Is climate adaptation a science?

This is my pet topic, it has been ever since I started my PhD in 2009 and dived head on  into the world of climate change adaptation.

I identify as an adaptation scientist much to the dismay of some as there is an on-going debate as to whether climate change adaptation is simply a topic of interest, an actual discipline, or a discipline about to turn into a science.

The debate often divides people into two camps:

On the one hand, there are those who argue that pure focus on adaptation leads to a narrow self-referencing scientific community who ignores most of the lessons already learned from other disciplines.

On the other, there are those who argue that climate adaptation is evolving into its own discipline and/or science that draws upon the richness of other disciplines while still developing its own theory and practice.

For those outside of this field this following discussion might seem trivial and unnecessary. But for those of us who research and work in climate change adaptation it is an issue that seems to divide people. People even get quite emotional about it although often in the end they say it doesn’t really matter.

But, it does.

It does because the way we define something also influences on how we think it should be approached, which methodologies and theories should be used, which assessments are most reliable, and who has authority to make claims in this particular area.

The next generation of adaptation scholars is growing up right now

During my PhD I co-authored a commentary with five other early career researchers on the kinds of issues that climate change adaptation as a field of study is facing, how to take some of these issues forward, and what that means for the development of the field.

In our piece, “ Climate adaptation research for the next generation”, one of the core questions we posed was “How much knowledge specific to adaptation does one need in order to contribute to the field and what should the balance be?”

The answers to this question are still very relevant because the answer that we each give clearly signals also the way we think about climate adaptation, and what it means to truly “know the field”.

I ended up arguing about our statements with more senior people who did their studies at a time when climate change adaptation did not even exist as a separate issue for study.

For them, it is easy to argue that climate change adaptation is just a new lens that we now use to study social science issues, and that we should ground our work in existing disciplines and not purely on climate change adaptation as this is not a discipline.

That viewpoint is certainly alive but, however, history.

Climate adaptation now has its specific conferences, forums, journals, university courses and networks and we have seen the emergence of adaptation ‘experts’. As Dovers and Hezri noted in 2010, climate adaptation has evolved into its own epistemic community.

More recently, Saleemul Huq also noted the following: “There may not be an adaptation science yet…but there is certainly one in the making and in five to 10 years from now there will be a body of knowledge specific to climate adaptation”.

This relates to what it means to “grow up” in a scientific sense in the realm of climate change adaptation. My co-authors and I all did our PhDs more or less grounded in climate adaptation while we drew upon many different disciplines.

But we all shared a somewhat common understanding of climate adaptation, its strengths and weaknesses and theoretical underpinnings because we had been following the field and had an understanding of its history.

The need for consolidation  

Given the prominence of climate adaptation for research and policy and increased available finance, we are seeing increasingly people entering the field and the emergence of adaptation specific expertise.

Yet, we lack in many ways the global consolidation of the field, acceptance and agreement of the common methodologies and frameworks, and what qualifies as expertise in this new field.

Don’t get me wrong, we definitely do not lack frameworks since every new project, organisation, and program comes up with its own framework for climate adaptation that then drives project outcomes and research outputs.

This is in fact a major frustration that I have encountered many times from stakeholders in the Pacific Islands where the array of different climate adaptation frameworks and methodologies sometimes seems confusing.

Simultaneously the Paris Agreement has as one of its goals “global adaptation goal” that then needs to be measured and tracked, making adaptation a very much global issue.

So the question is: how do we consolidate a field that is forming, and consists of many different strands of knowledge, experiences, policy agendas, and a mix of global-local scales? And how do we validate adaptation expertise?

How to consolidate the field: Concise guidance on climate adaptation

For many who enter this field, whether as a scientist or practitioner, it can be overwhelming trying to grasp what climate change adaptation is. In this learning process it is essential that there would be common guidance to explain which are the key foundational papers in climate adaptation and how these have shaped the field.

One good example of this is Lisa Schipper’s and Ian Burton’s Reader for Adaptation to Climate Change which has collated major papers in the field, and provides so to say history of many of the core ideas that are still used in the field. Many of these foundational papers are highly cited and still pop up in reference lists in even recent papers.

There is also PROVIA guidance on how to assess Vulnerability, Impacts and Adaptation that provides guidance for academics, policymakers and alike on the most commonly used methodologies and tools available. One of the very reasons for the guidance has been in fact the increasing number of available tools and methodologies leading to confusion what works and where.

A new Global Centre of Excellence for Climate Adaptation has also been established that is going to synthesise much of the available information on adaptation and provide consolidation of that information. Australia likewise has its National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility that has supported much of this synthesis and new research into what adaptation looks like in the Australian context.

These movements to me signal the process of recognition of climate adaptation as its own distinct sphere, whether as adaptation science or discipline.

What I am certain of is that there are more and more scholars and practitioners who are taking firm steps in becoming climate adaptation specialists and who will identify themselves more with this new discipline or science than any other area of study.

Time will tell what that science looks like but for now, my dream is that one day we do have a globally recognised robust adaptation science that has commonly accepted and tested methodologies, underpinning theory, degrees and curriculums, and certification of expertise for best practice.


There’s plenty of space for leadership here.


9 thoughts on “Is climate adaptation a science?”

  1. I find this topic interesting because studying climate as such, as discipline, it falls under natural science I believe. But, as climate change makes a negative impact on all of humanity it also is a social science as we have to either mitigate and certainly adapt too. I see both mitigation and adaptation as an intervention or a treatment of the consequence of climate change and yes, that makes it scientific for me.

