The concept of sustainable adaptation emerged from the insight that successful adaptations do not (1) impose externalities at other scales (temporal and spatial), nor (2) produce negative externalities, which can increase impacts on other community members and decrease their capacity to adapt. This distinction was created by scholars in response to the need to incorporate fairness and climate justice into adaptation research when researchers realized that the impacts of climate change are spatially, socially, and temporally differentiated, and that the ability to adapt to climate stressors is taken by individuals within their economic and institutional constraints. In any community, climate stressors always result in winners and losers between natural resource user groups due to differences in the spatial distributions of resources in relation to stressors. The spatial distribution of climate stressors, coupled with the social causes of vulnerability are key to understanding equity in terms of asymmetries in the ability of any one-user group within a community to adapt to natural stressors. These asymmetries create differences in the ability of different user groups to affect community decision making to manage the consequences of, or plan for the distribution of impacts. This process leaves less powerful members of a community more vulnerable because natural stressors slowly erode the capacity of the most vulnerable members of a community to influence decisions or cope with stressors. This creates a situation in which the vulnerable are not included in the utilization of a community’s adaptive capacity due to their decreased influence on collective action decisions. The most powerful members of a community bend the rules of collective arrangements by drawing on their reputation, wealth, and relations. This means that more powerful people in a community are able to shape adaptations to benefit their needs, and in turn create externalities that will make others more vulnerable. This is how the need for sustainable adaptation arose.

Previous varieties of adaptation research did not account for the potential creation of inequities through adaptations because researchers lacked the knowledge and ability to measure and incorporate the four indicators of sustainable adaptation: effectiveness, efficiency, equity, and legitimacy. A systemic perspective is critical to understand how climate stressors can impact levels of these indicators within communities, and this perspective was largely absent in much of the previous adaptation research. Global change adaptation research (in it’s current form) originated in the environmental change and vulnerability literatures. Environmental change researchers defined adaptation as an adjustment in ecological, social, or economic systems in response to observed or expected changes in climatic stimuli and their effects and impacts in order to alleviate adverse impacts of change or take advantage of new opportunities. Following this definition, global change researchers defined their adaptation research domain as: identifying limits to adaptation; understanding appropriate technological options for adaptation; and, the roles of public and private actors in adaptation initiatives. However, within this domain, adaptation was considered with respect to specific risks and adaptive actions are considered to be static. The most frequent criticism about the global change approach to adaptation research was that it does not sufficiently incorporate a systemic perspective, including ecological aspects of socio-ecological systems. Without incorporating a better understanding of the ecological system, researchers could not understand the multiple manifestations of climate stressors that create vulnerability among community members. Therefore it was not be possible to effectively understand or achieve sustainable adaptations.

The ecological resilience literature began using developing theories of socio-ecological system adaptation in the late 1990’s. In the resilience literature, adaptation research was focused on three domains: the degree to which systems could change and still retain structure and function, the degree to which systems could self-organize, and the capacity of systems to learn. Resilience researchers accepted the idea that systems can be influenced by stressors, so adaptations needed to consider both the ability to respond and to take advantage of any opportunities. Adaptations were understood as processes that allowed socio-ecological to survive and flourish. The focus in resilience was on maintaining flexibility through adaptation, so any adaptation was measured on the basis of how it would affect the future flexibility of a socio-ecological system. This flexibility was considered in the context of multiple states, desirable states, and thresholds. However, the resilience framework was criticized because it insufficiently incorporated social aspects of socio-ecological systems, including vulnerability. This limited researchers ability to understand pathways to sustainable adaptation.

In response to the critiques of the adaptation research mentioned above, sustainable adaptation has emerged as a potential framework to better integrate social and ecological components of a system to understand adaptation. The actual term ‘sustainable adaptation’ emerged from the global change literature, due to the realization that adaptation research must view socio-ecological systems as inseparable. However, this is been a challenging task because social, political and cultural boundaries rarely align with ecological boundaries.

