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Does adaptation to a possible rise in 4°C in global temperature requires system transformation rather than incremental adaptation?

 Written by Raphael Danglade     

Capture d’écran 2014-02-09 à 15.21.08

The IPCC (TAR, 2007) stated that adaptation is an ‘adjustment in natural or human system in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli of their effects, which moderates harms or exploits beneficial opportunities’. In practice, adapting requires building adaptive capacity, which can be characterised by the increasing capacity of an individual or group to learn, gather information and research in order to implement adaptations actions and cope with issues. To adapt, a range of actions are necessary and sometimes have to be taken in advance of a stimuli (Thompkins et al., 2010). Adaptation has therefore to be conceived as an evolving process in which key actors have the potential to anticipate major systems shifts or situation to which they cannot cope with. The concept of ‘learning by doing’ (Pahr-Whostl, 2007) is fundamental to any successful adaptation strategies. Reflecting on successful previous adaptation measures can be particularly efficient. The importance of these processes can have significant beneficial outcomes on future hazard management, exposure to risks and can therefore reduce vulnerability of people. However, adaptation strategies are extremely locally dependent and may differ enormously from one place to another. This essay looks at incremental and transformative adaptations for a 4°C increase in global temperature and tries to better understand the statement made by Kates et al., (2012) ‘where vulnerability and risks are large, incremental adaptation may be insufficient and transformation is required’.

I) Incremental and Transformative adaptations

Incremental adaptations have been described as the ‘extensions of actions and behaviours to reduce losses and enhance benefits of natural variations in climate and extreme events’. It also includes a range of actions to sustain the ability to deal with forecasted change in the near future. Adger et al. (2005) defined such adaptations as either altering exposure, decreasing sensitivity, or increasing resilience to cope with change. The central purpose is to maintain the integrity and essence of a current system. Incremental adaptations can thus be represented by the determination to continue responding within the same structural aims and governance scheme. Stafford-Smith et al. (2011) expressed that incremental adaptation emphasizes small adjustments to current systems. It implies the continuation of a certain type of actions in the future with climate change taken into account.

In contrast, transformative adaptations can be represented as adaptations that are implemented at much larger scale or intensity and have much greater effects. They also can be characterised as innovative to a resources system or region and may even transform human environment or shifts systems to different locations. Transformative adaptations can be technological, behavioural, but also include modification in institutions, priorities and norms. They can be responsive, anticipatory or be implemented after an extreme climatic event. Park et al., (2012) suggest that transformative adaptations are processes that fundamentally alter the biophysical, economic and social constituents of a particular system from one location, function or form to another. Barnett et al., (2011) argued that transformative adaptations imply purposeful decision-making.  Transformation can happen at any level, from the individual, collective, to an industry or region. Walker et al., (2004) explained that transformation is undertaken when ecological, social (including political) or economic circumstances make the existing system impossible to maintain. Thus, the use of transformative adaptation is for the creation of a new, innovative system, which will have the potential to face any future climate change events.

The major difference that one can discern between these two types of adaptations lies in the magnitude of social/system change. Incremental adaptation is the maintenance of an existing process or system and transformative adaptation is the formation of a fundamentally new system or process. It has also been argued that the difference between incremental and transformative adaptation processes can be observed in terms of resources used, the scales of the arena, agenda, and their following effects. Park et al., (2012) argued that incremental adapters embrace the short term, use immediate thinking and focus on preserving the existing system. Whereas, transformative adapters are characterised as trying to manage drivers of change in order to control present and futures climatic consequences. Park et al., (2012) argued that transformative adopters recognize the necessity to deal with uncertainty in the future if it is to be safe and secure. Transformative decision-making implies much larger uncertainties than incremental decision-making. Stafford-Smith et al., (2011) contend that two core features of transformative adaptations are robust decision-making and risk management. While the drivers of both incremental and transformative adaptations may be comparable in some situations, the policy support and information needed by decision makers to implement efficient transformative adaptations measures may vary considerably (Park et al 2012).

