The Coming Lexicon Challenge: ‘Climate Adaptation’ – Saying What We Mean
Steve Adams, University of Oregon, analyzes the evolution of certain words related to climate change including "adaptation," "adaption,"resilience" and more. He explains why certain professionals are advocating that "climate preparedness" is the best way to communicate our need to address climate change and emphasizes that regardless of which words or phrases become popular, language is important.
Posted April 8, 2010
By Steve Adams, The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media
As the ‘Climategate’ controversy has sent the science and policy
community back to the communications drawing board, it’s a good time to
return to earlier works on global climate change, or if you like, global
warming, or the greenhouse effect, or even the carbon dioxide problem.
The reasons for inaction at the national and international levels are
many and complex, but certainly challenges with the language used have
contributed to the political deadlock. The situation has implications
for how we move forward in the necessary task that our inaction makes
more urgent each day: climate change adaptation.
In an excellent social history of the concept, Susanne Moser has
demonstrated that 2007 marked the first real breakthrough for coverage
of adaptation in mainstream U.S. media coverage, prompted by publication
of the Fourth Assessment
Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. By
searching Lexis-Nexis on the terms adaptation and adapting,
Moser documented a four-fold increase in reporting from the previous
year of 2006.
Adaptation No Longer a Dirty Word
The same factors that drove increased media attention – recognition
that climate systems may be more sensitive than previously understood
and that climatic impacts are happening already – also led to increased
awareness in the climate policy agenda. Long subordinated to the
prevailing focus on emission reduction (or mitigation in climate
parlance), adaptation policy emerged as an important issue in its own
right. No longer were those advocating for attention to adaptation
considered defeatists with an agenda that risked undermining efforts to
secure aggressive emission reductions.
In 2010, local and state governments across the country are
initiating adaptation action planning. Adaptation features prominently
in the Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House in 2009 and also in
various bills introduced in the Senate. Not waiting for Congress,
several Executive Branch agencies have been focusing on adaptation
issues, and the Council on Environmental Quality, in the White House, is
working to coordinate those efforts across the federal government under
the aegis of an October 2009 executive order.
So now that the jargon is loose in the media, it’s worth examining
the subtle connotations that the term adaptation contains. This task is
complicated by the multiple definitions found in the technical
literature. In a 2006 analysis
of the lexicon, Office of Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) staff noted four distinct definitions of adaptation in use by
major international climate bodies. Today, most have adopted the
original IPCC definition:
Adaptation – Adjustment in natural or
human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or
their effects, which moderates harm or exploits beneficial
opportunities. Various types of adaptation can be distinguished,
including anticipatory and reactive adaptation, private and public
adaptation, and autonomous and planned adaptation
For insight into what adaptation is popularly understood to mean,
consider the definition of the term from Merriam-Webster’s online
Adaptation – adjustment to environmental
conditions: as a: adjustment of a sense organ to the intensity or
quality of stimulation b: modification of an organism or its parts that
makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment
The adaptation described here resonates with anyone having sat
through high school biology – it connotes a slow change over time and
one driven in response to change as it happens or even after the fact.
Yet in practice, adaptation policy involves specific actions or
strategies that are primarily proactive in nature. When we speak of the
importance of climate adaptation, are we suggesting proactive or
reactive action? I’m not sure we know.
‘Resilience’ … Can It Work in Actual Practice?
Resilience is increasingly used to describe the state to which we
aspire – social and natural systems able to withstand climate impacts
without a qualitative shift to a new, and presumably, less desirable
state. For many, this terminology works beautifully in theory, but can
it perform in practice? And what if resilience turns out to be as
problematic a concept as sustainability has proven to be? It’s not at
all clear that resilience for many will connote proactive action. Would
someone on the street really know what this means, and appreciate the
actions entailed to achieve it?
So how should the hard choices we now confront be communicated?
Borrowing from the national defense and disaster response lexicons, Anne
Polansky of Climate Science Watch and colleagues here at the University
of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative have independently proposed
They may be onto something. Consider the common meanings:
Preparation – the action or process of
making something ready for use or service or of getting ready for some
occasion, test, or duty
Preparedness – the quality or state of
Climate preparedness connotes conscious effort and proactive steps to
anticipate and consciously build for the range of climate
change-induced stresses that are already occurring and that can be
reasonably expected in years ahead. This terminology builds common
ground with the disaster response community, which itself will play key
roles in developing and implementing responses to climate change.
Cara Pike at the University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative
is organizing a research program to assess how best to communicate the
issue of climate adaptation. A preliminary finding from Pike’s previous
research suggests that climate preparedness resonates more
effectively with the public than climate adaptation, but more research
is needed. Her work will replace the suppositions outlined here with
Communications professionals and others working in this area of
climate policy often emphasize the difficulty of getting public
officials to proactively plan for climate change impacts. This
observation is often met with calls for more advanced modeling tools and
better presentations of the results. It’s clear that decision support
tools need additional work, but a decidedly low-tech solution may also
include a simple examination of the words used in describing the work
that’s to be done.
The Stakes are High: The Words Matter
No matter what the best language turns out to be – adaptation,
resiliency or preparedness – we’ll no doubt see another round in the
lexicon wars that have tortured the climate debate for years. The
reasons are obvious: Adaptation will require the expenditure of
political and financial capital. There will be winners and losers –
just the sort of environment in which political strategists and spin
Those calling for proactive climate policies – emission reductions
and adaptation in the face of the impacts of the greenhouse effect –
will be well advised to consider how best to say what they mean.
Given the challenges society faces in confronting a changing climate,
we can only hope that they will also mean what they say.
Steve Adams is the Director of Adaptation & Climate Preparedness
at the University of Oregon’s Climate Leadership Initiative. He has
worked on climate change, energy, environmental and resource management
issues for more than 15 years in state and federal government service.
(Email: [email protected])