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Conceptualizing Transformational Adaptation

Adaptation: from incremental to transformational

Adaptation is normally understood as “the adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities” (IPCC, 2007, 869). The majority of current adaptation research is devoted to what is called ‘incremental adaptation’, which can be defined as the extension of actions and behaviours that already exist in order to avoid the disruption of a system (Kates et al., 2012; Berrang-Ford et al., 2011). It is what Pelling (2011) defines as ‘adaptation as resilience’, when its purpose is enabling the continuation of desired systems’ function into the future through the application of technology or social learning, although it can enable unsustainable or unjust practises to persist.

However, adaptation is also taking another perspective. Smith and colleagues (2011) argue that adaptation in a more extreme scenario (as could be a 4°C warmer world) cannot be seen as an extrapolation of the adaptation designed for less-dramatic case. Hallegate (2009) suggests that such adaptation should prioritize flexible and ‘non-regret’ options with long-term perspective, also using soft strategies (not only technical), reducing decision time horizons and introducing safety-margins in new investments. According to their work, adaptation needs to be reconceptualised and designed as a continuous and transformative process, rather than intermittent and incremental (Smith et al., 2011). Pelling (2011) goes further in this critical analysis, and argues that the actual definition of adaptation is not criticizing or challenging current systems and paradigms, but instead  trying to accommodate the alterations that will be brought by climatic change in these same principles. Therefore, it can be argued that incremental adaptation is trying to avoid disruption, enabling the continuity of current objectives under changed conditions (Smith et al., 2011; Pelling, 2011). As O’Brien (2012) points out, less attention has been given to transformational options that address the root of the problem, maybe because they challenge and threaten the stakeholders who benefit from current structures and systems.

The concept of transformational adaptation is mainly found in scientific literature from two different perspectives. As Rickards and Howden (2012) define for the Australian agriculture sector, transformational adaptation can be fitting to or fitting with the environment, depending how it is intellectually framed. This first conception sees nature as something external, in wich we live, and tries to avoid negative outcomes due to increased risk and vulnerability (Kates et al., 2012; Rickards & Howden, 2012). The second one emphasises understanding the roots of vulnerability, and sees society as an agent of change rather than a mere spectator, thus trying to co-evolve with the socio-ecological system (Pelling, 2011; Rickards & Howden, 2012).

‘Fitting to and fitting with’ nature

The first current of transformational adaptation relies on the fact that human-environment systems have always been embedded in a set of unsteady external circumstances and also have always adapted to climate natural variation. However, due to human-induced change, risk or vulnerability may be unprecedentedly high making drastic adaptation necessary, what is then called transformational adaptation (Rickards & Howden, 2012; Kates et al., 2012). This interpretation as adapting to the climatic, ecological and natural limits in which we live, has been defined as ‘fitting to’ environment, trying to maintain the natural products or processes that we need (Rickards & Howden, 2012). Kates and colleagues (2012) define three classes of this type of transformational adaptation: when it is implemented at a larger scale, when the type of adaptation is new to a particular region, or when it completely transforms a place, or implies a change in location.

An example of such transformational adaptation could be the Thames Estuary 2100 Plan. For many years, the city of London has been protected from flooding, rising tides and storm surges by an engineered barrier (Kates et al., 2012; Lavery & Donovan, 2005). However, the influence of climate change on sea-level rise and other flooding episodes due to extreme rainfalls, together with ageing infrastructure and development pressure in the floodplain, encouraged the Environmental Agency to carry out a flood management risk study with a long-term perspective (EA, 2009). The plan includes different paths to follow depending on the degree of sea level rise, therefore making it adjustable and flexible in the short and long terms (Smith et al., 2011). The first years of the project relies on the maintenance of the pre-existing system, with the possibility of later raising and building new barriers and flood storage (Lavery & Donovan, 2005; Kates et al., 2012; Smith et al., 2011).

Thames Barrier (Source: HR Wallingford)

The other type of transformational adaptation understands it as a co-evolution, ‘fitting with’ the environment rather than seeing it as something external. This gives humans a more influential role, being able to decide what and how to change, which can include economic, political or even behavioural structures (Rickards & Howden, 2012). This perspective is more concerned with the root causes of vulnerability, which overlap in different spheres such as economical, socio-cultural or political. The actions of this form of adaptation try to overturn the established systems and create a new regime, shedding light on hidden structures that sustain vulnerability and exacerbate the impacts of climate change (Pelling, 2011).

Pelling (2011) argues that disaster events create a suitable momentum for challenging established values, organisations and power. Due to temporal chaos and absence of state power, opportunity for new socio-political action is created. An example of this type of more disruptive transformational adaptation could be the Marmara earthquake, in Turkey, which is analysed by Pelling and Dill (2010) to understand its role in a political regime change. The Marmara Earthquake occurred in 1999, it was 7.4 Mw and left 20,000 dead and 48,900 injured. After the disaster, the Turkish regime firstly welcomed civil society organisation, to reach locations where the state was not able to access. However, in the later stages of the disaster, the government saw a threat in the growing civil society groups that could challenge the centralisation of power. Together with a European Union membership candidacy, and Greek bilateral post-disaster aid, pressure on the government to implement internal political reforms increased, , which also included protection of civil society organisations. This case demonstrates that natural disasters may not be the only important factor but they can influence transformational outcomes and may create the necessary space for change.

Marmara Earthquake (Source: Neduet)

Finally, it can be argued that different definitions of adaptation are not mutually exclusive, but they depend on the way the issue of climate change is framed. If vulnerability is attributed to questions regarding land use, demography problems or unsafe infrastructures, then it will become a local concern, and will be approached with an incremental view of adaptation or the instrumental perspective of transformational adaptation. However, if vulnerability is shaped as the result of socio-political processes and our relationship with the environment, then adaptation emerges as a critique and reformulation of deeper structures of our systems, thus encouraging a more disruptive transformational adaptation conception (Pelling, 2011).

Therefore, it can be argued that any possible kind of adaptation is important for enhancing the resilience of human systems. However, transformational adaptation may become more crucial since it brings the possibility of, firstly, coping with increasing unprecedented risks and higher vulnerabilities, through reallocations, infrastructure or new governance structures (Kates et al., 2012); and secondly, promotes the confrontation and questioning of the established systems and their outcomes, tackling the economical, socio-political and cultural roots of vulnerability

© Anna Pérez Català

Suggested citing:

Pérez-Català, A., 2014. Conceptualizing Transformational Adaptation [Online]. Available at: [accessed + date when the website was accessed].


About Anna Pérez Català

3 comments on “Conceptualizing Transformational Adaptation

  1. Diana Garcia
    April 29, 2015

    Hola Ana, is it possible if I you can share with me the complete paper you wrote with the bibliographycal resources?

    • Anna Pérez Català
      May 17, 2015

      Of course 🙂 tell me an email and I will do so.

  2. Pingback: The End of the Road? Can a Systems Approach to resilience be applied to roadway and transport systems in coastal cities and communities? | Climate Exchange

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