Resilient Adaptation:
Adjusting to a Changing Climate Over Time

Michael H. Glantz
28 April 2008



All societies are vulnerable to climate, water and weather shocks, and many are vulnerable at much lower levels of such perturbations. The ability to withstand such perturbations all depends on their socioeconomic, political and cultural conditions at the point of time of the shock; in other words, the state of society at the time of the perturbation determines vulnerability. Yet, not all societies are in a condition that allows them to rebound quickly or correctly from the impacts of a climate, water or weather disturbance. Two key factors that affect vulnerability are (1) a society’s adaptability, and (2) its resilience.

Resilience can be viewed as the ability to “bounce back” in a timely way from adverse impacts and shocks.  Adaptation refers to voluntary or forced adjustments by societies as they deal with the impacts of a changing and variable climate.

Adaptation can either be reactive (stimulus – response) or proactive (anticipation – response). Adaptation has numerous operational definitions. As a result, there are several words that have been used to capture what it means in various contexts. Here I use adaptation in the following way: as a term referring to the ability to adjust to new information and experiences. Learning is essentially adapting to a constantly changing environment. Through adaptation, we are able to adopt new behaviors that allow us to cope with change.

Despite the media headlines that most often focus on the negative impacts of anomalies, history suggests that most societies are resilient most of the time when it comes to responding to the impacts of climate variability and extremes. They have also been resilient in the face of slow, incremental changes in seasonality (characteristics of the seasons) by making trial and error adjustments to subtle, as well as obvious, changes in temperature, rainfall and humidity. For all societies, however, there are limits (or thresholds of change) beyond which they are unable to retain their level of resilience.


 “Resilient adaptation” is borrowed from the field of psychotherapy. In psychotherapy, it is designed to assist individuals during their formative years to engage in social activities that foster an ability to better cope with personal and social change. Here it is modified in an attempt to improve societal understanding of climate change impact assessments. Its goal is an encouraging one. Applied to the climate change issue, resilient adaptation borrows the strengths of each of the concepts – resilience and adaptation. The former is focused on the more distant future, while the latter is focused on the near-term future.

Resilient adaptation can help societies as well as individuals (perhaps even civilizations) to face more effectively an uncertain climate future. Such climate change will also be accompanied by changes in variability from season to season, year to year and decade to decade, as well as changes in the intensity, duration and location of climate related extremes.  As adaptation measures in the form of strategies and tactics are increasingly being proposed to cope with a warming atmosphere, those measures must be evaluated not only for their near-term benefits, but for their longer-term implications as well.

Resilient adaptation complements the concept of the “precautionary principle”, a principle that serves as an early warning about how to proceed in the face of potential unknown environmental changes and impacts that might take place as a result of human activities. Resilient adaptation is another way to remind planners about the precautionary principle. Planners need to consider the downstream ramifications of the impacts of their plans to cope with a changing climate. The most widely used description of the precautionary principle is found in Article 15 of the Rio declaration of 1992:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities.  Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation. []

Resilient adaptation, as a guiding principle, can provide a way for government decision makers to maintain planning flexibility while addressing climate change-related impacts that remain unclear at the local and regional levels, especially when it comes to rainfall changes.  It is also an attempt to keep planners’ eyes open toward the future adverse consequences of adaptation efforts by enabling them --- and the heads of states they serve --- to develop flexible, timely and appropriate adaptation, mitigation and prevention policies against the worst consequences of global warming.

Non-resilient adaptation

Non-resilient adaptation is another way to refer to mal-adaptation. It encompasses adaptations to climate change that may appear to be appropriate in the short term but turn out to have been a poor choice in the mid and long term. Such maladaptive practices may be pursued through ignorance. However, not infrequently they are pursued with the knowledge that they will turn out poorly in the not-so-distant future. Perhaps the most recent example of what has been perceived as both a mitigative strategy as well as a strategy for adaptation is the rush to produce biofuels. Grains of various kinds are being diverted from food consumption to use as sources of energy.