    1. Hi Daniel, and thanks for your comment. That is an interesting perspective, many say that climate change is a science-based problem. In this post, I tried to flesh out some common arguments why climate adaptation in particular seems to be developing towards its own discipline although not yet a science necessarily. Would be great to hear more about your background and work.

      1. Hehehe the “science based problem” is actually exactly the difference between what people understand from almost incomprehensible problems and questions vs. scientist completely disconnected from the real world and have debates on an abstract level the majority of the people never will understand while they will be (disproportionately) hit by climate change.
        Anyway, I do like the topic too! More about me is in my gravatar, and now too on (still have to work on that one though)

      2. Hey Johanna,

        You’re very welcome! You know? This “science-based problem” is exactly what triggers something in me. To me it shows the divide between the people in real life who impossibly can comprehend this huge topic of climate change and global warming on the one hand, and on the other the scientist who talk so abstract about it among each other and scholars and policy makers that the majority of the people never will understand…

        So, yes, I do agree with you that a definition implies how an object/subject is dealt with and in that way it is important. However, climate change impacts 7 billion people and if all scientist also give attention to the same 7 billion, more awareness is created with quicker solutions (besides going to Mars).

        You can read more about me on my blog,, and (which still needs work) and my gravatar also gives more explanation 🙂

        I do want to work with pro-poor solutions giving people climate resilient solutions. Either directly or through policy advice to (local) governments, but, that’s future objectives 🙂

  2. Hi Johana. Thank you for this interesting piece! Although I would agree with some of your arguments, I still think scholars interested in adaptation research borrow and combine methods and theoretical frameworks from other disciplines, but therefore it is not a discipline of its own. It certainly encourages interdisciplinary studies in a way that other focus research doesn’t and this may mean the results from adaptation studies are quite unique. But I don’t think there is enough there to call it a science. The key weaknesses: applications in adaptation are not rigorous enough and there is not enough replication for testing certain theories (or findings being turned into theory). Would be great to have a chat on this at adaptation futures this year actually!

    1. Hi Laura, thanks for your comments and you are spot on that much of what we have for now is not yet rigorous enough to be classified as a science. Yet, I would still argue that we are seeing a formation period of a discipline during which many multiple paradigms exist. The consolidation is somewhat underway, I would lean towards what Saleemul has said regarding that we do not have yet an adaptation science but likely in the future. Happy to have further chats in Adaptation Futures and even before, am really interested in how scientific disciplines evolve and develop and what that means for our field in particular.

  3. It’s hard to see any reason for debate about referring to “adaptation science” or the “science of adaptation”, as this simply refers to the systematic study of adaptation processes. Adaptation as a science is quite distinct however from adaptation as a discipline. The former is focused on a process of investigation while the latter is simply a form of classification, albeit a crude one. Conserving disciplines, rather than adding new ones at will, can be helpful for classification purposes. Moreover it seems quite fair to argue that adaptation science is informed by multiple disciplinary perspectives. What is less clear is whether that interdisciplinarity sums up to more than its parts. But do we need to resolve such academic debates in order to get on with adapting? If we call adaptation a discipline, how does that change how we think about the problem?

    1. Hi Ben, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. To me, there are a few points that make this an interesting and important exercise to undertake: if we have a better understanding of climate adaptation for example as a discipline, we will eventually have more robust commonly tested and accepted methods to study and enable adaptation. We don’t have to solve this in order to adapt, but in many ways if we did then I would argue that the frameworks and methods we use could be consolidated into a more robust accepted set within that discipline. Right now we have a situation where anything goes, anyone can claim expertise in climate adaptation because we do not have the necessary qualifications or certification processes to measure that expertise. From academic and education perspective, if we accept climate adaptation as a discipline, this will result (and is resulting already) in discipline specific degrees, specific courses, best practice, and shared understanding. I think what we are seeing is an evolving process of scientific disciplinary development, which hopefully will sum up to more than its parts.

      1. Really interesting points Ben, Thank you!

        I don´t thing these are mutually exclusive things: we can get on with adapting while reflecting on these more theoretical debates that help to sustain why certain approaches to understand (and act on) adaptation are better / more grounded than others.

        This does make me start to reflect on how this compares to research on complex issues that require multidisciplinary approaches; say, for example sustainability. Are we now talking of sustainability science too for example? Isn´t adaptation / sustainability the focus of a problem that draws on so many different theoretical and methodological approaches to enrich our level of understanding of that problem? I do think the whole is more than the sum of its parts, but mainly because of what the issue is, that is driving new lines for enquiry and helping us better understand, for example, the interdependencies of SES.

        Regarding the need of climate adaptation specific expertise – I think the problem here is that climate change is such a cross cutting issue: you need courses on climate change across many disciplines to form the next generation of doctors, engineers, social workers, etc. Advocating adaptation as its own discipline could be counterproductive, strengthening a silo. It´s already bad enough the lack of synergies between adaptation and mitigation, because even within the area of climate action we have been able to ground a ver strong divide.

        I do think there is certainly a need for consolidating robust adaptation approaches and to develop ways to accredit expertise in dealing with adaptation, because as you say Joanna, anyone can now claim this expertise without a real management of the underlying understanding of for example climate science. In the consulting world I have seen this so many times.

        Perhaps this is the type of task we should encourage the Global Centre of Excellence on Climate Adaptation to work on in future years?

Leave a Reply