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«Are there social limits to adaptation to climate change? W. Neil Adger · Suraje Dessai · Marisa Goulden · Mike Hulme · Irene Lorenzoni · Donald R. ...»

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Climatic Change (2009) 93:335–354

DOI 10.1007/s10584-008-9520-z

Are there social limits to adaptation to climate change?

W. Neil Adger · Suraje Dessai · Marisa Goulden ·

Mike Hulme · Irene Lorenzoni · Donald R. Nelson ·

Lars Otto Naess · Johanna Wolf · Anita Wreford

Received: 3 July 2007 / Accepted: 22 September 2008 / Published online: 20 November 2008

© Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2008


While there is a recognised need to adapt to changing climatic conditions, there is an emerging discourse of limits to such adaptation. Limits are traditionally analysed as a set of immutable thresholds in biological, economic or technological parameters. This paper contends that limits to adaptation are endogenous to society and hence contingent on ethics, knowledge, attitudes to risk and culture. We review insights from history, sociology and psychology of risk, economics and political science to develop four propositions concerning limits to adaptation. First, any limits to adaptation depend on the ultimate goals of adaptation underpinned by diverse values. Second, adaptation need not be limited by uncertainty around future foresight of risk. Third, social and individual factors limit adaptation action. Fourth, systematic undervaluation of loss of places and culture disguises real, experienced but subjective limits to adaptation. We conclude that these issues of values and ethics, risk, knowledge and culture construct societal limits to adaptation, but that these limits are mutable.

W. N. Adger (B · M. Hulme · I. Lorenzoni · L. O. Naess · J. Wolf ) Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK e-mail: n.adger@uea.ac.uk S. Dessai Department of Geography, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK M. Goulden Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Development Studies, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK D. R. Nelson Department of Anthropology, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602, USA A. Wreford Scottish Agricultural College, Edinburgh, UK 336 Climatic Change (2009) 93:335–354 1 Introduction Individual and societal adaptation to climate is nothing new, neither as an empirical reality nor as a theoretical construct. The resource irregularities offered by different climates and the precariousness which emerges from the vicissitudes of climate have both acted as significant stimuli throughout human history for social and technological innovation. Irrigation, insurance and weather forecasting are just three of the many human institutions which have been prompted and shaped by the interactions between our physical and imaginative encounters with climate. They are examples of how we have adapted our social practices in the face of variable climates.

In a new, deliberative and self-conscious way, however, adaptation to climate change has now become part of the contemporary discourse about the politics and economics of global climate change. It has been enshrined in the policy debate through its appearance in Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where the ultimate objective of the Convention concedes that adaptation to climate change in relation to food production, ecosystem health and economic development can and will occur. Although much of the earlier international climate policy debate in the 1990s and early 2000s was pre-occupied with mitigation, the past decade has seen a growing attention given to adaptation— both its practice and its politics (e.g. Parry et al. 1998; Pielke et al. 2007).

Notwithstanding the potential insights offered by historical antecedents of change in human societies and their environment (e.g. from Huntington 1915, 2001; to Diamond 2005), the contemporary discourse of climate change adaptation has two quite distinctive foci. First, how can adaptation to climate change be facilitated and enhanced, given that there are at least several generations in the twenty-first century which will experience progressively changing climates? Second, given that efforts at mitigating further global climate change are contested (in desirability, effectiveness and feasibility), are there limits to adaptation by society beyond which politically or ethically undesirable outcomes occur? This latter question is bound up in the discourse of ‘dangerous climate change’, where the implication is that adaptation by society is limited, in some way, once climate change crosses some danger threshold.1 Schellnhuber et al. (2006), Stern (2007) and Schneider et al. (2007) are three recent high profile reviews which have followed this line of reasoning. An important policy discourse, explicit for example in the policy position of the European Union, suggests that such a threshold is 2◦ C of global warming above pre-industrial levels. This target is in effect chosen to induce urgent action, given the high likelihood that this threshold will be crossed in coming decades (Schellnhuber et al. 2006).

The purpose of this paper is to examine the assumptions that underlie current notions of limits to adaptation and the associated concept of thresholds. We review underlying assumptions and empirical evidence from a range of perspectives, contending that many previous analyses have considered adaptation from narrower standpoints: predominantly ecological, physical, economic or technical. We put forward our case by articulating four propositions around ethics, knowledge, risk and 1 There are, for example, real and increasingly identified thresholds in the impacts of climate change such as non-linear changes in ecosystems and physical systems brought about through transitions in ecosystem function and process, often exacerbated by feedbacks at global and local scales (e.g. Vaughan et al. 2003; Scheffer et al. 2006).

Climatic Change (2009) 93:335–354 337 culture which are designed to interrogate present understanding of adaptation, but also to challenge the existing research in this area. We believe it is more important that these propositions open up a much broader debate about what we mean by the limits of adaptation to climate change, than that they are true in any objective or empirical sense. Yet we suggest that these propositions are defendable and justifiable.

2 The nature of adaptation limits and four propositions

Within the climate change literature, adaptation is generally ‘adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climate stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities’ (McCarthy et al. 2001, p. 982). In essence, adaptation describes adjustments made to changed environmental circumstances that take place naturally within biological systems and with some deliberation or intent in social systems (Gallopin 2006; Nelson et al. 2007).

The discourse around limits to adaptation is frequently constructed around three dimensions—ecological and physical limits, economic limits, and technological limits.

These dimensions offer various analytical capabilities for investigating adaptation to climate change and allowing adaptation to be present in various forms of policy assessment. Attention to ecological or physical limits to adaptation offers the prospect of investigating of such limits through physical modelling of, for example, agriculture and biodiversity under changing climates. Consideration of economic limits to adaptation lends itself to investigation through the use of cost-effectiveness analysis or cost–benefit analysis. Approaching limits to adaptation through an appreciation of technology suggests value in various types of technology mapping and innovation analysis, for example as applied to coastal defence or building design.

These ways of conceiving limits to adaptation are attractive because they offer analytical functionality, a functionality which sits easily alongside other key dimensions of climate change analysis: modelling changes in the Earth system and energyeconomic modelling of mitigation policy. Indeed, the framing of Article 2 of the UNFCCC points in this direction, suggesting that there are independent, objective measures and thresholds of danger (Dessai et al. 2004; Oppenheimer 2005). On the other hand, these conceptions of adaptation limits imply that such limits can be defined predominantly in either exogenous or analytical terms. The conceptions give great weight to limits imposed from ‘outside society’ or limits where the risk can be quantified.

In this technological discourse, adaptation limits become synonymous with ecological thresholds, where a threshold refers to a state in sensitive ecological or physical systems beyond which change becomes irreversible. Such thresholds are beginning to be identified in ecological literature and refer to habitat ranges, ecosystem functions and threats of extinction of particular species (Parmesan and Yohe 2003; O’Neill and Oppenheimer 2002; Fischlin and Midgeley 2007). In addition, adaptation limits may also emerge from analyses of the economic costs of adaptation (e.g. Agrawala and Fankhauser 2008) or from the prospects for technological innovation for adaptation.

These limits to adaptation are absolute and objective.

In contrast to the above caricature of adaptation limits as exogenously or analytically defined, we approach the question of limits to adaptation differently. We 338 Climatic Change (2009) 93:335–354 start by thinking about the ways in which societies are organised, the values that they hold, the knowledge that they construct and the relationships that exist between individuals, institutions and the state. These organisational arrangements and social values are likely to vary widely within and between societies and are likely to change significantly over time (Inglehart 1997; O’Brien 2009). Values in this context refer to the personal or societal judgement of what is valuable and important in life. Values translate into action because they frame how societies develop rules and institutions to govern risk, and to manage social change and the allocation of scarce resources (Ostrom 2005). Indeed values, in some philosophical positions, are manifest in the processes and institutions that regulate behaviour rather than in the outcomes of resource allocations per se (Norton 2003).

