Mapping discourses of climate adaptation in the United Kingdom

Matthew Cotton, Emma Stevens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The concept of adaptation is becoming part of mainstream public discourse on climate change. Yet the diversity, complexity, and novelty of the adaptation concept itself leads to interpretive flexibility, differing public understanding of (and engagement with) adaptation strategies, and hence differentiated policy responses. The boundary work of communicative practices and public understanding of the adaptation concept therefore requires empirical analysis in different cases and contexts. This study employs Q-methodology (a combined quantitative–qualitative social research method) to reveal the typologies of perspectives that emerge around the adaptation concept among a diverse group of citizen-stakeholders in the United Kingdom. Four such typologies are identified under the labels 1) top-down climate action, 2) collective action on climate change, 3) optimistic, values-focused adaptation, and 4) adaptation skepticism. The division between these perspectives reveals a perceived “responsibility gap” between the governmental–institutional and/or individual–community levels. Across the emergent discourses we find a consensual call for a multisector, multiscalar, and multistakeholder-led approach that posits adaptation as a contemporary, intragenerational problem, with a strong emphasis upon managing extreme weather events, and not as an abstract future problem. By attending to these public discourses in climate policy, this presents a potential means to lessen such a responsibility gap.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)17-32
Number of pages16
JournalWeather, Climate, and Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 18 Oct 2018


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