Rural households' adaptation to climate change and its implications for policy designs in Lijiang, China

PhD defence

Yuan Zheng


As challenges and opportunities induced by climate change become increasingly manifested, adaptation strategies to these changes have received growing attention. While earlier studies focus on quantifying impacts of climate change or adaptation potential, empirical studies have been increasingly emphasised to document localised and actual adaptation practices. Although the latter has made important contributions to investigating people’s perceptions and interpretations of climate change, examining individual and collective climate responses as well as determinants of and barriers to adaptation, limited research has addressed adaptation and vulnerability from a temporal perspective, in terms of how these have evolved in the past and how they may develop in the future. Moreover, it remains poorly understood what shapes adaptation decision-making and how this can be measured quantitatively.

The thesis, carried out in three mountain villages in southwest China, seeks to advance the understanding of local adaptation process and its implications for vulnerability and policy designs. In particular, the research contributes to quantitative assessment of current and forward-looking adaptation decisions as well as portrayal of vulnerability across scales and over time. Additionally, the thesis aims to verify the importance of subjective variables, such as cognitions, in configuring adaptation. It also attempts to make general methodological contributions by introducing and applying innovative quantitative approaches to model adaptation behaviour.

The thesis consists of four papers. Paper 1 looks at households’ livelihood dynamics during the past three decades, its drivers and implications for vulnerability. Paper 2 investigates households’ motivations to adapt ex-ante to drought in relation to a range of socio-psychological variables. Paper 3 examines ex-post coping strategies of households with two contrasting types of climate extremes, i.e., hailstorms and droughts. Paper 4 analyses how households prefer to adjust their livelihoods among a defined set of possible strategies to expected changes in social-ecological systems. The PhD research demonstrates 1) the interwoven impacts of co-evolving socio-economic, political and environmental changes in shaping livelihood changes and households’ vulnerability; 2) the usefulness to accommodate key cognitive processes, such as risk perception and perceived adaptive capacity, when it comes to explaining adaptation intention; 3) the significance of households’ assets and access to them as well as livelihood features as key constituents of capacity to cope and adapt; 4) the heterogeneity of adaptations and vulnerability profiles across individual households, village groups and also over time. The thesis has highlighted the importance of ‘mainstreaming’ climate adaptation into generic development issues, and suggested several ‘no-regret’ policy interventions to facilitate adaptation. Among these, various livelihood support programs and improvements to assist climate risk management are essential.

Principal Supervisor

Professor Niels Strange, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen

Assessment Committee

Associate Professor Henrik Meilby, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen (chairman);

Professor  Sheona E. Schakleton, Department of Environmental Science, Rhodes University, South Africa;

Professor Kristina Blennow, Department of Landscape architecture, Planning and Management, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Alnarp, Sweden.