Jun 1 2020

Limits to Climate Change Adaptation

Reviewed by Michael Raleigh and Dr. Kelly Dunning, Conservation Governance Lab, Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences

What are the biophysical, sociocultural, and economic limits that are emerging or have emerged in areas most vulnerable to climate change?

Limits to Climate Change Adaptation


Limits to Climate Change Adaptation, edited by Walter Leal Filho and Johanna Nalau, Springer International Publishing, 2018, 410 pp

Research on climate change adaptation has grown over the past decade as global responses have shifted from avoidance seeking to risk management. Discussions of adaptation inherently involve limits or points at which objectives cannot be met due to increasing risk from a changing climate. The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report defined limits as biophysical, sociocultural, and economic. The editors note the IPCC’s call for further research into types of limits and have responded by examining limits on a regional scale. The purpose of their book is to explore limits that are emerging or have emerged in areas most vulnerable to climate change.

The book is divided into four sections, each focusing on a specific region: Asia, Africa, Australia, North America, and Europe, and the Pacific region of small island states. The regional focus makes it easier for researchers to find material relevant to their own work. Chapters of particular interest include an interdisciplinary analysis of limits to adaptation within Zimbabwe (6) and perceived limits within the pastoral communities in the Sahel (7).

A novel conceptualization of psychological limits takes the definition beyond environmental and into the realm of socially constructed risks (12), and analysis within small island developing states brings awareness to the interdisciplinary nature of limits (15). The last section is particularly crucial and emphasizes current, ongoing limits to adaptation within highly vulnerable Pacific island-states and atolls. Each chapter succeeds in broadening the IPCC’s definition and recognizes the complex factors comprising limits to adaptation. The broadly regional organization of the book suggests that limits can be defined on large scales; however, there are strong cultural differences between countries within each defined region that undoubtedly impact limits. The organization of the book would have benefited from a narrowing of scope (i.e., Southeast Asia, Central Africa) to prevent overgeneralization. Organization aside, the book far exceeds the IPCC’s call for a broader definition of limits. Filho and Nalau have presented a guidepost illuminating limits to adaptation in the most vulnerable parts of our world. The book is at its best when it makes regional climate adaptation science almost visceral. The imagery of the loss of cattle in pastoralist communities in a rainstorm brings the regional focus to a very human scale, evoking an earnest emotional response in the reader and conveying the seriousness of the climate crisis.

Dec 5 2014


Reviewed by Jessica Gordon, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Framing resilience properly could lead to radical institutional reforms

Managing Adaptation to Climate Risk: Beyond Fragmented Responses, by Geoff O’Brien and Phil O’Keefe, Routledge, 2014

Managing Adaptation to Climate Risk provides a critical analysis of development, adaptation and disaster management, arguing for the importance of resilience as a means of connecting these siloed fields and developing a people-centred response to extreme events, which the authors see as the primary climate risk of concern. The book, to its credit, criticizes the various uses of resilience, recognizing that the term can lead to the abdication of political responsibility and the continuation of the status quo. The authors instead call for a framing of resilience that could lead to radical institutional change in the relationship between people and the environment, refocusing the discussion where sustainability has failed.  The authors make clear that their argument is grounded in a critique of capitalism and the neoliberal project, which has produced poverty, inequality and increased vulnerability. At the heart of the book is the assumption that humans can adapt and learn in times of stress, which we are currently facing given the urgency of climate change.

Written in clear and accessible language and filled with examples, the book is a useful text for newcomers to the topics discussed. The sections include detailed historical analyses and a literature review with helpful diagrams and tables.  The chapters feel a bit fragmented and certainly could be read separately. The final chapter links resilience to social capital and social learning, a refreshing addition to the argument, demonstrating how new ways of thinking and learning can support transformational change. In the end, the book calls for reform of governance and institutions, driven by proactive bottom-up processes and a concern about equity. This is a welcome thought, but it seems like a big mouthful for resilience to chew.

Dec 5 2014


Reviewed by Daniel Gallagher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

 A timely call for scholars of urban planning and coastal systems to join forces 

Megacities and the Coast: Risk, Resilience and Transformation, by Mark Pelling and Sophie Blackburn, Routledge, 2013

In their introduction to Megacities and the Coast, Mark Pelling and Sophie Blackburn argue that the lack of focus at the interface of megacities and coastal systems is a dangerous gap in scholarship. This edited volume responds to this gap through a comprehensive synthesis of an international study involving over 60 contributing authors from the environmental sciences, disaster risk management, urban governance, and climate adaptation.

The report explores the definitional challenge of identifying coastal megacities, and locates 23 such cities across five continents. It provides a comprehensive tour of the societal and environmental impacts of urban growth, pointing to strong existing research on earth sub-systems. Where more study is required, they argue, is on integrated, system-level research that captures the dynamic feedback between natural and social systems.

Of most value to policymakers and scholars of urban planning will be the report’s discussion on risk governance.  Drawing on empirical study of disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation, it shows how scholarship must move beyond the universalistic ‘good governance’ discourse to recognize that municipal government autonomy varies hugely with local politics and social networks. The authors argue convincingly that scholars of urban planning and coastal management ought to pursue more joined-up research that recognizes the co-evolution of political, economic and physical systems.

The scholarly argument is complemented by seven case studies of coastal megacities. Although brief, the case studies stay true to the joined-up perspective that the report calls for by stressing the particularities of political economy and context in which public policy responses are formed.

At a time when megacities continue to grapple with long-standing socio-economic issues and the added stresses of disasters and climate change, this volume will be of immense value to scholars of urban planning and coastal systems who seek to undertake cross-disciplinary research at the important intersection between their disciplines.