Déjà vu or something new? The adaptation concept in the climate change literature

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Abstract

This paper reflects on the resurgence and meaning of the adaptation concept in the current climate change literature. We explore the extent to which the early political economic critique of the adaptation concept has influenced how it is used in this literature. That is, has the current conceptualization been enriched by the political economic critique of the 1970s and 1980s and thus represent something new? Or is the concept used in a way today that echoes previous debates; that is, is this a déjà vu experience? To answer this question, we review the early political economic critique of the natural hazards school's interpretations of vulnerability and adaptation. We then examine the revival of the adaptation concept in the climate change literature and discuss its main interpretations. For the purposes of this paper, the climate change literature encompasses the four IPCC reports and adaptation-focused articles in four scholarly journals: Global Environmental Change, Climatic Change, Climate and Development, and Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change. Our content analysis shows the dominance (70%) of "adjustment adaptation" approaches, which view climate impacts as the main source of vulnerability. A much smaller percentage (3%) of articles focus on the social roots of vulnerability and the necessity for political-economic change to achieve "transformative adaptation." A larger share (27%) locates risk in both society and the biophysical hazard. It promotes "reformist adaptation," typically through "development," to reduce vulnerability within the prevailing system. We conclude with a discussion of continuity and change in the conceptualization of adaptation, and point to new research directions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)42-53
Number of pages12
JournalGeoforum
Volume48
DOIs
StatePublished - Aug 1 2013

Keywords

  • Adaptation
  • Climate change
  • Natural hazards
  • Political economy
  • Vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science

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