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Adaptation vs Transformation

The climate is changing, and governments, organizations, and individuals are taking notice and starting to adapt. Plans and strategies are being discussed and implemented in response to and

“Weather patterns over the next 20 or 30 years are going to be determined by the amount of CO2 that is up there now.”
Prof John Beddington, UK Chief Scientist (2013)

in anticipation of the impacts of increasing global temperatures and rising sea levels, and adaptation is becoming an increasingly important part of development policies and practices.

Many are starting to talk about adapting to global average temperature increases of 3°C or 4°C  or more in this century, including the need for transformational adaptation (for a recent review of this literature, see Danglade 2014). The need for transformational adaptation is linked to the recognition that current climate impacts are already challenging many communities, groups and sectors, but also to the idea that dramatic climate change is now inevitable. This latter argument is backed by data showing that current emissions are tracking higher than the 4°C curve (see 2013 Global Carbon Budget).

Climate change impacts are not discrete and linear: climate change is systemic, and each additional degree of warming is likely to influence processes and relations in ways that result in new impacts and new feedbacks. With more energy in the atmosphere and oceans, the impacts of increased warming are likely to be different and greater than those associated with previous degrees. Changes to the climate system are not occurring in isolation from other environmental changes, such as biodiversity loss and ocean acidification. Moreover, social changes, including urbanization, will also influence vulnerability and adaptive capacity. If it is possible to contemplate and plan for adaptations to dramatic, non-linear climatic changes (without any real understanding of the limits to adaptation), why is it so difficult to consider dramatic, non-linear transformations to sustainability? Do the limits rest in the way that we think about change?

Both adaptation and transformation refer to processes of change, but the motivation and approach differs. Adaptation generally involves a change of something in response to something else, i.e., either in reaction or in anticipation of new conditions.  For example, a farmer may switch to more heat-tolerant crops in response to more extreme heat, or  an insurance company may increase its premiums in anticipation of increased flooding.

Whether reactive or anticipatory, adaptation accepts changing climatic conditions, including the context and paradigm from which they emerge. While adaptation is by all means important to reduce vulnerability to climate impacts, it challenges neither the drivers of change, nor the systems, structures and interests that keep them intact. In fact, adaptation is usually considered a positive, neutral act that allows society to move forward by complying with the conditions of climate change.

Transformation, in contrast, involves a change from something into something that is physically or qualitatively different. Transformations may be a response to change, as would be the case if the Arctic turns into an ice-free region in response to warming oceans. However, it is also possible to initiate transformations that deliberately challenge the very systems, structures, behaviors and mindsets that generate such changes in the first place. This involves not only recognizing that humans are an important part of the Earth system, but also understanding that humans do have the capacity to influence the future climate. In other words, to address an issue such as climate change, we may have to first adapt to the idea that humans are capable of such transformations, then take responsibility for these transformations by choice rather than by default.

Transformations are often incremental; the changes are seldom noticeable until a point is reached where suddenly it appears that everything has changed. Looking back, events like the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall may appear as a momentous change, but it was the outcome of the heroic acts of many individuals, as Michael Meyer describes in the ‘untold story’ of 1989. Transformations may also occur suddenly and instantaneously, which often happens when we release strong beliefs or let go of implicit assumptions. Why? Because it allows us to view problems and solutions in a different way. Regardless of how it happens, transformation goes beyond business-as-usual, and the outcomes are not always clear and predictable. Transformation as a process can rupture the seemingly inevitable trajectory of climate change, allowing new ideas to take hold and replace the very assumptions upon which the future is being built.

Transformation of larger systems is not simple, for disruptions can creates pushback and resistance, especially when they challenge established practices and vested interests. From many perspectives, adaptation appears as an easier, more acceptable response than transformation.  Yet where adaptation is responsive to change, transformation is generative of change. Although we need both adaptation and transformation, we also need to recognize that a deliberate transformation to sustainability may, in fact, be the single most effective adaptation strategy for humanity.

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