There have been persistent impediments to the attainment of considerable milestones in mitigating greenhouse gas emission. The hindrances make it likely that climate change will occur on a large scale and bring irreversible consequences. The development of a robust conceptual framework for the limits to adaptation, which is informed by valid and reliable theoretical constructs, is urgent. Understanding the risks facing climate change objectives requires the appreciation of the capacity of various actors to adapt. In addition, integrating risk-based approaches to adaptation and its attendant limits requires clarity on what constitutes an adaptation limit.
An adaptation limit as the point at which it is not possible to secure an actor’s objectives for climate change response against excessive risks using adaptive initiatives. Two essential elements frame the factors limiting adaptation in the perspective of the risks facing the objectives that actors pursue. The first element places a focus on the perspectives of the actors in the initiatives meant to manage climate change, which could comprise a variety of objectives, such as, for instance, the availability of safe water for drinking. The second element highlights the conceptual basis of what is termed intolerable risk. Some of the most difficult aspects of risk governance include delineating excessive risks from tolerable ones and distinguishing acceptable risks from tolerable risks.
What is deemed intolerable depends on the actors and has a relation to the material aspects of a particular risk, as well as the risk’s perceptions that have been shaped by cultural and individual factors. The judgments on what constitutes risks to climate change and global warming exist at all societal levels. The negotiation of risk framing and evaluation occurs through many processes that span the decisions made at the individual and household level, public participation conventions, hearings at regulatory proceedings and legislative action. The concept of adaptation limits is evident when we consider the potential limits to the cultivating a staple crop in the South Asian region.
The threshold night temperature for rice to flower and pollinate stands at 26 degrees Celsius, and for each additional degree Celsius, the yield declines by 10%. Empirical evidence shows that at temperatures of 32-35 degrees Celsius, there is an absolute limit to pollination; as the South Asian region experiences further warming, projections indicate that such conditions will increase going forward. At the level of the South Asian rice farmers, the capacity for cultivating rice to consume, and sell, comprises the valued objective. At the country level, the objective is the development of the ability for cultivating rice to ensure food security and enhance the volume of exports.
The risks that cannot be tolerated include the loss of the farmers’ livelihoods and a decline in the safety of the staple crop’s supply. As such, the lack of capacity to breed varieties of rice that pollinate and flower at night temperatures exceeding the 32-35 degrees Celsius range, and the absence of practical options for overcoming this limit, constitute threats to integral objectives at the individual and country levels. In the comprehensive set of circumstances, there is going to be a higher probability of rice harvest failures in the future, which will also be the case for the resulting socio-economic and cultural effects.
The socio-economic and cultural effects of rice harvest failures would create a context in which all stakeholders would start considering alternatives to rice farming or the current locations in which rice farming takes place, which, in turn, has the potential to cause enormous economic losses. When stakeholders are defining an adaptation limit, it is important to consider the losses that can result at the limit regarding their nature, the probability of occurrence and scale. Losses can be tangible as much as they can be intangible; they can also be economic, physical or cultural. In addition, the losses can typically be enormous and with the potential to bring about a catastrophe for the relevant actor.
At low levels, losses can be deemed tolerable damages that occur after adaptation. In most cases, adapting to ensure that risk remains within a tolerable limit may imply accepting some residual risk, which makes some losses appear as tolerable. At an adaptation limit, there is a threshold beyond which a relevant actor faces unmediated risks and losses, which can give rise to extreme levels. After attaining a limit, actors do not have practical options for adaptation; neither can they resort to adequate measures of adaptive effort that are necessary for securing the valued objectives.
Thus, a limit is that point at which the acceptance of intolerable risks to valued objectives is inevitable, and it becomes necessary to stop pursuing the said objective; if one cannot relinquish a target, some radical transformation is needed if one has to succeed in avoiding the unacceptable risk. In the case of the South Asian rice farmers, these options would imply: farmers have to accept a high probability of crop failure; there should be a switch to an alternative crop, or rice farming has to be displaced to other regions. Integrating risk into how adaptation limits are also framed adds a dynamism that has been lacking in the past.
A common approach has entailed the framing of adaptation limits as static thresholds. For instance, biophysical tipping points, which have exemplified adaptation limits, are considered a representation of critical thresholds whose breaching will overwhelm the attempts aimed at ensuring societal adaptation. There is a need to integrate biophysical limits to adaptation into a socio-ecological paradigm; the values and perception of the society, as argued before, influence what is considered an insupportable risk, and, by extension, what constitutes an adaptation limit. Considering that values and perceptions are not static, adaptation limits are also likely to shift. One implication of this dynamic perspective is that limits cannot remain static over an extended period, which may make them mutable.
The valued objectives of the initiatives meant to manage the effects of climate change that people secure through adaptation are socially constructed, just as the perceptions of the risks posing a threat to the valued objectives are. Over time, we are likely to witness changes to what people value and the ability to secure the valued objectives. Cultural change, economic welfare changes, and the interactions between the later and the former have a significant influence on social values. Overall, a risk-based approach to analyzing the limits to adapting to the risks posed by climate change is important in enhancing the understanding of how various climate-related risks influence current social values and objectives, which will help solve policy challenges in managing the effects of climate change.