Glossary - Definitions for Climate Adaptation Concepts

Definition of terms 

Those working in the field of Climate Change and Adaptation use terms and definitions very similar to those in the Risk and Continuity fields. There can though be differences between terms in application. 


Adaptation means changing our behavior to respond to both the projected and current impacts of climate change. Source: Adapted from Defra External Website

Adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.

Various types of adaptation can be distinguished:

• Planned adaptation is the result of a deliberate policy decision, based on an awareness that conditions have changed or are about to change, and that action is required to maintain, or achieve, a desired state.

E.g. The creation of flood defences in areas particularly susceptible to flooding, such as the four kilometres of flood defences recently constructed in Carlisle.

• Reactive adaptation is adaptation that takes place in response to the consequences of a particular event.

E.g. Since the European summer heat-wave of 2003, the French government has implemented more efficient heat-wave warning system and emergency plan to deal with such events in the future.

• Anticipatory adaptation is that which takes place before impacts of climate change are observed.

E.g. The construction of the Confederation Bridge in Canada at a higher elevation to take into account the effect of future sea-level rise on ship clearance under the bridge.

• Spontaneous (or autonomous) adaptation does not constitute a conscious response to climatic stimuli, but is triggered by ecological changes in natural systems and by market or welfare changes in human systems.

E.g. We expect to see changes in foliage and species distributions in the UK as temperatures increase. Source: UKCIP Glossary & IPCC

Adaptive capacity (in relation to climate change impacts)

The ability of a system to adjust to climate change (including climate variability and extremes), to moderate potential damages, to take advantage of opportunities, or to cope with the consequences. Source: CCRA

Building adaptive capacity

Developing the institutional capacity to respond effectively to climate change. This means compiling the requisite information and creating the regulatory, institutional and managerial conditions that are needed before adaptation actions can be undertaken. Source: UKCIP

E.g. In the spring of 2010, Government departments published Departmental Adaptation Plans, setting out their key risks and priorities on climate change. The Adapting to Climate Change programme is now coordinating and driving delivery of these plans, thereby building the UK’s adaptive capacity.


Climate refers to the average weather experienced in a region over a long period, typically at least 30 years. This includes temperature, wind and rainfall patterns. Source: UKCIP

Climate Change

Climate change refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activity. Source: Adapted from IPCC (2007)

Climate Change Risk

Additional risk to investments (such as buildings and infrastructure) and actions from potential climate change impacts.

E.g. As winter rainfall increases, many buildings in the UK may be at an increased risk of severe flooding such as that seen in Cumbria in 2009. Source: UKCIP


The end result or effect caused by some event or action. Consequences may be beneficial, neutral or detrimental. A detrimental consequence is often referred to as an impact. May be expressed descriptively and/or semi-quantitatively (high, medium, low) or quantitatively (monetary value, number of people affected). Source: CCRA

Critical threshold

The point in a system at which sudden or rapid change occurs. Source: UKCIP

Emergency Planning (Contingency Planning)

Development and maintenance of agreed procedures to prevent, reduce, control, mitigate and take other actions in the event of an emergency.

• Generic plan - A single plan designed to cope with a wide range of emergencies.

E.g. Some common components of a generic emergency plan may include evacuation, emergency media teams, site clearance, crisis support teams and disaster appeal funds.

• Specific plan - A plan designed to cope with a specific type of emergency, where the generic plan is likely to be insufficient.

E.g. Prolonged freezing weather conditions have specific hazards and contingencies which need to be planned for such as extra grit for roads and increased fuel allowances for the elderly. These will not be covered in a generic emergency plan. Source: Civil Contingencies Act 2004


The basic equipment, utilities, productive enterprises, installations, institutions, and services essential for the development, operation, and growth of an organization, city, or nation.

E.g. Roads; schools; electric, gas, and water utilities; transportation; communication; and legal systems would be all considered as infrastructure. Source: IPCC

Impact (Climate Change)

A detrimental consequence of climate change.Source: CCRA

E.g. Increased frequency and severity of flooding during winter months in some parts of the UK.


Likelihood refers to the assessment of an outcome or result which has occurred or will occur in the future, and may be based on quantitative analysis or expert views. It is generally expressed as a probability or frequency. Source: Adapted from IPCC

E.g. The UK Climate Projections 2009 assess the likelihood of climate outcomes in terms of given probability levels.


Action or investment that enhances vulnerability to climate change impacts rather than reducing them.

E.g. In the face of rising sea-levels it would be maladaptive to build new key infrastructure on a shallow coastline. Source: UKCIP


An anthropogenic intervention to reduce the anthropogenic forcing of the climate system; it includes strategies to reduce greenhouse gas sources and emissions and enhancing greenhouse gas sinks.

E.g. Switching energy production from coal to wind-power. Source: IPCC

National Infrastructure

The national infrastructure is those facilities, systems, sites and networks necessary for the functioning of the country and the delivery of the essential services upon which the daily life in the UK depends.

E.g. Essential services include the supply of energy, food; water and so on. There are nine sectors which deliver essential services to the UK. These are: energy, food, water, transport, communications, government, emergency services, health and finance. Source: Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure


The ability of a social or natural system to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning, the capacity of self-organisation and the capacity to adapt to stress and change.

E.g. If two towns were hit by the same degree of flooding, the more resilient one may be functioning as normal within a week, whereas the less resilient one may not regain full functionality for a year. Source: UKCIP


A combination of the chance or probability of an event occurring, and the impact or consequence associated with that event. Risk = probability x consequence. Source: CCRA (adapted)

Note: We prefer the ISO definition of Risk - effect of uncertainty on objectives (Guide 73)

Risk Assessment

The structured analysis of hazards and impacts to provide information for decision making. Risk assessment usually relates to a particular exposure unit which may be individual, population, infrastructure, building or environmental asset, etc. The process usually involves identifying hazards that could have an impact, assessing the likelihoods and severities of impacts, and assessing the significance of the risk. Source: UKCIP


Plausible, coherent and internally consistent descriptions of how things may change in the future, not predictions or forecasts, but alternative futures without ascribed likelihoods. They have been used for years by businesses, government and the military as a basis for strategic planning.

• Climate scenarios describe possible future climates;

• Climate change scenarios describe possible future changes in climate;

• Socio-economic scenarios describe possible future social and economic conditions. Source: UKCIP

Sustainable adaptation

Sustainable adaptation aims to ensure that adaptation measures do not contribute to the causes or consequences of climate change, and that action in one place or sector does not unreasonably limit the ability of another one to adapt.

E.g. Increased use of air conditioning as a response to rising temperatures may not be a sustainable form of adaptation as, if used on a large scale, this may significantly increase carbon emissions and therefore contribute to the causes of climate change. Source: Statutory Guidance


A group of interacting, interrelated or interdependent components forming a complex whole.

E.g. Ecological systems have many components which may include soil, water and atmosphere.


An expression of the degree to which a value or projection is not precisely known. Uncertainty can result from a lack of information or from disagreement about what is known or even knowable. When dealing with uncertainty, there are two key attributes that should be considered: the amount of evidence available to support the conclusions being drawn; and the degree of consensus within the scientific community about that conclusion. Source: Adapted from CCRA


Climate vulnerability defines the extent to which a system is susceptible to, or unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. It depends not only on a system’s sensitivity but also on its adaptive capacity.

E.g. Arctic alpine flora or the elderly may be more vulnerable to climate change than other components of our flora or population. Source: CCRA


The state of the atmosphere with regard to temperature, cloudiness, rainfall, wind, and other meteorological conditions. Source: UKCIP