The Evolution of the Theoretical Framework on Climate Change Adaptation


The current paper pertains to the topic of adaptation to the changes in climate; more specifically, it addresses the problem of the evolution of the conceptual framework which was utilized in order to describe the issues related to climatic transformation. Therefore, the main concepts which served as a core of the theory of climate change and adaptation to it are discussed in this paper, as well as the practical implications of the usage of these notions in the theory.

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The theoretical debate that is considered in this paper was caused by the fact that the climate on the planet Earth is currently changing, and the consequences of such shifts may be disastrous for human society. This necessitates the need to analyze the shifts in the climate, and to develop methods that would permit for mitigating their adverse impacts while taking advantage of the potential benefits that they might bring.

On the whole, it is proposed to tentatively divide the period during which the reviewed studies were published (that is, from 1998 to 2015) into three main phases. During the first phase, the concept of vulnerability to climate changes played a pivotal role in the theory. Numerous studies were devoted to analyzing and specifying this concept. In addition, the notions of collective action and social capital are introduced into the theory. During the second phase, the concept of vulnerability is investigated even further. In this respect, one of the main points is that scholars found that the vulnerability of human communities to climate change is a result of numerous social problems, such as poverty, unequal distribution of resources, and so on. In addition, a conceptual shift can be viewed in this period; numerous notions related to the implementation of the findings of the theory of climate change adaptation are now to be found in the conceptual framework. For instance, the concepts of policy and institutional change can often be seen in works from that period; it is stated that new policies are required so as to adapt to climate shifts, and the implementation of such policies also requires the existing institutions to change or transform so as to be able to realize them. Finally, the third period is associated with the practice; concepts related to the practical implementation of the ways to adapt to climate change can often be found in the literature. More specifically, authors from this period dedicate their articles to the problems of modeling climate change and the adjustments that need to be made with the purpose of minimizing the adverse consequences of such changes while maximizing their potential benefits. In addition, studies analyzing practical examples of addressing climate changes in various environments can now be found in scientific literature. On the whole, therefore, the shift in the conceptual framework pertaining to climate change adaptation reflects the shift from preliminary theoretical debate to developing practical methods to address climate changes, to implement these methods.

The paper is structured as follows. After this brief introduction, the general background of the problem in question is provided. After that, the three proposed phases of transformation are considered. Finally, a brief discussion and conclusions are provided.

Three Phases of Transformation of Theoretical Framework on Climate Change

A Literature Review


The changes in the climate on the planet Earth are becoming more and more apparent with each passing day (Frusher et al., 2014; Pinkard et al., 2015), and it is clear that these changes may result in serious consequences for humankind. For example, they are capable of impacting humanity both directly, by causing various natural hazards (such as floods and storms), or indirectly, through affecting different ecosystems on the planet (e.g., by changing the level of acidity of various water bodies and making it impossible for certain organisms to live there; by changing the temperature in a particular region, permitting some new species to live and breed there while taking away this capability from some local species; by making the polar caps melt, resulting in increased sea levels, flooding of low areas, and the need of the local population to move, which can cause e.g. outbursts of xenophobia and violence (e.g., if people move to other countries), and other disastrous outcomes). Because of this, various human societies can be influenced in a variety of ways, which can cause profoundly adverse or even disastrous social consequences. For example, Zhang, Brecke, Lee, He, and Zhang (2007) argue that numerous highly negative social phenomena in the pre-industrial era, such as the inflation of prices, wars and hostilities, and famine, were put into motion by climatic changes. Similarly, Zhang et al. (2011), who analyzed the period of European history that lasted from 1500 to 1800, state that the decrease in the temperature that took place over the period starting approximately in 1560 and ending nearly in 1660 resulted in numerous catastrophes related to the agro-ecological, social, economic, and demographic spheres of the society. These findings make it clear that the currently recorded shifts in the climate, as well as the forecasted changes, need to be taken into account, and preparations to these changes need to be made so as to minimize their adverse impact on the human society and prevent numerous potential disastrous consequences such as a massive war, which can prove catastrophic for the whole planet nowadays. However, in order to address these issues, it is needed to develop an effective theoretical apparatus which would enable researchers to analyze the existing changes and forecast the potential ones, as well as to understand what preparations should be carried out to address them.

