Perspective | Published:

Building adaptive capacity to climate change in tropical coastal communities

Nature Climate Changevolume 8pages117123 (2018) | Download Citation


To minimize the impacts of climate change on human wellbeing, governments, development agencies, and civil society organizations have made substantial investments in improving people’s capacity to adapt to change. Yet to date, these investments have tended to focus on a very narrow understanding of adaptive capacity. Here, we propose an approach to build adaptive capacity across five domains: the assets that people can draw upon in times of need; the flexibility to change strategies; the ability to organize and act collectively; learning to recognize and respond to change; and the agency to determine whether to change or not.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


  1. 1.

    Cheung, W. W. L. et al Large-scale redistribution of maximum fisheries catch potential in the global ocean under climate change. Global Change Biol. 16, 24–35 (2010).Models how climate change is likely to impact global fisheries yields, highlighting how many tropical countries will suffer losses.

  2. 2.

    Sumaila, U. R., Cheung, W. W. L., Lam, V. W. Y., Pauly, D. & Herrick, S. Climate change impacts on the biophysics and economics of world fisheries. Nat. Clim. Change 1, 449–456 (2011).

  3. 3.

    Mora, C. et al. Suitable days for plant growth disappear under projected climate change: Potential human and biotic vulnerability. Plos Biology 13, e1002167 (2015).

  4. 4.

    Nicholls, R. J. & Cazenave, A. Sea-level rise and its impact on coastal zones. Science 328, 1517–1520 (2010).

  5. 5.

    Hughes, T. P. et al. Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals. Nature 543, 373–377 (2017).

  6. 6.

    Adger, W. N. Vulnerability. Global Environ. Change 16, 268–281 (2006).Synthesises current understanding about the concept of vulnerability.

  7. 7.

    Grothmann, T. & Patt, A. Adaptive capacity and human cognition: the process of individual adaptation to climate change. Global Environ. Change 15, 199–213 (2005).

  8. 8.

    Hinkel, J. “Indicators of vulnerability and adaptive capacity”: Towards a clarification of the science–policy interface. Global Environ. Change 21, 198–208 (2011).

  9. 9.

    Smit, B. & Wandel, J. Adaptation, adaptive capacity and vulnerability. Global Environ. Change 16, 282–292 (2006).

  10. 10.

    Yohe, G. & Tol, R. S. J. Indicators for social and economic coping capacity — moving toward a working definition of adaptive capacity. Global Environ. Change 12, 25–40 (2002).

  11. 11.

    Brown, K. & Westaway, E. Agency, capacity, and resilience to environmental change: Lessons from human development, well-being, and disasters. Ann. Rev. Environ. Res. 36, 321–342 (2011).

  12. 12.

    Coulthard, S. Can we be both resilient and well, and what choices do people have? Incorporating agency into the resilience debate from a fisheries perspective. Ecol. Soc. 17, 4 (2012).

  13. 13.

    Sen, A. Development as Freedom (Oxford Paperbacks, Oxford, 2001).

  14. 14.

    Bandura, A. Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current Directions Psychol. Sci. 9, 75–78 (2000).

  15. 15.

    Alkire, S. Subjective quantitative studies of human agency. Soc. Indicators Res. 74, 217–260 (2005).

  16. 16.

    Adger, W. N. Social capital, collective action, and adaptation to climate change. Econ. Geogr. 79, 387–404 (2003).

  17. 17.

    Pelling, M. & High, C. Understanding adaptation: what can social capital offer assessments of adaptive capacity? Global Environ. Change 15, 308–319 (2005).

  18. 18.

    Brooks, N., Adger, W. N. & Kelly, M. The determinants of vulnerability and adaptive capacity at the national level and the implications for adaptation. Global Environ. Change 15, 151–163 (2005).

  19. 19.

    Fenichel, E. P. et al. Wealth reallocation and sustainability under climate change. Nat. Clim. Change 6, 237–244 (2016).

  20. 20.

    Cinner, J. E. et al. Evaluating social and ecological vulnerability of coral reef fisheries to climate change. Plos One 8, e74321 (2013).

  21. 21.

