests, funding limitations, and inadequate financial policies and insurance– this blocks the path to effective adaptation.

Using the right timelines is key or will lead to massive undervaluation of risks…

…report gives 3 projections…

…sea level rise is a good example

The right timelines are key when assessing risks and planning adaptation. The report projects climate risks for the near-term (2021-2040), the mid-term (2041-2060) and long-term (2081-2100). The danger here is that multiple stakeholders (business, finance and governments) will likely assess risks in the near-term and plan adaptation accordingly. Such actions could lead to a massive undervaluation of risks.

Let’s take sea level rise (SLR) as an example – in the near-term, it poses little risk, in the mid-term, abrupt jumps cannot be ruled out and by the long term SLR could be existential to even cities like Hong Kong. The range is 0.67m in 2050 to 2m+ by 2100 and by 2150, 5m cannot be ruled out if we cannot rein in emissions.

Clearly, if we only assess risks and plan adaptation for the near term, adaptation actions will only be incremental and will not be able to withstand escalating risks. If we were planning for 2m-5m of SLR in the long term, we would be bolder and more transformative with our adaptation actions than for 0.4-1m of SLR.

The AR6 WG2 warned that short-termism could literally be the death of us – especially in low-lying coastal areas around the world.

By the way “low-lying” is anything below 10m above sea level – so that would be cover almost all of Hong Kong’s expensive waterfront properties in Victoria Harbour.

Even supposedly “green visionary leaders” like New World Development are getting it wrong.

Also, short term planning could lock us into an adaptation path that would be difficult to deviate from due to the millions of dollars already invested leading to maladaptation. We cannot “undo” drainage/ levees/ sea walls that are not enough or suddenly redesign parts of a city as SLR accelerates.

Short term spending on infrastructure must be part of an integrated long-term adaptive plan. Otherwise, like the IPCC cautions, we could box ourselves in if we are not careful …. So, use the right timelines!!

Short-termism shrinks future solutions + transformational opportunities

“Without considering both short- and long-term adaptation needs, including beyond 2100, communities are increasingly confronted with a shrinking solution space.”

“Many initiatives prioritize immediate and near-term climate risk reduction which reduces the opportunity for transformational adaptation.”

IPCC AR6 WG2, 2022

4. Don’t look to the past when planning for the future – Aim for low regret & flexible strategies

Short-term and long-term climate risk assessments could deliver wide outcomes (like in the case of SLR), and when this happens, we tend to look to past trends for answers. But climate science is fast-evolving so we must resist the pull of the past.

Also, we tend to underestimate climate risks. The AR6 WG2 recognises this: “The existence of higher estimates than assessed in AR5 indicates that global aggregate economic impacts could be higher than previous estimates.

Can’t look to the past…

…need new low regret adaptation strategies…

…see how Singapore is doing it right

Given that we have underestimated impacts in the past, we could well underestimate them again in the future especially due to “deep uncertainty” ahead. The AR6 accounts for this by providing a low-confidence high emissions scenarios and using language like cannot be ruled out”. Here, how much you do will depend on how much is at risk. If there is concentrated risk, to avoid human misery ahead, it is better to err on the side of caution and opt for low-regret scenarios when planning adaptation.

These adaptation strategies must be flexible – accelerating implementation as and when impacts escalate or when we have gathered better science to inform better decisions. They must be monitored, reviewed and updated constantly to remain adequate and up to date.

The AR6 WG2 recommends “To minimize maladaptation, multi-sectoral, multi-actor and inclusive planning with flexible pathways encourages low-regret and timely actions that keep options open, ensure benefits in multiple sectors and systems and indicate the available solution space for adapting to long-term climate change. This is easier said than done as divergent views from multiple sectors and stakeholders will have to be bridged.

These steps can be slowed down or dialed up depending on how slow/fast climate risks are evolving.

Singapore is doing just this – see how it is using an u to climate risk assessment that includes the worst case scenarios to tease out different strategies as well as levels of protection for different areas – from hard infrastructure, nature based solutions to hybrid solutions. More from its leaders here.

But Singapore is lucky, it can afford to do this plus has a forward-thinking government that is thinking holistically. Many countries are not in this position.

5. Financing gaps must be closed or they will widen in the future

Given the urgent need for adaptation, adaptation financing is dismal. Indeed, the IPCC notes that much of the adaptation action gap is due to the limitations of financing. The poor need it the most yet the richest nations are still unable to raise the US$100 billion per year they pledged to help them adapt; it has been 12 years.

The AR6 WG2 worries that if this continues … Adverse climate impacts can reduce the availability of financial resources by incurring losses and damages and through impeding national economic growth, thereby further increasing financial constraints for adaptation, particularly for developing and least developed countries”.

Adaptation financing is dismal…

…financial sector can be the catalytic in accelerating adaptation & mitigation efforts…

We could be caught in a vicious cycle but as bleak as this sounds, we believe that the financial sector can be catalytic in both accelerating mitigation and adaptation efforts. Current stress tests conducted by central banks could deliver a dose of reality and help reset the financial sector to drive capital away from carbon intensive sectors to slow down warming as well as away from climate vulnerable areas to catalyse adequate adaptation to reduce risks. Do check out our Trend 2 in 5 Trends for the Year of the Tiger for more on this.

