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New Book: Climate Change as an Adaptive Challenge

Climate change is crucially linked to beliefs, values and worldviews, as well as to power, politics, identities and interests. This book calls for a fundamental redefinition of the meaning of climate change adaptation.Read More

Climate change is a new type of adaptation challenge for humanity – one that touches on deep issues related to individual and collective beliefs, values, worldviews, and paradigms, and to questions of interests, identities, and power.

Acknowledging the complexity of the climate change challenge, includes redefining what climate change adaptation means. At the heart of such a redefinition is the important distinction between adapting to climate change impacts on the one side, and adapting to the idea that humans are changing the global climate system and hence are capable of transforming global systems on the other.

That is the argument of human geographers Karen O’Brien and Elin Selboe in their new book The Adaptive Challenge of Climate Change. A book that was recently published by Cambridge University Press.

A redefinition of adaptation
In the book it is argued that one of the most challenging transformations that climate change calls for involves adapting to the idea that humans are responsible for the conditions that will be experienced in the future.

This is not trivial, the authors emphasize. Acknowledging that the dynamics of the climate system are influenced by human activities and decisions is challenging to many belief systems.

The recognition that we have a collective capacity to shape global environmental and social conditions, implies a fundamental redefinition of the meaning of climate change adaptation, to include not only responses to the observed and anticipated impacts but also broader and deeper transformations to an equitable and sustainable world.

The double-edged sword of current approaches to adaptation
Such a redefinition of adaptation is largely absent in the literature. So far, research, policy and practice have been mostly concerned with what to do about climate change impacts, who will do it, and at what cost.

Most of the strategies and discussions to date approach adaptation to climate change as a technical problem that can be addressed with more expertise, innovation, know-how, skills and resources. This is a practical approach, involving for example changes in management and planning, development of technologies and modifying agricultural practices.

However, the approach seldom addresses conflicting values, interests, understandings, and approaches to change. Moreover, it turns adaptation into a double-edged sword, because although such measures are important, they seldom address the wider and deeper systems and structures that are contributing to risk and vulnerability in the first place.

Adaptive challenges are personal and political
The book presents a new perspective, where climate change is viewed as a new type of adaptation challenge for humanity, or what Heifetz et al. (2009) refer to as an «adaptive challenge» – a challenge that draws attention to mind-sets, and the assumptions that underpin attitudes on change itself. Adaptive challenges are both personal and political.

Adaptive challenges are personal in that they are related to individual and shared beliefs, values, worldviews, and paradigms, as well as to questions of interests, identities and Power. Adaptive challenges are political because they call for questioning assumptions about “the given” and launching alternatives.

This implies that climate change is far from a neutral process and raises critical questions, such as: Who decides what is «acceptable» vs. «dangerous» climate change? Why is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions considered political and controversial, whereas adaptation to climate change is viewed as acceptable and desirable? 


Co-editor Elin Selboe presenting the new approach to climate change at the book launch.

A social, personal, cultural and human process
The book presents important insights into the adaptive elements of climate change and their implications for climate change adaptation. The contributors draw on diverse methodologies and approach adaptation as a social, political, cultural and human process.

Many of the chapters point to the significance of differing values, which can make it challenging to identify and agree on the best way forward. Some chapters emphasize the political nature of adaptation. Others show examples of the many openings that exist for alternative approaches to adaptation, such as participatory approaches and dialogues that acknowledge adaptive elements.

Together, the chapters shed light on how climate change adaptation involves much more than adapting to the impacts of climate change.

The book presents case studies from high-income countries written by authors representing a variety of fields and perspectives. Together the chapters  illustrate the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to climate change. It concludes by considering how the adaptive challenge can be used as an entry point for much broader and deeper social transformations.

obrien_selboe-19 kopiThe book was launched at the University of Oslo.

Book launch
The book was launched at the Humanities and Social Sciences Library at the University of Oslo on 13 October, 2105. An introduction of the book was given by the editors O´Brien and Selboe followed by two individual chapter presentations by Tor Håkon Inderberg from Fridtjof Nansen Institute and Berit Kristoffersen from The Arctic University of Norway. Commentaries were given by Bente Herstad from the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation and Solrun Figenschau Skjellum, from the Norwegian Environment Agency.

The “Adaptive Challenge of Climate Change” book can be ordered online on the Cambridge University Press webpage.

All photos: Torstein Storsveen Throndsen.

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