The histories current situation and possible futures of the adaptation concept
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The Histories, Current Situation and Possible Futures of the “Adaptation” Concept. Talk presented at the workshop “Limits to Adaptation” 7-8 February 2008 Ben Orlove Environmental Science and Policy, UCDavis Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, Columbia University.

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The Histories, Current Situation and Possible Futures of the “Adaptation” Concept

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The histories current situation and possible futures of the adaptation concept

The Histories, Current Situation and Possible Futures of the “Adaptation” Concept

Talk presented at the workshop “Limits to Adaptation”

7-8 February 2008

Ben Orlove

Environmental Science and Policy, UCDavis

Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, Columbia University


Overview of talk

Overview of talk

  • Two meanings of “limits to adaptation”

  • Three histories of adaptation

  • The current situation of adaptation

  • Possible futures of adaptation

  • A case to consider: glacier retreat in the Andes


Two meanings of limits to adaptation

Two meanings of “limits to adaptation”

  • The concept is clear but the application of the concept can be difficult.

  • The concept is not clear.


Overview of talk1

Overview of talk

  • Two meanings of “limits to adaptation”

  • Three histories of adaptation

  • The current situation of adaptation

  • Possible futures of adaptation

  • A case to consider: glacier retreat in the Andes


Three histories of adaptation

Three histories of adaptation

1. Common-sense, non-technical use

(17th century to present)

“The action or process of adapting, fitting, or suiting one thing to another” [OED]

1610 HEALEY St. Aug., City of God 743 They..made a very ingenious adaptation of the one to the other.

1646 SIR T. BROWNE Pseud. Ep. III. xi. 130 A commixtion of both in the whole rather than an adaptation or cement of the one unto the other.


Three histories of adaptation1

Three histories of adaptation

2. Scientific and technical uses

(19th century to present)

1859 DARWIN in Jrnl. Linn. Soc. Zool. III. 50 The most vigorous and healthy males, implying perfect adaptation, must generally gain the victory in their contests [for the females].

1881 in Syd. Soc. Lex. [Sydenham Society, Lexicon of ... ] 1920 Jrnl. Gen. Phys. II. 499 The phenomenon of retinal adaptation is one of the most familiar facts of sensory physiology.

1955 Julian Steward: cultural adaptations


Three histories of adaptation2

Three histories of adaptation

3. Applied environmental science

(20th century to present)

1970s Studies of disaster and natural hazards

1990s Adaptation to climate change


Three histories of adaptation3

Three histories of adaptation

3. Applied environmental science

(20th century to present)

1970s Studies of disaster and natural hazards

1990s Adaptation to climate change


Three histories of adaptation4

Three histories of adaptation

Recent shifts

  • Shifting from general discussion of responses to focusing on the word “adaptation”. Between 1992 and 1995.

  • Fearing that talking about adaptation would direct effort away from mitigation. Late 1990s, early 2000s. Linking adaptation and mitigation, after 2000-2002.

  • Establishing the National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs). 2001.


Overview of talk2

Overview of talk

  • Two meanings of “limits to adaptation”

  • Three histories of adaptation

  • The current situation of adaptation

  • Possible futures of adaptation

  • A case to consider: glacier retreat in the Andes


The current situation of adaptation

The current situation of adaptation

Social location: three contexts of discussion

  • Science (natural and social science; academic settings)

  • Policy (governments; NGOs; local bodies)

  • Public (media; Internet; meetings; conversation)


The current situation of adaptation1

The current situation of adaptation

Social location: single ownership of the term: IPCC

Adjustment in natural or human systems to a new or changing environment. Adaptation to climate change refers to 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.

source: IPCC glossary, 3rd Assessment Report


The current situation of adaptation2

The current situation of adaptation

Social effect: focus attention towards certain kinds of problems

Think: to which of the following does the term apply?

  • Climate change

  • Loss of biodiversity

  • Epidemic malaria

  • The HIV/AIDS epidemic

  • The obesity epidemic

  • The rise of China and India as economic powers

  • The decline of the US dollar

  • Human rights abuses

  • Terrorism


The current situation of adaptation3

The current situation of adaptation

Social effect: focus attention towards certain kinds of assessment.

  • Comparisons of impacts

    • (and away from hard-to-compare sets of impacts, like economic and cultural impacts)

  • Comparisons of pathways

    • (and away from hard-to-formulate and changing pathways)

  • Comparisons within and between populations

    • (and away from hard-to-define/-observe categories and to cross-scale interactions)


The current situation of adaptation4

The current situation of adaptation

Social effect: focus attention towards certain kinds of projects and funding

  • Scale (national, local)

  • Challenges to integrating adaptation and other projects (the “additionality”problem)


The current situation of adaptation5

The current situation of adaptation

Social effect: what does the term adaptation make easier to see? What does it make it harder to see?

Climate change and migration.

Climate change and irreversible, non-substitutable sources.


