The Concept of Adaptation

Ben Orlove
Posted on: 11/25/2022 - Updated on: 11/28/2022

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Adaptation (i.e., actions that reduce the harms caused by climate change) is widely recognized as one of two pillars of climate action, along with mitigation (i.e., actions that reduce the concentrations of greenhouse gases which cause climate change). Action to date in both pillars is widely recognized as insufficient.

This article argues that a major source of this deficiency of adaptation is ambiguity in the concept of adaptation, which hinders planning and implementation of action. The review traces the origins and consequences of this ambiguity and examines three major conceptual obstacles: the unclear relationship between adaptation and mitigation, the tendency to define adaptation by listing distinct types that are not directly comparable and hence difficult to measure, and a persistent separation of short-term and long-term perspectives that limits the ability to build from current action to transformation. The article identifies recent efforts that have addressed these obstacles, although new areas of concern have emerged, particularly maladaptation and Loss and Damage.

Summary Points:

  1. The concept of adaptation has a very long history and a more recent expansion, following its entry into the space of climate research and action along with mitigation in the late 1980s, close in time to the formation of two key institutions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).
  2. The concept of adaptation forms part of a larger global set of frameworks of environmental governance and sustainable development.
  3. The widely recognized insufficiency of climate adaptation arises from three key conceptual ambiguities that both reflect and contribute to the contentious nature of climate policy and politics and that exacerbate delays in climate action.
  4. The first ambiguity is the unclear relation between adaptation and mitigation, which can present the two concepts as rivals rather than as complements.
  5. The second ambiguity is the difficulty of providing a succinct definition of adaptation that would support measurement of adaptation and assessment of effectiveness; instead, definitions tend to be taxonomic, providing lists of distinct types of adaptation that are not directly comparable.
  6. The third ambiguity is a separation of climate action into actions on short-term and long-term horizons, leaving a “missing middle ground” of intermediate horizons; as a result, there has been little research on the ways that short-term action can promote movement toward long-term goals.
  7. Several important new concepts have entered into the discussions around adaptation, including terms that emphasize enablers of progress, such as resilience, transformation, and pathways, and others that emphasize obstacles to progress, such as maladaptation and Loss and Damage; the former are termed here “orderly narratives” and the latter “critical narratives.”
  8. The growing sense of urgency in recent years, particularly following the 2015 Paris Agreement and the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C Warming, has led to expanded discussions of the concept of adaptation and to greater activity; positive elements include discussion of adaptation pathways, major advances in measurement of adaptation, and an international consensus around the global goal on adaptation, though accelerated action remains especially important


Orlove, B. (2022). The Concept of Adaptation. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 47: 535–81.

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