Can resilience framing enable adaptation to a changing climate? Insights from the UK water sector

Produced as part of the Adaptation to climate change and human development CCCEP research programme theme

Paola Sakai and Suraje Dessai

The concept of resilience has been increasingly gaining relevance in the climate change policy arena as a compelling discourse for adaptation to climate change. The UK provides an important case study as the water sector has faced top-down steering from the government and regulators to ensure resilience. This paper investigates what resilience means in practice, which forces are driving the framing of resilience and, more importantly, what resilience means for adaptation to a changing climate. Data was collected through semi-structured interviews and document analysis covering 95% of UK water companies. We take adaptation as a process where responses precede frames which, in turn, are shaped by internal and external factors. Results reveal that resilience is understood as the ability to withstand impacts and continue providing a reliable service. It usually takes a stability connotation and tends to be associated with “low regret solutions” to deal with today´s weather. Framing resilience in this way accommodates the UK sector’s adaptation agenda by building flexibility that will allow water companies to wait and be able to change in a ‘more certain future’. The analysis identifies internal and external factors that are shaping the current framing, e.g. high self-efficacy, uncertainty, regulatory framework, which are influencing actions on the ground. In light of future climate challenges, if resilience, as it currently stands, is seen as an end in itself, there is a risk that it could lead to insufficient actions or ill fated outcomes. Innovation is missing in the sector, as well as a stimulus that influences transformational adaptation. Overall, by critically examining how the concept of resilience is being used, this paper contributes to the debate that adaptation is a process in which frames catalyse or inhibit action. It stresses the importance of setting clear heuristics when communicating climate change adaptation to help crucial sectors to face short and long-term challenges.