Kates et al (2012) argued that transformational adaptation to climate change might be required in two situations. Firstly, in situations where specific regions, resources systems or populations are extremely vulnerable as a result of climate change such as weak physical settings and marginal productivity. Kates et al (2012) also claimed that short-term incremental adaptations might turn maladaptive over time, suggesting a need for transformative adaptations. Secondly, in situations where acute climate change has the potential to threaten or overwhelm robust human environment systems, transformative adaptations may be necessitated. For example, when changes outstrip the range of existing assessments (+4°C compared to preindustrial level).

Both incremental and transformative adaptation approaches contains obstacles to effective change, and these barriers also seem to be different. The most noticeable barrier appears to be the acceptance of anthropogenic climate change. Park et al. (2012) in his paper demonstrated that participants who did not believe in human-induced climate change were the one implementing incremental solutions, thinking that these will be sufficient to respond to future climate risks. Whereas, those who believed in anthropogenic climate change and the consequences it could have on future outcomes appeared to be implementing transformative solutions. Kates et al (2012) complement this idea by arguing that transformational adaptation, as a concept is difficult to implement and give three reasons to explain it. Firstly, uncertainties about climate change reinforce climate sceptic views; moreover the benefits such adaptations bring are difficult to measure as they occur in the longer term.  To this, it is important to admit that some places are more vulnerable than other, small islands and large deltas are very likely to be affected by future climate change. Secondly, the cost of transformational actions is much larger than for incremental adaptations, thus in a context of austerity, it may be difficult to conceive such long-term investments. Thirdly, Stafford-Smith et al (2011) analysed a range of psychological, social and institutional barriers that tend to uphold current resources systems and policies. Such barriers as indicated by Kates et al., (2012) comprise ‘legal, social and institutional conceptions of rights, longstanding resources allocation policies, customary protection, entitlements, and behavioural norms’.

II) Rethinking adaptation for a 4°C world

Betts et al. (2011) argued that under certain scenarios, it is assumed that global temperature will rise by at least 4°C by the 2070s. Betts et al. (2011) claimed that the range of incremental adaptation currently in place requires to be reassessed. It is presumed that within a 4°C world, most of the existing adaptation approaches will fail to meet new challenges brought up by such an increase. The rapidity and extent of change in climate produces enormous adaptation challenges. It is therefore urgent to examine current adaptation measures and determine if they can cope with future climate projections. Pittock and Jones (2001) argued that climate change is now observed as an on going ‘transient process’ and requires ‘an on going adaptation process’. Adaptations measures henceforth necessitate decisions with a longer lifetime in order to face future exacerbated changes in climate.

Since mitigation of CO2 emissions are not keeping path with the amount of CO2 emitted annually, it is estimated that the world will experience a rise in global temperature superior to the 2°C target of UNFCCC. In 2009, the ‘4°C and Beyond’ conference that took place in Oxford to assess the risks and consequences of such an increase demonstrated evidences of a hastening increase in temperature in the near future. The conference of the Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen 2009, confirmed these findings and asserted that it is compromised for societies to maintain global temperature below the 2°C rise previously agreed compared to preindustrial level. Rogelj et al (2010) asserted that if no new agreement is signed and drastic reduction of GHG emissions are not engaged, the likelihood for the world to experience in increase in 3°C to 4°C within this century is high. Rogelj et al (2010) complemented this argument by arguing that ‘there is virtually no chance of limiting warming to 2°C above preindustrial temperatures’. The 5th assessment of the IPCC projected alarming consequences and suggested that changes in the system will be larger than expected and will affects many sectors. Ranging from coastal areas (sea level rise), water stress (saline intrusion/reduced water availability), ecosystem collapses, agriculture (droughts), to migration and so on (New et al. 2011).

