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Social determinants of adaptive and transformative responses to climate change


To cope effectively with the impacts of climate change, people will need to change existing practices or behaviours within existing social–ecological systems (adaptation) or enact more fundamental changes that can alter dominant social–ecological relationships and create new systems or futures (transformation). Here we use multilevel network modelling to examine how different domains of adaptive capacity—assets, flexibility, organization, learning, socio-cognitive constructs and agency—are related to adaptive and transformative actions. We find evidence consistent with an influence process in which aspects of social organization (exposure to others in social networks) encourage both adaptive and transformative actions among Papua New Guinean islanders experiencing climate change impacts. Adaptive and transformative actions are also related to social–ecological network structures between people and ecological resources that enable learning and the internalization of ecological feedbacks. Agency is also key, yet we show that while perceived power may encourage adaptations, it may discourage more transformative actions.

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Fig. 1: Empirical context and examples of adaptive and transformative actions.
Fig. 2: The potential role of social–ecological networks on responses to climate change.
Fig. 3: The impact of power and network exposure on adaptive and transformative action.

Data availability

Summary data that support the findings of this study are available within the paper and its Supplementary Information file. Raw ecological network data have been deposited in the Tropical Data Hub and can be accessed at Raw social and social network data are available on request from the corresponding author with reasonable restrictions, as these data contain information that could compromise research participant privacy and consent.


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This project was supported by the Australian Research Council through a Discovery Early Career Fellowship Grant to M.L.B. (grant no. DE190101583), the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the U.S. National Science Foundation (award no. 1620416). J.E.C is supported by the Australian Research Council (grant nos. CE140100020 and FT160100047) and the CGAIR Research Program on Fish Agri-Food Systems (FISH) led by WorldFish. We thank Ö. Bodin for helpful comments on an earlier draft, the Nature Conservancy for providing access to internal reports on activities associated with atoll farming in our study location, E. Shum for help with data processing and all of the individuals who participated in this project.

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M.L.B. designed the research. M.L.B., J.E.C., N.A.J.G., J.L. and J.Z.-M. performed the research. M.L.B. and P.W analysed data. M.L.B., P.W., J.E.C., N.A.J.G., A.M.G., L.J., J.L., S.R.S. and J.Z.-M. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Michele L. Barnes.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Kenneth Frank, Patrick Nunn and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary methods, Fig. 1, Tables 1–5 and references.

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Barnes, M.L., Wang, P., Cinner, J.E. et al. Social determinants of adaptive and transformative responses to climate change. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 823–828 (2020).

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