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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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The valuing of places and cultures does not imply that adaptation is the same as conservation. Cultures are never static as individuals and societies initiate change or respond to new sets of external conditions. Whether a result of a changing physical environment, emigrations, the influx of immigrants, or local innovations, cultures are always in flux. Place names in Nunavut, for example, are often descriptive of the environment and are important references for navigation. However, place names are also slow to change and the environmental conditions of the past are not the same as today, leaving a legacy of place names that do not correspond to the current environment (Henshaw 2003). These apparent misnomers highlight that populations in the region have been able to accommodate environmental change and adapt to new conditions. The dynamic nature of culture does not discount the value of a particular culture, especially when change is involuntary and, as in the case of climate change, results from anthropogenic emissions for which others are largely responsible. The projected changes associated with a warming climate will be irreversible and highly significant.

Landscapes are dynamic social constructions which reflect process and change through historical and contextual experience. As a result of the complex interactions of cultural, political, and ecological processes landscapes assume symbolic meaning and may have profound cultural implications (Baker 1992). Historical and contextual experience also leads to the development of rules, norms, and forms of governance to manage and interact with the environment (Young and Lipton 2006).

Thus, part of the order and structure of societies is designed to interact with the physical environment and any change in the physical environment will influence these structures as well as the larger social system. The range of this influence varies in accord with the proximity of a society to the natural environment. For example, for some cultures a physical landscape provides social order by helping to define and regulate kinship relationships (Gow 1995). Nevertheless, all societies have affective ties between individuals, communities, and their material environments, and changes Climatic Change (2009) 93:335–354 349 in the environment affect individual and collective constructions of reality (OliverSmith 1991; Pretty 2007). The implications of a changing physical environment touch the core of how individuals and cultures may define themselves and their interactions with the world around them.

There is increasing evidence that particular places in the world will be transformed and, in effect, lost through the impacts of a changing climate. In the South Pacific, for example, there are significant concerns that sea level rise will force people to leave their islands (Adger et al. 2009). Migration is an adaptation, but involuntary migration may be undesirable to those leaving their homeland, and the disruptive impacts on economies, social order, cultural identity, knowledge, and traditions belie successful transitions (Adger et al. 2009). Modern history provides numerous examples of peoples who were forced to migrate as a consequence of dam construction, social reorganization, and national security. The outcomes of these movements have been strikingly similar and contain few successes. Amongst other problems, the severing of attachment to place may have devastating repercussions for individuals and societies strongly anchored to a particular region (Trudelle-Schwarz 1996; Oliver-Smith 1991).

For cultures and the physical environment climate change implies irreversible loss.

Change is not inherently negative. However, the current metrics of accounting for loss do not include mechanisms for evaluating the cultural and symbolic value of the landscape. These impacts are systematically undervalued and do not enter into the decision making calculus for adaptation responses. Whether slow and incremental or fast and abrupt, climate change is and will continue to modify the relationships of societies with the environment. The loss of physical places and transformed ecological systems will often be irreversible, with associated environmental, cultural, and social implications. These changes are associated with limits to certain possible adaptation pathways. While many of the changes are unavoidable, the way in which we choose to plan for, and respond to, change is subject to discretion.

7 Conclusions

This paper challenges the implicit assumption that successful adaptation to climate change will be bound by limiting factors beyond which adaptation will not be possible. The propositions in effect challenge this view and maintain that societal adaptation is not necessarily limited by exogenous forces outside its control. More often, adaptation to climate change is limited by the values, perceptions, processes and power structures within society. What may be a limit in one society may not be in another, depending on the ethical standpoint, the emphasis placed on scientific projections, the risk perceptions of the society, and the extent to which places and cultures are valued.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the assumptions underlying current notions of limits to adaptation and the associated concept of thresholds. We suggest that four elements inherent in any society contribute to limiting the successful adaptive response of society. The role of ethics and its manifestation in the diverse goals of adaptation of different actors is critical. What may be interpreted as a limit or a failure of adaptation may in fact be a successful adaptation for another actor, resulting from the different priorities and values held within society. Lack 350 Climatic Change (2009) 93:335–354 of precise knowledge about future climate impacts is often cited as a reason for delaying adaptation actions. It becomes a limit in itself, whereas we argue that greater foresight will not facilitate adaptation. Instead, robust decision-making circumvents the need for precise knowledge. Adaptation decisions depend on the perceptions of risk held by society, which may act as limiting factors if the society does not believe the risk is great enough to justify action. And fourth, the undervaluing of places and cultures may limit the range of adaptation actions. The current methods of valuing loss do not include cultural and symbolic values, leading to an undervaluation in comparison with more easily valued and tangible assets.

What are the implications of this set of observations and propositions for policy and individual action to adapt to climate change? The major implication arises from our observations that diverse and contested values—underpinned by ethical, cultural, risk and knowledge considerations—underlie adaptation responses and thus define mutable and subjective limits to adaptation. Given diverse values of diverse actors, there is, we believe, a compelling need to identify and recognise implicit and hidden values and interests in advance of purposeful adaptation interventions. As a consequence, we suggest that there is a requirement for governance mechanisms that can meaningfully acknowledge and negotiate the complexity arising from the manifestation of diverse values—for example, deliberative platforms for adaptive action involving wide sets of stakeholders. We have argued here that locality, place and cultural icons are likely to loom large in adaptation decisions.

We argue that, notwithstanding physical and ecological limits affecting natural systems, climate change adaptation is not only limited by such exogenous forces, but importantly by societal factors that could possibly be overcome. Based on our review, we suggest that an adaptable society is characterized by awareness of diverse values, appreciation and understanding of specific and variable vulnerabilities to impacts, and acceptance of some loss through change. The ability to adapt is determined in part by the availability of technology and the capacity for learning but fundamentally by the ethics of the treatment of vulnerable people and places within societal decision-making structures. The issues we raise in this paper represent, we argue, the core problems of adaptation decision-making at all institutional and political scales, and across all cultures.

Acknowledgements The research was funded by NERC, EPSRC and ESRC in the UK through the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. We thank Declan Conway for discussions and Hallie Eakin and two further anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. This version remains our own responsibility.


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