9 - The past, the present and some possible futures of adaptation  pp. 131-163

By Ben Orlove

Image View Previous Chapter Next Chapter


Adaptation is a familiar word in the conversations of people who are concerned about climate change. They use it to describe the processes of adjusting to climate change and its impacts. It describes the actions that must be taken to reduce or eliminate harm, actions whose necessity is unquestionable once the realization strikes that no mitigation plan will be able to bring global warming to a quick halt.

This chapter calls for some reflection on these uses of the word. Though it accepts the urgency of the need to respond to climate change, it questions the naturalness of the term adaptation – the way that it is taken for granted as a key element in climate change policy – and it finds some limits to the term. This chapter suggests that the word does not always capture the full impacts of climate change and that it does not always represent accurately either the perceptions of the people affected by these impacts or the range of alternatives open to them.

This chapter develops these reservations through several sections: (1) a review of the history of the term and its use by international organizations; (2) a presentation of a local community affected by climate change, who constitute one case of the people for whom adaptations are proposed; (3) a discussion of the perceptions of climate change by this local community; (4) a review of four organizations that serve as intermediates between the international and local levels, and that have all adopted the word; and (5) a set of considerations on the way that the term operates in the relations among the international organizations, the intermediary organizations and the local community.

Adger, W. N. 2000. ‘Institutional adaptation to environmental risk under the transition in Vietnam’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90: 738–758.
Agrawala, S. 1998. ‘Context and early origins of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’, Climate Change 39: 605–620.
Alexander, L. V., Zhang, X., Peterson, T. C., Caesar, J., Gleason, B., Klein Tank, A., Haylock, M., Collins, D., Trewin, B., Rahimzadeh, F., Tagipour, A., Ambenje, P., Rupa Kumar, K., Revadekar, J., Griffiths, G., Vincent, L., Stephenson, D., Burn, J., Aguilar, E., Brunet, M., Taylor, M., New, M., Zhai, P., Rusticucci, M. and Vazquez-Aguirre, J. L. 2006. ‘Global observed changes in daily climate extremes of temperature and precipitation’, Journal of Geophysical Research 111 (D5): D05109.
Bodansky, D. M. 1995. ‘The emerging climate-change regime’, Annual Review of Energy and the Environment 20: 425–461.
Darwin, C. 1859. On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection. London: John Murray.
Hüggel, C., Haeberli, W., Kääb, A., Ayros, E. and Portocarrero, C. 2003. ‘Assessment of glacier hazards and glacier runoff for different climate scenarios based on remote sensing data: a case study for a hydropower plant in the Peruvian Andes’, EARSeL Workshop, Observing Our Cryosphere from Space, Bern, Switzerland.
Janssen, M. A. 2007. ‘An update on the scholarly networks on resilience, vulnerability, and adaptation within the human dimensions of global environmental change’, Ecology and Society 12: 9.
Janssen, M. A., Schoon, M. L., Ke, W. and Borner, K. 2006. ‘Scholarly networks on resilience, vulnerability and adaptation within the human dimensions of global environmental change’, Global Environmental Change 16: 240–252.
Oxfam 2006a. ‘Making the case: a national drought contingency fund for Kenya’, Oxfam Briefing Paper No. 89. Oxford: Oxfam.
Oxfam 2006b. ‘Causing hunger: an overview of the food crisis in Africa’, Oxfam Briefing Paper No. 91. Oxford: Oxfam.
Oxfam 2007a. ‘Adapting to climate change: what's needed in poor countries, and who should pay’, Oxfam Briefing Paper No. 104. Oxford: Oxfam.
Oxfam 2007b. ‘Climate alarm: disasters increase as climate change bites’, Oxfam Briefing Paper No. 108. Oxford: Oxfam.
Oxfam 2008. Adaptation 101: How Climate Change Hurts Poor Communities – And How We Can Help. Boston: Oxfam America.
Ricard Lanata, X. 2007. Ladrones de sombra: El universo religioso de los pastores del Ausangate. Lima: Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos.
Schipper, E. L. 2006. ‘Conceptual history of adaptation in the UNFCCC process’, Review of European Community and International Environmental Law 16: 82–92.
Schumacher, E. 1973. Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered. London: Blond and Briggs.
Sendón, P. F. 2006. ‘Los términos de parentesco quechua qatay y qhachun según los registros entohistóricos y etnográficos: una interpretación’, Revista Andina 43: 9–58.
Smit, B., Burton, I., Klein, R. J. T. and Street, R. 1999. ‘The science of adaptation: a framework for assessment’, Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change 4: 199–213.
Soluciones Prácticas 2008. Memoria annual 06–07. Lima: Soluciones Prácticas.
Vincent, L. A., Peterson, T. C., Barros, V. R., Marino, M. B., Rusticucci, M., Carrasco, G., Ramírez, E., Alves, L. M., Ambrizzi, T., Berlato, M. A., Grimm, A. M., Marengo, J. A., Molion, L., Moncunill, D. F., Rebello, E., Anunciacão, Y. M. T., Quintana, J., Santos, J. L., Baez, J., Coronel, G., García, J., Trebejo, I., Bidegain, M., Haylock, M. R. and Karoly, D. 2005. ‘Observed trends in indices of daily temperature extremes in South America 1960–2000’, Journal of Climate 18: 5011–5023.
Vuille, M., Bradley, R. S., Werner, M. and Keimig, F. 2003. ‘20th century climate change in the tropical Andes: observations and model results’, Climatic Change 59: 75–99.
White, G. F. 1945. Human Adjustment to Floods, Geography Research Papers No. 29. Chicago: University of Chicago Department of Geography.
World Meteorological Organization 1986. Report of the International Conference on the Assessment of the Role of Carbon Dioxide and of Other Greenhouse Gases in Climate Variations and Associated Impact, WMO Report No. 661, 9–15 October 1985, Villach, Austria.