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Adaptation to climate change is a policy objective of rapidly growing importance for development programming across the Global South. This article offers an interrogation of the discursive politics surrounding the term based on insights from postcolonial theory. By employing a theoretical framework rooted in the concepts of imaginative geographies and discursive violence, this contribution seeks to deconstruct how adaptation is being imagined and promoted by development actors in a Global South context. The underlying study adopts a multisited, institutional ethnography to critically analyze an adaptation project in São Tomé and Príncipe (STP) implemented jointly by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the national government. The article presents evidence for how agents of development (re)produce an imaginative geography of the country’s vulnerability and engage in a discursive violence that renders project beneficiaries vulnerable on the one hand, and seeks to transform them into model adaptation subjects on the other. It discusses how local residents have been effectively excluded from the project based on their perceived vulnerabilities and points to critical political theory and “imaginative countergeographies” as ways in which the disempowering representations of the Global South as vulnerable and the discursive violence committed against its residents can be counteracted.
The discursive politics of adaptation to climate change
Michael Mikulewicz
Research Fellow
Centre for Climate Justice, Glasgow Caledonian University
Cowcaddens Road
G4 0BA
E-mail address
Adaptation to climate change is a policy objective of rapidly growing importance for
development programming across the Global South. This article offers an interrogation of the
discursive politics surrounding the term based on insights from post-colonial theory. By
employing a theoretical framework rooted in the concepts of imaginative geographies and
discursive violence, this contribution seeks to deconstruct how adaptation is being imagined
and promoted by development actors in a Global South context. The underlying study adopts
a multi-sited, institutional ethnography to critically analyze an adaptation project in São Tomé
and Príncipe (STP) implemented jointly by the United Nations Development Program
(UNDP) and the national government. The article presents evidence for how agents of
development (re)produce an imaginative geography of the country’s vulnerability and engage
in a discursive violence that renders project beneficiaries vulnerable on the one hand, and
seeks to transform them into model adaptation subjects, on the other. It discusses how local
residents have been effectively excluded from the project based on their perceived
vulnerabilities, and points to critical political theory and “imaginative counter-geographies”
as ways in which the disempowering representations of the Global South as vulnerable and
the discursive violence committed against its residents can be counteracted.
adaptation, Africa, development, discursive violence, imaginative geography
I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers whose profound insights have greatly
improved this paper compared to its original version. Special thanks to Saska Petrova, James
Evans, Marcus Taylor and Shannon O’Lear who helped me shape my thinking on this topic
and offered important words of encouragement. I am also very grateful to Graham at the
Cartographic Unit at the School of Environment, Education and Development at the
University of Manchester for producing the map included in this article. I owe a debt of
gratitude to the UNDP staff at the Regional Service Center for Africa in Addis Ababa and the
Country Office in São Tomé and Príncipe for accommodating my professional and personal
needs during fieldwork. My deepest appreciation goes to the residents of Liberdade who
extended their hospitality and assistance during my visits to their village. I am forever
indebted to Davilson for always making me feel welcome in his home.
Introduction: A different look at adaptation
Since the early 1990s, adaptation to climate change has gradually entrenched itself in
the agendas of actors involved in climate governance, including governments, aid agencies,
international organizations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). There is a pressing,
almost universally recognized need for the world to adapt to the various impacts of a
changing climate, such as increasingly frequent and devastating droughts and floods. We
must swiftly adapt, it is oft-argued, or we risk paying a very high price for inaction. As a
result, we tend to view adaptation as an undisputed imperative for the Global North and the
Global South alike. At the level of development praxis, in particular, adaptation is emerging
as a guiding principle for programming, with governments, businesses, and non-
governmental organizations (NGOs) hard at work producing policies, plans, and projects to
prepare human populations for the anticipated destabilization of the global climate system
(IPCC 2018). Academics, too, seem to have jumped on the “adaptation bandwagon,” having
produced a flourishing literature on the subject (Brown 2016; Bulkeley and Tuts 2013;
Chandler and Reid 2016; Pelling 2011; Taylor 2014; McCarthy et al. 2014; Adger et al.
2006). Over the past 25 years, this intellectual effort on what adaptation is or should be has
conceived a myriad of definitions and typologies of the term, as well as of the related
concepts of vulnerability and resilience (for example, see: Pelling 2011; Ribot 2014; Brown
Much of this activity is well-warranted. It should not be disputed that climate change is a real
threat to human progress, particularly in the Global South, and adaptation presents itself as a
much-needed response to this threat. Therefore, in this article, I do not wish to diminish the
importance of climate impacts for local livelihoods in the Global South, nor to reject the
notion of adaptation outright, but rather provide a critical interrogation of the discursive
politics that accompanies the concept. By discursive politics, I refer to “the intentional or
unintentional engaging of policy actors in conceptual disputes that result in meanings
attributed to the terms and concepts employed in specific contexts” (Lombardo, Meier, and
Verloo 2009, 10). Feminist scholars, for instance, have applied this analytical lens to
investigate the use of the term “gender equality,” noting that actors tend to fix, shrink, stretch
and bend it in ways to further other goals and policy interests (Lombardo, Meier, and Verloo
2010). What I propose here is that a discursive politics approach can help uncover the
specific, often invisible representational mechanisms through which adaptation to climate
change is molded to fit the business-as-usual, neoliberal articulations of local development in
the Global South.
The need for an interrogation of this kind stems from the dominance of positivist approaches
in adaptation theory and praxis (Bassett and Fogelman 2013), which have remained
consistently uncritical of the term’s discursive and, consequently, material implications. By
drawing insights from post-colonial theory, which I argue has much to offer for analyzing
externally-driven responses to climate change in a development context (also see: Chaturvedi
and Doyle 2015; Dawson 2013), this paper contributes to the slowly emerging field of critical
adaptation studies (Eriksen, Nightingale, and Eakin 2015; Nightingale 2017; Nightingale et
al. 2019; Symons 2014; Taylor 2014; Tschakert et al. 2016). Within this body of work, one of
the first discursive inquiries into “adaptation” as a concept is provided by Marcus Taylor
(2014) who observes the term has become humanity’s “common-sense default assumption”
when dealing with climate change (Taylor 2014, 14). However, as he argues, adaptation is not
some benign, evolutionary process which humanity must undergo to adjust to climate change
but rather a powerful discourse that legitimizes specific forms of depoliticized governance
that leads to technocratic solutions and prevents any meaningful social transformation (Taylor
2014). In a similar vein, Chandler and Reid demonstrate how development (and adaptation as
its integral part) has evolved from its original concern with transforming the external world to
“the transformation of the adaptive capacities of the subject” (2016, 75). As such, they point
to the powerful neoliberal subject-making potential of concepts such as adaptation and
resilience. This paper draws on these critical insights and, supported by primary and
secondary data, it illustrates how the dominant adaptation discourse facilitates and translates
into specific material outcomes for local beneficiaries of international aid.
In the next section, I provide a short review of two key concepts that allow me to interrogate
the discursive politics mobilized by the development sector in promoting local adaptation to
climate change -- imaginative geographies and discursive violence. Next, following an
overview of the study context, I discuss the adopted methodological approach -- a multi-sited,
institutional ethnography. In the most substantial part of the article, I conduct a critical
analysis of the discursive processes surrounding the implementation of the adaptation project
carried out in São Tomé and Príncipe (STP) by the national government and the United
Nations Development Program (UNDP), with a focus on the local community of Liberdade1
-- one of its selected beneficiaries. This part will also consider the implications of the
discussed processes for local people in the Global South. In the conclusion, I reflect on these
implications further and discuss potential ways to resist the disempowering nature of the
discursive politics of adaptation.
Imaginative geographies of vulnerability and the discursive violence of adaptation: A
short review
Imaginative geographies: Securitizing climate change in the vulnerable periphery
The concept of Edward Said’s imaginative geography is a helpful starting point for
unpacking the discursive politics of adaptation. Said anchors his seminal critique of
Orientalism in what he argues is an arbitrarily constructed ontological and epistemological
difference expressed in geographical terms as the West and the Orient, which serves to assert
the former’s political, economic, intellectual, and cultural superiority over the latter (Said
2003). To illustrate how this radical difference comes to be and is perpetuated, he uses the
concept of imaginative geography, a discursive device that draws “dramatic boundaries”
between the Western world and everything that it is not (Said 2003, 73). As an example, he
delivers a discursive analysis of early 20th century historical accounts on colonial Egypt
delivered by two key members of the British colonial administration, Arthur James Balfour
and Evelyn Baring. Both viewed the colony as a backward beneficiary of Britain’s civilizing
mission grounded in the view that Egyptians -- similarly to any other subject population and
unlike Europeans -- “did not have it in them to know what was good for them” (Said 2003,
37). Said argues that imaginative geographies of this kind lead to various philosophical,
rhetorical and psychological results, which constantly work to make the Orient “real” (since
the Orient is not a fact of nature) and to meticulously anatomize it into manageable (or
governable) parts, culminating into a unilateral exercise of power. In his later work that
expands on these ideas, he charts how the reach of the imperial past extends through various
Orientalist permutations to the present, citing the portrayals of Islam and the First Gulf War
in Western media as key examples (Said 1997; 1994).
