What is Climate Change Adaptation: The Adaptation Cycle

Danny Bednar, PhD
10 min readJun 15, 2018


Equally as important as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, preparing society for the impacts of climate change is a less celebrated challenge. This series breaks down adaptation one concept at a time.

Danny Bednar Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Environment at Western University in London, Ontario Canada and an analyst for the Canadian Space Agency. His PhD focused on the governance of climate change adaptation in Canada. All views are his own.

The B-Side

Climate change adaptation is a somewhat poorly named field of study and practice. Generally adaptation is the process by which an entity (person, organization, government, etc…) prepares for climate change.

Adaptation is typically seen as the B-Side of the climate change cassette, with its more famous sibling ‘mitigation’ getting a majority of the attention. Mitigation (also not a great name) is the process by which an entity (person, organization, government, etc..) reduces its contribution to the problem of climate change. Generally we do so by reducing our personal contribution of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions into the atmosphere. Another form of mitigation is to enhance activities which absorb GHGs out of the atmosphere (i.e. planting tees, supporting conservation) or to refrain from GHG-intensive lifestyles (going vegan, shopping locally).

Climate change mitigation: The process by which we reduce our contributions to the cause of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions (Image: Pexels.com)

Referring to adaptation as the B-side is not meant as a slight (I would be slighting my own research field!), B-Sides often have many of the best songs, from Disposable Heroes on Master of Puppets to Ramble On on Led Zeppelin II, B-sides are great, they just come second that’s all. Both mitigation and adaptation are crucially important (they are also inherently linked, which I will talk about in another article)

B-Side or not, adaptation is a confusing field of research. It covers so much territory that it can be bewildering for researchers, or government staff, joining the field to make sense of. However, I suppose this isn’t that surprising. Preparing all of our physical and social infrastructure for significant climate changes is no easy task. Complexity is inevitable.

I remember entering the adaptation literature at the start of PhD and wondering what the hell was going on. What is adapting? who is adapting? What do we adapt to? So, for people who are in my old shoes, this series will present adaptation from the beginning. The goal is to take readers from “what the hell is climate change adaptation?” to “what’s next for adaptation?”.

The Adaptation Cycle

One of simplest ways to introduce adaptation is to frame it as a process or, really, a cycle.

Say you are a city government (or a company, person), and you’ve heard that climate change will cause problems like more disasters, economic loss, and public health problems. If you’re responsible for governing a city and wish to avoid such things you may want to get ready (what some people call ‘become resilient’; I will talk about resilience in a future post). To do so there are series of steps to work through to make sure your services and infrastructure will be able to continue functioning as designed.

The first step would be to (1) identify the expected climate hazards in your region (what are sometimes called natural impacts). Is the region you are in projected to get hotter? drier? wetter? Will insects move in that haven’t been around in the past? Will extreme events such as heat waves and thunder storms happen more often?

Extreme rainfall over a short period can overwhelm city stormwater sewers and cause millions in damages (Image: pixabay.com)

To answer these questions we can look at global, regional, or national impact assessments. Most countries have already looked into these questions at a national scale and provided public reports with the answers. If not, the United Nations does this at a regional scale every 5 years through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (The IPCC is really just a big literature review, they don’t conduct primary research but compile existing knowledge and summarize it).

One of the challenges of adapting to climate change, however, is that specific impacts in a certain location are very hard to predict. Climate models usually work at larger scales (continents or so) and narrowing it down to smaller areas often requires expensive analysis (even then margins of error remain). Thankfully some of the world’s best climate scientists are working to consistently improve climate projections and allow everyone to understand their risk. Nobody can be certain of which climate impacts they will face, and while we’ve come a long way, the smaller the temporal or spatial scale the more climate uncertainty.

In short, while we have high confidence regarding what central North America will look like, on average, in the year 2050; asking what climate hazards will be persistent in Winnipeg, MB, in the summer of 2024 introduces much more uncertainty. That being said, general hazards for regions are pretty well understood and projected with fair degree of confidence. For big cities, taking regional climate projections for the next 50–100 years and applying them to their area (what we call downscaling) provides more than enough insights to start getting ready.

One you know which hazards might be coming (happening), you next need to understand the relationship between your services/infrastructure and the climate hazards expected in your region. Its great to know that there will be 25% more days above 30 °C by 2030, but what specifically could go wrong when this happens?

Global climate models are increasingly more accurate, but downscaling them to local scenarios remains a challenge (Image: NOAA.gov)

Figuring out what could go wrong when climate hazards encounter social and physical systems if the second stage of climate change adaptation, it is the process of (2) identifying risk. Risk in itself is a large area of study in the social sciences (and was long before climate change ever became an issue). Risk, as you can imagine, doesn’t just relate to natural hazards but also technology, crime, terrorism, giant asteroids, etc…as a result the field of risk theory is thoroughly developed.

Risk depends on what we value, so its calculation is no simple measure and is highly political. Some risk scholars define risk as a sort of equation, where risk is equal to to the likelihood of a hazard multiplied by the impacts of such a hazard hitting a physical or social system (loss of life, economic loss). Risk is also talked about as a function of exposure to hazards and a system’s, or person’s, vulnerability. For some systems, risk assessment is largely technocratic, city engineers can tell you what an of 1 cm per summer in precipitation will mean for the local sewer system. But for other systems, there is no straightforward calculation.

