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The Poverty of Climate Change Adaptation

by Marcus Taylor on January 19, 2015

Over the past decade, the notion of ‘climate change adaptation’ has become the conceptual lynchpin of institutional responses to global climate change. Nowhere is this more evident that in the field of international development where adaptation and its compelling imagery of impending climatic disturbances and requisite social adjustments has become the de facto means through which climate change is conceptualised and responses planned. The rationale for this mainstreaming of adaptation appears to be self-evident.

An overwhelming consensus within scientific and development organisations contends that global climate change is triggering profound transformations in social and ecological systems that will cause significant dislocations and stress among affected populations, most notably in the developing world. In the Human Development Report, ‘Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World’, the United Nations Development Programme, for example, labels climate change as the ‘defining human development issue of our generation’ and one that challenges the enlightenment aspiration of a collective journey of humanity towards a better future. Failure to recognise and deal with the effects of climate change, the UNDP estimates, will consign the world’s poorest 40 percent to a future of diminished opportunity and will sharpen the already acute divisions between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’.

In response, the emphatic call for ‘adaptation now!’ has become paramount in both the academic and policy literatures. It builds from the seemingly self-evident proposition that, if the climate is changing in ways that threaten the existing parameters and future wellbeing of society, humanity must respond through a process of planned adaptation that can safeguard against such escalating risks. On this basis, the goal of adaptation is now deployed across a range of institutional sites as a basis on which to design and legitimise development policy and other interventions.

A submerged statue of the Hindu Lord Shiva stands amid the flooded waters of river Ganges at Rishikesh in UttarakhandThe significance of the rise of adaptation should not be underestimated. In the context of powerful imageries of climatic impacts, adaptation now stands as both the primary framework for understanding for the intersection of climate, environment and society and, simultaneously, a new normative goal for governmental practice. From governments to international development institutions, NGOs and social movements, new claims relating to development priorities, financial resources and the legitimacy to act are increasingly being made within the framework of adaptation. At the same time, longstanding claims are being hastily repackaged under this rubric for fear of being marginalised.

Given this role in setting priorities and determining the distribution of public and private resources, the adaptation framework is inherently political. Yet, despite the political nature of both the discourse and practices of climate change adaptation, much of the policy and academic literature on adaptation obscures precisely this point. Adaptation is presented as a necessity that stands outside of politics, with debate restricted to questions of how it should be enacted. Part of the problem is that adaptation itself is represented as a natural and inevitable way to conceptualise and act upon ecological change in general and climatic change in particular. By building on the seeming self-evidence of the notion that humans must adapt to survive, the concept of adaptation therein resonates with deep-seated ideas of natural evolutionary trajectories and historical change.

TaylorNotwithstanding sympathy with many stated intentions of adaptation as a normative goal, we should be exceedingly wary of how climate change adaptation frames the complex relations between climatic processes and social dynamics. As I illustrate at length in my new book, The Political Ecology of Climate Change Adaptation, the salience of adaptation within contemporary policy making rests not on its conceptual integrity but instead on its ability to simplify climatic change and render it legible to the registers of governmental planning. This occurs because the adaptation framework is predicated upon a problematic internal-external dualism between climate and society that stifles adequate understanding of how humans actively – yet unequally – produce the world around them.

To briefly elaborate, the adaptation framework builds outwards from a conceptualisation of climate and society in which the former is represented as a cohesive external system that generates threats, stresses and disturbances; and the latter is portrayed as a separate domain of social structures that are unevenly vulnerable to climatic change. From these foundations, the framework produces a ‘world of adaptation’ in which all social units can be understood and acted upon in terms of a universal schematic of exposure to external climatic threats. In so doing, it consolidates a social imaginary of individuals, households, communities, regions, economic sectors and nations all with different vulnerabilities and adaptive capacities in the face of an external climate that, tipped off balance by the unintended actions of humans, is dangerously off-kilter.

