Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Changing social contracts in climate-change adaptation


Risks from extreme weather events are mediated through state, civil society and individual action1,2. We propose evolving social contracts as a primary mechanism by which adaptation to climate change proceeds. We use a natural experiment of policy and social contexts of the UK and Ireland affected by the same meteorological event and resultant flooding in November 2009. We analyse data from policy documents and from household surveys of 356 residents in western Ireland and northwest England. We find significant differences between perceptions of individual responsibility for protection across the jurisdictions and between perceptions of future risk from populations directly affected by flooding events. These explain differences in stated willingness to take individual adaptive actions when state support retrenches. We therefore show that expectations for state protection are critical in mediating impacts and promoting longer-term adaptation. We argue that making social contracts explicit may smooth pathways to effective and legitimate adaptation.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Impact of flood experience across Galway (Ireland) and Cumbria (England) on perceptions of responsibility, risk and motivations for adaptation.


  1. 1

    O’Brien, K., Hayward, B. & Berkes, F. Rethinking social contracts: Building resilience in a changing climate. Ecol. Soc. 14, 12 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Adger, W. N. et al. Are there social limits to adaptation to climate change? Climatic Change 93, 335–354 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    IPCC Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation: Summary for Policymakers (eds Field, C. B. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012).

  4. 4

    Johnson, C. L., Tunstall, S. M. & Penning-Rowsell, E. C. Floods as catalysts for policy change: Historical lessons from England and Wales. Wat. Res. Dev. 21, 561–575 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    O’Brien, K. Global environmental change II: From adaptation to deliberate transformation. Prog. Human Geogr. 36, 667–676 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Dryzek, J. S. et al. Environmental transformation of the state: The USA, Norway, Germany and the UK. Polit. Stud. 50, 659–682 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Weale, A. New modes of governance, political accountability and public reason. Gov. Oppos. 46, 58–80 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Pelling, M. Adaptation to Climate Change: From Resilience to Transformation (Routledge, 2011).

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Kates, R. W., Travis, W. R. & Wilbanks, T. J. Transformational adaptation when incremental adaptations to climate change are insufficient. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 7156–7161 (2012).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Park, S. E. et al. Informing adaptation responses to climate change through theories of transformation. Glob. Environ. Change 22, 115–126 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    O’Brien, K. et al. in Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (eds Field, C. B. et al.) 437–486 (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    De Sherbinin, A. et al. Preparing for resettlement associated with climate change. Science 334, 456–457 (2011).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Few, R., Brown, K. & Tompkins, E. Climate change and coastal management decisions: Insights from Christchurch Bay, UK. Coast. Manag. 35, 255–270 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Pelling, M. & Dill, K. Disaster politics: Tipping points for change in the adaptation of sociopolitical regimes. Prog. Human Geogr. 34, 21–37 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Tapsell, S. M., Penning-Rowsell, E. C., Tunstall, S. M. & Wilson, T. L. Vulnerability to flooding: Health and social dimensions. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 360, 1511–1525 (2002).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Walker, G. & Burningham, K. Flood risk, vulnerability and environmental justice: Evidence and evaluation of inequality in a UK context. Crit. Soc. Policy 31, 216–240 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Harvatt, J., Petts, J. & Chilvers, J. Understanding householder responses to natural hazards: Flooding and sea-level rise comparisons. J. Risk Res. 14, 63–83 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Whitmarsh, L. Are flood victims more concerned about climate change than other people? The role of direct experience in risk perception and behavioural response. J. Risk Res. 11, 351–374 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Lavers, D. A. et al. Winter floods in Britain are connected to atmospheric rivers. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L23803 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Walsh, S. Report on Rainfall of November 2009 Climatological Note No. 12 (Met Éireann, 2010); available via

  21. 21

    Miller, J. D., Kjeldsen, T. R., Hannaford, J. & Morris, D. G. A hydrological assessment of the November 2009 floods in Cumbria, UK Hydrol. Res. (in the press, 2012); available at

  22. 22

    HydroEnvironmental Ltd. Ballinasloe Flood Relief Study Report No. 628-v1.3 (HydroEnvironmental, 2010).

  23. 23

    Cahill, A. Flooding victims take compensation case to Europe The Irish Examiner (14 April 2011); available at

  24. 24

    Jeffers, J. M. The Cork City flood of November 2009: Lessons for flood risk management and climate change adaptation at the urban scale. Irish Geogr. 44, 61–80 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Riding, K. The Role of the Third sector in Helping Communities in Cumbria Recover from the November 2009 Floods (Cumbria Voluntary Services, 2012).

  26. 26

    Pitt, M. The Pitt Review: Lessons Learned from the 2007 Floods (Cabinet Office, London, 2008); available via

  27. 27

    Johnson, C. L. & Priest, S. J. Flood risk management in England: A changing landscape of risk responsibility? Int. J. Wat. Res. Dev. 24, 513–525 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Harries, T. & Penning-Rowsell, E. Victim pressure, institutional inertia and climate change adaptation: The case of flood risk. Glob. Environ. Change 21, 188–197 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Pryce, G., Chen, Y. & Galster, G. The impact of floods on house prices: An imperfect information approach with myopia and amnesia. Housing Stud. 26, 259–279 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Coumou, D. & Rahmstorf, S. A decade of weather extremes. Nature Clim. Change 2, 491–496 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank S. Harrigan and S. Keogh for research assistance; the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research for financial support; and S. O’Neill, P. Devine-Wright, M. Boyle and R. Kitchin for constructive comments. This version remains our own responsibility.

Author information




W.N.A. and I.L. conceived the study. W.N.A., I.L., T.Q. C.M. and J.S. designed the study. C.M. and T.Q. implemented the survey. All authors contributed to writing the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to W. Neil Adger.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Adger, W., Quinn, T., Lorenzoni, I. et al. Changing social contracts in climate-change adaptation. Nature Clim Change 3, 330–333 (2013).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing