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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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3 Proposition 1: any limits to adaptation depend on the goals of adaptation, which are themselves dependent on diverse values Our first proposition about the limits to adaptation emerges from considerations about the goals of adaptation and the nature of decision-making around climate change adaptation, in particular considerations about the diversity and often incommensurability of values which adaptation agents possess that underpin these goals. This diversity of values may often lead to a paralysis of adaptation actions, such as failure to introduce or change regulatory incentives, or lead to contradictory outcomes, such as actions which simultaneously yet differentially enhance and reduce resilience in communities. We address the question of values, and hence understand the origin of the problem, by first looking at the scale and agency of adaptation decision-making and then by exploring the goals of adaptation.

340 Climatic Change (2009) 93:335–354

3.1 The scale and agency of adaptation decision-making

Adaptation to climate change, and hence the limits to adaptation, can only be understood in context. This implies an appreciation of the nature of the operational, managerial or strategic decision that is at stake. This in turn requires the scale and agency of decision-making to be defined. Understanding the values that drive an adaptation decision is usually easier for decisions made at the micro-scale and by well defined agents than at the macro-scale and by diffuse agents. This perspective also requires some appreciation of the differences between adaptation decisions seen as private (e.g. the individual farmer or business) or public (e.g. a government agency). The values that are brought to bear on adaptation decisions become more diverse and contradictory as one moves from small-scales and single agents to largerscales and multiple agents. If one of the roles of government is to resolve conflicts between agents to engender collective action, then the importance of governance in adaptation decisions becomes increasingly important as one moves along this continuum (Cash et al. 2006).

The problem of scale, value and governance in adaptation decision-making is manifest in the case of coastal management in the UK. Here, increased sea level and changing coastal morphology are increasing the exposure of coastal communities, from the erosive south and east costs, to the storm-exposed Atlantic coasts (Tsimplis et al. 2005). The desirable adaptation strategy to rising sea-levels as perceived by an individual householder perched on an eroding cliff-line seems clear-cut: invest in beach replenishment or in hard defence structures. For each coastal local authority, responsible for 100 km or more of shoreline, a different set of values and governance issues come into play. For central government with a responsibility for the public purse and a national perspective, the values and the means for resolving valueconflicts are different again. Although all parties tend to appeal to principles of sustainability, the residents directly affected articulate victimhood and vulnerability, while central government priorities centre around fairness, cost-effectiveness and integrated and long-term planning (Few et al. 2007; Tompkins et al. 2008).

Similarly, when thinking about the inter-generational aspects of adaptation decisions, the diversity of goals of adaptation complicates attempts to define limits.

The ways in which societies live with climate risks changes over time as values, lifestyles and technologies change (Toman 2006). Adaptation decisions taken today may impose negative environmental and social impacts on a future generation. The values of future generations are most often explicitly incorporated into today’s decisions through formal discounting methods in economics. But issues around critical natural capital, the non-material aspects of choice and culture, are effectively excluded from economic analysis.

The dependency of adaptation decisions on scale and agency may point to hidden limits to adaptation in an increasingly complex and inter-connected society.

McIntosh et al. (2000) have argued from a study of the ebb and flow of earlier civilisations that as societies become increasingly complex (e.g. divergent in values and with increasingly intricate forms of governance), investment in problem-solving activities (e.g. technical approaches to managing environmental risks) is subject to a law of diminishing return. Sobel and Leeson (2006) suggest that the impacts of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans may be an example of complexity leading to failure. Here society was exposed to an environmental shock, to which its weakening Climatic Change (2009) 93:335–354 341 ability to resolve or reconcile divergent values through a complex governance structure induced catastrophic failure.

3.2 The goals of adaptation Understanding the scale and unit of adaptation decision-making reveals the diverging goals of adaptation to climate change that exist. These goals will differ within a sector, a society, between nation states and, most intractably, between different generations. However, the goals of adaptation are rarely stated explicitly.

