How Will We Know We're Adapting?: Moving from Faith-based to Tested Adaptation Process and Approach

Hoffman, J.R. and L.J. Hansen
Created: 4/20/2022 -


This paper focuses on how the field of adaptation can shift from practices built on assumptions to practices built on evidence and deliberation. Doing so requires the systematic collection of information and the use of that information to support analysis and learning around when, where, why, and how to implement adaptation programs and projects, as well as who defines, implements, and benefits from adaptation action. In other words, the field of adaptation would benefit from increased and informed use of indicators, metrics, monitoring, and evaluation.

Early climate change work focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation), which is conceptually simpler than climate change adaptation (CCA) and has common metrics used across most mitigation projects. Although recognition of the need for adaptation has been growing in recent decades, there is still no consensus on what constitutes successful CCA (e.g., Bours et al. 2014a, Christensen and Martinez 2018, Singh et al. 2021). Some definitions of adaptation focus on reducing vulnerability to climate change impacts, for example, while others focus on increasing resilience, which may be less specifically tied to climate-related hazards. Even if the focus is on reducing vulnerability, there are multiple climate vulnerability concepts and no common metric or set of metrics for measuring vulnerability. Without a common definition, it is difficult to have common metrics of success!

A generic theory of change

One of the most commonly cited challenges when it comes to CCA monitoring and evaluation is that the effectiveness of interventions may not be known for years or decades. One option for addressing this challenge is to use extreme events (e.g., heat waves, king tides) and/or system stress indicators as proxies for long-term climate change (Hansen and Hoffman 2011). Another approach is to use a theory of change to inform the development and selection of adaptation options, indicators, and metrics. A theory of change lays out the expected relationships between the actions we take, the context in which we take them, and the outcomes we achieve over time (Figure 1). This allows for the measurement of progress along the way to the ultimate outcome (Figure 2). This approach is widely implemented in certain sectors that have well-established practices for M&E (e.g., international development).

Results-chain applied to ecosystem-based adaptation

Another hurdle for bringing formal monitoring and evaluation (M&E) to bear on CCA is that definitions of success based on past conditions or ideal states may not be relevant or achievable as climate change, land use change, and other system drivers progress over time (National Park Service 2021). Adaptation M&E must grapple with developing indicators, metrics, and outcomes that can work with this deep level of uncertainty.

Finally, the implementation of CCA is so context-specific and value-laden that defining a common set of indicators or desired long-term outcomes is challenging and unlikely to reflect the reality of adaptation implementers. Efforts to develop a common set of indicators and metrics typically come from organizations or agencies who want to compare effectiveness, efficiency, or other outcomes across portfolios of adaptation projects carried out by multiple implementers (Spearman & McGray 2011, Michaelowa and Stadelman 2018) rather than understanding and evaluating individual projects. For individual implementers, such “universal” indicators and metrics may or may not capture what matters or be feasible to monitor and analyze over time.

Recommended Citation: Hoffman, J.R. and L.J. Hansen. 2022. Moving from faith-based to tested adaptation process and approach: How will we know we’re adapting? Adaptation Insight and EcoAdapt.

This paper is part of Climate Resilience Fund's (CRF) Coordination and Collaboration in the Resilience Ecosystem (CCRE) program, which awards grants for projects that support the development of the tools, services and resources that practitioners have identified as essential to scaling the efforts and catalyzing the investment needed to increase resilience to climate-related impacts across the United States.

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