Understanding our responses to environmental change


MAGIC Multi-scale Adaptations to Global Change at the Coast

MAGIC is a collaboration with six institutions in France, South Africa and USA. I work with Tara Quinn at ESI, and Larissa Naylor at Glasgow University, to understand how different social actors respond to change at the coast and how current adaptations may have negative consequences in terms of transferring vulnerability – we term these maladaptations. We are funded by the ‘Belmont Forum’ which is a consortium of international global change research funders.

Our starting point is to recognise that coastlines worldwide are often in the front-line of climate change, but are also site of multiple, often very rapid change. Thus population growth, human mobility, land transformation, infrastructure planning and development and the impacts of climate change aggregate and converge in coastal areas. This challenges the adaptive capacity of individuals and organizations at local and regional levels. A better understanding of these complex feedbacks is required to promote transformation towards more sustainable pathways.

While some adaptations may have beneficial outcomes, others result in unintended consequences for vulnerability, either for the decision makers themselves or for external stakeholders or ecosystem services. Few adaptation plans have, however, taken a multi-scale and multi-target perspective that explains the prevalence of perverse outcomes.

Conventional approaches, while useful, are often incomplete as they tend to ignore the emergence of unforeseen impacts due to cross-scale and within-scale feedbacks, and tend to see adaptation as single-scale, single-target and single-stakeholder processes requiring capacity-enhancing ‘interventions’ and ‘incentives‘ to mitigate impacts.

The research adds value to the coastal vulnerability programme by focusing on the way decisions are made, firstly at the cognitive level of individuals and groups, and secondly at the institutional and governance level. It assesses the consequences of decisions for vulnerability, using a combination of participatory methods and modelling, and evaluates the feedbacks between participants’ learning through their participation in the project as well, as their own experiences of events that have impacted on their vulnerability. The new models and methods that will emerge throughout the project will add value to the theory and practice of coastal vulnerability assessment and decision-making.

We view adaptation as a key driver, not just an outcome, of vulnerability. We are thus interested in the feedbacks between i) global change, ii) cognitive processes about risk and adaptive capacity, iii) capacity-enhancing resources, iv) adaptation outcomes and iv) social learning (sensu Reed et al. 2010) and:

  • adopt a social-ecological systems approach (Anderies et al. 2004);
  • assess vulnerability and adaptations at three scales: the focal scale of a local social group, individuals’ cognitive frames, and regional coastal planning processes;
  • work directly with decision making and affected parties throughout the research process;
  • evaluate the feedbacks and cognitive ‘shifts’ when users at different scales engage with and learn about vulnerability and the knock-on effects of adaptive strategies.

Using a robustness framework for social-ecological systems (Anderies et al. 2004) in tandem with an adapted model  of “private    proactive    adaptation    to    climate    change” proposed by Grothmann & Patt (2005) we ask four questions.

  1. How do four factors:  i) actual risk due to global change; ii) perceptions of risk ; iii) perceptions of adaptive capacity; and iv) access to capacity-enhancing resources, influence the adaptive actions and strategies of decision makers.
  2. How have these adaptations uninentionally affected the vulnerability of external groups, places or ecosystem services?
  3. Which feedbacks occur when these agents engage in situated learning through reflective practice and critical inquiry?
  4. How do cognitive processes (and consequently perceptions of risk and adaptive capacity) change when agents are actively involved, learn and reflect in a process of situated learning?

In each of three regions (France’s Mediterranean coast;  South Africa’s Garden Route coastal zone; and the Cornwall coast) we will identify three thematic cases where users, social groups or regional authorities have designed adaptation plans and policies in response to perturbations related to global change. We then assess actual and potential impacts of these adaptations on the intended social-ecological system, as well as on external social-ecological systems or targets.