Around the same time, Said’s ideas on colonialism and imperialism were being adapted to
inform post-structural critiques of international development. In his seminal contribution to
this work, for instance, Escobar (1995) notes that the development discourse follows the
same principles as colonialism by creating “an extremely efficient apparatus for producing
knowledge about, and the exercise of power over, the Third World” (1995, 9). Development,
in his view, deploys a series of imaginative geographies which generate a clear-cut division
between the developed North and the underdeveloped South, in turn giving rise to the
production of specific subjectivities and social orders. As he pointedly observes, development
literature and admittedly practice tends to create:
a subjectivity endowed with features of powerlessness, passivity,
poverty and ignorance, usually dark and lacking in historical agency,
as if waiting for the (white) Western hand to help subjects along and
not infrequently hungry, illiterate, needy and oppressed by its own
stubbornness, lack of initiative and traditions (1995, 8).
Such subjectivities justify and broaden the scope for external social control. International
development -- with its top-down, technocratic approach to pursuing progress and lifting
people in the Global South out of poverty -- is, he argues, a clear example of such power
(Escobar 1995). Imaginative geographies of development necessarily evoke dramatized and
reductionist tendencies (e.g. all people in the Global South require help, the West’s
intervention in their countries is always a positive) that seek to create a specific yet
fundamentally arbitrary worlds of poverty and trouble. This leads Gregory et al. (2009, 371)
to note that imaginative geographies, while purporting to represent the Other, do so only
partially, and that as “spaces of constructed (in)visibility,” they are used by powerful agents
(in this case, Western governments and development organizations) to solidify their
neocolonial grip on the periphery.
More recently, geographers and scholars in security studies have deployed the concept of
imaginative geography when analyzing such climate-related issues as environmental
governance and mitigation (Chaturvedi and Doyle 2015), migration and displacement
(Farbotko 2010; Baldwin 2012; Narang 2015), conflict (Korf 2011), and activism (Dawson
2013). In one of the most recent applications, Chaturvedi and Doyle (2015, 62) use the
imaginative geographies of climate change to illustrate the totalizing discursive process that
produces a “global soul” of the undifferentiated mass of humanity collectively affected by its
global enemy -- climate. Borrowing from international studies, it can thus be argued that
climate change has undergone a process of securitization, understood as “the intersubjective
establishment of an existential threat with a saliency sufficient to have substantial political
effects” (Buzan, Wæver, and Wilde 1998, 25). This securitization is not exclusively rational
and objective, as suggested by evidence delivered by scientific bodies such as the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but also cultural and political, leading to
imaginative geographies that produce widespread representations of climate change as a
global threat to humanity (O’Lear 2018; Kenis and Lievens 2014). Apocalyptic depictions of
climate change pervade popular culture and political discourse and, unsurprisingly, frequently
lead to vigorous calls to address the problem so that humanity can avoid the “dystopian end
of times” (Williams and Booth 2013, 26; Symons 2014). In the context of adaptation, this
usually takes the form of language that creates an urgency to “brace for impact” of climate
change. This fear-based populist discourse thus creates a universal consensus around the
urgent need for all countries and societies to prepare for impending climate change disasters
(Macgregor 2014; Swyngedouw 2010), in turn providing a powerful legitimizing force for
adaptation as a policy goal across the globe.
While Chaturvedi and Doyle (2015) use imaginative geographies primarily in the context of
climate change mitigation to create a dramatized distinction between humanity as a whole
and climate as its global enemy, the totalizing effect of imaginative geographies should be
further qualified and scrutinized in the context of what appears to have become the
development sector’s crusade for adapting the Global South to the impacts of climate change.
Certainly, climate change is a global process in the sense that no place on Earth will manage
to avoid its far-reaching biophysical and social impacts. That said, the totalizing rhetoric
representing climate change as an imminent, global threat to humanity as a whole stands at
odds with the growing recognition that we are not all equally vulnerable to its impacts -- a
cornerstone argument of academics and activists concentrated around the idea of climate
justice (Jafry, Helwig, and Mikulewicz 2019; Shue 2014; Goodman 2009; Bond 2012; Fisher
2015; Gardiner 2011). And while climate change impacts do not follow regional or national
borders, the way we think about them certainly does. At the ontological level, adaptation to
climate change replicates what Escobar dubs the Orientalizing path of development through
the production of the imaginative geographies of the periphery’s vulnerability, considered to
be significantly higher than the vulnerability of the rest of the globe. In other words, rather
than portraying climate change as an existential threat to all humans everywhere, these
imaginative geographies recast its impacts as particularly dangerous for the vulnerable Global
South. Thus, just as development studies rely on the ontology of underdevelopment, a
concept that legitimizes development intervention itself (Tripathy and Mohapatra 2011),
mainstream approaches to adaptation rely on a parallel ontology of vulnerability, which
warrants external assistance to those in climate peril. Reproblematized in this way, climate
change ceases to be a planetary crisis and instead becomes a threat that a certain part of
humanity should help another part of humanity address by virtue of the latter’s financial (lack
of funds), technological (lack of access to technology), and technical (lack of skills and
know-how) inferiority. If one considers adaptation to climate change an intrinsic part of
international development, a field of work wrought with highly disproportionate power
relationships as post-colonial and post-development scholars have argued (Kapoor 2008;
Ahluwalia 2001), then its propensity for reproducing similarly uneven imaginative
geographies is hardly surprising.
Discursive violence and adaptation to climate change
If the concept of imaginative geography helps deconstruct how places in the Global
South are rendered vulnerable, the lens of discursive violence offers to recalibrate the
analytical focus to the people residing in those very places. Discursive violence does not have
a rigid definition, and the term has been used in diverse ways across social sciences from
radical political philosophy, post-colonial, feminist, and queer studies, critical human
geography, to legal studies. A review of the literature suggests that the way in which
discursive violence is conceptualized and used by theorists can be divided into two strictly
related iterations. First, the concept is understood in Gramscian and Foucauldian terms as a
clash of often contradictory discourses competing for ontological and epistemological
hegemony. Sampson (2006), for instance, uses the term interchangeably with “discursive
struggle” when she considers the contested representations and ways of thinking about the
Northern Irish identity created during the conflict in Ireland. Relatedly, Jiwani (2009)
describes discursive violence in the context of race and gender inequality as speech acts that
normalize certain ways of thinking over others (also see: Corradi Fiumara 1995). When
discussing the near-hegemonic role of the United Nations (UN) in international conflict
resolution and post-conflict reconstruction in the context of gender inequality, Shepherd and
Sjoberg (2012, 97) identify discursive violence in the “‘trickle down’ theory of [UN]
expertise,” which forecloses the legitimacy of alternative knowledges, ultimately
subordinating the feminine subject and presenting her as irredeemably weak. However, this
iteration of discursive violence is perhaps best illustrated by the concept of “epistemic
violence” introduced by Gayatri Spivak in her seminal essay Can the Subaltern Speak?
(1988, 76). Using the British codification of Hindu law as an example, Spivak deploys the
concept to criticize Foucault’s lack of recognition for imperialism’s complicity in the
historical, systemic denial and undermining of non-Western knowledges (Spivak 1988). In
consequence, as she argues, epistemic violence naturalizes the West’s superiority and
dominance over the post-colony and constructs a heterogeneous Other -- a subaltern deprived
of agency.
In fact, Othering and pathologization constitute the second iteration of discursive violence.
While it is strictly related to the first one, authors who use discursive violence in this context
focus their attention more explicitly on the subjects against whom it is committed. Again,
Spivak’s (1988, 104) discussion on the subject of (post-)colonial dominance -- a subaltern
who “cannot speak” -- is one of the most prominent examples of the deconstruction of
Othering. In a similar vein, Aldama (2003, 5) describes discursive violence in the context of
feminist and queer studies as “fear-based discourses of otherization and pathologization of
subjects whose positions are at the margins and borders of dominant cultural and political
apparatuses.” Literature is rife with examples of discursive violence perpetuated against
marginalized groups, including transgender people (van der Hoek 2011), aboriginal people
(Jiwani 2009), people of color (Mitchell 2014), women and asylum-seekers (Fernando 2016),
poachers in biodiversity conservation areas (Neumann 2004), and the elderly (Kunow 2016).
In the field of legal studies, discursive violence is approached more directly as hate speech
against those considered different or unacceptable, leading to theorizations on its relationship
with and implications for the freedom of speech (Leezenberg 2015).
Both these iterations of discursive violence provide important analytical insights for the
critical discussion on the discursive politics of adaptation that follows. First, at the level of
epistemological legitimization, if we accept that adaptation is, from the standpoint of
knowledge and best practice, still a contested field, then it becomes clear that the Western-
centric understandings of adaptation (and similarly, of resilience and vulnerability) are on a
collision course with local conceptions of what it means to be prepared for climate impacts. If
anything, the history of failed, top-down development certainly provides supporting evidence
for this concern (Ferguson 1994; Cooke and Kothari 2001; Mosse 2011; Rodney 2012; Taylor
2016). In the specific context of climate change and adaptation, these ontological tensions
tend to enter the sphere of humans’ relationship with nature. For Jasanoff (2010, 235), for
instance, “an impersonal, apolitical, and universal imaginary of climate change, projected and
endorsed by science, takes over from the subjective, situated and normative imaginations of
human actors engaging directly with nature.” This imaginary, therefore, eliminates the more
experiential or phenomenological understandings of climate change in the Global South, and
instead foregrounds those rooted in Western rationality and scientific objectivism (Kythreotis
2012; Taylor 2014). Under these conditions, adaptation efforts are bound to commit
discursive violence against those they seek to assist -- those deemed “vulnerable” -- at the
level of production and legitimization of knowledge. This iteration of the discursive violence
of adaptation helps illustrate the West’s tight grip on climate science (produced
predominantly in Europe and North America), an arguable vestige of imperial control.
