One way of mitigating climate change is to accept that it is going to happen and help people to adapt – a philosophy that current policy makers are considering. However, in a paper published in Climatic Change, Neil Adger from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, UK, and colleagues argue that there are limits to adaptation and that we would be unwise to rely solely on adaptation as a mitigation measure.

In the past mankind has shown great ingenuity in overcoming changes in climate and adapting to unfavourable conditions. Irrigation and terracing has enabled farmers to grow crops on what would otherwise have been marginal land. The advent of weather forecasting has allowed people to prepare for bad weather and minimise the damage it causes. Meanwhile, we are all able to share the risk of extreme weather events by purchasing insurance.

So can we continue to adapt successfully, maintaining a relatively stable, peaceful and prosperous society despite the challenges of a rapidly changing climate? To answer this question Adger and his colleagues have examined some of the assumptions associated with adaptation, and have come up with four domains that they believe underscore the limits to our adaptation.

In their paper the researchers urge policy makers to consider ethics (how and what we value), knowledge (how and what we know), risk (how and what we perceive) and culture (how and why we live) when assessing adaptation strategies.

People's perception of risk and their position in society can affect the way they respond to adaptation measures. For example in a related study, published in Journal of Public Health, Adger and his colleagues have shown that elderly people may be too proud to accept help in adapting to climate change, or they may not view themselves as vulnerable. "Behaviour and cognition of risk are particularly important in determining how adaptation will actually proceed," Adger told environmentalresearchweb.

Meanwhile, developing and poor countries are considered highly vulnerable to climate change because they have the least capacity to adapt. However, Adger and his colleagues demonstrate that resilience is not all about wealth. "Bangladesh, for example, has developed local institutions for civil defence and has educated the next generation in the risks associated with typhoons in the past 30 years – these days it is much more robust and much less likely to have significant loss of life associated with storm surge and flooding. This was borne out in the case of Typhoon Sidr in 2007 where there were low casualties," said Adger.

Although adaptation is going to be an essential tool for coping with climate change in the coming decades, Adger and his colleagues demonstrate that it is difficult to facilitate and that there are limits to how far we can adapt, without invoking politically or ethically undesirable outcomes.