As mentioned above, the key to understanding and implementing sustainable adaptations is the ability to collectively make decisions in the context of the local ecosystem while promoting effectiveness, efficiency, equity, and legitimacy. Many adaptation researchers agree that we must understand the institutional context within which adaptations occur in order to promote sustainable adaptations. Traditional institutional analysis is conducted using a structure like the Institutional Analysis and Diversity (IAD) framework to guide researchers through the process of understanding collective action decisions by defining the actors, the available information, and the payoffs received by different actors for different decisions. Using this framework it is possible to understand how small groups within a community can make collective action decisions to implement possible adaptations; or, if collective action cannot be achieved, a researcher may be able understand why collective action fails in any given setting. However, the IAD framework cannot be used to study collective action in the context of a dynamic environment; Ostrom et al. (1994) states that attributes about the physical world underlie the way researchers think about collective actions, but these attributes are held static in the context of institutional analysis. Therefore, in order to understand pathways to sustainable adaptation using institutional analysis, we must either (1) use a different type of institutional analysis framework, or (2) couple the IAD framework with another framework that can allow researchers to understand collective action for adaptation within a changing environment.

Ostrom (2009) recognized the inability of institutional analysis frameworks to incorporate ecosystem dynamics and therefore attempted to modify the IAD framework to help identify relevant ecological variables for studying a single focal socio-ecological system and to help identify factors that may affect the likelihood of particular policies to enhance sustainability. The result was the ‘general framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems’. She admits that the major challenge in understanding why some SESs are sustainable and why others collapse is the identification and analysis of relationships among multiple levels of complex systems at different spatial and temporal scales. Understanding a complex socio-ecological system requires researchers to understand specific variables and the relationships between these variables. She goes on to state that we must learn how to dissect and harness complexity, rather than eliminate it from such systems.

I agree with Ostrom’s (2009) analysis of the problem, and with regard to adaptation, understanding adaptation through institutions and governance is the critical next step in adaptation research. However, as with much sustainability science research, this framework places us in an efficacy paradox of handling complexity (Voss, Bauknecht, & Kemp, 2006). In other words, it is necessary to increase the scale and complexity of a socio-ecological system to adequately respond to problems of sustainability, but too much complexity severely reduces our ability to understand the system and can therefore limit the effectiveness of attempts to implement sustainable adaptations (ibid). Furthermore, data analysis of socio-ecological variables is challenging using Ostrom’s (2009) framework for analyzing sustainability of social-ecological systems because the impact of any one variable depends on the values of other SES variables. As in most complex systems, the variables interact in a nonlinear fashion. Ostrom’s (2009) framework could be used to analyze policy options aimed at sustainable adaptation, but only if the researcher is able to effectively manage the system’s complexity. This framework would be ideal to analyze policy options for adaptation in small communities where resource users rely on a maximum of two or three natural resources.

The second possibility is to couple the IAD framework with another framework that can allow researchers to understand collective action for adaptation within a changing environment. Using the IAD framework, we can identify variables in social systems that capture the political processes that influence adaptation project outcomes. The model can be used to establish which user groups win, and which groups lose in the decision-making process by defining the rules used by each group to invoke authority to influence collective decisions. However, the system’s natural resource dynamics cannot be accounted for within the IAD framework. Therefore, we must integrate ecological dynamics into the IAD framework.

As mentioned above, institutional analysis can allow adaptation researchers to define patterns in the rule sets that produce sustainable adaptations in communities. However, researchers must ensure that their institutional analysis appropriately accounts for a community’s power dynamics. While power is often discussed in institutional economics, most theories within this field cannot explicitly explain the underlying conditions leading to power asymmetries. Therefore adaptation researchers must incorporate theories of power from political science and public choice theory into their institutional analyses. This critical step will advance the theories of adaptation and better allow researchers to explain how institutions, in the context of a community can support or hinder sustainable adaptation.

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