There’s no running away from these risks for the financial sector. It’s literally “adapt or die” for HK’s financial industry when 28% of the total lending of 27 banks is vulnerable to climate impacts mainly from flooding & typhoons. And that was just stress testing at around 1m of SLR, not at the multi-metre levels that the IPCC has warned us about.

…but must not fall into timeline traps

Again, we must be careful not to fall into the traps highlighted in points 3 and 4 above – which timelines and impact scenario for stress testing banks select will dictate the speed of adaptation finance. Given that it’s the eleventh hour with no room for mistakes, banks must also adopt a low regret long term approach to stress testing to avoid maladaptation.

Finally, the AR6 WG2 highlights that because climate impacts are rising, adaptation financing costs are also rising and adaptation finance, predominantly from public sources will have to be supplemented with private finance. The numbers are daunting – Adaptation to coastal hazards is costly – the global costs of protecting coastal areas with levees (annual investment and maintenance costs) are estimated at US$12–71 billion in 2100 with SLR up to 1.2m.

So, since 896 million live in low-lying coastal regions, we’d better get moving – it’s time to rethink timelines and embrace low regret scenarios to facilitate financing as well as transformative adaptation – it must be an all systems change to ease soft adaptation limits and close gaps in climate justice.

6. There are limits to adaptation – we won’t be able to fix everything & poorer countries will suffer more

The IPCC is clear – we caused this, but we may not be able to fix it Climate change, through hazards, exposure and vulnerability generates impacts and risks that can surpass limits to adaptation and result in losses and damages.” The AR6 WG2 identifies two types of limits to adaptation:

  • Soft adaptation limits: Adaptation options may exist but are currently not available due to a range of constraints – primarily financial/poverty, governance/inequity, institutional and policy constraints or technical.
  • Hard adaptation limits: No adaptive actions are possible to avoid intolerable risks – ecosystems that are already reaching or surpassing hard adaptation limits include some warm water coral reefs, some coastal wetlands, some rainforests, and some polar and mountain ecosystems.

While stepping up finance and moving from incremental to transformational adaptation can help overcome soft adaptation limits, sadly, many natural systems are already near the hard limits of their natural adaptation capacity.  And further warming only means that more systems will reach their limits. Here, the AR6 WG2 is very clear – it explicitly warns that overshooting 1.5°C will be disastrous as we will not be able to reverse impacts.

There are 2 types of limits to adaptation…

…already many natural systems are near hard limits

If we breach 1.5°C, “limited freshwater resources pose potential hard limits for Small Islands and for regions dependent on glacier and snow-melt”. Also, as these ecosystems will reach hard adaptation limits, some ecosystem-based adaptation measures will lose their effectiveness”. By 2°C, soft limits are projected for multiple staple crops particularly in tropical regions … this could be dire for the 3.4 billion who live in rural areas globally.

As Dr Aditi Mukherji, the co-lead author of the water chapter says:Effectiveness of most adaptation responses decreases drastically at global warming levels of 1.5C to 2C”. The narrowing window of opportunity means that we no longer have the luxury of leaving adaptation to later. Mitigation and adaptation efforts have to go hand in handshe adds.

We will have to put in “advance and planned relocation” strategies

The AR6 WG2 is also very clear that we will not be able to protect everything – Adaptation does not prevent all losses and damages, even with effective adaptation and before reaching soft and hard limits”. Ultimately, we may have to abandon regions that are undefendable or beyond the hard limits; we will have to put in advance and planned relocation strategies that are implemented over time so as to cause minimal disruptions to lives and livelihoods.

There is no doubt that the poor and developing nations will suffer more. However, the report does end on an optimistic note – the possibility of them leapfrogging with “Climate Resilient Development”.

7. Transformation must start right away with “Climate Resilient Development”

The report notes that developing nations, have the opportunity to leapfrog ahead with transformative adaptation. As we have already discussed this at length for Asia in our Trend 5 of our predictions for the Tiger Year, we will not go into at length here.

Developing nations have the opportunity to leapfrog with transformative adaptation

In a way, developing countries could be better off than developed countries which are stuck with legacy infrastructure and systems when dealing with resilience. North America and Europe are likely to favour incremental adaptation policies over transformative ones; but this is also why the rest of the developing world should not follow their lead on adaptation.

Every new build, be it a building, farm or city should include Climate change impacts and risks in the design and planning of urban and rural settlements and infrastructureas it is critical for resilience and enhancing human well-being”. Designing for low regret adaptation demands transformation – so get on it – it’s time to be visionary.

Obviously, Climate Resilient Development should also apply to the Northern Metropolis, a new township that will be built to house 2.5 million people in Hong Kong. Here, the HKSAR government should definitely heed the IPCC’s AR6 WG2 because its vulnerability to coastal threats offers an opportunity for transformative adaptation.

8. All together now – holistic efforts domestically & internationally

Visionary adaptation responses will have to be “Comprehensive, effective, and innovative” plus take into account all the points above. This requires an “all-together” approach towards resilience that includes ensuring water & food supply, low/no carbon power generation, sufficient financing as well as economic and social stability.

We need “all-together” transformative approach towards resilience

To deliver this, there needs to be transformative change in all our systems that serve us from government, business to finance as they were all designed to tackle the “old climate”.


Join us, SIWW & an all start line-up at our April event, “Futureproof Cities to Avoid Atlantis”

Each of these challenges are daunting on their own; together they are monumental but we have to start somewhere … so join us in April in Singapore in a 2-hour session to figure how we are going to Futureproof Cities to Avoid Atlantis  with panel discussions on Evolving financing – from stress testing to closing gaps in adaptation” and “Waterproofing cities – achieving transformative resilience”. There will be an all-star cast from the lead author of the AR6 WG2 to top executives at the PUB, adaptation experts, large asset holders, major global banks, financial regulators and credit rating agencies – see who’s there.

Or you could do it China style – where Deepening Reform, Supply Side Reform, Food Security, Ecological Security, Ecological Environment, Innovation and High-Quality Development featured heavily in the recent Two Session meetings in early March. But I hear you ask … where is China’s adaptation plan?

Also, see our key takeaways from China’s first-ever Water 14FYP, which seemed to get the memo on transformative change

Well, it’s the entire 14FYP – it covers energy, resources, industrial, agricultural, transport and societal transformation as well as ecological protection and restoration. Plus, for the first time ever, they have a 14FYP for Water Security that includes holistic actions from old school infra to innovative digital watersheds.

Given that the majority of impacts are water and the majority of the IPCC AR WG2 chapters are water related,  you could say that the entire 14FYP for water security is indeed a grand water adaptation plan.

Besides adapting domestically, we will have to work together as the AR6 WG2 warns: “Weather and climate extremes are causing economic and societal impacts across national boundaries through supply-chains, markets, and natural resource flows, with increasing transboundary risks projected across the water, energy and food sectors”. But this may prove difficult because global leaders can’t even get our act together to decarbonise or tackle COVID.

And don’t forget that we as individuals can take meaningful climate action too!

In the end, governments are supposed to serve the people, and we the people will have to demand this transformative change. But before we do that, we can take a good look at our own carbon-intensive, non-sustainable lifestyles and transform that first.

But many of us don’t know where to start or we feel disempowered as we believe our actions are insignificant. So, we rolled up our sleeves and came up with some ideas on what we can achieve together and put them in this 100 page guide.

Check out “Together We Can: 8 Habit Changes for Below 2ºC” – it has simple habit tweaks we can all do to kick start our journey toward a climate resilient future.

Sure, we may not be able to protect everyone but with enough resources and a lot of imagination we can protect some through transformative and integrated climate resilient development. Given the rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to save the world as we know it, we must each do what we can to get to net zero faster plus accelerate adaptation, else the war against climate change is already lost.

Further Reading

  • Code Red: 8 things you need to know about water in IPCC AR6 IPCC AR6 is a code red for water too! CWR’s Debra Tan shares 8 things you may have missed on water and urges to delay no more
  • Existential Coastal Threats: 8 Things You Must Know – Rapid SLR will happen sooner than we think, yet we are still driving investments to vulnerable locations. CWR’s Debra Tan shares 8 things you need to know about the existential threat from SLR – from glaciers in the mountains to ice sheets in our poles, permafrost + more
  • It’s Time To Prioritise Sea Level Rise – CWR’s Debra Tan says it’s time to be FOMO about our rising seas. From emission accelerants to accelerated impacts she runs through three reasons to rethink our attitudes towards sea level rise – it’s a big deal, sea level rise is worse than you think. This time, even she’s depressed
  • Are We More Or Less Water Secure Post COP26? – Find out what COP26 means for water security with CWR’s Debra Tan as she reflects on frank conversations had by ministers & water leaders at a high-level water security forum on the eve of COP26 in Glasgow.
  • Time To Get Radical – Alarm bells are ringing for climate change but we are still wedded to the ‘norm’ and on track to miss even the 2°C target. With time running out and serious implications for Asia’s water resources, China Water Risk’s Debra Tan calls for more flashes of brilliance

More on Latest

Debra Tan
Author: Debra Tan
Debra heads the CWR team and has steered the CWR brand from idea to a leader in the water risk conversation globally. Reports she has written for and with financial institutions analyzing the impact of water risks on the Power, Mining, Agricultural and Textiles industries have been considered groundbreaking and instrumental in understanding not just China’s but future global water challenges. One of these led the fashion industry to nominate CWR as a finalist for the Global Leadership Awards in Sustainable Apparel; another is helping to build consensus toward water risk valuation. Debra is a prolific speaker on water risk delivering keynotes, participating in panel discussions at water prize seminars, numerous investor & industry conferences as well as G2G and academic forums. Before venturing into “water”, she worked in finance, spending over a decade as a chartered accountant and investment banker specializing in M&A and strategic advisory. Debra left banking to pursue her interest in photography and also ran and organized philanthropic and luxury holidays for a small but global private members travel network She has lived and worked in Beijing, HK, KL, London, New York and Singapore and spends her spare time exploring glaciers in Asia.
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