Adaptation to climate change (book review)

Submitted by: Gabrielle Esser, MA Planning/MA Asian Pacific Policy Studies Candidate, School of Community and Regional Planning, University of British Columbia

Climate Change has already arrived; it is not some distant looming future dread factor that global sociopolitical systems have time to adapt to.  Adaptation to Climate Change: From Resilience to Transformation by Mark Pelling asserts that climate change vulnerabilities and effects are in the present tense and that discourse on adaptation should be re-conceptualized as an opportunity for community strengthening and, in some cases, monumental positive change.

Pelling’s 2011 book on adaptation to climate change explores the socioeconomic and broader thematic frames of adaptive changes from resilience through transition to more fundamental transformation. Pelling seeks to clarify what is meant by adaptation and to elucidate its connotative conceptual meanings in the sociocultural and sociopolitical climates of climate change. He argues that the dominant and influential IPCC and UNFCCC reports conceptually separate adaptation from the more technical realms mitigation and development and fail to provide a clear and usable definition of adaptation. This lack of clarity, separation, and the notion of adapting “to” rather than “with” climate change have created conditions where planners and societies are unable intellectually learn from vulnerabilities and adapt appropriately.   As Pelling establishes the resilience-transition-transformation framework, he draws upon theory and relies primarily upon literature review, but in the latter parts of the book, he applies his framework to case studies to indicate how adaptation is highly context and site-specific. The book provides a unique social perspective on adaptation and societal change in the face of disaster.  However, the book is dense and theoretical, and its important massage is not universally accessible. Pelling’s diagrams and case studies are particular strengths in the book, but the detailed theoretical analysis make the book less readable to applied professionals and non-academics in the field of disaster management who are not as interested in theory and do not have the time to do a close reading of this type of text.  Pelling’s holistic framework provides an important perspective that policy makers and planners need to shape forward momentum towards adaptation.

Pelling’s positive and pragmatic message is that adaptation takes different forms based upon different geographic site-specific contexts, but that some form of adaptation is not only possible, but necessary to address the sociopolitical as well as biophysical components of climate change vulnerability. Dominant and technocentric paradigms in climate change adaptation research which focus primarily on projections are valuable but, these will not succeed alone in creating the inclusive dialogues necessary to mobilize policy change and adaptation. Climate change and vulnerability are large issues that involve a great deal of uncertainty; adaptation will require constant reevaluation and remolding to adapt to dynamic conditions.  Pelling’s adaptation framework presents a compelling argument for adaptive site-specific management of disasters that does not exclude factors and drivers of social change.  The resilience-transition-transformation framework that Pelling establishes in this book provides for community derived adaptation at different scales based upon varying levels of vulnerability and contexts. This framework allows for local adaptations at any point on the framework continuum from strengthening resilience to transformation to be placed in a broader global context of climate change adaptation.