    Pratchett, M. S. et al. Effects of climate-induced coral bleaching on coral-reef fishes — Ecological and economic consequences. Oceanogr. Marine Biol. 46, 251–296 (2008).

  22. 22.

    Adato, M., Carter, M. R. & May, J. Exploring poverty traps and social exclusion in South Africa using qualitative and quantitative data. J. Dev. Stud. 42, 226–247 (2006).

  23. 23.

    Badjeck, M.-C., Allison, E. H., Halls, A. S. & Dulvy, N. K. Impacts of climate variability and change on fishery-based livelihoods. Marine Policy 34, 375–383 (2010).

  24. 24.

    Barrett, C. & Carter, M. Can’t get ahead for falling behind: new directions for development policy to escape poverty and relief traps. Choices 17, 35–38 (2001).

  25. 25.

    Sen, A. Poverty and Famines: an Essay on Entitlements and Deprivation (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1981).

  26. 26.

    Ribot, J. C. & Peluso, N. L. A theory of access. Rural Sociol. 68, 153–181 (2003).

  27. 27.

    Allison, E. H. et al. Vulnerability of national economies to the impacts of climate change on fisheries. Fish Fish. 10, 173–196 (2009).

  28. 28.

    Cinner, J. E. Social-ecological traps in reef fisheries. Global Environ. Change 21, 835–839 (2011).

  29. 29.

    Njenga, P. & Davis, A. Drawing the road map to rural poverty reduction. Transport Rev. 23, 217–241 (2003).

  30. 30.

    Lemos, M. C., Lo, Y. J., Nelson, D. R., Eakin, H. & Bedran-Martins, A. M. Linking development to climate adaptation: Leveraging generic and specific capacities to reduce vulnerability to drought in NE Brazil. Global Environ. Change 39, 170–179 (2016).

  31. 31.

    Brewer, T., Cinner, J., Green, A. & Pandolfi, J. Thresholds and multiple scale interaction of environment, resource use, and market proximity on reef fishery resources in the Solomon Islands. Biol. Conservation 142, 1797–1807 (2009).

  32. 32.

    Ibisch, P. L. et al. A global map of roadless areas and their conservation status. Science 354, 1423–1427 (2016).

  33. 33.

    Folke, C., Hahn, T., Olsson, P. & Norberg, J. Adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. Ann. Rev. Environ Res. 30, 441–473 (2005).Reviews current understanding of social, organizational and institutional dimensions of adaptive social-ecological systems.

  34. 34.

    Bell, J. & Morrison, T. A comparative analysis of the transformation of governance systems: Land-use planning for flood risk. J. Environ. Policy Planning 17, 516–534 (2015).

  35. 35.

    Aguilera, S. E. et al. Managing small-scale commercial fisheries for adaptive capacity: Insights from dynamic social-ecological drivers of change in Monterey Bay. Plos One 10, e0118992 (2015).

  36. 36.

    Berkes, F., Colding, J. & Folke, C. Rediscovery of traditional ecological knowledge as adaptive management. Ecol. Appl. 10, 1251–1262 (2000).

  37. 37.

    Krishna, A. Pathways out of and into poverty in 36 villages of Andhra Pradesh, India. World Dev 34, 271–288 (2006).Documents poverty trap dynamics over time to show how households get entrapped in, and emerge from, poverty.

  38. 38.

    Sievanen, L., Crawford, B., Pollnac, R. & Lowe, C. Weeding through assumptions of livelihood approaches in ICM: Seaweed farming in the Philippines and Indonesia. Ocean Coastal Management 48, 297–313 (2005).

  39. 39.

    Cinner, J. E. & Bodin, O. Livelihood diversification in tropical coastal communities: A network-based approach to analyzing ‘Livelihood Landscapes’. Plos One 5, 8 (2010).

  40. 40.

    Cinner, J. E. et al. Gear-based fisheries management as a potential adaptive response to climate change and coral mortality. J. Appl. Ecol 46, 724–732 (2009).

  41. 41.

    Berkes, F. et al. Ecology — globalization, roving bandits, and marine resources. Science 311, 1557–1558 (2006).

  42. 42.