On the whole, it should be stressed that the theoretical framework describing adaptation of human societies to shifts in the climate has been gradually developing over a few past decades, continuously incorporating new concepts and notions and better defining the already existing ones so as to better reflect the currently existing situation pertaining to the adaptation to the occurring and forecast changes in the climatic conditions on the planet as a whole and in specific regions in particular, as well as to facilitate such adaptation. For instance, one of the core concepts that are required in order to describe the situation existing in a society or a population is that of vulnerability, which emerged in the literature not later than at the beginning of the 1980s (as cited in Füssel, 2006, pp. 155-156) and was aimed at assessing the degree to which a certain entity (such as a region, a population, a social group, and so on) is prepared or not prepared to face the upcoming transformations in the climate, and how much it can be harmed by such shifts (Smit & Pilifosova, 2003). The concept of vulnerability is of great value to the theoretical framework on climate change adaptation due to the fact that knowing how severely a certain entity can be damaged by climate transformations allows for analyzing weaknesses which make that entity prone to such harm and taking steps aimed at lowering the magnitude of such weaknesses or eliminating them entirely. Therefore, the notion of vulnerability has been the focus of a large part of the reviewed sources on the topic in question (Brooks, 2003; “Climate Change Adaptation Strategies,” 2009; Eisenack & Stecker, 2010; Eisenack & Stecker, 2012; Füssel, 2006; Füssel & Klein, 2005; Grothmann & Patt, 2005; Kelly & Adger, 2000; Moss et al., 2010; O’Brien, O’Keefe, Rose, & Wisner, 2006; Schipper, 2007). It can be seen that this concept is present in the articles that were published throughout the whole analyzed period, which reflects the fact that it has been thoroughly discussed and refined over the years.

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Apart from the concept of vulnerability, it is clear that the theoretical framework on climate change adaptation currently incorporates multiple other notions and constructs which have been added to it over numerous years. For example, such notions as collective action, social capital, motivation, institutional change, and so on (Adger, 2003; Grothmann & Patt, 2005; O’Brien et al., 2006), have also been introduced to the conceptual framework in order to reflect and describe the complex issue of climate transformation adaptation and the various aspects related to it. These concepts are pivotal due to the fact that they allow for articulating the factors influencing the process of adaptation to the changes in the climate which are currently taking place on the Earth, and taking steps so as to address these factors – for instance, to minimize or eliminate them if they increase the vulnerability of a population, or strengthen them if they improve the population’s resilience (O’Brien et al., 2006). Other notions that were included in the conceptual framework in question describe the apparatus which is utilized in order to address the shifts in the climate. Generally speaking, it should be observed that the theoretical framework pertaining to climate change has been steadily growing and developing over the years, absorbing new concepts and developing the already existing ones (Brager & de Dear, 1998).

Therefore, the hypothesis that will be considered and tested in the current paper is that the development of the theoretical framework on climate change that took place during the time in which the reviewed literature was published (i.e., 1998-2015) can be tentatively divided into three periods. For example, the first period is the one in which the concept of vulnerability, which had emerged previously, was developed, and the problem of climate change adaptation was analyzed mainly theoretically (Adger, Huq, Brown, Conway, & Hulme, 2003; Brooks, 2003; Kelly & Adger, 2000; Smit & Pilifosova, 2003); the second period is the one during which the focus was moved to the causes of vulnerability, as well as to the practical actions that ought to be carried out and policies that should be adopted so as to address climate change (Füssel, 2007; O’Brien et al., 2006; West et al., 2009); the third period is that in which scenarios of adaptation to changes in the climate were modeled, and practical examples of adaptation that was carried out in some parts of the world were considered (Frusher et al., 2014; Pinkard et al., 2015). Dividing the whole period during which the reviewed studies were published into these three phases may allow for better understanding of the evolution of the theoretical framework on climate change adaptation, and for further improving this framework so as to better be able to prepare to the upcoming changes in the climate both on the local and the global levels.

