Climate Adaptation as an Opportunity for Coping, Transition, and Transformation – Hasanthi Tennakoon Kingsley


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) together with other experts agree that even small increases in warming yield significant repercussions in terms of climate impacts and the capacity of natural and human systems to adapt to that change. The findings of the IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C in 2018, present a stark reality, especially for those who are already vulnerable. As a result, there is now a greater urgency to pursue adaptation.  

Concepts of climate adaptation and resilience are frequently referenced in the climate change literature. What is meant precisely by these terms? How do these concepts relate to each other? The IPCC offers some definitions. The IPCC defines adaptation as: 

The process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects. In human systems, adaptation seeks to moderate or avoid harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In some natural systems, human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate and its effects. 

Here, the process of adjusting to changing conditions is central to the idea of adaptation, and it can be seen as a dynamic process. But what about resilience? The IPCC defines resilience as: 

The capacity of social, economic and environmental systems to cope with a hazardous event or trend or disturbance, responding or reorganizing in ways that maintain their essential function, identity and structure, while also maintaining the capacity for adaptation, learning and transformation.

Here, the ability of systems to cope, reorganize, and respond to changing conditions is a key idea, which again suggests the need to keep abreast of changes taking place. Nonetheless, another component of resilience is the idea of maintaining the essential functioning, identity, and structure of systems, which hints that resilience is concerned with maintaining the status quo in some ways. However, the IPCC definition adds that resilience also requires systems to maintain their capacity to adapt, learn, and transform, indicating that resilience calls for some degree of flexibility to change when necessary. 

The IPCC definition of capacity for adaptation or, in other words, adaptive capacity is: “The ability of systems, institutions, humans and other organisms to adjust to potential damage, to take advantage of opportunities, or to respond to consequences.” This indicates that resilience must also accommodate a certain set of capabilities (based on Amartya Sen’s capability approach (p 446), the freedom to achieve outcomes such as well-being, justice, and development, needs to be understood in terms of people’s capabilities, in other words, the real opportunities that are available to them to do and be what they have reason to value). 

Concepts of adaptation

Pelling, who writes extensively on climate adaptation, identifies three different adaptation pathways that are shaped by varying levels of social engagement. These include adaptation pathways leading to: (i) resilience (maintaining the status quo), (ii) transition (incremental change), and (iii) transformation (radical change). 

Adaptation as resilience seeks to preserve functions deemed significant for human well-being or ecological sustainability when such functions are subject to external threats. Within certain systems, protecting functions that are significant for well-being and sustainability can call for transitional or potentially transformational change within those systems. Furthermore, the literature on socio-ecological systems describes resilient systems as those that have the capacity for social learning and self-organisation and exhibit functional persistence. Social learning is shaped by adaptation pathways and social relationships that facilitate the exchange of information, ultimately leading to innovative ways of thinking or acting, while impromptu or un-directed collective action can be attributed to self-organisation within systems. Both these social phenomena can also be seen in transitional and transformative adaptation. 

Adaptation as transition can be described as incremental change to social, economic, political, and cultural processes, as part of adapting to climate change. It is an intermediary form of adaptation and may not aim for or result in radical change to the existing order, but instead generate gradual change and innovation within the prevailing system, extending actions that have already been taken to create a certain degree of climate resilience. 

Adaptation as transformation seeks to address root causes of vulnerability that lie within social, cultural, economic, and political spheres and bring about radical change to a system where its prevailing ecological, social, or economic conditions have become undesirable or unsustainable. The extent to which adaptation to climate change can be catalytic for transformational changes will be contingent on the framing of the climate change problem. For example, if climate change vulnerability is attributed to local conditions, it then becomes a local concern that can be addressed through resilience and transitional forms of adaptation. On the other hand, if climate vulnerability is attributed to wider social and political processes, then adaptation becomes a much broader issue and responsibility, and transformational adaptation becomes more essential. 

Based on the Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report prepared by the IPCC, adaptation can take various approaches determined by its context in vulnerability reduction and disaster risk management. Quite often adaptation for resilience building can be undertaken through development planning and practices in several different sectors, such as the following:  

  • Human development (e.g., improved access to education, nutrition, health services, energy, and safe housing, better settlement and social support structures, and reduced gender inequality and social marginalization); 
  • Poverty alleviation (e.g., improved access to and control of local resources, improved land tenure practices, disaster risk reduction, enhanced social safety nets and social protection);
  • Livelihood security (e.g., income, asset and livelihood diversification, improved infrastructure and access to technology, enhanced decision making power, cropping, livestock and aquaculture practices that are better adapted to climate change, and effective social networks for promoting livelihood security);
  • Disaster risk management (e.g., early warning systems, hazard and vulnerability mapping, diversification of water resources, improved access to disaster shelters, improved building codes and practices, improved drainage for stormwater and wastewater management, and improved transport and road infrastructure); 
  • Ecosystem management (e.g., maintenance of wetlands and urban green spaces, coastal afforestation, improved watershed and reservoir management, reduction of other stressors on ecosystems including habitat fragmentation, maintenance of genetic diversity, and community-based natural resource management); and 
  • Spatial or land-use planning (e.g., better planning and regulation outcomes for providing adequate housing, infrastructure, and services, effective management of developments in flood-prone and other high risk areas, effective urban planning and upgrade programs, better planning and regulation outcomes in terms of land zoning, easements, and protected areas).  

Transitional and transformational adaptation can overlap and cut across a number of different sectors. The IPCC report identifies structural/physical, institutional, and social changes in a number of areas that can lead to incremental and transformational changes. 

