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From barriers to limits to climate change adaptation: path dependency and the speed of change

Jon Barnett, School of Geography, University of Melbourne
Louisa S Evans, Geography, College of Life and Environmental Science, University of Exeter; Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University
Catherine Gross, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University
Anthony S Kiem, School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle
Richard T. Kingsford, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales
Jean P. Palutikof, National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility, Griffith University
Catherine M Pickering, School of Environment, Griffith University
Scott G Smithers, College of Marine and Environmental Sciences, James Cook University


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Research on the barriers and limits to climate change adaptation identifies many factors, but describes few processes whereby adaptation is constrained or may indeed fail to avoid catastrophic losses. It often assumes that barriers are by and large distinct from limits to adaptation. We respond to recent calls for comparative studies that are able to further knowledge about the underlying drivers of barriers and limits to adaptation. We compare six cases from across Australia, including those in alpine areas, rivers, reefs, wetlands, small inland communities, and islands, with the aim of identifying common underlying drivers of barriers and limits to adaptation. We find that the path-dependent nature of the institutions that govern natural resources and public goods is a deep driver of barriers and limits to adaptation. Path-dependent institutions are resistant to change. When this resistance causes the changes necessary for adaptation to be slower than changes in climate, then it becomes a limit to adaptation.

Key words

communities; cultures; ecosystems; markets; path dependence; transformation; values

Copyright © 2015 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087