In our approach to thinking about adaptation, limits are endogenous and emerge from ‘inside’ society. In this reading, what is or is not a limit to adaptation becomes a contingent question. It all depends on goals, values, risk and social choice. These limits to adaptation are mutable, subjective and socially constructed. How limits to adaptation become constructed, rather than how they are discovered, becomes the operative question.

This alternative conception of limits to adaptation suggests to us four metadomains whose roles need to be explored in this social construction of adaptation limits: ethics (how and what we value), knowledge (how and what we know), risk (how and what we perceive) and culture (how and why we live). Each of these four domains interacts with the realities and constraints introduced by the physical world—including the weather and climate we experience, the consequences of changes to the climate system and the material impacts these changes cause. But our approach to the limits of adaptation places the locus for their construction inside society rather than outside it.

We offer four propositions about limits to adaptation each of which draws upon one of these four domains. And it is these propositions—relating to ethics, knowledge, risk and culture—which the rest of this paper elaborates and defends. It is through these propositions that we offer answers to the question of whether there are limits to societal adaptation to climate change.

Ethics: Our first proposition is that any limits to adaptation depend on the ultimate goals of adaptation, which are themselves dependent upon diverse values. This proposition on the centrality of values demonstrates that limits are defined by ethical principles. We see an important distinction between (1) approaches that seek to define risks of climate change that are tolerable, and hence that avoid system failure and unacceptable cost, and (2) other approaches that see adaptation as part of a wider process to enhance the well-being of society. Whatever the social goals of adaptation, the existence of diverse, and sometimes incommensurable, values held by the actors involved in decision-making around adaptation can act as limits if these values are not deliberated. The values that underpin adaptation decisions become more diverse and contradictory as one moves from small-scales and single agents to larger-scales and multiple agents. Values in society are not held in isolation and are different for different stakeholders with levels of influence and power over their own destinies. The normative issues of whose values count, the prevalence of externalities and the changing preferences over time for well-being and risk avoidance need to be made explicit.

Climatic Change (2009) 93:335–354 339 Knowledge: The second proposition is that adaptation need not be limited by uncertainties associated with foresight of future climate change. Uncertainties in the context of climate change may relate to the provisional nature of scientific knowledge about future climates or about the contested nature and status of such scientific foresight.

Different social and organisational cultures, and sub-cultures, approach foresight in different ways. These differences in the status of knowledge claims about future climate reveal differences in values and make problematic the delineation of any limit to adaptation to climate change but can have an important bearing on the way in which adaptation decisions are made. We argue, however, that methods of assessing robust adaptations can provide opportunities for overcoming any perceived limits imposed by uncertainties in future foresight.

Risk: The third proposition is that social and individual factors limit adaptation action. Factors such as perception of risk, habit, social status and age operate at individual decision-making levels but also constrain collective action. Individual adaptation hinges on whether an impact, anticipated or experienced, is perceived as a risk and whether it should (and could) be acted upon. At the policy level, adaptation policies, like many other areas of public policy, are constrained by inertia, cultures of risk denial, and other phenomena well known in policy sciences. We suggest that individual and social characteristics, in particular risk perception, interact with underlying values to form subjective and mutable limits to adaptation that currently hinder society’s ability to act. Such limits could preclude adaptation at societal scales.

Culture: The fourth proposition is that systematic undervaluation of involuntary loss of places and culture disguises real, experienced but subjective limits to adaptation.

This proposition is based on the observation that cultural assets are unique in place and time. Hence many impacts result in loss of assets sometimes irreversible that individuals value. This proposition also raises the issue of values that are largely independent of material assets, but rather rely on perceptions and representations of the world around us. This issue is under-researched and needs to be explored further, not least because culture is not static—all cultures and places change over time—and because what is deemed to have intrinsic social value also changes over time.

These four propositions are explored in detail in the following sections.

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