Overview of talk3

Overview of talk

  • Two meanings of “limits to adaptation”

  • Three histories of adaptation

  • The current situation of adaptation

  • Possible futures of adaptation

  • A case to consider: glacier retreat in the Andes


Possible futures of adaptation

Possible futures of adaptation

Scenario 1: “business as usual”

the term becomes more widespread

  • the term becomes more diffused

  • the term becomes internationalized

  • repackaging of projects and organizations


Possible futures of adaptation1

Possible futures of adaptation

Scenario 2: adaptation

the term proliferates and becomes modified

  • mainstreaming adaptation

  • adaptation and development

    “Adaptation Day” first held at 2002 COP; became “Development and Adaptation Days” in 2004 and “Development and Climate Days” in 2007.

  • “limits to adaptation”


Possible futures of adaptation2

Possible futures of adaptation

Scenario 3: transformation

new terms join the word “adaptation”

  • climate risk management

    • reduce uncertainty in forecasts

    • develop new technologies

    • develop new institutions and organizations (e.g. insurance)

  • academic approaches

    • environmental history

    • critical geography


  • Overview of talk4

    Overview of talk

    • Two meanings of “limits to adaptation”

    • Three histories of adaptation

    • The current situation of adaptation

    • Possible futures of adaptation

    • A case to consider: glacier retreat in the Andes


    A case study peruvian glaciers

    A case study: Peruvian glaciers

    • Glaciers and adaptation to climate change

      • Timing

        • At present rather than just forecast for future

      • Detection

        • Visibility

        • Monitoring

      • Attribution

        • Global scale of retreat

        • Links to models


    An inconvenient truth al gore

    “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore


    A case study peruvian glaciers1

    A case study: Peruvian glaciers

    • high elevation, 4600 – 5200 meters above sea level

    • natural grasslands and irrigated pasture

    • alpaca herding: sale and barter of wool, meat, animals.

    • catch-and-release hunting/shearing of vicuñas

    • hydropower facilities and mining exploration in region


    A case study peruvian glaciers2

    A case study: Peruvian glaciers

    • indigenous Quechua-speaking herders

    • centuries-long history of colonialism and land conflicts

    • recent decades: violence and neoliberal government policies.

    • weak presence of NGOs


    Glacier retreat in cusco

    Changes in the Qori Kalis Glacier, Quelccaya Ice Cap, Peru, are shown between 1978 (top) and 2002. The glacier retreat during this time was 1.1 km.

    Photo credit: Lonnie Thompson

    Glacier retreat in Cusco


    Changes in glaciers cordilleras vilcanota and carabaya

    Changes in glaciersCordilleras Vilcanota and Carabaya

    Source: Hüggel et al. 2003, Assessment of glacier hazards and glacier runoff


    The histories current situation and possible futures of the adaptation concept

    Source: Hüggel et al. 2003, Assessment of glacier hazards and glacier runoff


    The histories current situation and possible futures of the adaptation concept

    Source: Hüggel et al. 2003, Assessment of glacier hazards and glacier runoff


    Warming in the american cordillera 1990 99 2090 99

    Warming in the American Cordillera1990/99-2090/99

    Source: Bradley et al. 2006, Threats to water supplies in the Tropical Andes


    Local perceptions detection

    Local perceptions(“detection”)

    • processes

      • rit’i pisiyamun “The ice and snow are diminishing.”

      • rit’i chhullukun “The ice and snow are melting.”

    • features

      • yana rit’i “black snow” [dust-covered ice]

      • t’oqo “holes” [moulins]

      • wayq’o “cracks” [crevasses]

    • epistemology

      • sut’i “in plain sight”


    Interview characteristics

    interview characteristics

    • 10 interviews

    • 7 men, 3 women

      • Overlap of gender, language

    • birthplace: 5 from local village, 2 from neighboring villages, 2 from adjacent provinces, 1 from elsewhere in department

    • key issue: interaction of economic and cultural factors in shaping perceptions, framing, concerns


    Mention mining by social spatial scale

    mention mining by social/spatial scale


    Mention mountain spirits by temporal scale

    mention mountain spiritsby temporal scale


    Number of projects by temporal scale

    number of projects by temporal scale


    Local proposals

    Local proposals

    • alpaca breeding (4)

    • water (irrigation, reservoirs, drinking water, bottled water plant) (4)

    • alpaca infrastructure (health, medicine, exports) (3)

    • organizations (district status, regional association) (2)

    • regional infrastructure (roads) (1)


    Groups involved with adaptation to climate change in cusco

    groups involved with adaptationto climate change in Cusco

    • NGOs

    • Local/regional government

    • National plan (CONAM)

    • World Bank/Global Environment Facility

    • Foreign aid


    Does adaptation make sense as a way to think of the herders

    Does adaptation make sense as a way to think of the herders?

    • Very large scale of threats to core livelihood

    • Mismatch of local concerns and agencies (government, NGOs, international aid)

    • Difficulty of integrating climate change and other concerns


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