Skip to main content

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4


  • Adger WN, Huq S, Brown K, Hulme M (2003) Adaptation to climate change in the developing world. Prog Dev Stud 3:179–195

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Adger WN, Arnell NW, Tompkins EL (2005) Successful adaptation to climate change across scales. Glob Env Chang Part A 15:77–86

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Agarwal A, Narain S (1991) Global warming in an unequal world: a case of environmental colonialism. Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, p 34

  • Allen KM (2006) Community-based disaster preparedness and climate adaptation: local capacity-building in the Philippines. Disasters 30:81–101

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Asian Development Bank (ADB) (2008). Kiribati social and economic report 2008: managing development risk. Mandaluyong City, Philippines

  • Barnett L (2001) Adapting to climate change in Pacific Island Countries: the problem of uncertainty. World Dev 29:977–993

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Barnett J, Adger WN (2003) Climate dangers and atoll countries. Clim Chang 61:321–337

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Barnett J, Campbell J (2010) Climate change and small island states: power, knowledge and the South Pacific. Earthscan, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Becker MB, Meyssignac C, Letetrel C, Llovel W, Cazenave A, Delcroix T (2012) Sea level variations at tropical Pacific islands since 1950. Glob Planet Chang 80–81:85–98. doi:10.106/j.gloplacha.2011.09.004

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bedford R, Bedford C (2011) International migration and climate change: a post-Copenhagen perspective on options for Kiribati and Tuvalu. In: Climate change and migration: South Pacific perspectives. pp 89–134

  • Biribo N, Woodroffe CD (2013) Historical area and shoreline change of reef islands around Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati. Sustain Sci. doi:10.1007/s11625-013-0210-z

  • Burton I, Huq S, Lim B, Pilifosova O, Schipper EL (2002) From impacts assessment to adaptation priorities: the shaping of adaptation policy. Clim Policy 2:145–159

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Church JA, Clark PU, Cazenave A, Gregory JM, Jevrejeva S, Levermann A, Merrifield MA, Milne GA, Nerem RS, Nunn PD, Payne AJ, W. Pfeffer WT, Stammer D. Unnikrishnan AS (2013) Chapter 13: Sea Level Change. In: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

  • Cowell PJ, Kench PS (2001) The morphological response of atoll islands to sea level rise. Part 1: Modifications to the modified shoreface translation model. J Coast Res 34:633–644

    Google Scholar 

  • Dessai S, Hulme M (2004) Does climate adaptation policy need probabilities? Clim Policy 4:107–128

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dessai S, Hulme M, Lempert R, Pielke R (2009) Do we need better predictions to adapt to a changing climate? EOS Trans AGU 90:111–112

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Donner SD (2012) Sea level rise and the Battle of Tarawa. EOS Trans AGU 93:169–170

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Donner SD, Kirata T, Vieux C (2010) Recovery for 2004–2005 mass coral bleaching in the Gilbert Islands. Kiribati, Atoll Res Bull No 587

    Google Scholar 

  • Donner SD, Kandlikar M, Zerriffi H (2011) Preparing to manage climate change financing. Science 334:908–909

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Duvat V (2013) Coastal protection structures in Tarawa Atoll, Republic of Kiribati. Sustain Sci. doi:10.1007/s11625-013-0205-9

  • Duvat V, Magnan A, Pouget F (2013) Exposure of atoll population to coastal erosion and flooding: a South Tarawa assessment, Kiribati. Sustain Sci 8:423–440

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Eakin HC, Wehbe MB (2009) Linking local vulnerability to system sustainability in a resilience framework: two cases from Latin America. Clim Chang 93:355–377

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fankhauser S, Smith JB, Tol RSJ (1999) Weathering climate change: some simple rules to guide adaptation decisions. Ecol Econ 30:67–78

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Folke C (2006) Resilience: The emergence of a perspective for social-ecological systems analyses. Glob Env Chang 16:253–267

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fussel HM (2007) Adaptation planning for climate change: concepts, assessment approaches, and key lessons. Sustain Sci 2:265–275

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • GOK (2007a) Kiribati Millennium Development Goals Report. Ministry of Environment, Land and Agricultural Development

  • GOK (2007b) Kiribati National Adaptation Program of Action (NAPA) Climate Change Study Team, Environment and Conservation Division, Ministry of Environment, Land and Agricultural Development

  • GOK (2012) Report on the Kiribati 2010 census of population and housing. National Statistics Office, Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning, Bairiki, Tarawa

  • Government of Kiribati (GOK) (2005) Kiribati climate change adaptation strategy. Bairiki, Tarawa, Kiribati

  • Grinsted A, Moore JC, Jefrejeva S (2010) Reconstructing sea level from paleo and projected temperatures 200 to 2100 AD. Clim Dyn 34:461–472

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hallegatte S (2009) Strategies to adapt to an uncertain climate change. Glob Env Chang 19:240–247

