Journal Article

IDS Bulletin Vol. 39 Nos. 4

Assets and Adaptation: An Emerging Debate

Published on 1 September 2008

Previously viewed as a somewhat defeatist response to climate change, adaptation is now seen as an essential component of any climate policy (Pielke et al. 2007).

There are three main reasons for this increase in interest. First, that the impacts of climate change are already being observed and, because of lags in the natural system, more impacts are inevitable (Burton et al. 2002). Second, that mitigation responses have been slow and inadequate, making adaptation all the more necessary (Reid and Huq 2007). And third, aware that they are likely to bear the greatest physical impacts from climate change, governments in developing countries are increasingly demanding greater attention to adaptation on the international stage.

Adaptation is about tackling the effects of climate change, mainly through increasing the resilience and capacity to cope with its physical impacts. It has been defined by the IPCC (2001) as:

Adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities.

Tanner and Mitchell (2008) highlight some important distinctions about adaptation: first, between ex ante (anticipatory) or ex post (reactive) adaptation; and second, between planned and autonomous adaptation.

Initial attempts at adaptation appear to have mainly been anticipatory and planned, using large-scale modelling of primary and secondary impacts to inform policy choices and expenditure decisions. Such an ex ante, top-down approach lends itself to large-scale, technological solutions to climate change (such as improved infrastructure, flood protection, or improved seed varieties) (Tanner and Mitchell 2008). While there is much to commend this approach, it also has certain drawbacks. For example, modelling  work often has poor resolution (or granularity), and the technocratic nature tends to ignore social determinants of vulnerability (such as ethnicity, or ascribed status).

A more recent approach to adaptation appears more inductive in nature, based on the existing coping strategies of communities and individuals to risk (Huq and Reid 2007). This approach builds on the substantial literatures on indigenous technical knowledge and coping strategies. The most prominent example of this approach is community based adaptation (see below).

Both approaches to adaptation could be highly beneficial for the poor. However, so far, there appears to have been limited consideration of what pro-poor adaptation means precisely. We discuss this briefly, before outlining the structure of the article.

Related Content

This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 39.4 (2008) Assets and Adaptation: An Emerging Debate

Cite this publication

Prowse, M. and Scott, L. (2008) Assets and Adaptation: An Emerging Debate. IDS Bulletin 39(4): 42-52


Martin Prowse
Lucy Scott

Publication details

published by
Institute of Development Studies


Related content


Moving towards responsible gold mining in Geita, Tanzania

26 April 2024