Coping versus adapting

People often use “coping” and “adapting” interchangeably in the context of disaster response - an issue the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) seeks to address in its new report.

Disaster risk management includes both coping and adapting, and the two concepts are central for adaptation to climate change in both research and practice, says the IPCC in the full-length version of its special report entitled Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX). 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines coping as “the action or process of overcoming a problem or difficulty” or “managing or enduring a stressful situation or condition”, and adapting as “rendering suitable, modifying”.

Coping is a "way of responding to an experienced impact with a shorter-term vision (for example, one season), and adaptation is the process of adjusting to change (both experienced and expected), which is longer term (for example, over a decade or longer),” explained Lisa Schipper, senior scientist with the Stockholm Environment Institute and lead author of one of the SREX chapters in an email to IRIN.

''The practical difference between coping and adapting is that coping strategies of today are likely to undermine opportunities for adaptation in the future''

“The practical difference between coping and adapting is that coping strategies of today are likely to undermine opportunities for adaptation in the future, through unplanned and unstrategic use of resources, including social networks. For this reason, we do not want to build future adaptation on most of today's coping strategies."

The distinction is key in the sense that the IPCC report “highlights the difference between the capacity that most people around the world have to deal with extreme events and the capacity that is needed to avoid reversing development (ie loss of life and livelihoods, infrastructure and assets),” wrote Schipper.

Adaptation strategies are “more proactive” in a sense as they are put into place to avoid turning natural hazards into disasters, pointed out Tom Mitchell, head of climate change at the UK’s Overseas Development Institute (ODI). For instance, if you know an area is prone to earthquakes or flooding, adaptation strategies would involve moving the population from those areas, or building dykes to prevent flooding, or ensuring houses in the area are able to withstand seismic shocks.

Attitudes to development

Schipper noted this required a transformation in attitudes about development "to move us away from the type of responses to disasters that dominate today (focus on resettling people after a disaster without taking the time to consider why they were exposed and sensitive to the hazard event) toward a more sustainable and strategic approach.”

The key to being able to do this is to understand people's circumstances. It means bringing about a change in attitudes at the community level, which could be a challenge and cannot "be adjusted quickly", she noted. "For example social and cultural traditions that expose people to greater risk, like living in certain more perilous locations because the choice of livelihood dictates it - an awareness of these factors will help us avoid `maladaptation’, which is where vulnerability is inadvertently increased as a result of a response, policy or plan originally meant to help people adapt."

Not that coping is any less important. Provision of essential first aid, food and water to help people cope following a sudden natural event like an earthquake or floods is important and critical, added Mitchell, coordinating lead author of SREX.

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