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hay JE (2006) Climate risk profile for Kiribati. John Hay and Associates Limited, New Zealand

    Google Scholar 

  • Hay JE (2013) Small island developing states: coastal systems, global change and sustainability. Sustain Sci 8:309–326

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Heltberg R, Siegel PB, Jorgensen SL (2009) Addressing human vulnerability to climate change: toward a ‘no-regrets’ approach. Glob Env Chang 19:89–99

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hogan C (2008). Survey of public awareness and attitudes towards climate change issues and challenges. KAP Stage II Baseline Study Report. Tarawa, Kiribati

  • Horton R, Herweijer C, Rosenzweig C, Liu J, Gornitz V, Ruane AC (2008) Sea level rise projections for current generation CGCMs based on the semi-empirical method. Geophys Res Let 35. doi:10.1029/2007GL032486

  • Howorth R (1983) Coastal erosion in Kiribati; visit to South Tarawa 23 August to 8 September 1983. CCOP/SOPAC Technical Report 31

  • Hughes T (2011) Unfinished business. KAPII Implementation Completion Report for Government of Kiribati, KAP, Tarawa, Kiribati

  • Huq S, Reid H (2004) Mainstreaming adaptation in development. IDS Bull 35:15–21

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jevrejeva S, Moore JC, Grinsted A (2010) How will sea level respond to changes in natural and anthropogenic forcings by 2100? Geophys Res Let 37:L07703. doi:10.1029/2010GL042947

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jones P, Lea J (2007) What has happened to urban reform in the island Pacific? Some lessons from Kiribati and Samoa. Pac Aff 80:473–491

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Juillerat C (2012) Site Visit/Technical Assessment Nippon causeway Bairiki side seawall/land reclamation for Maiana Maneaba. Report prepared by Cliff Juillerat, Senior Coastal/Civil Engineer Ministry of Public Works and Utilities, Tarawa, Kiribati

  • Kandlikar M, Zerriffi H, Ho Lem C (2011) Science, decision-making and development: managing the risks of climate variation in less-industrialized countries. Wiley Interdiscipl Rev Clim Chang 2:201–219. doi:10.1002/wcc.98

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kay R (2008) Development of an integrated climate change adaptation risk diagnosis and planning process: final report. Report prepared for the KAP Project, Phase II. Coastal Zone Management Pty Ltd, Perth

  • Kench P (2005) Coastal protection measures report: Kiribati adaptation program. Preparation for Phase II Project. Kiribati Adaptation Program, Tarawa, Kiribati

  • Kuruppu N, Liverman D (2011) Mental preparation for climate adaptation: the role of cognition and culture in enhancing adaptive capacity of water management in Kiribati. Glob Environ Chang 21:657–669

    Google Scholar 

  • Lieber MD (1977) Exiles and migrants in oceania. Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania Monograph Series. The University Press of Hawaii, Honolulu

  • Meehl, GA, Stocker TF, Collins WD, Friedlingstein P, Gaye AT, Gregory JM, Kitoh A, Knutti R, Murphy JM, Noda A, Raper SCR, Watterson IG, Weaver AJ, Zhao, ZC (2007) Global climate projections. In: Solomon S, Qin D, Manning M, Chen X Marquis M, Avery KB, Tignor M, Miller HL (eds). Climate change 2007: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  • Merrifield MA, Thompson PR, Lander M (2012) Multidecadal sea level anomalies and trends in the western tropical Pacific. Geophys Res Lett 39. doi:10.1029/2012GL052032

  • Mimura N, Nurse L, McLean RF, Agard L, Briguglio L, Lefale P, Payet R, Sem G (2007) Small islands. In: Parry ML, Canziani OF, Palutikof JP, Van der Linden PJ, Hanson CE (eds) Climate change 2007: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  • Müller B (2008) International adaptation finance: the need for an innovative and strategic approach. Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  • Nicholls RJ, Cazenave A (2010) Sea-level rise and its impact on coastal zones. Science 328:1517–1520

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nicholls RJ, Wong PP, Burkett VR, Codignotto JO, Hay JE, McLean RF, Ragoonaden S, Woodroffe SD (2007) Coastal systems and low-lying areas. In: Parry ML, Canziani OF, Palutikof JP, Van der Linden PJ, Hanson CE (eds) Climate change 2007: impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

  • Nunn PD (2009) Responding to the challenges of climate change in the Pacific Islands: management and technological imperatives. Clim Res 40:211–231

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Onorio T (2013) Key note address by Hon. Vice President Teima Onorio on the occasion of the Nansen Initiative Pacific Regional Consultations. Edgewater Resort, Rarotonga, May 21–25, 2013.