I argue that this foundational dichotomy between climate and society as two separate yet mutually influencing systems – an imagery that reproduces the problematic Cartesian dualism between ‘society’ and ‘nature’ – profoundly limits critical thinking about climatic change. This is because it leads inexorably towards the representation of climate change as a series of external shocks and disturbances to an otherwise coherent society. Through such separations, climate change is parsed out and isolated from the complex processes of socio-ecological production through which our lived environments are constantly reproduced and transformed. It abstracts away from how socio-ecological change is driven by the undulating rhythms of capital accumulation, technological change, flows of commodities and human bodies, and contested political practices that continually reconfigure space. Climatic change is not an exception or externality to these processes and it makes no sense to detach it as some sort of independent variable. On the contrary, it is a further enduring element – both cause and effect – of the active production of our starkly uneven lived environments.

Indeed, given the impossibility of neatly separating out such processes, our attention is better served asking why the discourse of adaptation rests on and reproduces a conceptual framework that orders socio-ecological relations in this dichotomous fashion. The answer, I believe, can be found in the enduring institutional need to fashion climate change as a distinct realm of governmentality in which processes of change can seemingly be circumscribed, managed and controlled. This intrinsically biopolitical impetus to make climate change governable, however, comes at the expense of obscuring crucial political questions about power and sustainability within the ongoing production of our lived environments. The result is that the adaptation framework intrinsically lends itself to a technocratic politics that seeks to contain the perceived threats posed by climate change within existing institutional parameters and social hierarchies.

As an example, consider the loudly voiced consternation among international institutions about the necessity of adaptation for pastoral herders in rural Mongolia. Under the spectre of global climate change and the projection of increased extreme weather events, such herders are argued to be uniquely and deeply vulnerable to climate change. The resulting adaptation projects financed by the Asian Development Bank and others are framed in terms of building ‘resilience’ to climatic stresses. This analysis and enactment of adaptation, however, occurs in strict discursive isolation from the rapid development of extensive coal mining across the country. This is a rather significant elision. Mongolia – aided by both international development institutions, hedge funds and mining conglomerates – is currently developing massive coal deposits estimated as sufficient to power all coal-fired power plants in China for the next fifty years. Such power plants are widely regarded as amongst the most polluting in terms of both CO2 releases and localised soot pollution, both of which contribute to grassland degradation on the steppe and therefore the direct undermining of pastoral practices. That these two directly contradictory processes can proceed alongside each other, funded by the same institutional bodies in different capacities, is testament to the power of the discursive separations inherent to the discourse of climate change adaptation. It facilitates the anatomically impossible act of riding two horses simultaneously in opposite directions.


It is precisely the fractured analyses that the adaptation paradigm produces that account for its popularity at an institutional level. This is because the spectre of anthropogenic climate change opens a window onto a decidedly stratified global socio-ecology in which the production of resources and commodities, their consumption, the distribution of their waste products and the ensuing gains and risks involved in such processes are brutally uneven in their distribution within and across nation states. In short, climate change raises dirty questions concerning capitalism as a form of organising socio-ecological relations on a global scale while bringing new attention onto the uneven legacies of its historical past. Within the adaptation paradigm, however, dealing with climate change can be neatly isolated from consideration of how climatic change is interwoven with a global apparatus of market rule through which the human and natural resources necessary for expanded accumulation are incorporated into strikingly uneven global divisions of production and consumption.

On a political level, therefore, confronting climate change is emphatically not about adapting to an external threat. Instead, it is about producing ourselves differently. This involves explicitly foregrounding ways to collectively deleverage a global capitalist order that is predicated upon the unending accumulation of productive forces and consumptive practices that give rise to the deadly metabolisms inherent to climatic change. That, in turn, requires opening up the fundamental premises of development and its teleology of globalising boundless consumption. Simultaneously, it raises the need to re-imagine redistribution in new ways as a central pillar of future equitable socio-ecological transformation.

Thinking beyond adaptation will be central to turning such possibilities into practice.

Marcus Taylor
Marcus Taylor is an Associate Professor in the Department of Global Development Studies at Queen’s University in Canada. His new book, The Political Ecology of Climate Change Adaptation: Livelihoods, Agrarian Change and the Conflicts of Development was published by Earthscan/Routledge in hardback and ebook versions. The author, however, has access to a special print run of paperback copies that he can make available for anyone wanting to purchase the book at a greatly reduced price!

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