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Transformational Adaptation When Incremental Adaptations to Climate Change are Insufficient

Bob Kates, Bob Kates, William R. Travis, and Thomas J. Wilbanks
Created: 8/09/2013 - Updated: 8/14/2019

Abstract

All human–environment systems adapt to climate and its natural variation. Adaptation to human-induced change in climate has largely been envisioned as increments of these adaptations intended to avoid disruptions of systems at their current locations. In some places, for some systems, however, vulnerabilities and risks may be so sizeable that they require transformational rather than incremental adaptations. Three classes of transformational adaptations are those that are adopted at a much larger scale, that are truly new to a particular region or resource system, and that transform places and shift locations. We illustrate these with examples drawn from Africa, Europe, and North America. Two conditions set the stage for transformational adaptation to climate change: large vulnerability in certain regions, populations, or resource systems; and severe climate change that overwhelms even robust human use systems. However, anticipatory transformational adaptation may be difficult to implement because of uncertainties about climate change risks and adaptation benefits, the high costs of transformational actions, and institutional and behavioral actions that tend to maintain existing resource systems and policies. Implementing transformational adaptation requires effort to initiate it and then to sustain the effort over time. In initiating transformational adaptation focusing events and multiple stresses are important, combined with local leadership. In sustaining transformational adaptation, it seems likely that supportive social contexts and the availability of acceptable options and resources for actions are key enabling factors. Early steps would include incorporating transformation adaptation into risk management and initiating research to expand the menu of innovative transformational adaptations.

All human–environment systems adapt to climate and its natural variation. Adaptation to human-induced change in climate has largely been envisioned as increments of these adaptations intended to avoid disruptions of systems at their current locations. In some places, for some systems, however, vulnerabilities and risks may be so sizeable that they can be reduced only by novel or dramatically enlarged adaptations, the reorganization of vulnerable systems, or changes in their locations. These are increasingly recognized in the climate impacts literature as transformational adaptations (refs. 13; ref. 4, p. 187; refs. 5, 6).

This perspective considers four key questions of transformational adaptation, beginning with its definition, the need for transformation, the difficulties associated with its implementation, and ways in which transformational adaptation can be initiated and sustained.

Published On

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Keywords

Sector Addressed: 
Disaster Risk Management
Public Health
Transportation / Infrastructure
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy: 
Capacity Building
Infrastructure, Planning, and Development
Governance and Policy