Adaptation—Genuine and Spurious

Demystifying Adaptation Processes in Relation to Climate Change

Authors: Thomas F. Thornton and Nadia Manasfi
Volume 1, Number 1 (2010)

The massive Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest is rapidly retreating. In this photo a developing forest can be seen above the glacier illustrating how the Mendenhall landscape is being dramatically altered by climate change (photograph by Durelle Scott, courtesy of the National Science Foundation, CC BY 2.0).


In climate change discourse and policy, adaptation has become a critical byword and frame of reference. An implicit assumption in much of the strategizing is the notion that adaptation can be rationally planned, funded, and governed largely through existing frameworks. But can adaptation really be managed or engineered, especially given the significant unpredictability and severe impacts that are forecast in a range of climate scenarios? Over millennia, successful societies have adapted to climate shifts, but evidence suggests that this was often accomplished only through wide-ranging reorganization or the institution of new measures in the face of extreme environmental stress. This essay critically examines the concept of human adaptation by dividing it into eight fundamental processes and viewing each in a broad cultural, ecological, and evolutionary context. We focus our assessment especially on northern indigenous peoples, who exist at the edges of present-day climate governance frameworks but at the center of increasingly acute climate stress.

is Senior Research Fellow and Associate Professor at the Environmental Change Institute, 
School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, where he also directs the Environmental Change and Management MSc course. An anthropologist, he has written widely on human ecology, adaptation, local and traditional ecological knowledge, conservation, coastal and marine environments, conceptualizations of space and place, and the political ecology of resource management among the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest and the circumpolar North. His most recent publications include “Coastal Lakes and Lagoons as Dynamic Sites of Exchange among the Tlingit of Alaska” (2017) and Being and Place among the Tlingit (2008).

NADIA MANASFI completed her masters degree in Environmental Change and Management at the University of Oxford in 2009. A paper based on the results of her dissertation, “Finding the Balance: Challenges and Opportunities for Climate Change Adaptation in Different Levels of English Local Government,” co-authored with Elizabeth Greenhalgh, was published in 2011. Following graduation, she conducted research on adaptation in indigenous communities as part of an internship at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. Her more recent work with the German International Cooperation (GIZ, formerly GTZ) has focused on climate change adaptation in developing countries, and she plays an active role in advising partner countries on climate-robust development planning.


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