  • Pfeffer WT, Harper JT, O’Neel S (2008) Kinematic constraints on glacier contributions to 21st-century sea-level rise. Science 321:1340

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ramsay D (2010) Kiribati Adaptation Program Phase II. Information for Climate Risk Management: Coastal Calculator operational Handbook. NIWA Report: HAM 2009-165. National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Ltd., Hamilton, NZ

  • Ramsay D, Stephens S, Gorman R, Oldman J, Bell R (2008) Kiribati Adaptation Program. Phase II. Information for climate risk management: sea-levels, waves, run-up and overtopping. NIWA Report: HAM 2008-022. National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research Ltd., Hamilton, New Zealand

  • Rankey EC (2011) Nature and stability of atoll island shorelines: Gilbert Island chain, Kiribati, equatorial Pacific. Sedimentology 58:1831–1859

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smit B, Wandel J (2006) Adaptation, adaptive capacity and vulnerability. Glob Env Chang 16:282–292

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Solomon SM, Forbes DL (1999) Coastal hazards and associated management issues on South Pacific Islands. Ocean Coast Man 42:523–554

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sovacool BK (2011) Hard and soft paths for climate change adaptation. Clim Pol 11:1177–1183

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Stirrat J (2006) Competitive humanitarianism. Anthro Today 22:11

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Storey D, Hunter S (2010) Kiribati: an environmental ‘perfect storm’. Aust Geogr 41:167–181. doi:10.1080/00049181003742294

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tompkins EL, Adger NW (2005) Defining response capacity to enhance climate change policy. Env Sci Pol 8:562–571

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vermeer M, Rahmstorf S (2009) Global sea level linked to global temperature. Proc Nat Acad Sci 106:21527

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  • Watters R (2009) Journeys towards progress: essays of a geographer on development and change in Oceania. Victoria University Press, Wellington

    Google Scholar 

  • Webb A (2005) Technical report—an assessment of coastal processes, impacts, erosion mitigation options and beach mining (Bairiki/Nanikai causeway, Tungaru Central Hospital coastline and Bonriki runway—South Tarawa, Kiribati), EU-SOPAC Project Report 46, South Pacific Applied Geosciences Commission, Suva, Fiji

  • Webb AP, Kench PS (2010) The dynamic response of reef islands to sea-level rise: evidence from multi-decadal analysis of island change in the Central Pacific. Glob Planet Chang 72:234–246. doi:10.1016/j.gloplacha.2010.05.003

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Webber S (2013) Performative vulnerability: climate change adaptation policies and financing in Kiribati. Environ Plann A 45:2717–2733

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • White I (2010) Tarawa water master plan: Te Ran-Maitira ae Kainanoaki, future water demand. KAP Phase II Water Component 3.2.1, December 2010, Australian National University

  • White I, Falkland A, Metutera T, Metai E, Overmars M, Perez P, Dray A (2007) Climatic and human influences on groundwater in low atolls. Vadose Zone J 6:581–590

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Woodroffe CD (2008) Reef-island topography and the vulnerability of atolls to sea-level rise. Glob Planet Chang 62:77–96. doi:10.1016/j.gloplacha.2007.11.001

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • World Bank (2006) Project appraisal document on a proposed grant from the Global Environment Facility Trust Fund. Report No. 35969-KI. Rural Development and Natural Resources Sector Unit East Asia and Pacific Region, World Bank, Washington, DC

  • World Bank (2009b) Kiribati Adaptation Project—Implementation Phase (KAPII): restructuring. Washington, DC

  • World Bank (2011a) Country Assistance Strategy for the Republic of Kiribati: FY2011-2014. Report No. 59355-KI, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea, and Pacific Islands Country Management Unit, East Asia and Pacific Region, International Finance Corporation, World Bank, Washington DC

  • World Bank (2011b) Kiribati Adaptation Project—Implementation Phase (KAPII): Project Implementation Completion and Results Report. Report No: ICR00001751. Washington, DC

  • World Bank (2011c) Kiribati Adaptation Program Phase III Project Appraisal Document. Report No: 63874-KI. World Bank, Washington, DC

Download references


The authors thank the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resource Development and the Kiribati Adaptation Program for their assistance throughout this research. Special thanks go to T. Kirata, A. Tekiau, T. Teema and T. Beiateuea for all their help over the years in coordinating field visits, providing an informal education on i-Kiribati culture, and nursing the lead author to health during a bout with dengue fever. The authors also thank two anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism of earlier drafts, and J. Lehman for her assistance in initial literature research. This work was supported by the NSERC Discovery Program (S. Donner), an SSHRC graduate award (S. Webber), and a UBC Hampton Award (S. Donner).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simon D. Donner.

Additional information

Handled by John E Hay, The University of the South Pacific, The Cook Islands.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Donner, S.D., Webber, S. Obstacles to climate change adaptation decisions: a case study of sea-level rise and coastal protection measures in Kiribati. Sustain Sci 9, 331–345 (2014).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Adaptation
  • Climate change financing
  • Sea-level rise
  • Coastal protection measures
  • Pacific Islands
  • Uncertainty
  • Kiribati