For example, the apparent rush to acceptance by governments to produce biofuels from food crops in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to address their domestic energy problems (availability, cost access) has caused them to overlook the implications for food security, domestically and internationally. Also overlooked are the impacts of expanded biofuel production on increasing the cost of various food and fodder prices in the marketplace.


At first, it looked as if the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs had been found.  But it soon became clear that there was a competition between food for human and livestock consumption – and those food grains are being converted into fuel to run vehicles. In addition, increasing levels of affluence in some major developing economies has heightened consumption of grain-fed meat products, as opposed to directly consuming the grains. The price of grains in the marketplace has risen sharply as supplies have become relatively lower or as speculators hoarded supplies and increased the costs in local markets. Land is being taken away from food production and rainforests were chopped down to plant more favorable biofuel crops, e.g., oil palm plantations.

Today there are protests, as well as violent riots, in various parts of the world demanding lower food prices and more food availability in the markets. Even though there is grain to be sold, prices have climbed to levels that have put food out of the reach of the poor.

Another example of a potential non-resilient adaptation to climate change is the call by high-ranking scientists, including a Nobel Laureate, to inject into the stratosphere, high above the earth’s surface, sulphur dioxide in an attempt to mimic the impacts of an erupting volcano in order to cool down the earth’s atmosphere for several years by reflecting the sun’s rays back to space. This process would have to be repeated. However, recent studies have suggested that such an attempt to geo-engineer the global climate system would result in a side effect of a continued thinning of the Arctic ozone shield.

Planners must identify the possible knock-on effects of the adaptation measures that they propose.

"Resilient adaptation" thoughts

It is hard enough to forecast the behavior of humans when they have been given a set of viable options. Forecasting the future of global climate is even more challenging. Yet, many researchers believe that they can forecast the behavior of the climate system. Although we can rely on past records, trends and persistence to get us through the day, longer-range projections have considerably less reliability. Often those forecasts turn out to have been erroneous by a sizable degree. To take this a step further, it takes a lot of hubris to claim to project accurate responses to unknown events, of unknown intensities, in specific places at some undetermined time in the future.

For example, while closely monitoring a naturally occurring event such as the 1997-98 El Nino, the “El Nino of the Century”, we were unable to identify its rapid onset, its magnitude and its rapid demise. 

On the other hand, it is relatively easy to identify societal vulnerabilities in the face of changing environmental conditions. We have witnessed society’s vulnerabilities to deforestation, desertification, aridification, toxic pollutants, nuclear disasters and the like. Now we are trying to identify changes in existing vulnerabilities to climate change, i.e., global warming of the Earth’s atmosphere This is a daunting but do-able task, given the known societal and human weakness. Less easy is our ability to identify societal resilience. Perhaps true resilience can only be identified after performing a variety of tests from natural or socioeconomic shocks to a system.
As suggested at the beginning, all societies have a degree of resilience, but none is 100 percent resilient, just as none are 100 percent vulnerable. The problem for a society is to use its knowledge and its best judgment about where to build and maintain resilience, with the hope of being able to respond effectively (i.e., “resiliently”) to the climate shocks it may have to face as a result of global to local climate changes.

Although proactively identifying adaptation strategies for changes in climate and its impacts that are expected (but not assured) remains a risky endeavor, that should not be a reason to take no action to prepare in some way for those potential impacts. However, such strategies and tactics must be undertaken with the uncertainty of correctness in mind. What might be correct in the short term might prove to be incorrect in the longer term.  Hence, there will always remain a need for “mid-course” corrective action to adjust adaptation measures that had been implemented in previous times. It is imperative to remain vigilant about changing conditions and the need to periodically review adaptation practices. In this regard, the notion of “resilient adaptation” serves as an explicit reminder to do so.

--Michael H. Glantz

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