Recent research suggests that sub-Saharan Africa will be among the regions most affected by the negative social and biophysical ramifications of climate change. Smallholders are expected to respond to rising temperatures and precipitation anomalies through on-farm management strategies and diversification into off-farm activities. However, few studies have empirically examined the relationship between climate anomalies and rural livelihoods. Our research explores the impact of climate anomalies on farmers’ on and off-farm livelihood strategies, considering both annual and decadal climate exposures, the relationship between on and off-farm livelihoods, and the implications of these livelihood strategies for agricultural productivity. To examine these issues, we link gridded climate data to survey data collected in 120 communities from 850 Ugandan households and 2000 agricultural plots in 2003 and 2013. We find that smallholder livelihoods are responsive to climate exposure over both short and long time scales. Droughts decrease agricultural productivity in the short term and reduce individual livelihood diversification in the long term. Smallholders cope with higher temperatures in the short term, but in the long run, farmers struggle to adapt to above-average temperatures, which lower agricultural productivity and reduce opportunities for diversification. On and off-farm livelihood strategies also appear to operate in parallel, rather than by substituting for one another. These observations suggest that new strategies will be necessary if rural smallholders are to successfully adapt to climate change.
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