Against the background of potentially substantial sea-level rise, one important question is to what extent are coastal societies able to adapt? This question is often answered in the negative by referring to sinking islands and submerged megacities. Although these risks are real, the picture is incomplete because it lacks consideration of adaptation. This Perspective explores societies’ abilities to adapt to twenty-first-century sea-level rise by integrating perspectives from coastal engineering, economics, finance and social sciences, and provides a comparative analysis of a set of cases that vary in terms of technological limits, economic and financial barriers to adaptation and social conflicts.

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J.H., J.C.J.H.A., S.B., J.A.J., D.L., R.J.N., P.S., A.S.A. and A.V. received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research, Technological Development and Demonstration under grant agreement no 603396 (RISES-AM project). J.H. and D.L. also received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under grant agreement no. 642018 (GREEN-WIN project) and from the DFG under the SEASCAPE project as part of the Special Priority Program (SPP)-1889 "Regional Sea Level Change and Society" (SeaLevel). J.C.J.H.A. also received funding from Dutch Science foundation VICI grant no. 453-13-006. J.A.J. was also funded by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness project PaiRisClima (CGL2014-55387-R). We thank J. Merkens for providing the values included in Table 1. We also thank A. Shareef and Z. Khaleel from the Ministry of Environment and Energy for extended discussions about adapting to SLR in the Maldives.

Author information


  1. Global Climate Forum (GCF), Berlin, Germany

    • Jochen Hinkel
    •  & Daniel Lincke
  2. Division of Resource Economics, Albrecht Daniel Thaer-Institute and Berlin Workshop in Institutional Analysis of Social-Ecological Systems (WINS), Humboldt-University, Berlin, Germany

    • Jochen Hinkel
  3. Institute for Environmental Studies, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    • Jeroen C. J. H. Aerts
    •  & Paolo Scussolini
  4. Faculty of Engineering and the Environment and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK

    • Sally Brown
    •  & Robert J. Nicholls
  5. Laboratori d’Enginyeria Marítima, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, BarcelonaTech, Barcelona, Spain

    • Jose A. Jiménez
    •  & Agustín Sanchez-Arcilla
  6. International Centre for Coastal Resources Research, Barcelona, Spain

    • Agustín Sanchez-Arcilla
  7. Institute of Geography, Christian-Albrechts University Kiel, Kiel, Germany

    • Athanasios Vafeidis
  8. Department of Marine and Fisheries Sciences, University of Ghana, Legon-Accra, Ghana

    • Kwasi Appeaning Addo


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J.H. conceived this study, drafted the general sections of the paper and contributed to drafting each case study. J.C.J.H.A. carried out and drafted the New York case study. S.B., D.L., R.J.N. and J.H. carried out and drafted the Maldives case study. R.J.N. and S.B. carried out and drafted the Bangladesh case study. J.A.J. and A.S.A. carried out and drafted the Catalonia case study. P.S. carried out and drafted the Ho Chi Minh City case study. P.S. and J.C.J.H.A. carried out and drafted the Netherlands case study. K.A.A. and N.V. contributed to the drafting the discussion.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Correspondence to Jochen Hinkel.

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