The First Period (Roughly Before 2005)

On the whole, it might be stated that the first phase (roughly before 2005) in the evolution of the general theoretical framework on climate change adaptation during the time period in question is a stage at which, in particular, the already existing concept of vulnerability to climate change was intensively developed so as to clarify it and allow for the assessment of the corresponding phenomenon in a population (Smit & Pilifosova, 2003). For example, Kelly and Adger (2000) make an attempt to provide a definition of the concept of vulnerability using such notions as the capability of people and social groups to deal with external stress. On the other hand, Brooks (2003) describes two main types of vulnerability: social and biophysical, and proposes a preliminary conceptual framework with the purpose of enabling further studies of vulnerability of different populations. The concept of vulnerability is of paramount importance due to the fact that it plays a key role in assessing the needs of various groups that might emerge as a result of changes in the climate, and, consequently, in developing and implementing measures aimed at minimizing the adverse impacts of climate change on these groups (Smit & Pilifosova, 2003). Generally speaking, it should be observed that providing a clearer definition of the notion of vulnerability, as well as the creation of instruments which might allow for its estimation, are pivotal due to the fact that they permit identifying the potential adverse effects of climate changes on a particular population, thus making it possible to take measures aimed at making that population more resilient to shifts in climate and their aftermath. Kelly and Adger (2000) observe that the levels of vulnerability of particular population may be measured by assessing the potential outcomes after climatic shifts and the process of adaptation have taken place, which also allows it to be used with the purpose of estimating the whole aftermath of the climatic change. The notion itself can be defined, for instance, as “the ability or inability of individuals and social groupings to respond to, in the sense of cope with, recover from or adapt to, any external stress placed on their livelihoods and well-being” (Kelly & Adger, 2000, p. 328). It is noteworthy, therefore, that the concept of vulnerability is also intertwined with the notion of adaptability; these depend, at least in part, on such factors as the availability of different resources and the capability or entitlement of various individuals or groups to request the use of these resources in the situation when they are needed (Kelly & Adger, 2000). It should also be pointed out that at this point already, it is stressed that high vulnerability is caused, to a major degree, by social issues (Adger et al., 2003), and it is observed that previous studies have mainly neglected this fact (Kelly & Adger, 2000, p. 326). Brooks (2003) also emphasizes the social causes of vulnerability, but in a different manner–by dividing the concept into two separate components: a) biophysical vulnerability, which is, on the whole, similar to the notion of risk as it pertains to natural hazards; and b) social vulnerability, one that is caused or exacerbated by factors of purely social nature (such s poverty). All in all, the notion of vulnerability serves as a core concept for many studies that were published in this period.

Apart from the concept of vulnerability, such notions as social capital and collective action also play a pivotal role in the theoretical framework pertaining to adaptation to changes in the climate. For example, collective action is needed to carry out many adaptation efforts, and social capital may permit for facilitating such action. On the whole, it is stated that collective action is crucial when there is a need to adapt to the climate transformations, for such adaptation requires the combined, collaborative efforts of many individuals, groups, and organizations; and that considerable social capital allows for facilitating such collaboration (Adger, 2003). As has been stressed above, the availability of a wide array of resources and the capability of the society to access them has a profound impact on that society’s vulnerability or resilience to shifts in climate. At the same time, the majority of decision pertaining to the use and management of a wide range of resources is usually made collectively in this or that manner (Adger, 2003). It is stated that effectually carrying out collective action typically requires the existence of networks of connections, as well as an adequate flow of information so as to make informed decisions about the requirements for resources, their allocation, the management of efforts, and so on (Adger, 2003). Therefore, the accumulation of social capital by the members of a particular group or community is paramount for it to be able to engage in effective collective action with the purpose of addressing the problems that increase the vulnerability of that group or community to climate changes. In this respect, it is worth stressing that rural communities, for which it might be possible to state that they are usually characterized by a lower amount of accumulated social capital, are generally more vulnerable to climate transformations than urban communities (Adger et al., 2003). Hence, increasing the amount of accumulated social capital might allow for improving the resilience of a community towards shifts in climate (Adger et al., 2003). This makes the concepts of social capital and collective action important components of the theoretical framework on climate change adaptation.

The Second Period (Approximately From 2005 to 2010)

During the second phase (roughly 2005-2010) of the development of the theoretical framework on climate change adaptation, the concept of vulnerability to climatic shifts is further developed so as to depend on more and more factors that are not directly related to transformation of the weather. For instance, Füssel and Klein (2005), while discussing the historical development of the concept of vulnerability, observe that it depends on factors related to such issues as social problems, adaptation, policy, and so on. Therefore, a shift in the focus occurs, meaning that from this point, more research efforts will be aimed at investigating practical implications of climate change and vulnerability to it, and the methods and policies which would allow for increasing the resilience of communities to shifts in climate. This makes it possible to assert that the theoretical framework pertaining to climate transformation evolved during this period in a way which would permit using it for making practical conclusions and recommendations while taking into account the knowledge gained from analyzing the issue employing the methods and notions taken from a wide array of research disciplines.

