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WIREs Clim Change
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Adaptive capacity to climate change: A synthesis of concepts, methods, and findings in a fragmented field

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Adaptive capacity is an important element of long‐term adaptation to climate change and is the focus of a rapidly growing body of research. Interdisciplinary growth has the potential to introduce new methods and insights, but it could also cause fragmentation and hamper methodological development or limit transfer of academic insights to climate change adaptation practice. This article uses qualitative content, bibliometric, and citation network analyses to systematically review the scope, methods, and findings of 276 studies on adaptive capacity of social and social‐ecological systems. The review demonstrates that adaptive capacity research is highly interdisciplinary; covers a wide range of sectors, geographic locations, and scales of analysis; and is highly fragmented. The majority of empirical studies are isolated by lack of comparative work and cross‐field citation. Forty‐six percent of studies reviewed do not cite prior works on adaptive capacity: even those on similar topics in the same geographic location. Methods to assess adaptive capacity have proliferated to include more than 64 indicator‐based indices or frameworks and 37 proxy outcome measures. The article argues that lack of either consensus or debate across the literature raises concerns that scientific progress in the field may be constrained and the ability of adaptive capacity research to inform adaptation practice may be limited. To promote consistency and transparency in future work, 158 determinants of adaptive capacity are defined and illustrated with common assessment indicators and examples. Additional opportunities for progress are noted with suggestions for future research.

This article is categorized under:

  • Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change > Institutions for Adaptation
Rapid growth in adaptive capacity research creates potential benefits and pitfalls for the field. Studies found through a Web of Science search for title = “adaptive capacity” (n = 529) are plotted according to year of publication and discipline. Only publications since 1980 are shown as research prior to that date was sparse
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Geographic distribution of studies on adaptive capacity. Circles present the number of studies conducted by a first author at an institution based in that continent. Boxes identify the number of studies conducted on resources and people located in that continent. For example, 47 studies had a first author based in Asia, and 43 studies examined the adaptive capacity of people in Asia. Arrows indicate researchers from one continent authoring studies conducted in another. Numbers for the most prolific nations are provided. Numbers may not add up, as some authors conducted studies on a global scale or of a theoretical nature, which are not captured
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Adaptive capacity research is conducted by scholars from more than 20 disciplines (a) and covers numerous scales of analysis (b) and topical sectors (c). Topical sector was coded using each study's main focus, but some papers are double‐counted due to overlap (e.g., studies on water availability for agriculture)
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Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change > Institutions for Adaptation

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