Climate Change, Environment, United Kingdom

Key concepts:

Climate change mitigation refers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in order to slow or stop global climate change (i.e. flying less, using renewable energy).

Climate change adaptation refers to adjusting to the impacts of climate change to reduce the negative impacts and exploit opportunities (i.e. building sea walls, planting green spaces, purchasing flood insurance).

Climate resilience refers to the ability system and its component parts to anticipate, absorb, transform or recover from the effects of a climate-related event in a timely and efficient manner.

While the coronavirus pandemic may have driven a record drop in carbon emissions, we know that the climate is still changing and that we remain locked into a degree of warming, along with the associated impacts that it will bring. Collective adaptation to these changes is non-negotiable; even if we continue to decrease our carbon emissions to net-zero, it is impossible to eradicate the risk from climate change impacts. Therefore, we need to put systems in place that allow us to be prepared to adapt and respond to these impacts. Individuals and communities have a crucial role to play.

There is plenty of opportunity for the public and private sector to embed resilience into their programs, policies and operations as we both reimagine and rebuild from coronavirus. We must also recognize, however, that individuals and communities are already taking action to adapt to and become more resilient in the face of climate change, and that there are ways in which individuals and communities can strengthen this resilience going forward.

The Sustainable and Resilient Cities team at AECOM took part in supporting research for the UK Climate Change Committee’s third Climate Change Risk Assessment (forthcoming 2022). Our research, entitled Understanding how behaviors can influence climate change risk sought to identify what autonomous adaptation behaviors people in the UK are currently undertaking (e.g. without the influence of government or private incentives), why they were undertaking them, and how to incentivize behaviors that are ostensibly risk-reducing.

One key outcome of the research was our delineation of behavior typologies (Table 1). These typologies are useful for the public and decision-makers alike to understand, so that they can be better informed about how they interrelate and influence risk. Similarly, decision-makers can use the patterns in behavior typology to inform how larger scale policies or projects can be best designed to complement local autonomous adaptation.

Table 1.  Adaptive behavior typologies

Behavior type



Hazard reduction

To limit or avoid exposure to climate change hazards

Move to a new property to avoid coastal erosion

Vulnerability reduction

To reduce current and future vulnerability to hazards

Install removable flood barriers

Preparedness for response

To provide functional and flexible mechanisms, systems and structures for disaster response

Have a household emergency kit prepared

Coping during crisis

To provide short-term solutions to mitigate harm during a hazard

Take cool showers during a heat wave

Preparedness for recovery

To provide functional and flexible mechanisms, systems and structures for disaster recovery

Have tools on hand to remove debris after a storm

Source: AECOM, 2020.

Perhaps even more important than the what people are doing, is the why. The underlying factors that drive people to take adaptive action or not can be leveraged to incentivize autonomous adaptation. Our research found five key factors that strongly influenced behavior (see Table 2).

Table 2.  Underlying factors influencing behavior



Perceived response-efficacy

The belief that the behavior will be effective

Perceived self-efficacy

The belief that one has the capability to undertake a behavior

Direct past experience

Previous experiences of a climate event impacts negative affect (e.g. negative emotions around something that trigger action to resolve those emotions) and learning, driving future adaptive behavior

Social norms and social capital

The norms of the local context and actions of behaviors, social ties and links, sense of community

Socio-demographic factors

Marital status, gender, income, political orientation and value orientation

Source: AECOM, 2020.

These factors have a lot to tell us about how local councils and organizations can incentivize people to undertake adaptive action. For example, providing clear and easily accessible information about which adaptation actions are effective goes a long way towards prompting people to do them. One clear way this could be stepped up is articulating to people that adaptation is not all about physical infrastructure. Adaptation also includes actions like having emergency supply kits, having strong social networks so you have resources and support to draw upon in hard times, purchasing insurance to make sure that damage to an asset doesn’t cause someone to fall into debt, and so on.

Additionally, local authorities can support community organizations and schools to integrate makers studios into existing spaces, to support people to feel more confident that they have the requisite skills to take action (perceived self-efficacy). These spaces have the dual benefit of providing knowledge-sharing opportunities but also strengthening the social networks of a community, which is essential to building resilience.

And while we hope that people don’t have to experience climate-related events, the fact is many of us will in the coming years. Therefore, councils have a role to play in supporting people to build their own capacity to adapt, and to build their resilience following these events, as those with direct past experience are more likely to act. This can then translate into social norms that might influence others.

Leveraging autonomous adaptation also fits well with the current shift towards more flexible working environments and more hyperlocal ways of living. As we reframe our existing systems of working and living in response to coronavirus, we need to in-build resilience into these new systems, ensuring these systems are flexible and adaptable. On an individual level, our research recognizes that there is no one-size fits all approach to autonomous adaptation and different approaches will be and should be taken depending on the context and the person. Human behavior is flexible and adaptable, and that’s what councils need to encourage and facilitate if the UK is to adapt successfully to climate change.

This article was originally written for the Local Path to Net Zero series on the UK’s Local Government Association website

Originally published Mar 24, 2021

Author: Antje Lang