Structural/physical adaptations can include ecosystem-based adaptations (e.g., ecological restoration and conservation; assisted species migration and dispersal; and establishing seed banks, gene banks and other ex situ conservation measures, etc.) as well as adaptive responses in the engineered and built-environment (e.g., coastal protection structures; improving access to flood and cyclone shelters; and better storm and wastewater management, etc.). Furthermore, structural/physical adaptations can be achieved through technological solutions (e.g., efficient irrigation and water-saving technologies; climate-resistant crop and animal varieties; and hazard and vulnerability mapping, etc.) as well as interventions in the services sector (e.g., improved municipal services including water and sanitation; essential public health services; and enhanced emergency and medical services). 

Institutional adaptations are also vital in achieving transitional and transformational changes, and there are a number of measures that can be deployed within the institutional space. One significant measure would be to institute climate-responsive policies and programs (e.g., mainstreaming of national, sub-national, regional and local adaptation plans; disaster planning and preparedness; and integrated water management programs, etc.). Another approach would be to put in place relevant economic strategies (e.g., insurance schemes; payments for ecosystem services and pricing water to encourage universal provision and careful use; and disaster contingency funds, etc.). Similarly, climate adaptation considerations can also be extended to include legislative and regulatory measures (e.g., land use planning laws; water regulations and agreements; and laws to support disaster risk reduction, etc.). 

Social adaptations are also crucial for achieving transitional and transformational adaptation. Educational strategies (e.g., climate adaptation awareness raising and integrating into education; sharing of indigenous/traditional/local knowledge; and creating learning platforms for knowledge-sharing) would be significant for achieving social change. This could also stimulate desirable behavioural responses in society (e.g., soil and water conservation; livelihood diversification; and adjusting cropping, livestock and aquaculture practices, etc.). In addition, informational strategies (e.g., hazard and vulnerability mapping; early warning and response systems; and climate change information services, etc.) can also help enhance the adaptive capacity of communities. 

When incremental adaptations are insufficient, more radical transformational changes may be required. Transformational adaptation can occur in a number of different spheres, including in personal attitudes, practical measures, and political processes. Personal shifts can include changes in individual and collective assumptions, beliefs, values, and worldviews that ultimately influence climate-change responses. Practical measures may consist of social and technical innovations, behavioural changes, or institutional and managerial adjustments that produce substantial shifts in outcomes. Political changes can come in the form of political, social, cultural, and ecological decisions and actions consistent with reducing vulnerability and risk while supporting adaptation, mitigation, and sustainable development. 

Adaptation under existing international law instruments

Adaptation has gained increasing significance within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agenda as integration of adaptation into planning, policy design, and decision-making processes can promote co-benefits and synergies with sustainable development and disaster risk reduction. Parties to the UNFCCC and its landmark Paris Agreement in 2015 also recognize that adaptation is a critical factor in the long-term global response to climate change to protect people, livelihoods, and ecosystems. 

 Article 7 of the Paris Agreement reinforces the importance of a more collective and ambitious drive to address climate adaptation by stating that “Parties hereby establish the global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the temperature goal…”. The temperature goal here, is to limit global warming to 1.5°C pre-industrial levels. This affirmation integrates adaptation efforts with the sustainable development agenda while highlighting synergies with mitigation objectives. It also acknowledges that greater levels of mitigation can minimise the need for greater adaptation efforts and costs. 

Prior to the Paris Agreement, another important milestone in the UNFCCC adaptation agenda timeline was the Cancun Adaptation Framework in 2010, under which parties affirmed that adaptation must be addressed with the same level of priority as mitigation. 

In addition to the Paris Agreement in 2015, two other landmark agreements came into existence — the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These have further instilled adaptation and resilience-building into the multilateral system. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13 which focuses on climate change, calls for urgent action to combat climate change, including targets of strengthening resilience and adaptive capacity. The Sendai Framework seeks to substantially reduce disaster risk. Since disaster risk often results from climate-induced events, efforts under this agreement are closely linked with efforts to adapt to climate change impacts.

The key UNFCCC instruments for adaptation planning, communication, and reporting can be found within the Paris Agreement and the Cancun Adaptation Framework.  The primary UNFCCC instrument for adaptation is the National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), introduced under the Cancun Adaptation Framework. NAPs are comprehensive action plans for a climate-resilient future. They are intended to assist governments analyse climate risks; identify and integrate adaptation options into national planning; and implement adaptation initiatives. Under the Paris Agreement, two new adaptation instruments were introduced: (i) an adaptation focused communications instrument known as adaptation communications, and (ii) a reporting instrument known as biennial transparency reports (BTRs). Adaptation communications are intended for Parties to communicate their priorities, implementation and support needs, plans, and actions with regards to climate adaptation initiatives. Biennial transparency reports are intended to convey information on climate change action taken by Parties, and the support provided and received with the aim of building mutual trust and confidence, and promoting effective implementation of adaptation measures. 

Despite the various agreements and instruments within the adaptation landscape, there is the question of whether global climate adaptation governance is legally binding or not. Some scholars view adaptation governance under the UNFCCC as merely a ‘showpiece’ without any effective, binding, and legalized commitments on Parties. Although developed countries have offered adaptation aid and have agreed to the overarching global adaptation goal in the Paris Agreement, they have avoided entering into any precise, binding obligations on adaptation. Another point of view that is held by some scholars and most developing nations that are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts, is that, adaptation will not just benefit specific countries but also has global and regional benefits. If individual nation-states do not adapt, the consequences will be felt beyond national borders. Hence adaptation should be viewed as a global public good that justifies strong binding commitments. 

Hasanthi Tennakoon Kingsley is a Ph.D. (Law) candidate at University of Newcastle. Her Ph.D. research focuses on studying climate justice implications in climate adaptation policy in the Global South.