For example, for some agents adaptation concerns conservation of status quo, while for others the current situation is undesirable and hence adaptation is about progress. The goal of adaptation will likely depend on who or what is adapting.





For example, well developed institutions and wealthier societies or individuals may seek to maintain their current state or standard of living through adaptation, whilst developing countries may be aiming to continue developing and enhance the standard of living of their citizens. For those on the margins of society, the immediate priority may be to secure livelihoods or protect assets from climate and other risks.

In ecosystems, successful adaptation is demonstrated by survival of the species in a changing environment, but not necessarily the survival of an individual (Rappaport 1977).

These divergent goals for adaptation emerge, in part, from different attitudes to risk (risk-takers versus the risk-averse), to disposition (a progressive versus conservative ethos) and to the adaptive capacity of future generations (optimistic versus pessimistic). This divergence in goals can be illustrated by the differing adaptation decisions made even within one business sector in one region. In a study of several house construction firms in England, Berkhout et al. (2006) showed radically different adaptation strategies adopted by different firms in the face of the same apparent risk—increased flooding of flood plains. Some firms withdrew entirely from such construction ventures, while others benefited from falling land values and compensated by investing in engineering solutions to increase infrastructure resilience. If such diversity in goal-setting applies across all sectors and societies it becomes problematic to talk about generic ‘limits to adaptation’.

While there are different perspectives on the goals and objectives of adaptation there is, however, little discussion in the adaptation literature on the role of social and cultural values in defining these goals and objectives (Camfield and McGregor 2005).

The risk management literature focuses on adaptation to natural hazards, including both climate and non-climate related hazards (Burton et al. 1993). Adaptations, adjustments or coping strategies are used to respond to the perceived risk of, or experienced impact of, a hazard. These strategies have been classified by Burton et al. (1993) as: share the loss, bear the loss, modify the events, prevent the effects, change use or change location. These various strategies reveal different objectives of adaptation, although the overarching goal remains that of reducing the negative effects and increasing any benefits resulting from a hazard (Burton et al. 1993).

Within the context of the climate change debate, the purpose of adaptation is often seen as to reduce vulnerability or to enhance resilience to climate change and climate variability (Smit and Pilifosova 2001). Other perspectives on adaptation see it as closely related to sustainable development. Adaptation can be viewed as providing broader benefits, not just specifically to cope with climate impacts but as part of 342 Climatic Change (2009) 93:335–354 the development process (Apuuli et al. 2000). The resilience approach, as applied to linked social and ecological systems, views learning and adaptation as important processes that improve system resilience to a range of shocks, achievable through adaptive management (Folke 2006; Nelson et al. 2007). Adaptation actions can be used either to build resilience to prevent collapse of a system or to reorganise the system and recover once a shock has caused a collapse.

There are trade-offs between the goals of building resilience and reducing vulnerability. Adaptive management approaches that promote resilience seek to learn from failure and promote the ongoing structures and functions of overall systems.

Vulnerability approaches, by contract, focus on the most endangered individuals or ecosystems and seeks adaptations that protect those, perhaps at the expense of robustness and resilience of the overall system (see for example Plummer and Armitage 2007; Dow et al. 2006; Eakin et al. 2009). Hence there are a range of possible goals of adaptation. The choice between them is taken by institutions of collective response based on the underlying values of society. This divergence of objectives in effect sets different ‘limits’ to adaptation where trade-offs and incommesurabilities mean that not all objectives can be met.

4 Proposition 2: adaptation need not be limited by uncertain knowledge of future climate change Many scholars have argued that the effectiveness of adaptation responses is dependent on the level of certainty associated with climate change and impact projections (see Füssel 2007; Gagnon-Lebrun and Agrawala 2007). If so, and given that climate and impact projections at the regional and local level are subject to deep uncertainties, one would expect this lack of certainty—this lack of accurate and precise foreknowledge—to act as an important limit to adaptation efforts. This proposition suggests, however, that we should not consider uncertainties associated with foresight of future climate change a limit to adaptation.