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As for the factors that influence vulnerability of individuals and communities, several publications from the period in question are dedicated to this problem. For example, Schipper (2007) states that poverty has a great impact on the vulnerability of a community, whereas Adger et al. (2009) investigate the limits to adaptation to climate transformations that might exist within a society and emerge from the manner in which it is organized. Discovering the factors impacting the vulnerability of a community, as well as the limits to climatic shifts adaptation, may allow for addressing the problems causing the vulnerability, thus increasing a community’s resilience towards climate change, and, therefore, potentially preventing disasters of the social nature which may emerge from climate transformation. More specifically, Schipper (2007) states that some of the main social problems which increase the vulnerability to climate change of a community include poverty, so eliminating the causes of poverty is pivotal if the problem of vulnerability is to be appropriately addressed. Similarly, finding out which limits to climate change adaptation exist within a society is paramount both in the case when these limits cannot be eliminated, for doing so might allow for saving resources which would otherwise be wasted on fruitless efforts aimed at such elimination; and in the case when they can be changed, for it is needed to modify these limits prior to attempting to adaptations to climate transformation. On the whole, Adger et al. (2009) argue that the main limits to climate change adaptation are mutable; the authors propose that, for instance, the limits to adaptation are dependent upon the aims with which the adaptation is carried out; that adaptation is limited by both individual and social factors; and that adaptation is not necessarily limited by not knowing the risks that might exist in the future. Therefore, at least some of the limits to adaptation that exist within the society can be changed; however, it is notable that doing so on purpose might sometimes be rather difficult, if not impossible.

When further considering the development of the theoretical framework on climate change adaptation, it is worth stressing that the notion of motivation was added to it during the second period. For example, Grothmann and Patt (2005) investigated this notion in their article, observing that it had previously been neglected for too long a period of time. What makes this notion essential is that the process of decision-making depends on the motivation of individuals and entities to avoid adverse effects on things that are valuable for them, and to gain benefits from changes in the climate; and that decision-making, on the whole, plays a determining role in the issues related to climate change adaptation (Grothmann & Patt, 2005). It is interesting, therefore, that including the notion of motivation in the conceptual framework on climate change means that a need for the utilization of findings of such research spheres as behavioral economics and psychology emerges in the in climate transformation studies, for it is these disciplines that may allow for understanding what causes individuals and groups to make this or that decision when it comes to addressing a certain problem pertaining to the changes in the climate.

In addition, because the sphere of research on climate change adaptation becomes more practical, a need for language that would permit clear communication about the issues related to climate transformation emerges (Moser, 2010), which is due to the fact that researchers need the ability impact various policies aimed at addressing shifts in climate. For example, it becomes a necessity to be able to clearly assess the vulnerability of a certain population, find out what methods and procedures may be utilized with the purpose of dealing with this vulnerability so as to increase the level of resilience of that population, and cause the local and state or national leaders to develop and implement policies which would allow for addressing the identified problems (O’Brien et al., 2006). Therefore, the development of precise and clear language which would permit communicating about climate change and adaptation to it becomes a necessity, and numerous studies which were written during this period either are devoted to or touch upon clarifying the conceptual apparatus of the theoretical framework on climate change adaptation (“Climate Change Adaptation Strategies,” 2009; Eisenack & Stecker, 2010; Füssel, 2006; Füssel, 2007; Füssel & Klein, 2005; West et al., 2006).

As has been previously noted, the discussion in the sources pertaining to climate change adaptation tends to become more practice-oriented. For instance, such concepts as adaptation planning, development of policies for adaptation, and the institutional changes needed for this, are emerge in the literature (Füssel, 2007; O’Brien et al., 2006; West et al., 2009). Therefore, thanks to the inclusion of these notions in the research literature, and the emergence of studies aimed at addressing the respective issues, the findings of research on climate change adaptation become capable of being effectually utilized in practice. In this respect, it is important to observe that according to Füssel (2007), adaptation planning needs to be based on the assessments of vulnerability of a community, as well as on the potential impacts of climate changes so as to be effective. When it comes to policy planning, West et al. (2009) observe that often, the management of natural resources (for instance, public lands and waters management in the U.S.) is based on assumptions that climate conditions will be stable; therefore, while developing new policies to address the issues resulting from climate shifts, it is needed to revise these assumptions if such policies are to be effective. As a result, it might be necessary to transform the very institutions responsible for the management of public resources and for climate changes adaptation (O’Brien et al., 2006). All in all, the inclusion of the above-mentioned notions in the conceptual framework on climate change adaptation allowed for transferring the theoretical developments made in this discipline into the realm of practice.