As for the second approach, which focuses on Othering and pathologization, an appropriately
geographical definition of discursive violence for the context of adaptation in the Global
South can be borrowed from Jones et al., who describe it as “processes and practices to script
groups or persons in places, and in ways that counter how they would define themselves”
(1997, 394, emphasis in original). States and people in the Global South are represented and
approached by the development sector in a very particular mode that denies them their
agency to meaningfully participate in adaptation planning, implementation and monitoring
without external help. They are therefore Othered, pathologized or -- even more accurately in
this case -- rendered vulnerable (Taylor 2014) by being scripted into the homogenous
periphery as subaltern subjects requiring outside assistance if they are ever to achieve
The imaginative geographies of the Global South’s vulnerability and the associated discursive
violence inflicted upon its residents are thus two interrelated processes that allow us to
deconstruct the discursive politics of adaptation, or how this urgent development goal in the
Global South is represented, thought, and talked about. While imaginative geographies
portray it as place that is extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts, discursive violence
helps uncover how this geographically-expressed imaginary affects people and their
knowledges. Skeptics will rightly ask about the extent to which representations of this kind
are actually damaging. And it is true that discursive difference is only as powerful as its
material consequences for those oppressed. However, what clearly unites the critical theorists
mentioned above is their recognition that there exists a direct relationship between discursive
violence and material violence, wherein the former often paves the way to the latter (Aldama
2003; Mitchell 2014; Said 2003). In other words, they suggest that discourse translates into
material outcomes, and it may do so in a highly stratified manner. If that is indeed the case,
then how exactly does the discursive politics of adaptation affect the people in the Global
South expected to adapt to climate change, and what are its actual material implications? The
remaining part of this article will seek to address these questions by using the aforementioned
adaptation project in STP as a case study.
Study context
The country
Located in the Gulf of Guinea, STP is the second smallest country in Africa (after
Seychelles), both in terms of area and population. A small island developing state (SIDS), it
comprises two major islands, São Tomé and Príncipe, and a number of islets, totaling 1,001
square kilometers (see Figure 1). The country has a population of around 210,000, with over
70,000 people residing in the capital city of São Tomé (World Bank 2019). STP’s history has
largely been tied to agriculture, and its society shaped by the structure and dynamics of a cash
crop plantation economy. Portuguese explorers arrived in the islands in early 1470s, an event
that would precipitate a period of over 500 years of subjugation to Portugal -- one of the
longest experiences of colonial rule in history (Seibert 2006). The region lent itself well to the
cultivation of sugarcane, as it benefitted from a tropical climate, rich volcanic soils, and
availability of slave labor from nearby Congo and Benin (there was in all likelihood no
autochthonous population on the islands before colonization). Owing to its colonial past, the
country’s official language is Portuguese, and there are also four main and mutually non-
intelligible Creole languages in use.2 Today, STP is one of the most impoverished countries in
the world -- its nominal gross domestic product (GDP) per capita is $1,760 USD, and it is
classified by the UN as a Least Developed Country (LDC) (World Bank 2017). Over 90
percent of its budgetary spending is financed by foreign aid (INDC 2015).
[Figure 1 near here]
The archipelago is made up by volcanic islands and islets, with the southernmost one (Ilhéu
das Rolas) located exactly on the equator. The region’s climate is humid tropical with
abundant rainfall throughout the entire year, with the exception of the months of June, July,
and August, a period of lower precipitation called gravana (NAPA 2006; Ministry of National
Resources and the Environment 2004). The mean annual temperature is 26 degrees Celsius,
with significant regional variation between 27 degrees in the coastal areas and 21 degrees in
the mountains, and a high level of humidity throughout the year (Ministry of National
Resources and the Environment 2004). The high relief results in a number of microclimates
on the island, with the south and south-west receiving the highest amount of rainfall (around
7,000 mm per year) and the north and the north-east displaying a more semi-arid, savanna-
like climate characterized by relatively low precipitation (around 1,000 mm per year)
(Ministry of Public Works, Infrastructures, Natural Resources and the Environment 2019).
In terms of local climate change impacts, the mean temperature in STP has increased by 0.6
degrees Celsius between 1960 and 2016, with the five warmest years having occurred
between 1998 and 2018 (Ministry of Public Works, Infrastructures, Natural Resources and
the Environment 2019). The trend has been towards the extremes, with the dry season
becoming drier and rainfall increasing during the more humid months (Giardino, de Keizer,
and Schellekens 2011; NAPA 2006; Ministry of Public Works and Natural Resources 2012).
The mean annual temperature in STP is expected to rise further by between one and two
degrees Celsius by 2045-2065 (Ministry of Public Works, Infrastructures, Natural Resources
and the Environment 2019), with the gravana having already been reported to last up to six
months (April to September). As a result of these projections, the Government of STP has
identified increasing temperatures, decreasing rainfall, and rising sea-levels as the most
pressing climate risks for the country’s development, all with their own (and often related or
even compounding) biophysical and social effects on different sectors of the national
economy, including agriculture, forestry, fishing, infrastructure, water, energy, and health
(NAPA 2006; INDC 2015; Ministry of Public Works, Infrastructures, Natural Resources and
the Environment 2019).
The project
In order to help address these climate risks locally, the government has partnered with
UNDP on a USD $4-million adaptation project funded by the Least Developed Countries
Fund (LDCF) (GEF 2017). The project followed the typical UNDP design pathway which
involved a visit to STP by two staff members from the UNDP Regional Service Center for
Africa (from here on referred to as “the Regional Office”) with the goal of learning about the
national vision for the project through discussions with representatives of national institutions
and civil society. Once initial funds were secured from LDCF, UNDP commissioned a team
of one international and two national consultants to draft the master project document based
on consultations with stakeholders and potential beneficiaries in local communities. Owing to
the very small size of the country, management and implementation of development aid in
STP is heavily centralized and in this case was carried out directly by the UNDP Country
Office and relevant government agencies (primarily by the Rural Development Support
Center, a branch of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development) located in the
capital. While local governments (cámaras distritais) were not directly involved in project
implementation (despite having been consulted during the design stage), UNDP and
government staff in the capital were supported by the Ministry’s limited network of officers
and agricultural extension workers stationed in each district. What should also be underscored
is the role of the Regional Office, which oversaw the project throughout design,
implementation and evaluation, providing the government and the UNDP Country Office
with technical expertise. This is the main reason why, as admitted by one of the agency’s staff
members, adaptation projects in different parts of the world bear striking resemblance to each
other, as managers rely on templates, previous project documents, and a narrow roster of
international consultants approved by UNDP to help design these initiatives.
In terms of project vision, the initiative aims to increase the resilience of rural livelihoods to
climate impacts in thirty local communities in six out of seven districts of STP, the capital
district of Água Grande excluded (see: Figure 1). This is to be achieved through three distinct
components that seek to: (1) increase the capacity of national institutions in the context of
climate risk management, (2) introduce climate-proof infrastructure and resilience-enhancing
livelihood practices, and (3) implement various adaptation strategies at the community level
(UNDP 2014). Specific activities promoted by the project include, among others, building
greenhouses to boost agricultural productivity, rehabilitating decrepit irrigation systems, and
establishing agricultural processing centers to foster the production of value-added products
(e.g. tomato paste). As such, it can be largely considered an agricultural development
The local community
The community of Liberdade is one of the thirty communities selected to participate
in the adaptation project. In many ways, it is emblematic of the country’s low level of
development and high vulnerability to climate change impacts. Located in the northern
district of Lobata, considered the driest and thus the most prone to droughts (UNDP 2014),
Liberdade is home to around 160 families, the vast majority of which base their livelihoods
on rain-fed subsistence agriculture (the average plot size is 1.5 hectares). The main local crop
has historically been maize, although residents have started to rely increasingly on sugarcane
(which is more drought-resistant and can be used to produce a marketable alcoholic drink
called aguardente). The cultivation of alternative crops, such as lima beans, tomatoes, chili
peppers, cassava, sweet potatoes, and peanuts is also on the rise (CATAP 2016). Until the
1990s, Liberdade formed part of one of STP’s largest plantations (roças), which boasted a
system of regularly maintained irrigation channels. Today, the two decrepit channels that
remain still carry water to a small number of fields in Liberdade’s immediate surroundings.
The effects of rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall are already being felt by
smallholders. The drought of late 2015 led to widespread crop failure throughout the district,
and undermined the production of maize, in particular. That year, according to local accounts,
there was only one harvest in Lobata as opposed to the usual two.