    Gelcich, S. et al. Navigating transformations in governance of Chilean marine coastal resources. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 16794–16799 (2010).

  43. 43.

    Adger, W. N., Kelly, P. M., Winkels, A., Huy, L. Q. & Locke, C. Migration, remittances, livelihood trajectories, and social resilience. Ambio 31, 358–366 (2002).

  44. 44.

    Szabo, S. et al. Soil salinity, household wealth and food insecurity in tropical deltas: evidence from south-west coast of Bangladesh. Sust. Sci. 11, 411–421 (2016).

  45. 45.

    Hill, N. A. O., Rowcliffe, J. M., Koldewey, H. J. & Milner-Gulland, E. J. The interaction between seaweed farming as an alternative occupation and fisher numbers in the Central Philippines. Conservation Biol. 26, 324–334 (2012).

  46. 46.

    Marshall, N. A. et al. A Framework for Social Adaptation to Climate Change: Sustaining Tropical Coastal Communitites and Industries (IUCN, Gland, 2010).

  47. 47.

    Smajgl, A. et al Responding to rising sea levels in the Mekong Delta. Nat. Clim. Change 5, 167–174 (2015).Identifies effective adaptation strategies according to an ensemble of soft and hard options.

  48. 48.

    Cohen, P. J. et al. Understanding adaptive capacity and capacity to innovate in social-ecological systems: Applying a gender lens. Ambio 45, S309–S321 (2016).

  49. 49.

    Krishna, A., Kritjanson, P., Radeny, M. & Nindo, W. Escaping poverty and becoming poor in 20 Kenyan villages. J. Human Dev. 5, 211–226 (2004).

  50. 50.

    Boko, M. et al. In Climate Change 2007: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (eds Parry, M. et al.) 433–467 (IPCC, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2007).

  51. 51.

    Pelling, M., High, C., Dearing, J. & Smith, D. Shadow spaces for social learning: a relational understanding of adaptive capacity to climate change within organisations. Environ. Planning A 40, 867–884 (2008).

  52. 52.

    Aldrich, D. P. Building Resilience: Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery (University of Chicago Press, Cambridge, 2012).

  53. 53.

    Barnes, M. L., Lynham, J., Kalberg, K. & Leung, P. Social networks and environmental outcomes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 6466–6471 (2016).

  54. 54.

    Barnes, M. L. et al. The social structural foundations of adaptation and transformation in social–ecological systems. Ecol. Soc. 22, 4 (2017).

  55. 55.

    Mathbor, G. M. Enhancement of community preparedness for natural disasters — The role of social work in building social capital for sustainable disaster relief and management. Int. Soc. Work 50, 357–369 (2007).

  56. 56.

    Ratner, B. D. et al. Governance of aquatic agricultural systems: Analyzing representation, power, and accountability. Ecol. Soc. 18, 59 (2013).

  57. 57.

    Granovetter, M. S. The strength of weak ties. Am. J. Sociol. 78, 1360–1380 (1973).

  58. 58.

    Putnam, R. D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001).

  59. 59.

    Wagner, C. L. & Fernandez-Gimenez, M. E. Does community-based collaborative resource management increase social capital? Soc. Nat. Res. 21, 324–344 (2008).

  60. 60.

    Barnes-Mauthe, M., Arita, S., Allen, S. D., Gray, S. A. & Leung, P. The influence of ethnic diversity on social network structure in a common-pool resource system: Implications for collaborative management. Ecol. Soc. 18, 23 (2013).

  61. 61.

    Tompkins, E. L. & Adger, W. N. Does adaptive management of natural resources enhance resilience to climate change? Ecol. Soc. 9, 10 (2004).

  62. 62.

    Marin, A., Bodin, O., Gelcich, S. & Crona, B. Social capital in post-disaster recovery trajectories: Insights from a longitudinal study of tsunami-impacted small-scale fisher organizations in Chile. Global Environ. Change 35, 450–462 (2015).

  63. 63.

    Pelling, M. Natural Disaster and Development in a Globalizing World (Routledge, Abingdon, 2003).

  64. 64.

