by Gina Ziervogel

Societies have adapted to natural climate variability fairly successfully in the past (Adger, 2003; Burton et al. 2006), however this is changing because of human-induced climatic changes that are occurring more rapidly than before, on top of a changing social landscape characterized by high levels of inequality and high population density. When climate change became a global concern, there was an initial focus on reducing the problem through mitigation, reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit global temperature change. More recently, it has become clear that adapting to the impacts is as important, because some human-induced change is already underway (over and above natural changes), mitigation levels are still low and adaptation therefore enables us to learn to live with climate change.

Although the term adaptation is used in other fields such as biology in the natural sciences, where it has its origins, the use of the term relevant to human systems has been attributed to the field of anthropological and cultural ecology (Smit and Wandel 2006). Adaptation has become a frequently used phrase in the last decade in the field of global environmental change, where Smit and Wandel (2006: 282) refer to it as ‘a process, action or outcome in a system (household, community, group, sector, region, country) in order for the system to better cope with, manage or adjust to some changing condition, stress, hazard, risk or opportunity’. Smit and Wandel (2006) suggest that it is at the community scale that practical initiatives to improve societal adaptive capacity are likely to be found, recognizing the importance of collective action. Adger (2003: 387) echoes this through his understanding of adaptation ‘as a dynamic social process: the ability of societies to adapt is determined, in part, by the ability to act collectively’.


  • Adger, W.N., (2003). Social capital, collective action and adaptation to climate change. Economic Geography. 79, 387–404.
  • Burton, I., E. Diringer and J. Smith (2006), Adaptation to Climate Change: International Policy Options, PEW Centre on Global Climate Change, Arlington, VA, USA.
  • Smit, B. and Wandel, J. 2006. Adaptation, adaptive capacity and vulnerability. Global Environmental Change. 16: 282–292.