When it comes to responding to climate change’s impacts, two terms often cross paths: adaptation and resilience. Sometimes used interchangeably and often used together, what do they really mean? Understanding their connection and embracing an integrated approach is crucial for effective action to prepare for a changing climate.
Adaptation and Resilience
Researchers make a distinction between the two terms. Adaptation is about taking actions and leveraging opportunities to limit the negative effects of climate change, while adjusting to life in a changing climate. It recognizes the reality that certain climate change impacts necessitate measures to protect the environment and communities.
Resilience is often referred to as the ability to “bounce back” from a disruption. It is about how people, institutions, businesses and systems survive, change when needed, and thrive even when faced with challenges. Resilience has been more about looking at the big picture when it comes to decision-making and is actively used in other fields and sectors. As a more established concept, resilience has recognized the links among various systemic challenges, such as climate change, poverty, and aging infrastructure.
Adaptation and Resilience: Need for a Holistic Approach
Let’s imagine climate change impacts as blows to a system. Based on these definitions, adaptation could include ducking or dodging to avoid those blows; using strategies to soften the blows; and harnessing the energy of the blows and using the energy to its advantage. Resilience could include building up the system’s stability and strength to tolerate more blows and/or harder blows; recovering more quickly in between blows; and building enough reserve to continually recover.
Adaptation and resilience are complementary. Resilience might not be possible without adaptation and vice versa. Consider this: if we do not adapt adequately, our ability to bounce back might not work as well. Reversely, adaptation goals can also fall short if underlying systems lack resilience. Combining adaptation and resilience can create a holistic framework for effectively navigating the challenges in today’s climate.
In the face of the challenges posed by climate change, it has become evident a piecemeal approach is not enough. Communities need a comprehensive strategy that bridges the gap between adaptation and resilience. Viewing adaptation and resilience through an integrated lens can offer a more effective path forward in addressing the multifaceted challenges posed by climate change. For instance, some adaptation strategies, when not considering resilience, can inadvertently lead to maladaptation. Take coastal armouring structures engineered to protect one property as an adaptation measure. While they might seem beneficial in the short term, these projects often do not consider their impacts on neighbouring properties, coastal habitats, and overall resilience. This narrow focus on protecting individual assets can provide a false sense of security to the individual which can limit adaptation as an evolving process. It also limits the opportunity to address systemic vulnerabilities. These types of adaptation measures can actually harm the resilience of the entire coastal ecosystem, leading to consequences for the community and environment. This example of coastal armouring highlights that integrating adaptation and resilience considerations is essential to avoid such maladaptive outcomes and create more sustainable solutions.
Interconnected Dimensions of Adaptation and Resilience
Resilient systems are more capable of adapting to changing conditions. The interconnected systems not only exist in the natural environment but also across various dimensions:
- Ecosystems and biodiversity: In natural environments, resilience and adaptation are intertwined. Ecosystems with high biodiversity have more capacity to respond to disturbances and adjust to new circumstances.
- Community wellbeing: Resilience and adaptation are the backbone of a healthy community. Regions that invest in adaptation (e.g., flood-resistant infrastructure, managed retreat) ensure communities will be able to bounce back after extreme events and maintain mental and physical wellness. This is increasingly true for vulnerable populations. By tailoring strategies to communities’ unique needs, we not only improve resilience but also work towards social equity.
- Policy and governance: To support adaptation, policies, and regulatory frameworks, governance models must be flexible, dynamic, and responsive. By anticipating the need to make adjustments, they can better support communities to respond to unforeseen events. Resilient governance also fosters transparency and collaboration for community wellbeing.
Links exist within these dimensions, which are deeply connected to each other. To effectively work towards achieving resilience through adaptation, it is critical to recognize the interconnectedness of biodiversity, community wellbeing, governance, and all ecosystems. For example, the Town of Mahone Bay, NS is facing rising sea levels and more frequent storms. The Town has adapted its shoreline through a living shoreline project. Thanks to the supporting policies that enabled the implementation of a living shoreline, Mahone Bay’s coast withstands extreme weather events through its resilient coastal ecosystem while also adjusting to the rising sea levels over time. All this results in community resilience and wellbeing.
In the realm of climate change, understanding the distinct yet interconnected roles of adaptation and resilience is essential. While there are conceptual differences between them, their connections are what stands out in practice. Together, they form a synergy that underpins effective action. Embracing their link among systems and approaches enables innovative, comprehensive, and sustainable adaptation action.
Read about the Town of Sackville’s naturalized stormwater retention pond in our next blog post, which highlights the connection between adaptation and resilience.
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