Methods: A multi-sited institutional ethnography
This study can be described as a multi-sited, institutional ethnography. Multi-sited
ethnography is not an uncommon approach (see: Coleman and Hellermann 2013; Marcus
1995), and the appeal of this method for geographers largely stems from its emphasis on
linkages of meanings, practices, connections, associations, and relationships across different
sites and scales. Importantly, one strand of this new methodological trend has come from
science and technology studies (STS), where researchers “seek to trace the ways in which
scientific knowledge travels beyond the boundaries of the laboratory and is rearticulated and
reproduced in new settings” (Hine 2001, 72). Since adaptation to climate change tends to be
considered a highly technical (if not a scientific) term by policymakers and development
professionals, the study’s multi-sitedness allows one to deconstruct the mechanisms which
transplant such understandings of the concept from the Western metropole to rural contexts in
the Global South (Weisser et al. 2014). Thus, conducting fieldwork in multiple settings bound
by the thread of the adaptation project enables a critical evaluation of how adaptation travels
across space and time to be conceptualized, problematized, and acted upon in different
contexts across scales.
Institutional ethnography is a method that studies communities of practice such as
organizations (Gellner and Hirsch 2001; Hammersley and Atkinson 2007; Watson 1999). It is
particularly relevant for investigating how technical concepts (e.g. ‘adaptation’) manifest
themselves locally. This is because organizations such as UNDP act as the bridge between
global climate governance regimes (e.g. the United Nations Framework Convention on
Climate Change, or UNFCCC) and local contexts, as it is in their offices that abstract
concepts are translated into material forms such as project outcomes, outputs and activities.
The institutional ethnography approach involves extended periods of participant observation
and day-to-day contact, allowing to capture this translation more comprehensively than
through reliance on semi-structured interviews and document analysis alone. Fieldwork
conducted at the Regional Office and the UNDP Country Office in STP have enabled a
thorough analysis of what adaptation means to development professionals and how they
understand the circumstances and needs of individuals who are to benefit from adaptation aid.
[Figure 2 near here]
Figure 2 demonstrates the research design. Fieldwork lasted over seven months and involved
participant observation in three sites (the Regional Office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; the
UNDP Country Office in São Tomé, STP; and Liberdade) as well as semi-structured
interviews (36 with development practitioners and 20 with community members) and desk-
based document analysis. The seven-month immersion period, while relatively short, allowed
for sufficient data saturation for the purposes of this study. Participant observation was
carried out by undertaking an internship at each of the two UNDP offices and conducting
multiple visits to Liberdade over the course of three months (between three and five times a
week, spanning from two to six hours). Interviewed development practitioners were
identified via online research and snowball sampling, and included employees of UNDP,
government agencies, aid agencies, international organizations, and development NGOs with
presence in Ethiopia or STP (see Table 1). They were approached by the author either in
person (UNDP staff) or over the phone or email (development practitioners unaffiliated with
UNDP). Interviewed residents of Liberdade were identified and approached in person by the
gatekeeper who was requested to select as representative a sample of the community as
possible with regards to age, gender and main occupation. Interview details, including
participant affiliation, interview location, language, date and duration are presented in Table
1. Following transcription, interview data, field notes, and relevant documents were uploaded
to NVivo Pro (2015) software for analysis. The study adopted an applied thematic analysis
approach, which aims to increase the consistency and transparency of qualitative data, with
the ultimate goal of increasing internal validity (Guest, MacQueen, and Namey 2012). Data
analysis followed a mixed inductive-deductive approach, which involves loosely defining a
conceptual framework before conducting fieldwork (Guest, MacQueen, and Namey 2012).
[Table 1 near here]
It should be underscored that despite adopting an institutional ethnography approach, this
study encountered a range of limitations related to access and language. First, entry barriers
made accessing certain people and information impossible due to formal and informal
restrictions, particularly at UNDP offices. While I was involved in most project-related
meetings at the STP Country Office, my appointment as intern was insufficient to allow
participation in strategic meetings at the Regional Office in Addis Ababa. Second, linguistic
differences were a major constraint, with data collection often relying on third-party
translation. Three translators -- a male UNDP intern and two female UNDP permanent staff
members -- assisted in interpreting interviews with development practitioners and community
members from Portuguese, Cabo-Verdean Creole and French into English (with three
exceptions, interviews with women were conducted with a female interpreter). Interpreters
were present during the interviews, and transcription involved their translations only.3 It
should be noted that both translators were officially affiliated with UNDP, though their
relatively low standing within the organization and the project itself did not visibly affect the
power balance between the interviewees and the interviewers. The translation of documents
from Portuguese and French and of one interview conducted in Italian was carried out
independently by the author.
STP: Vulnerability in the making
The imaginative geography of STP’s vulnerability
That STP is imagined as a highly vulnerable place comes as no surprise, and is typical
of how other SIDS, particularly those belonging to the aforementioned LDC group,4 are often
portrayed in various development and popular contexts. The UNFCCC, for instance,
recognizes SIDS as a “special case” warranting particular attention of the international
community (2005, 2). This is justified by the fact that despite being the least responsible for
causing climate change,5 they are bound to be impacted by it the most while having limited
institutional, financial and technical capacity to successfully adapt. With regard to STP, an
analysis of practitioners’ views, project documents (e.g. marketing materials), and local
project activities reveals a specific development culture that drives the production and
reproduction of the imaginative geographies of the country’s vulnerability.
[Table 2 near here]
First, an analysis of thirty-four6 interviews conducted with development professionals in
Ethiopia and STP provides key insights into this culture and its role in securitizing climate
change at the national and local levels. Out of all the participants, only one -- an employee of
a STP-based NGO -- expressed skepticism towards prioritizing climate change as a major
development challenge for the country (see Table 2). Fourteen professionals, while avoiding
any radical language, considered climate change as a serious issue and enumerated specific,
negative climate impacts for STP and the Global South, particularly rising sea levels,
declining fisheries, destruction of infrastructure, climate-related diseases, ecosystem failure,
and reduced agricultural productivity due to droughts. A further ten participants used a more
urgency-laden narrative compared to the first group. Table 3 includes examples of
expressions used by these practitioners. The last group of nine development professionals
were arguably the most concerned about climate change and its impacts among all the
interviewed individuals, creating -- in the words of one of them -- “doom-laden” narratives.
Themes of life and death, catastrophic representations of the post-climate change future, and
calls for adapting to climate change as an indispensable condition for survival, with a rapidly
approaching deadline to do so, intertwine within this group of responses. Thus, combined
with the second group described above, practitioners who explicitly describe adaptation to
climate change as a matter of urgency constitute over half (nineteen out of thirty-four) of the
interviewees, illustrating the degree of securitization of climate change in their respective
professional circles in Ethiopia and STP.
[Table 3 near here]
This vulnerability discourse perpetuated by development professionals with regards to STP
and the Global South in general stands in sharp contrast to other small island states such as
Tuvalu. For instance, through a critical analysis of the climate change discourse in the
country, Farbotko and Lazrus (2012) demonstrate how local civil society actors resist the
vulnerabilizing depictions of Tuvalu as an experimental space of climate change impacts and
of Tuvaluans as the world’s first climate refugees. However, they also note that the
government does mobilize a vulnerability discourse as a call for international action, as was
the case during the 15th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen. This is
in line with what seems to be the official government discourse of climate change in STP, and
project-related documentation and other official sources are illustrative of how this discursive
vulnerabilization of the country unfolds. In 2004, STP’s President addressed the UN General
Assembly with the following words:
As an island nation, São Tomé and Príncipe continues to see our very
existence threatened by global warming. Our shorelines erode, our
national territory shrinks as the seas rise. Is my small country to end
up nothing but a tiny volcanic peak sticking up above the waves with
the last of our people clinging to the land left unclaimed by the rising
[Fradique de Menezes, President of São Tomé and Príncipe
24 September 2004, UN General Assembly 59th session]
Similarly, notable are the following paragraphs from STP’s First National Communication --
a document which the government submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat as part of its
obligations under the Convention (Ministry of National Resources and the Environment
2004, 4, translated from French by the author):
São Tomé and Príncipe, an isolated archipelago in the Gulf of Guinea
surrounded by a perpetually-changing world, will certainly not escape
the economic, social, cultural, and environmental upheaval that global
climate change will entail. […] A small island country with a coastal
population, São Tomé and Príncipe is put in direct danger of global
warming due to which the country risks losing more than half of its
socio-economic infrastructure.
The references to an unstable climate and an uncertain future in both instances are evident.
While the motivations for representing the country, and indeed the whole African continent as
“the biggest victim of the adverse effects of climate change” cannot be determined with
certainty in this case, such depictions have an important side-effect of perpetuating STP’s
international image as decidedly incapable of delivering effective responses to climate
impacts (Ministry of National Resources and the Environment 2004, 4, translated from
French by the author). Importantly, these sources not only constitute formalized
interpretations of climate change by the state and its partners, but form the basis on which the
country has so far built its response to its impacts, the adaptation project being a prime
example of this response.
