Questioning the myth of endless adaptation

Key messages

  • Limits to adaptation are being breached already in different places across the world. Climate adaptation will become increasingly difficult as we approach 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures.
  • Existing adaptation efforts are falling short of adequately reducing risks from past, current and future climate change, leaving the most vulnerable particularly exposed to climate impacts.
  • Adaptation cannot substitute for ambitious mitigation efforts. Even effective adaptation will not avoid all losses and damages, and new limits to adaptation can emerge in the shape of conflicts, pandemics and pre-existing development challenges.
  • Deep and swift mitigation is critical to avoid widespread breaching of adaptation limits.

Insight explained

Humans have a remarkable capacity to adapt, but as the planet continues to warm, we will be increasingly confronted with intolerable impacts of climate change to which people and ecosystems are not able to adapt. In other words, there are limits to adaptation. So-called “soft” limits to adaptation denote contexts where adaptation options may exist but are not currently available due to, for example, insufficient access to finance, weak governance structures, and lack of political will. Soft limits can be overcome through social, institutional or technological innovations and transformation. “Hard” limits refer to situations in which adaptive actions to avoid intolerable risks are no longer possible, such as extreme heat unbearable to the human body, or rising sea levels submerging coastal communities.

Limits to adaptation are deeply contextual: they are shaped by place-specific climate risks and socioecological resilience, as well as the nature and distribution of existing adaptive efforts. Exceeding adaptation limits can lead to irreversible losses and damages (see Insight 8), an experience that can fundamentally change communities. Crucially, limits to adaptation are dynamic: they evolve in response to external changes – such as the rising temperatures – but also due to the socioecological interplay between current limits and societies’ response to them. Hence, “new” limits to adaptation can emerge as the socioecological system approaches or breaches current limits.

Limits to adaptation are most frequently reported for vulnerable groups in low-income regions, and are especially acute for Small Island States and low-lying coastal zones more generally. The distribution of investments in adaptation reflects underlying socioeconomic inequalities, reinforcing patterns of vulnerability (Insight 2). Existing adaptation efforts, for example in food systems and infrastructure, are insufficient to adequately reduce risks associated with current and future climate impacts. But even with the right support to implement available adaptive strategies, limits to adaptation will be unavoidably breached in some instances. 

Research and policy literature converges on a need for a fundamental change in how we pursue climate adaptation and deal with adaptation limits. Transformative change will be necessary to overcome the soft limits to adaptation and avoid reaching hard limits, and even to create opportunities for climate-resilient development. This will require addressing structural political and economic conditions that exacerbate vulnerability to the impacts of climate change (Insight 2), as well as strengthening inclusive decision-making institutions (Insight 9).

We are already breaching adaptation limits, and adaptation will only become more difficult as we approach 1.5°C or even 2°C average global warming. This implies that the remaining available adaptive actions will be even more demanding, which, in turn, can create more social stress and further risks. We cannot endlessly adapt to climate change. Therefore, adaptation is not a substitute for mitigation. Deep and swift mitigation efforts are critical to avoid the widespread breaching of limits to adaptation.


Complexity of interacting risks

The interaction of climate change with other risk drivers creates vicious circles. Our ability to adapt is limited by uncertainty: about climate risks and future actions, and about the complex systems in which we live. What is effective today may lose efficacy due to system dynamics that are difficult to foresee. As witnessed in recent years, climate change interacts with other risk drivers, for example conflicts and pandemics, as well as pre-existing development challenges, resulting in system effects such as food shortages and rising poverty and inequality. These, in turn, may give rise to new limits to adaptation, creating a vicious circle of compounding impacts. Each factor can stress social orders and load pressure on individuals, producing maladaptive decisions that render communities – and the ecosystems they depend on – more inflexible and fragile. Given the complex nature of socioecological systems, some of these maladaptive outcomes emerge in unpredictable ways.

Implications & Recommendations

Climate negotiators and decision makers at all levels – international, national and local – need to:

  • Pursue deep and swift mitigation efforts, in order to avoid a future in which people and ecosystems are pervasively confronted with limits to their adaptation.
  • Develop ambitious adaptation plans – increasingly catastrophic climate change impacts mean that transformational change is required to enable the necessary level of adaptation.
  • Tailor adaptation strategies to local contexts, and place more focus on reducing the vulnerability of the most marginalised communities.
  • Overcome soft limits to adaptation through targeted financing and more effective governance structures – leading to desired social, institutional or technological change.
  • Adopt an agile approach to adaptation – recognising that adaptation limits dynamically evolve as loss and damage impacts livelihoods and environments.
Figure 1. Conceptual representation of limits to adaptation, including soft and hard limits. The visualisation shows deep and swift mitigation is critical to avoid breaching adaptation limits. Adapted from Dow et al. (2013).

Where do we stand?

Earth system


Why care?



What to do?

Solutions and Barriers





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