Climate change adaptation planning and implementation have proliferated over the past years. However, we still lack an understanding of how society adapts itself outside of policy sectors and as part of what some refer to as “autonomous adaptation.” The way people respond to risk without deliberate interventions of public actors is not well understood. Given the increasing occurrence of climatic changes that affect our daily lives, the topic is regaining attention with an emphasis on behavioral adaptation. This angle, however, does little to enhance our understanding of how society adapts collectively and which practices and routines groups choose to adopt. This study investigates autonomous heat-stress adaptation efforts in two small towns in Germany. Autonomous heat-stress adaptation is approached through a lens of (social) adaptation practices. Small towns are understudied in adaptation research and have played only a minor role when it comes to public adaptation planning due to their lack of formal resources to develop public adaptation strategies. Based on empirical data, consisting of qualitative problem-centered interviews and a quantitative survey, concrete examples of (social) adaptation practices are identified and classified. The presented classification of practices goes beyond earlier attempts by generating insights on the role politics can play in providing a fruitful ground for enabling autonomous adaptation. The paper emphasizes the need for researchers and decision-makers to take a closer look at the wide variety of social adaptation practices already in place. This discloses insights on public–private adaptation mixes, which could ultimately also lift autonomous adaptation from its ad hoc and reactive nature.
Social adaptation practices are not yet at the center of research and decision-making. We believe that adding practice-based approaches to adaptation governance widens the debate on who is vulnerable and possible coping mechanisms from within society. It shows that vulnerability and adaptation lie in people’s everyday actions. We provide a first classification of heat-health adaptation practices according to their heat-health target, the involved individuals and actors, the degree of coordination involved, and the spatial and temporal scales. This classification draws attention to potential governance leverage points to initiate heat-adaptation practices. Focusing more strongly on already-in-use and possible heat-health adaptation practices puts citizens’ wants and needs at the center of adaptation governance by including them directly in the adaptation process. This can be of special interest for small towns that want to introduce citizen-based approaches to heat-risk adaptation.
Teebken’s current affiliation: Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey.
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