The nature and utility of adaptive capacity research

TitleThe nature and utility of adaptive capacity research
Publication TypeReport

Project Page  Final Report

Year of Publication2010
AuthorsSmith, TF, Carter, RW, Daffara, P, Keys, N
InstitutionNational Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility
CityGold Coast
ISBN Number978-1-921609-20-6
Keywordscase studies, interpretation, interviews, survey, synergies, vulnerability

Executive Summary

Adaptive capacity refers to the ability of a system to respond to change and has become widely acknowledged as a fundamental component of vulnerability to climate change. The aims of this project were to: (i) assess the interpretation of, and approach to, adaptive capacity research among a range of disciplines; (ii) critique case studies in which an attempt is made to assess adaptive capacity of a community, region or sector; (iii) assess the utility of the concept for decision-making; and (iv) to make recommendations to improve synergies between climate change adaptation researchers and decision makers. The purpose of this second report (one of two for the project) is to present the findings of an online survey and key informant interviews of climate change researchers and decision makers. 

Data collection consisted of two parts: (i) an online survey; and (ii) key informant interviews. The online survey targeted 39 adaptation e-networks, including: international climate change research centres and institutes; non-government organisations; government agencies that focus on adaptations to climate change; and the eight NCCARF Adaptation Research Networks. Two hundred and ninety nine people responded to the online survey. Key informant interviews targeted both climate change adaptation researchers and decision makers. Of the 15 of the 25 researchers identified as key informants agreed to participate, while only four of the 15 decision makers identified as key informants agreed to participate. However, participants represented a range of geographic scales of focus (eg. local, regional, national and international), and while the majority of respondents were Australian (15 of 19 respondents), there was also representation from the UK, USA, and Europe. 

Online survey results show little difference in the conceptualisation of adaptive capacity among researchers from a range of disciplines. Anthropocentric conceptions (eg. focused on addressing social vulnerability) dominated comments within most disciplines, while a systems view (eg. focused on addressing the various social and environmental dimensions of vulnerability) is also evident, but dominates in the biological sciences. 

The two disciplinary fields found to be most positive about a socio-ecological future with respect to adapting to climate change are those relating to the creative arts and writing, and the physical sciences. The two most negative disciplinary fields are law and legal studies, and philosophy and religious studies. All disciplinary fields shared the dominant belief that power/agency to create the future lies both internally (i.e. within individuals) and externally (i.e. within society). 

Both the literature review and survey results support the proposition that the next frontier to challenge the assumptions underlying adaptive capacity research relates to holism born out of resilience and systems thinking. A shift across all disciplines from the dominant anthropocentric view of adaptive capacity to a holistic systems view based on resilience science is likely and may change the understanding of adaptive capacity. The literature review, survey and key informant interviews all suggest that the approaches and methods used for adaptive capacity research tend to show: (i) paradigm shifts from mono-disciplinarity to trans-disciplinarity; (ii) linear one-way research by scientists for practitioners, to participatory research; and (iii) actor-orientated to systems-orientated conceptualisations of adaptive capacity. 

The findings of the key informant interviews support the literature review regarding the proposition that multi-disciplinary research methods and diverse ways of knowing (eg. scientific, local, and indigenous knowledge sources) are needed to understand adaptive capacity. The key informants’ comments about knowledge gaps put the greatest emphasis on the need to focus on context-specific research, as well as, the socio-cognitive factors of adaptive capacity. 

The literature, case studies and survey results indicate that adaptive capacity research has enhanced the knowledge base of decision makers for effectively devising policy, planning and implementing adaptation strategies. While over half of the decision makers (55%) surveyed considered that responding/adapting to climate change impacts is now core business within their policy/decisionmaking, 72% of decision makers agree with the statement that more effective ways are needed for building their organisation’s capacity to adapt and become more resilient to climate change impacts. This suggests ongoing demand for mainstreaming adaptive capabilities within management organisations.

Furthermore, 65% of decision makers rated the concept of adaptive capacity as useful in directing their programs. In contrast, 16% of researchers rated the application of adaptive capacity programs undertaken by communities, organisations and governments as ineffective (inclusive of partly ineffective and strongly ineffective), 17% took a neutral position, and only 39% believed adaptive capacity programs are partly effective. However, from the literature review, it was apparent that insufficient attention has been given to monitoring and evaluation of adaptive capacity programs. 

Context and uncertainty are recurring themes for decision makers around the utility of adaptive capacity. The survey results indicate that adaptive capacity research is occurring largely across scales and systems at the State/Provincial level when considering socio-ecological systems. The least effort is occurring at the local scale when studying biophysical systems: the sphere where the literature review found the greatest need (more environmental information is needed for local governments to be effective adaptors and policy makers). Key informants also raised the need for further research to understand the effectiveness of interventions at the appropriate scale, barriers to adaptive capacity, and how governance drives success or failure of adaptations and adaptive capacity interventions in an uncertain world. 

Knowledge gaps in adaptive capacity research from the literature review and key informant interviews indicates considerable convergence, although additional and perhaps more marginal issues are identified from both sources. The report concludes with four recommendations for improving synergies between climate change adaptation researchers and decision makers. The recommendations consist of: (i) improved integration of adaptive capacity considerations with adaptation plans; (ii) support of research on the various dimensions of adaptive capacity (eg. at various scales; as well as, in various social and biophysical contexts); (iii) organisational capacity-building initiatives; and (iv) monitoring and evaluation of adaptive capacity changes. Other generic recommendations in the form of guiding principles are also provided to better assist end-user relevance of climate change adaptation research, and to improve approaches to decision-making.

Refereed DesignationRefereed