Transforming how we think about adaptation

Within the climate change adaptation research community I have noticed an increasing use of transformational language. Terms such as ‘transformative’, ‘transformational’, ‘transformability’ and ‘transition’ seem to reflect a sense that greater, more significant adaptation responses will be required in the face of a global failure to mitigate the causes of anthropogenic climate change. Indeed, transformation was the theme of an excellent ‘un-conference’ held in Oslo earlier this summer.

Transformative adaptation involves managing a more fundamental change process rather than protecting or restoring a certain environmental and social state. It offers hope but also reflects a sense of urgency; hope that we are capable of more fundamental changes within and across systems, urgency that incremental adaptation may simply not be sufficient for many systems, locations and sectors.

However, the concept of transformative adaptation is yet to be reflected in policy to any significant extent. What is unclear is whether the policy environment will catch up with the rhetoric of transformation or whether there are more substantive barriers to a concept which often requires us to question more deeply what we value and the way we live. The ‘no regrets’ and ‘win-win’ adaptation options which characterise many current adaptation plans can seem more achievable and better suited to current political timescales. They appear to offer pragmatism in the face of a limited appetite for significant action to adapt to a changing climate. In contrast, transforming systems suggests disruption to existing institutions and norms, potentially creating new winners and losers. This may not be popular with those who have invested in the status quo. But if we only focus on tweaking existing systems incrementally, do we risk ignoring the more substantive, systemic changes which may be needed to respond to a changing climate in rapidly changing world?

At UKCIP we are in the process of exploring whether transformation genuinely offers a new lens through which to view adaptation. We are examining what is needed to translate transformative adaptation from an attractive concept to something practical and real. This means understanding past systemic transformations and identifying the barriers to big societal changes. This ambitious research theme is proving both fascinating and challenging and has already raised a number of questions which we feel require further investigation. These include:

  • What are the prerequisites and conditions for transformation?
  • How can we assess the transformative capacity of a system?
  • Can incremental adaptation approaches be used to build the capacity needed to identify, assess and implement transformational adaptation?
  • Do existing adaptation tools support transformation where it is needed, or are they limiting adaption options according to the prevailing institutional context?
  • What role can networks and knowledge exchange play in helping to explore opportunities for transformation?

As the scale of potential climate change impacts becomes apparent, it seems that, for some systems, locations and sectors, incremental adaptation is unlikely to be enough to save us from the worst impacts. As a concept, transformation would appear to offer a challenging framing of adaptation which pushes us beyond ‘business as usual’. We now need to deepen our understanding of transformative processes and to work with stakeholders and policy-makers to fulfil this potential.

If you are interesting in finding out more about UKCIP’s work on transformative adaptation please contact Patrick Pringle.

Posted: 4 November 2013