Adapting to Climate Change: Can Human Geographers PLAN for it?

By Karen O’Brien, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Human Geography

Climate change is becoming a “hot” issue. This is reflected not only in increasing media coverage, but also by more attention paid to climate change by politicians and decision-makers. One does not have to read through all of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports to recognize that the climate is changing, seemingly faster than many scientists had anticipated. And one does not need an advanced degree in physics to understand that we are likely to experience continued changes over the next decades--regardless of today’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gases--due to the long residence time of these gases in the atmosphere. While climate change mitigation efforts are urgently needed to reduce the rate and magnitude of future change, it is increasingly clear that climate change adaptation will also be an increasingly important response to climate change. This is true for both developed and developing countries alike.

Norway is one country that is likely to experience dramatic changes linked to climate change, including higher temperatures, changes in rainfall, and rising sea levels. Many assume that as a resource-rich country, Norway will be able to successfully adapt to both the positive and negative effects of climate change. However, regardless of the accessibility and affordability of new technologies, adaptation is a social process that is likely to be influenced by differential interests, values, preferences, priorities, resources and power. All of these factors may change in response to ongoing societal transformations, thus the capacity to adapt can be considered highly dynamic. Some important questions for research include: “How will adaptation occur, who will adapt and who will not adapt, and what are the limits to adaptation as a response to climate change?”

These questions will not be answered by climate models or impact studies, but by social science research. The Department of Sociology and Human Geography (ISS) has recently received funding from the Research Council of Norway’s NORKLIMA program to conduct a four-year study on “The Potentials of and Limits to Adaptation in Norway (PLAN)”. PLAN is a large, coordinated social science-based research project that analyzes the potentials of and limits to adaptation as a response to climate change in Norway. The research project will be carried out in collaboration with the Universities of Bergen and Tromsø, CICERO, NIBR, FNI, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, as well as international partners. The goal is to develop an empirical and theoretical understanding of adaptation as a social process, with an emphasis on its potential to reduce negative impacts and realize the potential benefits of climate change. The project will also contribute to a relatively new discourse on the societal limits to adaptation as an effective response to climate change.

The PLAN project considers how Norway’s potentially high capacity to adapt to climate change—whether through infrastructural, technological, institutional or behavioural changes—differs across communities that are embedded in different and dynamic biophysical and social contexts. It emphasizes the ways that competing interests, objectives and priorities, differing values, unequal power relations, and policy planning processes may constrain or facilitate adaptation at national, individual, and community levels. The PLAN project will also develop a web-based interactive geographic information system (GIS) that integrates information on climate change impacts, vulnerability and adaptive capacity to enable actors and agents in Norway to assess the implications of climate change for their own communities, and plan for a “well-adapted” future.

The PLAN project has the goal of building expertise and developing an active adaptation research community within Norway. PLAN is organized as a large, integrated project consisting of six sub-projects, three of directly involve the University of Oslo:

  1. The Process of Local Adaptation: Institutional Learning, Networks and Local Knowledge aims to identify how social learning, information flows, formation of networks and generation of local knowledge take place as part of the process of adaptation. This project is led by Siri Eriksen at the University of Oslo.
  2. Assessing the Limits to Adaptation and Consequences for Human Security looks at how the limits to adaptation as a social process can be measured and assessed to take into account different values, interests, prioritized outcomes and resources across individuals and communities. This project involves the University of Oslo and University of Tromsø, as well as collaborators at the Tyndall Centre or Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom.
  3. An Integrated Geographic Information System for Assessing Climate Change Impacts and Adaptive Capacity in Norway. This project aims to develop a GIS-based tool that identifies projected physical impacts of climate change, while also directing attention to the underlying social and economic conditions that influence vulnerability and adaptive capacity. It will be carried out in collaboration with the University of Bergen, the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in the United States.

Up until now, climate change has been considered an environmental problem—an issue to be managed by environmental ministries and NGOs. Much of the research funding for climate change has been directed towards understanding the complexities of the Earth System, modelling climate change and its impacts, and assessing the biophysical consequences. Much less research funding has been directed towards understanding what climate change means for society—particularly how different values, competing interests, power relations, local knowledge, and differential capacities influence the capacity to respond to climate change, both through mitigation or adaptation. Nevertheless, the framing of climate change as an environmental issue is likely to change in the coming years, as it becomes more and more evident that climate change is first and foremost a social issue with widespread implications for human security.

Climate change challenges society to address issues related to equity, ethics, economic development, political power and human rights. Human geographers must rise to meet this challenge by playing a more visible role in both research and policy. The PLAN project emphasizes capacity building among younger scholars, and seeks to create an active environment for masters students to carry out research in this field. For human geographers that are interested in social science perspectives on climate change, more information is available through the GECHS International Project Office, and on the PLAN project web site:


Originally published in Samfunnsgeografen: Tidsskrift for Samfunnsgeografi, nr 1-2007

Published Sep. 25, 2010 9:51 AM