The goals and processes of adaptation cannot be separated from the nature, status and legitimacy of knowledge claims about the future. Whilst knowledge about many areas of future development is relevant, here we focus this discussion around the future of climate. Science has claimed a greater degree of predictability for the climate system than it has offered for other, adaptation-relevant, dimensions of social change relating to economics, technology, demography and culture. How knowledge claims about future climate are assimilated into adaptation decisionmaking therefore becomes of great importance. Indeed more fundamental still, when thinking about the role of climate knowledge in adaptation is the way in which the agents of adaptation—individuals, institutions, governments—view knowledge about weather and climate from the deep past through the present to the long future.

When making a decision for which future climate is relevant a mental map of knowledge about possible future climates is required. Put simply, this mental map can be influenced by the deep climatic past (such as the idea of social memory of past weather extremes; Harley 2003), the present or recent experience of weather (e.g.

derived from intuitive perceptions and guided by historical weather data; see case studies in Strauss and Orlove 2003), and the anticipation of future climate (such as Climatic Change (2009) 93:335–354 343 scenarios of climate change constructed from model simulations based on predictive science; Mearns et al. 2001; Hulme et al. 2002; Parson et al. 2007).

The weights given to these three influences in shaping expectations of future climate, and hence the imperative for adaptation decisions and their nature, will depend on many factors. Social and organisational culture will be important, as will social and behavioural psychology and the credibility, saliency and legitimacy of climate scenarios (Cash et al. 2003; see Hulme and Dessai 2008 in the context of the construction of UK climate scenarios). Credibility may mean quite different things in different cultures. The assumed hegemony of predictive scientific models of the climate system as the basis for scenario making (e.g. as presented by the IPCC), is not borne out by historical surveys of scenario exercises (e.g. Pulver and VanDeveer 2007).

A related example is the increasing attention given to individuals’ and communities’ knowledge and experience of past and recent climate, and the way this shapes their perceptions of future climate (Cruikshank 2001; Huntington and Fox 2005).

The relevance and validity of local knowledge in climate change studies have been demonstrated by a number of studies (Orlove et al. 2000; Riedlinger and Berkes 2001;

Berman and Kofinas 2004). However, many have been critical of the integration of local knowledge narrowly as decontextualised data within a scientific framework (Cruikshank 2001; Berkes 2002), and discussions remain over whether and how to overcome differences in epistemology as well as methodological, institutional and political challenges.

Central to an understanding of how scenarios of future climate are used in adaptation decision-making is to appreciate the ways in which they characterise uncertainty.

Scenarios constructed from predictive scientific models of the climate system may be contested on epistemological grounds—scientific predictions as socially constructed simulations (e.g. Petersen 2006). But even where an epistemology is shared, resulting scientific uncertainties may limit their usefulness for adaptation decision making.

Thus different approaches to characterising such uncertainty—narratives, quantitative alternative scenarios, or probabilistic descriptions (e.g. Dessai and Hulme 2004)—can have quite different effects on the types of adaptation decisions that are made, or not made.

Many commentators have argued that the lack of reliable predictions of future climate pose a major limit for effective adaptation to climate change. Often this argument is used to justify further investment in climate modelling capabilities in order to improve predictions of future climate. In an assessment of climate prediction and adaptation to climate change, Dessai et al. (2009) argue that society can (and indeed must) make adaptation decisions in the absence of accurate and precise climate predictions. They suggest that the limits to accurate and precise foreknowledge of future climate has been falsely constructed as an absolute limit to adaptation.

The accuracy of climate predictions is limited by fundamental, irreducible uncertainties. For climate prediction, uncertainties can arise from limitations in knowledge (e.g., cloud physics), from randomness (e.g., due to the chaotic nature of the climate system), and also from human actions (e.g., future greenhouse gas emissions, population, economic growth and development). Some of these uncertainties can be quantified, but many simply cannot, leaving some level of irreducible ignorance in our understandings of future climate uncertainty (Dessai and Hulme 2004).



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