For example, both a 4x4 pickup truck with winter tires and a Kia Rio with summer tires can be exposed to heavy snowfall (hazard) while driving down the highway, but, given their different levels of vulnerability (ability to cope/drive in deep snow), the truck faces much less risk. Simple right?

Not necessarily. Complicating the matter might be that perhaps the person in the Kia Rio has a fully charged cellphone, blankets, and is only out on the highway because they want to get to work to close an important business deal. For them, getting stuck may be an inconvenience, but they will be okay. Conversely the person in the truck is wearing only shorts and a t-shirt, has no cell phone, and a a young child with them. In this case, risk perception regarding the drivers would shift from what you’d initially expect. Our values would likely identify that the people in the truck actually face more risk. This somewhat silly example shows how a lot of risk calculation is neither simple nor without relation to values.

Like deciding to drive in a snowstorm, risk assessment depends on what we value, our perceived ability to cope, and our exposure to hazard

So, for any government undergoing the adaptation process, it is vital that risk perception from a variety of inputs is heard and addressed in a legitimate and transparent fashion. What parts of the city are important? What is acceptable and unacceptable risk? Should the city prioritize projects that prepare the public transit system or, instead,the roads out to the mall at the outskirts of town? Can it afford both? These are the questions of public infrastructure risk assessment.

Moving on, once a city has learned about their climate hazards, and recognized the multitude of risks that exists within their jurisdiction, it’s time to start thinking about stage three: (3) select adaptive options.

Adaptive options depend on the hazards and risks identified. For example, a city expecting an increase in the number of extreme rainfall events (lots of rain in a short period), and which values its downtown core, may wish to reduce the amount of concrete surfaces in order to allow more water to absorb into the ground and reduce the risk of flooding. However, if people don’t like that idea, they could alternatively look to invest in a sewer system with more capacity for extreme rainfall.

In July 2013 extreme rainfall hit the Greater Toronto Area with 100 millimeters of rain falling in a few short hours. The flood caused over $60 million in public damages and $800 million in private claims (Image: Canadian Press)

There are all sorts of adaptive actions available for each climate hazard, some of them social (increasing awareness or influencing behaviour) and some of them technical (building physical things). Their selection depends on the technology and resources available to the adapting party (city, person, company, etc…), as well as the ideology, and political willingness, of those with the authority to choose them.

Along with adaptive actions, there is also the question of implementation method. Some adaptive measures have pretty obvious implementation methods. Larger stormwater sewers are likely to be constructed by a government the same would be any other infrastructure project (though this may mean an increase in taxes). However, other adaptive actions are more open ended and can be implemented a number of different ways.

The is no shortage of adaptive options, its the decision that can be the hard part (image: pixabay.com)

Take, for example, the idea of reducing permeable surfaces in a city to reduce the potential for flash flooding. The city could use a bylaw to regulate new construction and limit the area of impermeable surfaces that can be constructed by building owners (such as roofs and parking lots). Conversely, the city could impose a tax on permeable surfaces by area, working to influence behaviour through market intervention. Or, lastly, the city could simply advertise the risk of urban flooding and promote that citizens and business avoid constructing too many permeable surfaces and hope for voluntary uptake of gravel parking lots and green roofs.

As a side note, these three paths make up what is known traditionally as the triad of policy instrument options: regulation, market, and voluntary. The selection of policy instrument is entirely political and depends on what a governing authority values, and how important it feels the policy measure is. As an obvious example, the most important things in our society are governed with strict legislation, for example murder. Other things are voluntary, for example many personal health choices are left to voluntary means. While governments and other authorities may suggest that we exercise, or use sunscreen, there is no law requiring it. In between is pretty much everything else.

The last part of stage three is nothing to gloss over (but do just that I will). Once decisions have been made on adaptive measures and their potential implementation instrument, government officials need to convince elected officials to provide the necessary resources (cash, regulatory change, personnel) to make them happen (I will eventually write a whole piece on just this issue, as instrument selection is largely out of the hands of bureaucats).

Once a governing body, through consultation, partnership, or any other relations, has decided what it will adapt, how (adaptive initiative) and its manner of enforcement (policy instrument), then comes the fourth stage, (4) implementation. This requires the activation of whatever resources are provided to deliver the adaptive action.

The Climate Change Adaptation Cycle (Image: D.Bednar)

Finally, as long an adaptive initiative is underway, the implementing actor needs to monitor how its going, and identify what adjustments may need to be made. This is the fifth stage of the adaptation cycle, (5) monitoring and reassessment. This stage also considers that our knowledge of the climate system, and the hazards we face, will evolve over time and that adaptive measures may need to change to keep up with new information.

Similarly. adaptation can go wrong, what you initially think will help reduce risk could actually create more risk via unforeseen outcomes of the adaptive action. There is also the potential that risk avoided for one group is risk created for another.

At this point the adaptation cycle starts over again, of course building off of the last time. New information is considered, additional voices heard, and measures adjusted. Adaptation is not a goal, but a process.

Hopefully this has been an informative first step into the world of climate change adaptation. Future pieces will cover certain stages in more depth, address terminology issues in the field, and explore current questions emerging in the research literature.



Danny Bednar, PhD

Part time professor and author with a 9-5 at my local space agency. Writing about space exploration, heavy metal, classical music, & hockey.