Adapting to Climate Change Together

by | Jan 21, 2019

Adaptability would reduce vulnerability to global climate change, but requires better communication between researchers in the field.

Why are some people and organizations better able to adapt to change?  What does it mean to be “better” at adaptation? And how do we define or measure adaptability?

Answers to these questions could help adaptation practitioners reduce vulnerability to global climate change by empowering individuals, communities, and organizations to prepare for the effects of climate change.  Recognizing this potential, a growing body of research has focused on understanding and measuring social adaptive capacity, but progress has been hampered by fragmentation in the field, and either common ground or explicit debate around concepts and methods is needed to promote future advances.

Adaptive capacity is researched by authors from numerous disciplines in numerous countries. Research is conducted at several scales, from individuals to nations, and sectors, such as agriculture, water, urban development, and health.  Perhaps due to the field’s rapid growth and this wide geographic and topical scope, authors of adaptive capacity research rarely cite one another, compare their work to previous results, use standardized definitions, or reuse methods, metrics, or indicators from previous studies. Such a lack of reference to previous work can result in repetition of research rather than improvement. For example, nine studies on the capacity of agricultural systems in North America to adapt to drought do not cite one another. Eighteen studies in Africa on adaptive capacity related to water scarcity, agriculture, and animal husbandry do not cite one another. Of the 276 studies on adaptive capacity that were reviewed, nearly half do not cite any prior works on adaptive capacity.

As a result, it could be argued that methods and concepts have proliferated in the adaptive capacity literature without significant comparison or improvement. Over 64 indicator-based frameworks and 37 proxy outcome measures have been created to assess adaptive capacity. Only one of the frameworks has been used in more than one paper. The field has identified 158 factors thought to affect adaptive capacity, but because factors are rarely defined and there are no standardized indicators and few references to previous studies, it is difficult to compare results or even to know if two studies are, in fact, assessing the same factor. Authors of adaptive capacity research do not even agree on the definition of adaptive capacity, and several, sometimes contradictory, definitions are used, although the most common practice is to not define the concept at all.

Progress toward understanding adaptive capacity—what makes some people and organizations better able to adapt—would be aided by greater clarity and more frequent citations to previous works. Citation information for 276 studies is therefore provided, along with definitions, indicators and metrics, examples, and citations for each of the 158 factors thought to determine adaptive capacity. Such a list is not intended to be a definitive guide to the field, but rather a starting point for debate and discussion that will enable the field to build on previous works and to translate academic research into practical efforts to help people prepare for climate and other sources of rapid change.

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