The imaginative geographies of STP’s vulnerability are constantly produced and reproduced
throughout the life of the project through various sites and events. For example, Figure 3 is a
poster prepared by UNDP for the 1st Climate Change Fair of STP organized as part of the
project’s public outreach component in December 2016. Given the low awareness of climate
change in STP at the time, the event was conceived to inform the public about the importance
of adaptation to climate change and thus to legitimize the adaptation project locally. Here, the
need to adapt is produced through the discourse of urgency mirrored by practitioners’
responses. In addition to responsibilizing Santomeans through a call for individual action, the
poster goes further in creating in its audience a fear of potentially being left behind if they do
not act. By doing so, it seeks to portray STP as a highly vulnerable place and to create a
specific kind of subjectivity centered around the concern about climate change on the one
hand, and identify it as a grave issue requiring immediate action by citizens (and not just the
state), on the other (Agrawal 2005; Peet, Robbins, and Watts 2011).
[Figure 3 near here]
Another example of this ongoing process of vulnerabilization is a consultation meeting in
Liberdade which was organized by UNDP and its partners to gauge the community’s interest
in product processing. The meeting was conducted in a sizeable shed that accommodated
around 80 village residents. A project staff member started off the meeting precisely by
talking about climate change and what it would mean to local livelihoods. She spoke about
the need to change and to adapt to future droughts, as otherwise the community would
inevitably suffer failed harvests. Because climate change is an almost completely extraneous
term to Liberdade residents, it needed to be represented as a serious threat to their livelihoods
in order to legitimize the project’s presence and ultimately create a consensus on the choice
of solutions, in this case -- product processing.
It should be noted here that in order to demonstrate the country’s vulnerability, development
professionals and written accounts tend to emphasize the biophysical impacts of climate
change. Critical adaptation scholars have long argued that overreliance on exposure in
discussions on adaptation pathways downplays the role of socio-economic vulnerability, the
levels of which are highly differentiated within the affected populations (Ribot 2010; Taylor
2013; Popke, Curtis, and Gamble 2014). By empowering climate at the cost of social
complexity and inequality, this reductionist explanatory maneuver confuses exposure with
vulnerability and reinforces the imaginative geography of the helpless and agency-stripped
periphery in face of a “purely natural” climate change manifesting itself through menacing
biophysical forces.
Discursive violence in action: The vulnerabilized subaltern and the model adaptation
subject in STP
The previous section illustrated how the imaginative geographies of STP’s
vulnerability are reproduced in multiple sites by the epistemic community of professionals on
the islands and beyond. The related process of discursive violence is predicated upon an
“ambivalent” subject formation process, to borrow from Bhabha (1994, 86), unfolding along
two parallel tracks. The first, and perhaps the more obvious of the two, projects onto
beneficiaries a subaltern subjectivity rooted in vulnerability, incompetence, and dependency
(Spivak 1988) -- ills that the catastrophic effects of climate change are only expected to
exacerbate. The second track, which one could argue entails a more “creative” version of
discursive violence, seeks to transform local people into someone who could actually achieve
resilience to these impacts: model adaptation subjects.
Unfit for adaptation: Creating the vulnerabilized subaltern
Thematic analysis revealed several key themes around which the discursive process of
pathologization, and more specifically vulnerabilization, of rural Santomeans takes place in
the delivery and implementation of adaptation in the country. The most prevalent and
powerful representation of local people has to do with the related traits of dependency and
entitlement. In a number of internal project meetings, rural residents were referred to as
feeling entitled to assistance from the outside. Moreover, at least seven interviewees based in
STP (three UNDP staff members and four non-UNDP practitioners) invoked the culture of
easy money or sluggishness, which in the words of a high-level UNDP official in STP imbues
locals with a “dependency conscience.” Certain members of the project team spoke plainly
about how people’s work ethic had turned into a sense of entitlement over time, facilitated by
the proliferation of development projects on the island. According to this narrative, this has
caused locals to become “specialized” in benefiting from development interventions. This
explains why in one of the workshops during the design stage, employees of national
institutions were reportedly advised to use the word “program” rather than “project” as a
strategy to prevent local communities from seeing it as yet another opportunity for direct
rent-seeking (UNDP 2015, 8).
Related to this broad theme of entitlement and dependency are the relatively widespread
representations of local people as lazy or indolent. During one of the field visits to a rural
community in the Lobata district, project team members repeatedly commented on the fact
that men and women “hang out” in the village instead of doing work. Local charcoal
producers (usually young men who are either landless or have no access to irrigation) are also
accused of laziness because they do not engage in the more laborious process of farming -- a
view that is shared by a number of senior community members, as well. Relatedly, rural
residents are rather indiscriminately represented as being addicted to alcohol. Being one of
Liberdade’s main products, aguardente is easily accessible and men in particular tend to
indulge in its consumption. This issue is especially problematic for project staff:
[B]ecause you have been to Liberdade, I think you have observed it.
You arrive in the morning. Young men and women are drinking
alcohol. Eight o’clock in the morning. Oh my god. What is it? “Don’t
you go to the farm and...?” “No, no, no. […] We are in the village.”
[senior project staff member #1, STP]
Three project staff members identified excessive alcohol consumption as the reason why
consultation meetings could not be held in the afternoon, fearing residents would become
intoxicated by that time. However, this timing was directly against the preference of many of
the interviewed community members who work their fields in the morning and do not return
home before mid-afternoon.
Another major narrative that renders rural people in STP vulnerable is their alleged ignorance
and lack of capacity. Local people are seen as entrenched in their own ways of doing things
and having little willingness to change. This view is espoused particularly by senior staff
members who are removed both socially and geographically from the affected communities.
According to a high-ranking UNDP official based at the Regional Office:
I think often it’s not that communities don’t necessarily […] know
what to do -- it’s that they’re either ingrained in what they know and
are not sure why that’s still not working, or yeah, they just aren’t
exposed to other types of approaches.
[senior Regional Office employee #1, Ethiopia]
In other words, these practitioners do not believe that there is sufficient (if any) knowledge at
the local level about what is happening to the climate, why livelihoods are becoming
untenable, and how these issues could be addressed. Here, one of the top UNDP officials in
Addis Ababa spoke of local communities living in their “own realities” which may be far
removed from what “we” (people in the development sector) are familiar with. Relatedly, the
project’s master document clearly points out the lack of local awareness on efficient
production techniques, hindering smallholders’ ability to adapt to climate impacts in the long
term (UNDP 2014). The above representations manufacture a figure of an ignorant subaltern,
an “intractable African” in Lester’s (2002, 36) words, unable to deal with the local changes in
weather patterns.
Two important caveats should be made at this point to avoid falling into a trap of gross
generalization, which would suggest that spatially and culturally removed technocrats and
urban elites invariably perceive the homogenous mass of STP’s rural residents as idly
awaiting financial and technical assistance. The picture is decidedly more complex. First, a
generalization of this sort would unjustly ignore all those professionals working for UNDP
and the government who, despite their techno-managerial bent, remain advocates for the local
people and do not engage in, and occasionally even oppose, this kind of discursive violence.
However, they find themselves in the minority and can do little to change the dominant
professional culture. A second important caveat needs to be made as well, lest the power of
the dominant adaptation discourse be underappreciated. The discursively violent
pathologization of local people is not limited to development professionals or state
employees. Nor is it geographically circumscribed to the city. In fact, it can be also found
among those who are expected to adapt their livelihoods to climate change, demonstrating the
powerful subjectivity-formation forces at play. This was evident in the case of Liberdade
where certain members of the community, including the leader and other more politically-
active individuals, spoke disparagingly of their fellow residents as unwilling to cooperate for
the ‘common good.’ Particularly telling in this context are the words of the village leader
(presidente) speaking about the reasons why Liberdade still lacks many basic services,
including potable water:
They [the government] didn’t bring it because the community didn’t
cooperate. There was no cooperation. Because if the community
understood that it’s for the good of the community, for us, today
nobody would be saying there’s no potable water. No? That we don’t
have potable water is not the government’s fault. It’s not the
Cámara’s fault. It’s our fault. It’s the mentality. That’s why I said to
you, […], if we gain this mentality where […] it’s normal that we
have to collaborate, unite, and then, we benefit the community…
Now, if we don’t unite, who will lose out -- we will, no?
[leader of Liberdade, STP, translated from Portuguese by the author]
Throughout the interview, the village leader referred to other residents of Liberdade as
having a “sick mentality” which makes them unwilling to cooperate with one another, as well
as of outright “not wanting development”. As a member of a largely Westernized community
elite, he sought to dissociate himself from his poorer neighbors by representing them as
incapable of jointly solving pressing community issues. These views are illustrative of how
the poorer and more marginalized members of the community are depicted as ignorant,
uncooperative, lazy, and impatient, making them, in the eyes of their own neighbors, unfit for
development and adaptation. They also highlight how pathologizing imaginaries originating
among urban and technocratic elites can spill over, permeate local community relations, and
potentially undermine community cohesion, as was the case of Liberdade. Finally, they
testify to the success of the formation of a responsibilized subjectivity, whereby local people
seek answers to their development challenges and high vulnerability in their own personal
traits and actions (rather than historical political economic processes and structural
inequalities). What follows is a blueprint for an individual who has internalized this exact
kind of subjectivity par excellence.
