An inadequate multilateral response on reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions has resulted in much greater emphasis on adaptation to address the growing risks of climate change. Natural and social systems often have significant capacities to adapt, but it is difficult to establish how they compare to the rate and magnitude of climate change. There are also biophysical limits to adaptation.

Some adaptation limits have been clearly identified, primarily for ecological systems, exemplified by species extinctions. But little is known about limits in social systems — whether there are social limits to adaptation, what influences their likelihood, where these might lie, who they would affect and what the consequences of reaching such limits might be.

The existence of adaptation limits has broad implications. If the capacity to adapt is unlimited, a key rationale for reducing GHG emissions is weakened and replaced by considerations of adaptation costs and benefits, and of equity concerns. However, research suggests that opportunities and resources to adapt may be finite for many social actors, whether these are individual households, businesses or governments. Breaching adaptation limits will result in escalating losses or require transformational change.

Hence, there is an urgent need to identify and predict where limits are likely to occur in order to assess and prepare for the potential consequences. The authors propose a risk-based approach to defining adaptation limits, provide two examples, and raise some implications and research needs highlighted by this perspective.

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