The Third Period (2010 and Later)

It should be observed that during the third period, the theoretical framework on climate change adaptation evolved so as to reflect the practical shift in the theory. For instance, the previously existing concepts of vulnerability and adaptation are used, but these gain new meaning, now being firmly embedded in practice; in addition, the notions of model and modeling become increasingly important. Generally speaking, this reflects the fact that the research on climate change adaptation is now being implemented in practice, in particular, in spots where climate changes and their impacts became apparent (Frusher et al., 2014; Pinkard et al., 2015). It is interesting to observe that certain studies conducted during this period analyze the adaptation of the human society, as well as of different biological species, to climatic shifts; in this respect, Hoffmann and Sgrò (2011) consider evolutionary adaptation of different species, stating that these changes can be rapid, and it is needed to identify both the species that may successfully adapt to the climate shifts, and the species that cannot, so as to include the results of such analysis into management programs that are aimed at reducing the loss of biological diversity on the planet. For such identification, it may be useful to use a variety of models of evolutionary change, which should be reinforced via the use of data gained from an array of experiments across different taxa (Hoffmann & Sgrò, 2011). Therefore, the concept of climate change adaptation can be utilized not only to address the vulnerability of the human communities, but also to preserve the species which may become threatened as a result of climatic transformations that are currently taking place on the planet.

At the same time, the human society also needs to adapt to climate transformation, which results in the need to create models of adaptation action; therefore, although the concept of adaptation action was present in the literature from previous times (Füssel, 2007), it gains an increasing importance in the theoretical framework pertaining to climate change adaptation during the period in question. For example, several models of the above-mentioned type are proposed by authors such as Eisenack and Stecker (2012) and Park et al. (2011). These models are important due to the fact that they permit developing and theoretically testing the approaches to climate change adaptation, consequently allowing for refining the methods for such adaptation and employing more effective steps to solve the climate-related issues. Generally speaking, the understanding of adaptation as action allows for conducting a systematical analysis of the relationships between different actors that are involved in such actions, and finding out which barriers exist to such actions (Eisenack & Stecker, 2012). Simultaneously, a deeper analysis of such actions may also permit creating more effective mechanisms of decision-making when it comes to climate changes adaptation (Park et al., 2011). Apart from that, it should be mentioned that the analysis of climate change adaptation may now utilize the data and knowledge which was obtained via practical implementation of actions aimed at mitigating or preventing the impacts of climate change both on the natural world and the human community (Moss et al., 2010). For example, Frusher et al. (2014) analyze the actions implemented in a marine environment in Australia, whereas Pinkard et al. (2015) consider the measures taken to address the consequences of climatic changes in the sphere of forest management. On the whole, it should be stressed it now becomes possible to create models for addressing climate changes and refine them using the data obtained from their application in practice.

Discussion and Conclusion

All in all, it can be observed that the theoretical framework pertaining to climate changes has been gradually progressing over the period during which the proposed studies were published (approximately from 1998 to 2015), continuously transforming and specifying the meanings of the already existing concepts, as well as adding new notions, the inclusion of which resulted in certain implications for both the theory and practice of climate change adaptation. For example, the notion of vulnerability to climatic change has served as the core concept of the framework in question, and its meaning has been gradually specified over time so as to allow for the utilization of this notion with the purpose of assessing the capability of certain communities to adapt to climate shifts without sustaining considerable adverse consequences of this. Such transformation allowed for an increased capability to address the real-world consequences of climatic changes, for the new conceptual apparatus permits more effective communication, better decision-making processes, and so on. In addition, it also enabled scientists to model the potential outcomes of climatic changes, therefore providing information that can be used so as to decrease the adverse impacts of climatic changes both on the human society and the natural environment. It should also be noted that the division of the proposed periods into three tentative phases allows for viewing the development of the theoretical framework on climate change adaptation as a set of progressive phases each of which was characterized by its own implications for the theory and practice of adjustment to climatic transformations taking place in the world. Further development of both the theoretical and practical aspects of this sphere is of paramount importance if the adverse outcomes of climatic shifts are to be minimized or avoided, and their potential benefits are to be maximized.


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