Climatic Change

, Volume 93, Issue 3–4, pp 335–354 | Cite as

Are there social limits to adaptation to climate change?

  • W. Neil AdgerEmail author
  • Suraje Dessai
  • Marisa Goulden
  • Mike Hulme
  • Irene Lorenzoni
  • Donald R. Nelson
  • Lars Otto Naess
  • Johanna Wolf
  • Anita Wreford


While there is a recognised need to adapt to changing climatic conditions, there is an emerging discourse of limits to such adaptation. Limits are traditionally analysed as a set of immutable thresholds in biological, economic or technological parameters. This paper contends that limits to adaptation are endogenous to society and hence contingent on ethics, knowledge, attitudes to risk and culture. We review insights from history, sociology and psychology of risk, economics and political science to develop four propositions concerning limits to adaptation. First, any limits to adaptation depend on the ultimate goals of adaptation underpinned by diverse values. Second, adaptation need not be limited by uncertainty around future foresight of risk. Third, social and individual factors limit adaptation action. Fourth, systematic undervaluation of loss of places and culture disguises real, experienced but subjective limits to adaptation. We conclude that these issues of values and ethics, risk, knowledge and culture construct societal limits to adaptation, but that these limits are mutable.


Future Climate Climate Policy Climate Change Adaptation Glob Environ Change Adaptation Decision 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • W. Neil Adger
    • 1
    Email author
  • Suraje Dessai
    • 2
  • Marisa Goulden
    • 3
  • Mike Hulme
    • 1
  • Irene Lorenzoni
    • 1
  • Donald R. Nelson
    • 4
  • Lars Otto Naess
    • 1
  • Johanna Wolf
    • 1
  • Anita Wreford
    • 5
  1. 1.Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Environmental SciencesUniversity of East AngliaNorwichUK
  2. 2.Department of GeographyUniversity of ExeterExeterUK
  3. 3.Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of Development StudiesUniversity of East AngliaNorwichUK
  4. 4.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of GeorgiaAthensUSA
  5. 5.Scottish Agricultural CollegeEdinburghUK

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