Barriers to climate change adaptation are often considered to be ecological, economical, physical or technological. But a recent analysis argues that there are also significant social barriers.

Ethics, knowledge, attitudes to risk and cultural values which hamper adaptation must be considered in decision-making processes, say the authors. It is undisputed that adapting to climate change will require large scale changes. Some of these will be implemented by governments and some will be implemented by individuals and communities. But the actions taken depend on how societies, communities and individuals perceive the risks associated with climate change and how much we are prepared to change. In this sense, it is largely us who impose the limits to adaptation.

The researchers identify four key social factors which can cause delays to adaptation measures:

* Ethics. Limits to adaptation depend on goals, which are influenced by diverse values.

* Knowledge. A lack of knowledge should not prevent us from acting on climate change. There are also differences in values placed on scientific knowledge and local knowledge.

* Attitudes to risk. Different individuals have different concepts of what is a risk and whether it needs acting upon.

* Underappreciation of cultural values. Cultural values can be undervalued by adaption measures. Loss does not tend to be calculated in terms of social or cultural assets. A major conclusion is that diverse ethical values must be acknowledged in new governance mechanisms.

The example of coastal erosion is cited. Local authorities responsible for a stretch of coastline will place their priority with local residents, perceived to be vulnerable with their homes at risk. But central government's concerns may lie with national funds and interests and longer-term planning. They suggest that governments could create 'deliberative platforms', involving a wide range of different stakeholders and which acknowledge different values for devising adaptive measures.

Science is used by many societies to 'predict the future'. However, there are difficulties changing individuals' behaviour based on these scientific predictions. Individuals tend to act on knowledge gained from experience; it is difficult to act on that which has not yet happened, or which is not considered immediate or personally relevant.

The authors cite evidence from community-based initiatives. In the right environment, individuals can be influenced to change their perceptions and, as a result, their behaviour. But, they note, some people are more resistant to change than others. For example, older people who believe that climate change will have little effect in their lifetime. Remaining uncertainties about the specifics of future climate change trends should not prevent governments or individuals from acting today, say the researchers. If robust strategies are in place, minor inaccuracies in climate change modelling and predictions will be of little concern.

Finally, the researchers argue that assets with special cultural or social significance, such as places and place names, and which may be lost due to climate change, are not given enough importance in climate change adaption measures. For instance, sea level rises may see the loss of areas that have personal and social significance for many individuals. The researchers say such changes are systematically undervalued. They may have an important role to play in how climate change is framed and, therefore, how individuals respond.

Source: Adger, W.N., Dessai, S., Goulden, M., et al. (2008). Are there social limits to adaptation to climate change? Climatic Change. 93: 335-354. Contact: [email protected]��For further information on climate change adaptation in the EU, please see:


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