Cities have moved from being thought of as sanctuaries from risk to crucibles of hazard and engines of global environmental change. Despite this recognition, academic work has been slow to re-position cities and think through how best these new responsibilities and challenges for urban life might be approached. This paper presents a review of three ways in which existing theory can be applied to explore just one aspect of the relationship between cities and global environmental change: adapting to the risks of climate change. Empirical evidence in particular from Latin America is provided. The model presented identifies three possibilities: resilience, transition and transformation. Each pathway draws from systems and political-economy theory to draw out lessons for adaptation research and policy. Resilience seeks to maintain the status quo. The aim is to use risk management to protect established interests and processes in the city, current inequality is a cost to be paid for stability and the prospect for economic wellbeing this might bring. This is the dominant mode of adaptation with resilience and adaptation almost becoming synonymous. Transition seeks to promote good governance through the promotion of claims on rights that exist in law abut may not be routinely practiced – such as demanding transparency in building standards. The exercising of rights will likely cause changes in the operating and vision of governance systems and the possibility of progressive incremental social change as part of risk reduction. Transitions also unfold at the technological level. Diffusion and socio-technological transitions literature can help provide a framework for identifying the pathways and barriers to transitional change. Importantly, these literatures see external pressure (e.g. Global Environmental Change) acting upon existing regimes as a key motor for change. Transformation seeks to overhaul dominant development regimes, including political systems and the distribution of power across the city as part of adapting. Transformation can occur at the level of individual consciousness and institutional regime. Transformation is the most costly form of adaptation but in specific circumstances has been forced in the past (e.g. Mexico City following the 1985 earthquake) suggesting that transformations will be forced in the future as pressure from global environmental change grows, unless adaptation as transition and resilience can be seen to meet social and political as well as environmental risk gaps in the city. The implications of this analytical lens of adaptation and global environmental change for cities is not to argue for any one pathway as preferred – context and the viewpoint of stakeholders will determine this – but rather to make the more fundamental arguments that: (1) social and political power need to be considered when addressing risk and its management in cities, (2) that power dynamics will influence the extent to which proximate or root causes of risk are included in assessments of risk and its management, and (3) that social thresholds are as important and physical thresholds for helping identify where established urban socio-ecological systems may experience collapse and renewal.