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Autonomous adaptation

How individuals are taking climate resilience into their own hands

This is part three of a four-part series exploring climate risk, resilience and adaptation. 

The impacts of climate change are already being felt on a global scale. The increasing frequency and severity of climate-induced hazards such as heatwaves, droughts and storms are posing a direct threat to human and ecological systems. As such, climate adaptation is a central pillar of the global climate agenda.

Adaptation involves adjusting the way we do things to moderate harm and take advantage of beneficial opportunities associated with climate change. Adaptation efforts can be distinguished by their level of coordination.

Adaptation actions often exist on a continuum between those being entirely planned by governments and those that are autonomously driven by individuals. While planned adaptation is widely discussed (and will be a feature of the upcoming COP28 United Nations Climate Conference in the UAE), autonomous adaptation and its role in maximising the effectiveness of planned adaptation actions has received relatively less attention.

Autonomous adaptation is a central feature of society’s ability to enable an effective climate transition. If neglected or ignored by businesses or policy-makers, we may inadvertently blunt the transformative efforts of climate adaptation.

Planned adaption vs autonomous adaptation

Large-scale approaches to climate adaptation must be based on an explicit awareness of changing conditions, including long-term climate risks. Planned adaptation looks for priorities in responding to known and anticipated changes. A key benefit of engaging in such planned adaptation is that it minimises inefficient allocation of resources and enables the facilitation and coordination of adaptation strategies.  In contrast, autonomous adaptation actions develop organically at the individual and community levels. These responses are extremely diverse in nature, existing in many forms across every sector and geography and – critically – they allow for local lived experience to help shape the adaptation outcome. However, autonomous adaptation is difficult to track, and even more complex to measure. It is important to note that these adaptations are not necessarily executed with the conscious intention of addressing climate change. For example, farmers may alter crop varieties and farming practices to minimise economic losses associated with the changing climatic conditions on their farms. An advantage of this bottom-up approach is that adaption responses can be tailored to individual needs. 

Risks associated with autonomous adaptation

Despite the benefits, autonomous adaptation activities can result in detrimental economic and environmental outcomes if ignored. The reactive nature of autonomous adaptation activities means that short-term impacts are often prioritised over longer-term environmental threats. This can lead to neglecting consideration of transition and adaptation trade-offs, resulting in outcomes that harm communities and ecosystems.

This can be avoided with appropriate understanding of the longer-term climate risks, coupled with comprehensive climate resilience and adaptation action plans.

Potential for undesired outcomes

Increased air-conditioner use during hot summer days is an example of an autonomous action because it is an individual response to manage the discomfort associated with extreme heat. Despite the short-term benefit, most existing cooling technologies are energy inefficient and use hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants, a greenhouse gas which is being phased out under the Montreal Protocol. Consequently, the long-term use of these technologies will contribute to increased global warming. Undesired outcomes such as these are known as ‘maladaptive’, as they increase our vulnerability to climate change instead of decreasing it.

Developing an understanding of the potential outcomes of autonomous adaptation actions and incorporating them into planning is a critical process to optimise the long-term effectiveness of planned and autonomous adaptation efforts.

Optimising autonomous adaptation

Autonomous adaptation is an inevitable outcome of our changing climate. Individual and community action occurs when planned adaptation is lacking or misdirected, often during or soon after catastrophic weather-related events.

This presents enormous opportunities for businesses and governments. The incorporation of autonomous efforts into adaptation planning is essential to avoid the potential negative outcomes of unaccounted autonomous activities, thereby providing a pathway to effective adaptation.

Gaining an understanding of where and how autonomous adaptation efforts are occurring is a fundamental first step to achieve this. Once this baseline is established, it is necessary to develop an understanding of what individuals and communities need to enable effective planning.  Due to the context-specific nature of adaptation challenges, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ for effective climate adaptation.

The goal is to strike a balance between coordination of efforts to achieve collective, long-term outcomes while maintaining sufficient information necessary to ensure adaptive responses are tailored to the needs of specific communities and ecosystems.

This blog was co-authored by Dr Tayanah O’Donnell, Robert Ashman, Zak Baillie and Ruby McMullin.

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