    Bodin, Ö. & Crona, B. I. The role of social networks in natural resource governance: What relational patterns make a difference? Global Environ. Change 19, 366–374 (2009).

  65. 65.

    Blythe, J. B. G., Cohen, P., Moveni, M. & Kwatelae, A. Five Principles for Network Success in Solomon Islands (Penang Malaysia WorldFish Program, 2017).

  66. 66.

    Lietaer, B. Complementary currencies in Japan today: History, originality and relevance. Int. J. Commun. Currency Res 8, 1–23 (2004).

  67. 67.

    Aldrich, D. P. & Meyer, M. A. Social capital and community resilience. Am. Behav. Sci. 59, 254–269 (2015).

  68. 68.

    Adger, W. N., Arnell, N. W. & Tompkins, E. L. Successful adaptation to climate change across scales. Global Environ. Change 15, 77–86 (2005).

  69. 69.

    Berkhout, F., Hertin, J. & Gann, D. M. Learning to adapt: organisational adaptation to climate change impacts. Climatic Change 78, 135–156 (2006).

  70. 70.

    Fazey, I. et al. Adaptive capacity and learning to learn as leverage for social-ecological resilience. Frontiers Ecol. Environ. 5, 375–380 (2007).

  71. 71.

    Lutz, W., Muttarak, R. & Striessnig, E. Universal education is key to enhanced climate adaptation. Science 346, 1061–1062 (2014).

  72. 72.

    Pahl-Wostl, C. et al. Social learning and water resources management. Ecol. Soc. 12, 5 (2007).

  73. 73.

    Funfgeld, H. Facilitating local climate change adaptation through transnational municipal networks. Current Opinion Environ. Sust. 12, 67–73 (2015).

  74. 74.

    Building Vibrant, Empowered and Resilient Communities (Locally Managed Marine Area Network, 2009);

  75. 75.

    Argyris, C. Single-loop and double-loop models in research on decision making. Administrative Science Q. 21, 363–375 (1976).

  76. 76.

    Bandura, A. in Advances in Psychological Science: Personal, Social and Cultural Aspects Vol. 1. (eds Adair, J. G., Belanger, D. & Dion, K. L.) 51–71 (Psychology Press, Hove, 1998).

  77. 77.

    Olsson, P. et al. Shooting the rapids: Navigating transitions to adaptive governance of social-ecological systems. Ecol. Soc. 11, 18 (2006).

  78. 78.

    Ajzen, I. The theory of planned behavior. Organizational Behav. Human Decision Processes 50, 179–211 (1991).

  79. 79.

    Gelcich, S. & Donlan, C. J. Incentivizing biodiversity conservation in artisanal fishing communities through territorial user rights and business model innovation. Conservation Biol. 29, 1076–1085 (2015).

  80. 80.

    Brown, K. Resilience, Development and Global Change (Routledge, Abingdon, 2016).

  81. 81.

    Riedlinger, D. & Berkes, F. Contributions of traditional knowledge to understanding climate change in the Canadian Arctic. Polar Record 37, 315–328 (2001).

  82. 82.

    Armitage, D. R. et al. Adaptive co-management for social–ecological complexity. Frontiers Ecol. Environ. 7, 95–102 (2009).

  83. 83.

    Cuevas, S. C., Peterson, A., Robinson, C. & Morrison, T. H. Institutional capacity for long-term climate change adaptation: evidence from land use planning in Albay, Philippines. Regional Environ. Change 16, 2045–2058 (2016).

  84. 84.

    Elliott, M. et al. Multiple household water sources and their use in remote communities with evidence from Pacific Island countries. Water Resour. Res. 53, 9106–9117 (2017).

  85. 85.

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

  86. 86.

    Tol, R. S. J., & Yohe, G. W. The weakest link hypothesis for adaptive capacity: An empirical test. Global Environ. Change 17, 218–227 (2007).Empirically examines how adaptive capacity may be limited by the weakest component of it’s underlying determinants.

  87. 87.

    Fawcett, D., Pearce, T., Ford, J. D. & Archer, L. Operationalizing longitudinal approaches to climate change vulnerability assessment. Global Environ. Change 45, 79–88 (2017).

  88. 88.

