Obstacles to climate change adaptation decisions: a case study of sea-level rise and coastal protection measures in Kiribati

International aid is increasingly focused on adaptation to climate change. At recent meetings of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the developed world agreed to rapidly increase international assistance to help the developing world respond to the impacts of climate change. In this paper, we examine the decision-making challenges facing internationally supported climate change adaptation projects, using the example of efforts to implement coastal protection measures (e.g. sea walls, mangrove planting) in Kiribati. The central equatorial Pacific country is home to the Kiribati Adaptation Project, the first national-level climate change adaptation project supported by the World Bank. Drawing on interview and document research conducted over an 8-year period, we trace the forces influencing decisions about coastal protection measures, starting from the variability and uncertainty in climate change projections, through the trade-offs between different measures, to the social, political, and economic context in which decisions are finally made. We then discuss how sub-optimal adaptation measures may be implemented despite years of planning, consultation, and technical studies. This qualitative analysis of the real-world process of climate change adaptation reveals that embracing a culturally appropriate and short-term (~20 years) planning horizon, while not ignoring the longer-term future, may reduce the influence of scientific uncertainty on decisions and provide opportunities to learn from mistakes, reassess the science, and adjust suboptimal investments. The limiting element in this approach to adaptation is likely to be the availability of consistent, long-term financing.

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