Global evidence of constraints and limits to human adaptation

Adelle Thomas*, Emily Theokritoff, Alexandra Lesnikowski, D. Reckien, Kripa Jagannathan, Roger Cremades, Donovan Campbell, Elphin Tom Joe, Asha Sitati, Chandni Singh, Alcade C. Segnon, Brian Pentz, Justice Issah Musah-Surugu, Cristina A. Mullin, Katharine J. Mach, Leah Gichuki, Eranga Galappaththi, Vasiliki I. Chalastani, Idowu Ajibade, Raquel Ruiz-DiazCaitlin Grady, Matthias Garschagen, James Ford, Kathryn Bowen, Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative Team

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)
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Constraints and limits to adaptation are critical to understanding the extent to which human and natural systems can successfully adapt to climate change. We conduct a systematic review of 1,682 academic studies on human adaptation responses to identify patterns in constraints and limits to adaptation for different regions, sectors, hazards, adaptation response types, and actors. Using definitions of constraints and limits provided by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we find that most literature identifies constraints to adaptation but that there is limited literature focused on limits to adaptation. Central and South America and Small Islands generally report greater constraints and both hard and soft limits to adaptation. Technological, infrastructural, and ecosystem-based adaptation suggest more evidence of constraints and hard limits than other types of responses. Individuals and households face economic and socio-cultural constraints which also inhibit behavioral adaptation responses and may lead to limits. Finance, governance, institutional, and policy constraints are most prevalent globally. These findings provide early signposts for boundaries of human adaptation and are of high relevance for guiding proactive adaptation financing and governance from local to global scales.

Original languageEnglish
Article number85
Number of pages15
JournalRegional environmental change
Issue number3
Early online date26 Aug 2021
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2021


  • Adaptation
  • Climate change
  • Constraints
  • Limits
  • Systematic review


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