Reviewed by Mahdu Dutter-Kohler, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Adaptation to Climate Change: From Resilience to Transformation, by Mark Pelling, Routledge, 203pp

In this work, Mark Pelling goes beyond mere examination of the often-myopic defensive strategies to combating climate change in order to understand how human development is being shaped by its impacts. Embedded in a comprehensive socio-political analysis, Pelling’s work examines the interrelationships among the political and cultural norms of a society and its adaptation efforts. Drawing upon a range of perspectives, from organizations to urban governance to state politics, Pelling argues that in order to make significant reductions in human vulnerabilities to environmental risks, we first and foremost must understand the multifaceted social dimensions of climate change.

The book offers a flexible yet robust framework, anchored in what Pelling describes as the “the three visions of adaptation,” which serves as a useful backdrop within which adaptation options can be more comprehensively evaluated. These “visions”—resilience, transition and transformation—differ in their “levels of engagement with specific social systems.” In his explication, resilience corresponds to the most limited of the categories of adaptive actions, while transition, likewise incremental in nature, refers to a situation in which the engagement of the governance regimes has the intent of assuming “full rights and responsibilities” for action “rather than making changes in the regime.” He positions transformation, which he describes as the “deepest level of engagement,” in socio-political, economic, cultural, and developmental discourses; this vision comprehensively addresses overall security and risk related to climate change.

One of the most useful contributions of this book is its take on the new thematic strain, coined as “transformational adaptation,” which has recently emerged in the climate change literature. Transformational adaptation until now has best been viewed as a meta-theory rather than as a set of concrete guidelines for the planning of climate change adaptation. Pelling examines the practical utility of the approach to further this idea. He argues that, for lasting and truly effective climate adaptation to occur, it has to be implemented across geographic and causal lines; piecemeal, localized efforts are thus ineffectual in the longer run. This approach to “adaptation at scale” rests on the premise that, in order to make a palpable difference in situations of grave vulnerability, rapid, systemic, broad-based actions are required to produce significant amelioration of the effects of climate change.

Pelling’s book provides a comprehensive overview of the existing adaptation frameworks and their theoretical underpinnings while attempting to explicate the gaps among them. Through a series of in-depth hypothetical and empirical examples, supported by three detailed case-study chapters, Dr. Pelling analyzes a range of adaptive actions across different scales, from grassroots farmers’ movements to national policies, both in the developed and developing contexts.  In his conclusions, Pelling proposes useful methods for applying his framework in practice and identifies specific sites and levels of intervention for adaptive action contingent upon the social contexts. Pelling’s work represents a compelling contribution to the discourse surrounding the cultural, social, and political environment within which climate change adaptation occurs, while also offering useful insights for practitioners.

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