    Engle, N. L. Adaptive capacity and its assessment. Global Environ. Change 21, 647–656 (2011).

  89. 89.

    Thomas, D. & Twyman, C. Equity and justice in climate change adaptation amongst natural-resource-dependent societies. Global Environ. Change 15, 115–124 (2005).

  90. 90.

    McSweeney, K. & Coomes, O. T. Climate-related disaster opens a window of opportunity for rural poor in northeastern Honduras. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 5203–5208 (2011).

  91. 91.

    Daw, T. M. et al. Evaluating taboo trade-offs in ecosystems services and human well-being. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 6949–6954 (2015).

  92. 92.

    Marshall, N. A., Park, S. E., Adger, W. N., Brown, K. & Howden, S. M. Transformational capacity and the influence of place and identity. Environ. Res. Lett. 7, 034022 (2012).

  93. 93.

    Brown, K. Sustainable adaptation: An oxymoron? Clim. Dev. 3, 21–31 (2011).

  94. 94.

    Morrison, T. H. Evolving polycentric governance of the Great Barrier Reef. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, E3013–E3021 (2017).

  95. 95.

    Alcala, A. C. & Russ, G. R. No-take marine reserves and reef fisheries management in the Philippines: A new people power revolution. Ambio 35, 245–254 (2006).

  96. 96.

    Barrett, C. B. & Constas, M. A. Toward a theory of resilience for international development applications. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 14625–14630 (2014).

  97. 97.

    Enfors, E. Social-ecological traps and transformations in dryland agro-ecosystems: Using water system innovations to change the trajectory of development. Global Environ. Change 23, 51–60 (2013).

  98. 98.

    Hughes, T. P. et al. Coral reefs in the Anthropocene. Nature 546, 82–90 (2017).

  99. 99.

    Paris Agreement: Article 7 FCCC/CP/2015/10/Add1 (UNFCCC, 2015).

Download references


Thanks to T. McClanahan for input on an early iteration of this concept. S.G. thanks Conicyt Basal 002 and NC120086. Funding was provided by the Australian Research Council’s Centre for Excellence Program (CE140100020), an Australian Research Fellowship to J.C., a Future Fellowship to J.C., an Australian Laureate Fellowship to T.H., Pew Fellowships in Marine Conservation to J.C. and S.G., and an NSF Fellowship to M.B. (#1513354). This work contributes to the CGIAR Research Program on Fish Agrifood Systems (FISH).

Author information


  1. Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia

    • Joshua E. Cinner
    • , Michele L. Barnes
    • , Philippa J. Cohen
    • , Terry P. Hughes
    • , Jacqueline Lau
    •  & Tiffany H. Morrison
  2. Geography, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, Exeter, UK

    • W. Neil Adger
    •  & Katrina Brown
  3. School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

    • Edward H. Allison
  4. Botany Department, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI, USA

    • Michele L. Barnes
  5. WorldFish, Penang, Malaysia

    • Philippa J. Cohen
  6. Center of Applied Ecology and Sustainability (CAPES), Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile

    • Stefan Gelcich
  7. Center for the Study of Multiple-Drivers on Marine Socio-Ecological Systems, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Santiago, Chile

    • Stefan Gelcich
  8. Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK

    • Christina C. Hicks
  9. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia

    • Nadine A. Marshall


  1. Search for Joshua E. Cinner in:

  2. Search for W. Neil Adger in:

  3. Search for Edward H. Allison in:

  4. Search for Michele L. Barnes in:

  5. Search for Katrina Brown in:

  6. Search for Philippa J. Cohen in:

  7. Search for Stefan Gelcich in:

  8. Search for Christina C. Hicks in:

  9. Search for Terry P. Hughes in:

  10. Search for Jacqueline Lau in:

  11. Search for Nadine A. Marshall in:

  12. Search for Tiffany H. Morrison in:


J.E.C. conceived of the concept and led the writing. W.A., E.A., M.B., K.B., P.C., S.G., C.H., T.H., J.L., N.M., and T.M. substantively contributed ideas and writing.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joshua E. Cinner.

About this article

Publication history




Issue Date


Further reading