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Re-thinking the present: The role of a historical focus in climate change adaptation research

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

George C.D. Adamson, Matthew J. Hannaford, Eleonora J. Rohland

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)195-205
Number of pages11
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Early online date22 Dec 2017
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2018


King's Authors


There is a growing recognition that adaptation to climate change requires an understanding of social processes that unfold across extended temporal trajectories. Yet, despite a move to reconceptualise adaptation as ‘pathways of change and response’ with a deeper temporal dimension, the past generally remains poorly integrated into adaptation studies. This is related to a disavowal of environmental determinism within the academic field of history, which has caused the past to be addressed from other disciplinary perspectives within climate change literature, leading to accusations of over-simplification and neo-determinism. Conversely, whilst a relatively small amount of research within the subdiscipline of historical climatology has engaged with theories from mainstream adaptation to understand societies in the past, there has been little influence in the other direction. Building on a comprehensive review and critique of existing approaches to historical climate-society research, we argue for three important areas where historians should engage with climate change adaptation. The first area we call particularizing adaptation; this is the development of long-term empirical studies that uncover societal relations to climate in a particular place – including climate’s cultural dimensions – which can provide a baseline and contextualisation for climate change adaptation options. The second, institutional path dependency and memory, argues for a focus on the evolution of formal institutions with a responsibility for adaptation, to understand how historical events and decisions inform and constrain practices today. Our third argument is for an appreciation of the history of ideas and concepts that underpin climate change adaptation. We call for a second-order observation – observation of the observers – within climate change research, to ensure that adaptation does not perpetuate historically-grown power structures.

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