Lost in Translation: Society's "Adaptation" to Climate Change

Michael H. Glantz
1 February 2007

Lost in Translation: Society's " Adaptation" to Climate Change


Movie poster for the movie, "Lost in Translation"

It is hard to believe; from the perspective of the first decade in the 21st century, that “adaptation” to climate change was not more than two decades ago the least desired approach to coping with global warming of the Earth's atmosphere.

Many of the new generation of researchers (those who joined the ranks in past 10-15 years) probably do not remember this fact! During the initial discussions of climate change in the mid-1970s to mid-1980s, adapting to climate change (instead of actively trying to prevent it) was seen as a surrender of sorts by governments to the forces of Nature. After all, industrialized country leaders were sure that their technology-development communities would develop a range of technologies and techniques that could prevent global warming, either by arresting it at the sources, e.g., the burning of fossil fuels primarily, or by capturing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and burying them somewhere and somehow. And if that was not possible, they could at least come up with ways to mitigate global warming's most dire impacts on societies and on ecosystems.

Toward the end of the 1980s, however, it had become clear that this assumption was not realistic and that societies had to consider developing ways to cope with the impacts of global warming from local to national levels; societies and their political leaders were not about to abandon their dependence and economic growth prospects by reducing their consumption of fossil fuels.

In the early 1980s, I collected various terms from the scientific literature that were expressed in order to cope with global warming of the Earth's atmosphere; the final three that have taken hold are prevention, mitigation and adaptation. Other useful words like adjustment and compensation are no longer used in this context.

Today, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has defined adaptation in a very narrow sense. Through an IPCC lens, adaptation refers to a specific change in behavior that can only be attributed to climate change, and not to either climate variability or climate and weather extremes. The research and policy communities use the term “adaptation” in different ways to mean different, sometimes conflicting, things. This has been misleading to the public and, I would argue, to researchers in other fields of study as well. As a result, adaptation has become an chameleon-like umbrella concept, the meaning of which takes on the complexion of its surroundings (context).

As an example, most words in the dictionary have multiple meanings. Adaptation is no different. Its usage required descriptive words (adjectives) in order to accurately convey to others a person's message about adaptation as a coping strategy.

Some people view adaptation as THE last step in the response of a government, an individual or a group to the impacts of global warming. In other words, it is the response of last resort; and it is reactive because it is in response to an adverse stimulus.

To others, however, adaptation represents a pro-active response to a stimulus. It means that an impact of global warming is foreseeable (possible), carrying with it a qualitative expression of probability, that is, an impact is identifiable and evasive or mitigative actions can be taken by society to avoid that particular impact's worst-case outcome. While a meteorological or hydrological hazard cannot be avoided, its impacts might be softened, if not avoided altogether, with proper planning. There is no surrender here to the forces of Nature.

My concern (fear, really) is that when people talk to each other --- scientist to scientist, scientist to media, media to public, public to public, or public to policy maker, it is highly likely they are not defining the meaning of adaptation in the same way. It is as if they are speaking to each other in two different languages. At the end of the conversation, each one will take away from the discussion a different message, even though they think they understood each other.

This is why I believe that the meaning of adaptation is “lost in translation” in discussions about strategic potential responses to global warming.

This situation can be fixed. All is not lost. In discussing adaption to global warming, or for that matter environmental change, one must make explicit what he or she means by it. To me, adaptation is a passive strategy whereby the affected parties react to the adverse impacts as they occur. I have always viewed mitigation as pro-active adaptation, in the sense that society anticipates likely impacts and begins to prepare (or hedges on the side of precaution) its decisions accordingly. One glaring example of such forethought comes out of the Netherlands, where there are plans to live with the water that for centuries they have fought to control. They are designing a “hydropole” (a city that can live on the water), and they are planning to give land back to the river and to the sea by moving out of floodplains, thereby removing people from global warming-related harm's way.

--Michael H. Glantz

P.S. And, for those who want to go deeper:

Webster definition: adjustment to environmental conditions: modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment.

OED (Oxford English Dictionary): Something, such as a device or mechanism, that is changed or changes so as to become suitable to a new or special application or situation. Change in behavior of a person or group in response to new or modified surroundings.

Adaptation to climate change

(1) Adaptation - Actions taken to help communities and ecosystems cope with changing climate conditions(website of the UNFCCC Secretariat).

(2) Adaptation - Adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities. Various types of adaptation can be distinguished, including anticipatory and reactive adaptation, private and public adaptation, and autonomous and planned adaptation (IPCC TAR, 2001a).

(3) Adaptation - Consequences of climatic events are enhanced, developed, and implemented . (UNDP, 2005).

(4) Adaptation – The process or outcome of a process that leads to a reduction in harm or risk of harm, or realisation of benefits associated with climate variability and climate change( UK Climate Impact Programme ( UK CIP, 2003).

All four definitions differ from one another in several ways. First, they all use different words to describe what adaptation is. The first key words in the definition that express adaptation as ‘actions', ‘adjustment', ‘process' and ‘outcome' can be interpreted differently by various stakeholders. ‘Process' seems to be a very broad and open ended term that does not include any particular time or subject references and can easily incorporate ‘actions' and ‘adjustments'. The word ‘actions' crystallizes ‘process' into something more concrete. However, it is still not clear whether ‘action' is the same thing as ‘measure'. Clarifications on the implications of these words are needed, especially given a wide use of the term ‘adaptation measure' (see the only definition of ‘adaptation policies and measures' from the UNDP). ‘Adjustment' seems to imply a process that leads toward some standard or goal. The UK CIP offers additional interpretation of adaptation as an outcome. Expectations from adaptation as an outcome might be much higher than expectations from it as a process. Funding aspirations and evaluation of achieved results would also vary accordingly.

Another consideration is the way the term is understood by the UNFCCC4 and the IPCC. It appears that the UNFCCC uses the term ‘adaptation' in a narrower way than the IPCC. The examples incorporated into the UNFCCC definition imply a very technical interpretation of the term (construction of walls, changing crops). The IPCC broadens this definition by distinguishing various types of adaptation (e.g., anticipatory, reactive, public, planned adaptation, etc.) and focuses not only on technical adaptation measures but also on institutional responses. The IPCC definition also includes adaptation of natural systems not just human. These seemingly small differences might create different expectations from different stakeholders, depending on the meaning of the term that they decide to use. One can already see that community-based adaptation practitioners and advocates use a more technical interpretation of the term (the one closer to the UNFCCC definition), while adaptation policy-makers use a broader definition and emphasize the institutional/policy side of adaptation. These varied interpretations could have serious financial implications.

http://unfccc.int/essential_background/glossary/items/2639.php – as of February 28, 2006

UNFCCC definition refers to the definition in the Glossary on the UNFCCC website. It is not from the Convention, and can probably be regarded as a working definition.

Key Adaptation Concepts and Terms (draft)

The interpretations also differ in their view of timing of climate change. While the UNFCCC definition implies only already occurring change in climate conditions; the IPCC definition also addresses expected changes. These differences might have consequences if the definitions are used to identify necessary adaptation measures. Scientific literature suggests that in the future some areas might experience completely different impacts from climate change from those that they are experiencing today. In addition, some areas that are less sensitive to climate change might not yet experience its effects.



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