Fit for adaptation: Creating model adaptation subjects
The parallel track of the subject formation process that makes up the discursive
violence of adaptation is strictly related to the first one, and its analysis builds on insights
from governmentality literature (see: Agrawal 2005). Just as rural residents are discursively
constructed as unfit for benefitting from the adaptation project due to their sense of
entitlement, dependency, laziness, alcoholism, and overall lack of capacity, the project staff
engage in a creatively violent process that seeks to materialize a particular vision of a model
adaptation subject, or what Chandler and Reid (2016, 53) dub a “resilient subject.”
In short, such an individual is well-trained and -educated, eager to earn, cooperative, and
entrepreneurial, but at the same time obedient and actively interested and engaged in the
project. First, an ideal beneficiary is educated both in terms of climate change impacts and
the solutions that are needed to prevent climate-related damage from occurring. For instance,
one of the project reports speaks plainly of the need for local communities to “reflect” on the
concept of resilience so that they are “prepared to protect themselves from climate change
and, furthermore, undertake resilient livelihood activities in [their] fields” (CADR 2015, 3,
translated from Portuguese by the author). Thus, there is an expectation that beneficiaries will
conceptualize their livelihood challenges in terms of climate change and low resilience. There
is indeed an overarching imperative within the project to train community members on a
range of issues beyond climate change, including agricultural techniques (e.g. crop rotation),
environmental degradation, investment and marketing strategies, conflict resolution, and
community governance (UNDP 2014), with the ultimate goal of creating climate-aware
subjects with high adaptive capacity.
Lack of cooperation at the community level is cited by practitioners and written sources as
one of the biggest challenges for the project’s success. In contrast, it is envisaged that
communities should organically come together when interacting with outside interventions
and work out a collective interest to increase their bargaining position. In line with this
prescription, the residents of Liberdade receive constant feedback from outside actors on the
necessity to cooperate. Specifically, project staff members expect villagers to form different
kinds of associations, including residents’ associations, farmers’ cooperatives and women’s
groups. Otherwise, the latter are warned, projects will not work properly and project
managers may avoid selecting their community, altogether. This, however, ignores important
historical and structural factors related to the country’s oppressive experience as a plantation
colony which have caused local Santomeans to shy away from collective activities and
largely keep to themselves (see: Seibert 2006).
In addition to being well-educated and cooperative, a model adaptation subject has an
entrepreneurial nature that will push them towards “that kind of visioning that you need,” in
the words of a senior UNDP official in STP. This means being able to identify the problem
and actively engage in the search for creative solutions leading to increased yields and
consequently, profits. For example, the reliance on market strategies is well-reflected in the
project’s approach to increasing local resilience, which is supposed to counter the
aforementioned dependency conscience. Model adaptation subjects do not wait for help from
the state -- they take matters into their own hands by entering markets, saving money, and
investing in their productive assets. This is precisely the reason why the project relies heavily
on model farmers (agricultores de referência) -- usually wealthy and powerful growers who
have the disposable income, time, land, and the level of education required to engage
successfully in the implemented activities. Unsurprisingly, Liberdade’s model farmers
include the village leader and his former deputy, both boasting the highest yields in the
Despite the empowering semblance of the model adaptation subject, it must be underscored
that one of their essential traits is obedience. Bhabha’s concept of “mimicry” is helpful here
in illustrating this ambivalence of the adaptation discourse. Bhabha (1994, 86) describes
mimicry as a “double articulation” of colonial power -- one that seeks to reform, regulate and
discipline while at the same time purposefully leaving space for difference and recalcitrance
to justify the need for social control. As such, colonial discourses, and in this case the
hegemonic adaptation discourse, create what he calls “authorized versions of otherness” that
can be dominated and disciplined (Bhabha 1984, 129). The end result of mimicry is the
discursive production of a “mimic man” (sic) -- a subject of difference made in the master’s
image who is “almost the same but not quite” (Bhabha 1994, 86). Adaptation seeks to
produce mimic subjects almost as resilient as Western societies but “not quite” -- never
relinquishing full control, mediated through scientific knowledge, technical expertise and the
rules of the market.
In the context of the adaptation project, this injunction to remain obedient is cast as the only
way for beneficiaries to be able to withstand the negative impacts of climate change on their
lives and livelihoods:
[P]eople need to change their practices and their behaviors. Their
attitudes, to adapt. If a farmer is used to growing maize, and that’s not
the best crop to grow anymore, well, he [sic] needs to adapt to that.
He needs to change his mindset. He also needs to change his food
habits. So, it goes all the way down to what you eat.
[senior Regional Office employee #2, Ethiopia]
Thus, local communities are expected to change in line with the advice of technocrats who,
unlike them, realize the gravity of local climate predicaments. It is through this dynamic that
the fundamentally unequal relationship of power between the wielders of climate knowledge
(adaptation managers) and those who must comply to survive (adaptation beneficiaries) is
perhaps the most conspicuous. As another example, at one of the project consultation
meetings in Liberdade, residents were encouraged to think of themselves as businesspeople
rather than farmers. Importantly, the overarching expectation on the part of the project team is
that the design and the resulting strategies of the intervention will go unchallenged by local
communities. What happens in an event of non-compliance was evident during one of the
field trips to a village where a previous project had failed to deliver sustainable results. Upon
realizing that the newly-constructed irrigation system had fallen into disrepair, project staff
berated local residents for their incompetence and lack of community spirit. After one of
them objected by suggesting the project had been poorly designed to begin with, staff
members were dumbstruck, not being used to this kind of resistance and staging of equality.
[Table 4 near here]
Mirroring the themes from the previous section, the imaginary of a model adaptation subject
is geared towards creating their capacity to participate in the project. A representation of a
lazy, entitled, uncooperative, undereducated, and intractable subaltern is juxtaposed against
an archetype of someone entrepreneurial, creative, cooperative, eager to learn, and obedient
(see Table 4). Adaptation to climate change, in this sense, is often seen as potentially more
transformative than “traditional” development initiatives. In the words of one of the most
senior UNDP representatives in STP:
[Adaptation] touches [on] the habits, which are difficult to change
because they are from generations past, etc. And it touches [on] […] a
lot of other issues that development solutions per se sometimes don’t
touch, because development brings change of one situation to a better
one, while adaptation is not only change. [It] touches more on [the]
sub-conscience of populations, or societies, or groups, or tribes.
[senior Country Office employee, STP, emphasis added]
Thus, justified by the threat of catastrophic climate disasters, adaptation to climate change is
enabled to cut into the social fabric deeper than development. As implied by the interviewee
above, adaptation initiatives embark on a mission to touch on the sub-conscience of societies,
imbuing their beneficiaries with a subjectivity that not only makes them perceive the Self as
underdeveloped, in line with Escobar’s earlier quote, but also as fundamentally unqualified
and unprepared to face the imminent dangers of climate change. Herein lies the irreducible
difference between the discursive implications of development and those of adaptation. The
discursive violence of adaptation draws its power from the securitization of climate change as
a fast-approaching, existential threat for the Global South, which is periodically reinforced by
influential publications on the state of climate change, such as the recent Global Warming of
1.5° C report by the IPCC (2018). On the other hand, development arguably does not have a
discrete deadline which, if missed, could lead to disastrous humanitarian, economic and
environmental consequences (neither the Sustainable Development Goals nor the Millennium
Development Goals fit that description). Similar to the broader discourse of development,
adaptation prescribes what people should do and who they should become, but -- armed with
this apocalypse-laden rhetoric -- can do so in a much more forceful and blatant manner.
In practice, the expectation of the project staff is that smallholders ultimately realize the
threat posed to them by imminent climate change (despite its impacts already being felt in
Liberdade and elsewhere in the country). Crucially, this new subjectivity is to be guided
explicitly by what Felli calls a “neoliberal ethos” (2013, 352). Smallholders are to increase
their resilience by engaging in collective action aimed to facilitate investment in and
marketing of their agricultural products. The resulting surge in productivity is to lead to
higher profits, providing a locally and autonomously created social safety net against the
imminent negative climate impacts. Importantly, this process is to be accompanied by cultural
change, ranging from occupational choices to food habits. This specific adaptation pathway is
not to be questioned by the beneficiaries, whose alternative perspectives remaining outside
the scope of the project are silenced or ignored.
Of course, a model adaptation subject of the kind described above does not exist. It is an ideal
that, if real, would make the adaptation project a relatively easy undertaking or in fact obviate
the need for it, altogether. Paradoxically, the project must first create model adaptation
subjects before they can effectively benefit from adaptation assistance. Thus, despite the less
than fertile ground for training local entrepreneurs, the process of neoliberal, adaptive
subjectivity formation in the Santomean countryside is slowly progressing. Old
understandings of rural life are being gradually superseded by more modern, and specifically
neoliberal, canons of efficiency and productivity, as suggested by the views of Liberdade’s
elite. On the other hand, rural Santomeans are considered unfit to act as meaningful partners
for the project. Despite the well-trodden rhetoric of economic and human empowerment, the
pathologizing representations of local people deny them their knowledge, skills, and agency,
and, paradoxically, have the ultimate result of restricting their ability to participate in a
project that is intended to increase the resilience of their own livelihoods. Somewhat
ironically, climate change -- an issue caused almost exclusively by the metropole -- is used as
a justification for its disproportionate power relationship with the periphery.
