An introduction to adaptation

Submitted by Sukaina Bharwani | published 25th Mar 2011 | last updated 16th Apr 2021

Climate Adaptation Training Annotation

  • Level: Introductory
  • Time commitment: 1-2 hours 
  • Learning product: Definitions 
  • Sector: Multi-sector 
  • Language: English 
  • Certificate available: No 
Reducing flooding, from new crops planted along the edges of Qaraniki Creek, Fiji.

Reducing flooding, from new crops planted along the edges of Qaraniki Creek, Fiji. Global Environment Facility, 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Adaptation is the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects.  In human systems, the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects in order to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities. In natural systems, the process of adjustment to actual climate and its effects; human intervention may facilitate adjustment to expected climate (adapted by Global Centre for Adaptation based on IPCC AR5 Summary for Policymakers, 2014, p. 5 and IPCC AR5 Technical Summary, 2014, p. 40).

In the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, particularly from around 2008 with the Bali Plan of Action, we see a growing understanding of the necessity for adaptation in face of climate changes we are already committed to. Much of the older terminology and concepts are unchanged in climate change adaptation (CCA) since our original weADAPTpage on adaptation, such as incremental adaptation, but in addition a number of newer terms have been adopted such as 'transformational adaptation'. 'Climate resilience' is another newer term which in some circles means the same thing as adaptation. The promotion of the term resilience "offers the opportunity for more holistic and proactive responses” (O'Brien et al., 2011) based on local knowledge and capacity. United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UN/ISDR) has also adopted the term resilience, describing coping and recovery processes and but also the ability to adapt/change. According to Mitchell and van Aalst (2009) climate change adaptation has much more visibility, funding and political momentum than disaster reduction, presenting an opportunity for DRR to be linked with the more advanced climate change agenda (having mechanism for international negotiations, having legally binding accord, financing in place etc.). 

Adaptation is increasingly discussed in terms of two different but potentially complementary approaches:

  • Incremental adaptation: Adaptation actions where the central aim is to maintain the essence and integrity of a system or process at a given scale.
  • Transformational adaptation: Adaptation that changes the fundamental attributes of a system in response to climate and its effects.

Adaptation limits - the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ºC describes adaptation limits as the point at which an actor’s objectives (or system needs) cannot be secured from intolerable risks through adaptive actions.

  • Hard adaptation limit: No adaptive actions are possible to avoid intolerable risks.
  • Soft adaptation limit: Options are currently not available to avoid intolerable risks through adaptive action.

Please find the most up to date glossaries that might help you interpret the world of climate change adaptation.