Abstract The realisation of climate change and its potential impacts on coastal environments and coastal communities has prompted much activity in the realm of ‘adaptation’. Adaptation is typically viewed as actions in response to climate change that seek to limit its impacts and/or bring some benefit to human society. In this paper we consider adaptation actions in response to the twin risks of coastal flooding and recession both of which are likely to increase in frequency/rate and magnitude as a result of global climate change. Adaptation actions are classified on a spectrum based on the degree of planned modification of (i) human activities or (ii) the physical coastal environment. At one end of the spectrum is a set of activities that involve changing human activities to suit the changing environment (e.g. innovative building design, relocation of infrastructure and/or people, changing landuse or livelihoods). At the other extreme are activities (e.g. building or raising flood defences, building or strengthening seawalls, nourishing beaches) that involve resisting environmental change in order to preserve existing infrastructure and human activities. Between these two extremes are a few initiatives that involve components of both approaches. A qualitative review of current practice suggests that most adaptation activity is in the category of seeking to preserve human activities and infrastructure. This form of response is better termed ‘resistance’ than ‘adaptation’. These conservative and short-term goals of protecting fixed assets and existing activities, are damaging to the environment, involve significant cost and increase future risk of catastrophic failure. Those measures that involve adaptation of human activities in response to the changing coastal environment are likely to be more sustainable in the longer term, but are politically more difficult to implement.