The impacts associated with an increase in 4°C of global temperature indicate that the challenges for adaptation will be colossal. Stafford-Smith et al., (2011) suggested that as a result of the UNFCCC failure to agree on new emissions reductions, adaptations’ responses have thus to be reconsidered under both a much longer timeframe and wider risk scenarios. In addition, Stafford et al., (2011) argued that the range of adaptations that have been considered under a 2°C rise in temperature may not be appropriate for an increase in 4°C of global temperature, this can be explained by the more pronounced extent and magnitude of the changes accompanying such increase. Reviewing existing adaptations measures and adapting them to more extreme climate change projections may be of interest for the most vulnerable. Stafford-Smith (2011) insisted on the fact that current adaptation measures may be maladaptive and also raised awareness on the most vulnerable nations, which may require a ‘complete transformation’ in all aspects of their society to be able to face future climatic threats. Incremental adaptations may not be sufficient to cope with the severity of what a 4°C increase in global temperature can bring and may require transformation. In this sense, transformative adaptation appears a more suitable option for anticipating future climate risks.

Stafford-Smith et al., (2011) indicated that transformative adaptation by implying a ‘complete change’ might have impacts on societies. The idea of transformation may raise social, psychological and institutional concerns. Moreover, the idea that transformative adaptation implies not only a total transformation of the system or process but also the projection of long term climate scenarios may not be well appreciated by climate-sceptic governments, whom simply do not believe in climate change because of its few uncertainties. Uncertainties in climate change play a large role in immobilizing decision-makers, and consequently decision taken for adaptations are most of the time established in the short-term and without an evaluation of future risks that could emerge.

New et al., (2011) argued that in view of the rapid and early warming, the time for implementing new adaptation is drastically reduced and resources are lacking. An increase in 4°C would implied that more human, technical and financial resources are needed than for a 2°C increase. New et al., (2011) wondered if current incremental short-term adaptations have enough capacity to cope with a 4°C increase in global temperature. New et al., (2011) argued that lacking the financial and technical resources could have serious consequences for the most vulnerable, and that they could once again be ‘left behind’. Harrocks and Harvey (2009) contended that the consequences of a 4°C increase in global temperature entail further considerations of a process of what they termed ‘continuous transformation’. This term means that adaptation needs to be considered as an on going process of incremental and transformative adaptation within a longer timeframe.

There is a need for greater focus on risk management and robust decision-making (Stafford-Smith et al., 2011). Uncertainties in climate change projections and the high cost of transformative adaptations have to be seen as an investment that can benefit and protect present and future generations. Dessai et al., (2008) argued that ‘robust decision-making approaches identify decisions that are robust across the range of future possibilities, even if they are not precisely optimal for any and as a consequence may be more costly to implement’.


Transformative adaptations will be required in the future as a result of climate change. Some places and systems will be severely affected and will not have the choice but to transform. Incremental adaptations in regards of future climate change projections (Betts et al., 2011) appear not to be enough to cope with more extreme events. However, some issues such as the cost of implementation but also the difficulty for policy-makers to project changes in the long-term make that transformative adaptations are unfortunately quite utopic, at least for developing countries. The result is that transformative adaptations will be unequally represented on the globe. Moreover, the most vulnerable will still be left behind. It is therefore important to assure that climate funds for the least developed countries are established and genuinely distributed in order to introduce such adaptations measures.

© Raphael Danglade

Suggested citing: Danglade, R., 2014. Does adaptation to a possible rise in 4°C in global temperature requires system transformation rather than incremental adaptation?. [Online]. Available at:  [accessed + date when the website was accessed].


About Raphael.Danglade

Raphael studied Geography and read Environmental Studies before completing a MSc in Climate Change and International Development. His field of interest lies in mitigation and adaptation strategies for social enterprises and corporations. Helping companies to reduce their carbon emissions and compensate their ecological footprints by implementing socio-economic development projects around the world is something he considered as ground-breaking. He had the opportunity to diversify his fascination for such approaches by working for private sector companies and non-governmental organisations. He is now very inclined towards providing knowledge and expertise around such strategies that he knows will become fully integrated to any corporations in the near future.

One comment on “Does adaptation to a possible rise in 4°C in global temperature requires system transformation rather than incremental adaptation?

  1. Hugo Revel
    February 10, 2014

    Great analysis. Good work. Well done!

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This entry was posted on February 9, 2014 by in Climate Change Adaptation, Posts / Themes.
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