This article sought to critically interrogate the discursive politics of adaptation. It
should be once again reiterated that its goal was not to argue against the need for adaptation
to climate change in the Global South which is and should be considered more vulnerable to
climate impacts compared to the Global North. Therefore, adaptation as a concept should not
be discounted in its entirety. This would be highly irresponsible given the high degree of
political and financial commitment to it at global, national, and increasingly local levels.
Even more importantly, it would also be unethical to hinder access to these resources --
rhetorically or otherwise -- which are undeniably needed in places like Liberdade. That said,
development research and practice must both evolve beyond the dogmatic, positivist
understandings of adaptation as something unquestionably beneficial for those affected by
current or future climate change impacts, and recognize that in some iterations it can actually
be damaging to those considered vulnerable. This article illustrated the potential implications
of uncritical approaches that lack this recognition.
Based on the evidence presented here, it is clear that the discursive politics of adaptation
should not be left uninterrogated, as discursive practices are bound to turn into material
consequences. This mirrors similar observations made by numerous scholars in critical
development studies and post-colonial theory (Ahluwalia 2001; Cooke and Kothari 2001;
Escobar 1995; Kapoor 2011). The imaginative geography of the Global South’s vulnerability
and the associated discursive violence inflicted on its people run the risk of entrenching them
in a position of political, financial, technical, and technological subordination relative to the
Global North. Adaptation guided by this discursive politics becomes a leitmotif for
reductionist, ethnocentric interventions that seek to assist local people seen as urgently
requiring resilience in the distant, vulnerable periphery. The end result is an adaptation
regime that scripts the Global South’s countries and people into a permanent, inalterable
space of vulnerability and precariousness. What further fuels this powerful discourse is its
temporality -- there seems to be a critical deadline in the global collective mind, beyond
which the loss of lives and livelihoods becomes inevitable if adaptation as prescribed by
Western agents of development is not followed. The fallacy of this discourse, of course, is
that these tragedies are already unfolding in many parts of the world.
Investigating how adaptation is imagined and effectuated locally helps uncover these often
invisible processes of discursive subordination and oppression. As Evans and Reid (2013)
note while discussing adaptation as a form of Foucauldian biopolitics, by securitizing climate
change and trying to protect the vulnerable subjects from it, the existing adaptation regime
ends up subjugating them and diminishing their autonomy in the process. Rather than
addressing important structural and political issues, this kind of adaptation merely shifts
around the problems that lead to local vulnerabilities (Swyngedouw 2011), dislocating them
away from an erratic climate and dropping them, in this case, in the arms of the free market.
Rather than inclusive and transformative, adaptation rooted in the imaginative geographies of
vulnerability tends to be exclusionary, disempowering, and in the end -- ineffective. Decades
of failed development programming rooted in neoliberal thinking (which STP also
experienced as part of its Structural Adjustment Program) leave little hope for the long-term
success of an adaptation that follows the same path.
In the case of the adaptation project in STP, local people were ex ante disqualified from
adaptation governance based on their perceived lack of agency or capacity to act as serious
partners. As such, the project fell short of benefitting local people. It did not allow them to
redefine their own livelihoods, nor did it effectively engage them in the local governance of
adaptation. Instead, it became an explicitly top-down, techno-managerial, and market-based
intervention with scarce local legitimacy and ownership. Paradoxically, then, it constituted
yet another case of climate injustice. The (re)produced imaginative geographies of STP’s
vulnerability have facilitated a problematic and damaging process whereby a clearly well-
intentioned intervention commits discursive violence against its own beneficiaries, with staff
members deploying disquieting language that resembles Balfour and Baring’s early 20th-
century portrayals of colonized Egyptians. While the two constitutive processes of this
discursive violence -- one that pathologizes and the other that seeks to transform the subaltern
into a model adaptation subject -- may seem antithetical, both result in stripping local people
of agency and political subjectivity, and offer no clear path to emancipation and human
However, there is still limited empirical evidence on the political nature of adaptation to
climate change, let alone the discursive politics surrounding it. This is despite the urgent need
to factually contest the imaginative geographies of the Global South’s vulnerability to climate
change impacts, as its residents seldom wait to fall back on external assistance when
confronted with adversity (Esham and Garforth 2013; Tschakert and Machado 2012). While
not the focus here, the conclusions of this paper point to a key question: How can scholars,
practitioners, activists and the public resist the disempowering and vulnerabilizing
configuration of adaptation’s discursive politics? One option is to flip critical theory on its
head and argue that discursive violence could be used to level the playing field for those
currently excluded from adaptation governance. This would follow the argument of radical
political theorists that there can be no democracy (understood in terms of freedom rather than
as a political system) without aggressively (or agonistically) competing discourses (Mouffe
2005; Shantz 2012). For these scholars, discursive violence understood as ongoing
competition between political alternatives is not an obstacle to freedom but its prerequisite. In
practical terms, this means ensuring that everyone is capable of contesting the disempowering
discourses waged against them -- how to achieve this should certainly be co-produced with if
not led by adaptation beneficiaries. Similarly, the oppressive imaginative geographies of the
Global South’s vulnerability should be met with what Gregory et al. (2009, 371) call
“imaginative counter-geographies,” or deliberate attempts to subvert the dramatic boundaries
between “our space” and “their space.” To achieve this, Dawson (2013) calls for forging new
alliances across the North-South divide, rooted not in geography but the common political
issues that unite people in the (neo)metropole and the (neo)periphery.
Academic work on this topic is slowly emerging from various quarters of critical geography,
anthropology, and security studies (Chaturvedi and Doyle 2015; Eriksen, Nightingale, and
Eakin 2015; Chandler and Reid 2016; Nightingale 2017), and studies that employ
ethnographic methods are rarer still. This critical work, however, is extremely important, as it
allows us to reflect on adaptation as an explicitly political and stratifying process unfolding in
local contexts, since it is those that arguably matter the most (Fisher 2015). Critical analyses
of the kind proposed here demonstrate that the monumental policy undertaking called
“adaptation” can blindly replicate development’s well-documented pitfalls and that its local
manifestations, if unexamined, are likely to increase global, regional and local inequalities --
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Author bio
MICHAEL MIKULEWICZ is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Climate Justice, Glasgow
Caledonian University, Glasgow, Scotland. E-mail: He is a political
and development geographer interested in the concepts of climate justice, adaptation to climate
change, resilience and vulnerability. Michael uses critical theory to investigate the various issues of
inequality, exclusion and exploitation surrounding adaptation, vulnerability and resilience to climate
change impacts, with a focus on the Global South.
Figure and Table captions
Table 1. List of all 56 interviews, which took place between November 2015 and May 2016. All
interviews were conducted in person (except #5 and #15) and audio-recorded (except #32).
Acronyms: MoARD -- Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, IO -- international
Table 2. Practitioners’ perceptions of the importance of climate change as a threat to development.
Table 3. Examples of urgency-laden language employed by representatives of the development sector
when discussing climate change.
Table 4. Selected traits of the vulnerable subaltern and the model adaptation subject juxtaposed
against each other, as produced by the dominant adaptation discourse in STP.
Figure 1. STP, with the northern district of Lobata -- where Liberdade is located -- highlighted.
Credit: Cartographic Unit, School of Environment, Education and Development, The University of
Figure 2. Principal methods implemented during both stages of fieldwork in Ethiopia and STP.
Acronyms: RSCA -- Regional Service Center for Africa.
Figure 3. A poster advertising the First Climate Change Fair of STP. The text reads (from top to
bottom): “Act for Change. The climate is changing, and I’m adapting. Are you? First Climate
Change Fair of STP. Come and learn what climate change is and how UNDP and national institutions
are responding to this phenomenon.” Source: UNDP, STP Country Office (translated from
Portuguese by the author).
1 The village name has been altered to preserve the anonymity of its residents.
2 These are Santomé, Angolar, Cabo-Verdean on São Tomé island, and Lung’le on Príncipe (Becker
3 This was due to the limited financial resources available to the project.
4 Besides STP, these include: Cabo Verde, Comoros, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Kiribati, Maldives,
Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
5 STP is a net absorber of greenhouse gases (Ministry of Public Works, Infrastructures, Natural
Resources and the Environment 2019).
6 The total number of interviews with development professionals was thirty-six, but the topic of
climate change impacts was not discussed with two participants.
... In academic environmental politics literature, critical scholars have analyzed the power relations involved when actors based in the Global North reframe long-standing features of global injustice as "new" problems to be solved as part of the climate mitigation and adaptation agenda. Akin to what Jinnah (2011) calls "climate change bandwagoning," these moves are problematized by "critical adaptation" and postcolonial scholars for paving the way for managerial and/or technocratic strategies that serve the interests of economic elites (Mikulewicz 2020). This is not to question Oxfam's interest in how climate change is affecting care work and care workers, but rather to explain why this report prepares the analytical ground with a contextual-conceptual discussion instead of jumping straight to examples and evidence. ...
