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Distinguishing between coping and adaptation

Knowing the difference between ‘coping’ and ‘adaptation’ forces us to think ‘outside the box’ and identify sustainable solutions to long-term climate change.
Lars Rosendahl Appelquist

Sometimes, the terms ‘adaptation’ and ‘coping’ are used interchangeably. This has led to a lot of confusion. Comparing and contrasting characteristics is one way to understand their similarities and differences.

The table below, presented in CARE’s Climate Vulnerability and Capacity Analysis Handbook, was consolidated from brainstorming sessions with groups of development practitioners in Ghana, Niger and Nepal.

Short-term and immediate Practices and results are sustained
Oriented towards survival Oriented towards longer-term livelihood security
Not continuous A continuous process
Motivated by crisis; reactive Involves planning
Often degrades the resource base Uses resources efficiently and sustainably
Prompted by a lack of alternatives Focused on finding alternatives
Combines old and new strategies and knowledge

Table: Characteristics of ‘coping’ and ‘adaptation’. Source: CARE CVCA Handbook, First Edition

The table shows that this is not just the ‘academic’ debate about definitions that some people think it is. Our understanding, and lack of understanding, can have real world implications – especially for the poorest individuals, households and communities. In this case, treating the two terms as interchangeable could lead to supporting (or worse still, even promoting) activities or strategies that have worked well enough in the past but, in the context of our changing climate, could be disastrous. Some may even lead to what is sometimes known as ‘maladaptation’.

Selling off productive assets (like livestock) and/or boosting incomes through artisanal charcoaling are two examples of ‘traditional coping mechanisms’ common across much of semi-arid Africa. But while these strategies may work well enough when drought occurs only once every five or so years, they are a dead-end when it comes to dealing with the contemporary reality of accelerating drought cycles. Knowing the difference between ‘coping’ and ‘adaptation’ forces us to think ‘outside the box’ and identify sustainable solutions to long-term climate change.

The text above is an excerpt from the article in Tiempo #77 (October 2010) titled ‘Adaptation key terms’ (pages 10-13), written by Anna Taylor, Katie Harris and Charles Ehrhart.

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