Definition as Intention: “Climate Adaptation”

The Nature Conservancy’s Erie Marsh Preserve contains 11 percent of the remaining wetlands in southeast Michigan.  Photo credit: ©Jason Whalen/TNC

The Nature Conservancy’s Erie Marsh Preserve contains 11 percent of the remaining wetlands in southeast Michigan.  Wetlands are both a target and a tool for climate adaptation. Photo credit: © Jason Whalen/TNC


The Study: Petersen, B., K.R. Hall, K. Kahl, P.J. Doran. (2013) In Their Own Words: Perceptions of Climate Change Adaptation from the Great lakes Region’s Resource Management Community. Environmental Practice.15 (4) 371. doi: 10.1017/S1466046613000446

Pop quiz! Define “climate adaptation.”

Did your definition include response to current changes? Future changes? Did it include the idea of reducing risk? Did you have something gradual or disruptive in mind? Did it include explicit planning? What actions would your definition would imply?

If you’re a little fuzzy on the definition of adaptation, you’re not alone, say the authors of a recent journal article on perceptions of climate change adaptation among resource managers in the Great Lakes area. The ambiguity has significant consequences, because the actions that many resource managers cite as adaptation turn out to be not very different than what they are already doing, says the paper’s lead author, Brian Petersen, an interdisciplinary social scientist at Western Michigan University.

“Many of the definitions are so all inclusive,” says Petersen. “It’s as if everything is adaptation. But if everything is adaptation, then nothing is adaptation.”

So is adaptation really going on at the resource management level?

The Good News: There’s an Increase in Awareness

Piggybacking on a broad process to develop biodiversity blueprints for the Great Lakes region, Petersen and Conservancy scientists Kimberly Hall and Patrick Doran surveyed 441 planners and resource managers from state, local, and federal agencies, academic and research institutions, NGOs and private sector stakeholders. The survey asked respondents to define adaptation and give specific examples of adaptation actions that are feasible, planned or underway.

Managers are talking and thinking more about climate change, it turns out. Almost three-quarters of respondents said that they are discussing climate at work more often than five years ago — and over half said that their organizations are re-assessing missions, goals, and strategies in light of climate change.

Over half the respondents also came up with definitions of adaptation that included some indication of intentional action and response to climate change impacts (the minimum standard that the researchers accepted as defining “adaptation”). Definitions scored as ‘vaguely adaptive’ or ‘not adaptation’ mainly described actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) or the process of evolutionary adaptation.

The Not-So-Good News: Lots of Thinking, But Not Much Doing

But only 4.6 percent of the definitions could be classified as proactive and comprehensive. Not a surprising result, perhaps — this was not a group of climate scientists, or even climate activists, after all. But it does have consequences.

These are the front line managers of natural areas and urban infrastructure. If they aren’t taking adaptation action because they don’t have a specific, concrete idea of what adaptation is — if anticipation is not part of their definition — then there’s a good chance that not much adaptation is happening.

The comparison between feasible and actual actions underway was telling. Respondents reported far more “actions underway” in early-stage categories such as science and planning, education and awareness, and capacity building.

But in categories like land and water management, infrastructure management, and law and policy, far more “feasible actions” were offered than actions underway.

Even in the category of feasible adaptation actions, most of the opportunities described were very close cousins of the work land managers already do, such as controlling invasive species, stewarding biodiversity, or increasing habitat connectivity.

Such examples are certainly adaptive — and valuable in their own right — but the paucity of more expansive and forward-thinking options suggests that few of the respondents are really thinking about the full suite of climate change impacts and that fewer still feel empowered to consider actions that fall outside their typical mandates.

Getting Specific and Intentional about Climate Adaptation

Based on this survey and her own experience doing forest management and conservation workshops, Hall suggested some adjustments that could improve the situation. In her own work, she’s avoiding the broader IPPC definition of adaptation in favor of those definitions that emphasize intentional action to reduce the risks of anticipated change.

She’s also encouraging managers to work through — in a very concrete way — what changes are expected and what could be done to reduce impacts.

For example: to slow rising stream temperatures, managers could plant additional trees along stream banks; to reduce risks from anticipated increases in flooding, they could focus on restoring wetlands near rivers.

The difference is reminiscent of the ways public health experts have changed their approach to smoking cessation in the past decade. Instead of scaring smokers with pictures of diseased lungs, the (much more successful) modern approach is to encourage people who want to stop smoking to pick a date on which they plan to stop, identify substitute activities, and develop a plan for support and recovering from a relapse.

The Conservancy and many other organizations are working to develop materials and strategies that help resource managers and planners get to that level of detail, including a set of case studies and the National Science Foundation-funded Collaboratory for Adaptation to Climate Change, based at Notre Dame University.

The difference is more than just academic.

“We had a lot of friendly arguments,” said Hall “about just how important is it to know how people define adaptation. But when we get to the question of what to do — we found that if you haven’t had those conversations openly, you’re going to be working toward a different endpoint.”

Posted In: Quick Study

Marty joined the Nature Conservancy in January 2014 to write about TNC research and manage the Science Impact Project. She started her career in ecosystem ecology and climate impact research, but has focused on science communications since 1999. She’s now doing what she likes best – writing about cool science and helping scientists find and communicate what’s exciting about their work.

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