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The global care crisis is being exacerbated by the global climate emergency, with interlocking impacts that threaten lives and livelihoods in all parts of the world. These impacts are particularly severe among rural livelihoods in low-income countries. Climate change intensifies the work involved in caring for people, animals, plants, and places. It reduces the availability and quality of public services in marginalized communities and directly compounds the unfair distribution of unpaid care work that sustains gender inequality. Yet the intersections of climate change and care work have been overlooked in the development literature. Strategies for climate mitigation and adaptation have paid relatively little attention to how care work is affected by climate impacts, nor have they considered whether interventions improve or intensify the situation of carers. Instead, when designing “gender-sensitive” climate actions, the focus has been largely on women’s economic empowerment as opposed to alleviating or transforming existing distributions of care work. The aim of this report is to fill a knowledge gap by examining the points of interaction between climate change impacts and the amount, distribution, and conditions of unpaid care work. We focus on care workers rather than those who are cared for, while stressing the relational nature of care and acknowledging that carers too require care.
... Extending this one step further, we draw on the concept of Intersectionality-Based Policy Analysis (Hankivsky et al., 2014) to pay attention to the complex contexts and root causes of the social problems that the policies aim to address (Wiebe, 2019). In this way, we interrogate the discursive politics that accompany the concept of NbS (Mikulewicz, 2020;Schmidt, 2011). ...
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Political traction for nature-based solutions is rapidly growing as governments recognize their role in addressing the simultaneous climate and biodiversity crises. While there has been recognition of the role of Indigenous Peoples in nature-based solutions, there has also been limited academic review on their relationship. This paper explores how the Government of Canada's conceptualization of nature-based solutions either support or prevent Indigenous sustainable self-determination. Drawing on past policy frameworks, we construct a novel four-dimensional sustainable self-determination policy lens focused on: Indigenous knowledge systems; Indigenous jurisdiction over land; the full and effective participation of Indigenous Peoples; and Indigenous Peoples as rights-holders to review a total of nine federal climate policy, planning, and science documents. Our analysis shows that while there is growing recognition of Indigenous rights, inclusion of Indigenous knowledge, and commitments to include the participation of Indigenous Peoples in the implementation of certain climate activities, there is a clear unwillingness to recognize Indigenous jurisdiction and Indigenous understandings of land as systems of reciprocal relations. Reframing nature-based solutions in the context of Canadian and international climate policy is essential not only to advance the self-determination of Indigenous Peoples, but also to create the ceremonial ground for Indigenous visions of nature-based solutions in order to address these joint crises.
... "Conscientising" social actors with respect to the abilities of governing bodies to assist and protect their citizens can stimulate "critical reflection on the role and failings of the state" (Blackburn, 2018, p. 10) and inspire ongoing collaborative efforts to "push out" (Jones & SPEECH, 2001) on uneven power relations. Mikulewicz (2020) argues that successful alliances hinge on shared political indignations and deliberate attempts to undo constructed boundaries between state modalities, institutions, and those relegated to the peripheries of adaptation processes. Through commitment to robust partnerships that harness determination, radical approaches to (re)negotiating power can be ignited and sustained (Stock et al., 2020;Tschakert et al., 2016;Ziervogel, 2019). ...
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Human geographers and other critical scholars have long emphasised the disproportionate effects of climate change on individuals and populations already socially and economically marginalised. Yet, scholarship and practice continue to work with inadequate conceptualisations of how these inequalities are perpetuated. In this critical examination, we illustrate that the feminist literature on intersectional subjectivities provides pertinent insights into transformational, emancipatory futures for disenfranchised individuals and groups who bear the brunt of the climate crisis. By focusing on how power dynamics produce and sustain multidimensional inequalities, across cultural and geographic contexts, and linking this with understandings of subject making, we draw attention to the many ways pervasive inequalities are challenged and (re)negotiated in the everyday of human‐environment relations. As part of this line of inquiry, we further demonstrate how a focus on intersectional subjectivities helps to expose and overcome lingering ethical dilemmas and injustices within transformation efforts, with emphasis on the roles researchers and practitioners can play in nourishing emancipatory spaces. Progress in this space is crucial to critically examine and establish more transformative adaptation trajectories that foreground dignified lives in an increasingly unequal world.
... A growing number of scholars have argued that displacement is not solely an outcome of physical climate-related impacts but is also linked to strategies employed by more powerful interests as they work to adapt to a changing climate (Isakson 2015;Thomas and Warner 2019). Others have focused on the discursive processes through which development organizations render populations vulnerable as a means of justifying outside intervention (Mikulewicz 2020). This work points to the varied and complex ways in which climate change as both discourse and biophysical processes can result in forms of displacement, but the consequences of efforts designed explicitly to minimize displacement are yet to receive similar attention. ...
Displacement due to environmental hazards such as sea-level rise and extreme weather has long been a prominent theme of climate adaptation and migration research. Although the relationship between climate adaptation and displacement is typically associated with the involuntary relocation of human bodies and livelihoods, in this article I offer an alternative perspective. Through an examination of recent trends in the Indonesian cocoa sector, I argue that fixing labor and capital in place—often in the form of smallholder producers—has emerged as a core strategy for corporate entities to manage the threat of their own economic displacement. Although this strategy enables corporate entities to maintain cocoa production in the face of economic and environmental disruption, the associated loss of smallholder mobility, constrained livelihood options, and new forms of financial dependency increase smallholder vulnerability to economic and environmental impacts associated with climate change. This work highlights emerging tensions between climate adaptation, displacement, and agrarian change while raising new questions concerning who and what is displaced and how in the context of climate adaptation in the Global South.
... There are also diverse interests at stake and there are dynamic power relationships between different actors (Wamsler and Raggers, 2018), especially in the case of climate change adaptation, where there is inequality in terms of vulnerability to climate change impacts and imbalances of decision-making power and resources for climate change adaptation (Nightingale, 2017;Scoville-Simonds et al., 2020;Thomas and Twyman, 2005). For example, the politics of mainstreaming climate change adaptation in the Global South have often resulted in the reinforcement of technocratic solutions (Mikulewicz, 2020;Scoville-Simonds et al., 2020) without addressing the root causes of problems and the importance of societal transformation. Understanding the specific characteristics and contexts of the natural and social systems at work, their governance systems, and their interactions (Kooiman and Bavinck, 2013), including power relations, is, therefore, crucial in order to design appropriate climate adaptation strategies. ...
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Conspicuous interdisciplinary effort has been spent on addressing the consequences of climate change in a forward-looking way. The concept of solution space is a recent contribution to help decision-makers identify feasible and effective adaptation solutions and to provide guidance on when they should be implemented and by whom. Although the current conceptualization of solution space already considers multiple disciplines, it remains dominated by biophysical ones and has not yet fully integrated legal and governance dimensions. This article first reflects on the current solution space framework through the lenses of law and governance and then proposes approaches to enrich legal and governance dimensions in the solution space concept. We argue that the legal and governance dimensions of the current concept of solution space can be improved by taking into account four aspects: 1) understanding the institutional and legal systems in a context-specific way; 2) embracing the dynamics and reflexivity of law and governance in the episteme of path dependency; 3) applying more diverse analytical methods (qualitative, qualitative/ quantitative, value-oriented) and/or assessments on a case-by-case basis; and 4) adding a normative perspective that includes the principles of legitimacy, transparency, accountability , equity, and distributive justice to measure the appropriateness of a certain adaptation strategy. The article concludes with suggestions for future research on how to implement the enriched solution space concept.
... Anthropologists and others have cautioned against the disempowering potential and colonial continuities of discourses that foster dependency and (re)inscribe inequalities through an imaginative geography that renders project beneficiaries vulnerable, while seeking to transform them into model adaptation subjects (Carey, 2010;Davis, 2002;Li, 2007;Mahony & Randalls, 2020;Mikulewicz, 2020;Mitchell, 2002). This may be imposed through the reproduction of vulnerability in North-South relations (Eguavoen et al., 2016;Gesing et al., 2014;Morchain, 2018), and the imposition of hierarchies of "local" and "universal" (scientific) knowledge. ...
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The past decade has seen increased anthropological attention to understandings of climate change not only as a biophysical phenomenon but also as a discourse that is traveling from international policy making platforms to the rest of the planet. The analysis of the uptake of climate change discourse falls under the emergent subfield of climate change reception studies. A few anthropological investigations identify themselves explicitly as reception studies; others only mention the term with little explanation. Our review discusses a fuller range of anthropological studies and ethnographies from related disciplines that treat climate change as a discursive reality, which is not independent from how it is intimated through close observations of the environment. The following themes emerged: language and expertise; place and vulnerability; modernity, morality, and temporality; alterity and refusal. The review suggests that the interaction of observation and reception is still not well understood, and that there is scope for more systematic methodological and theoretical synthesis, taking lessons into account from geographies of reading and empirical hermeneutics. By exploring the hermeneutical problem of upholding scientific integrity while being open to other ways of knowing, climate change reception studies' emancipatory potential lie in opening up knowledge spaces for multi‐directional and democratic approaches to living (with) climate change. In closing, we propose an interdisciplinary research agenda highlighting the potential generativity of translation as an idiom for theory and praxis relating to how people come to know climate (change)—through both perceptual engagement with the natural world and interpretations of discursive manifestations. This article is categorized under: Social Status of Climate Change Knowledge > Sociology/Anthropology of Climate Knowledge
Technical Report
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Despite years of donor country engagement, developing countries’ efforts to fight climate change and its consequences remain stifled by important capacity gaps. This paper reviews the experience of development co-operation partners in strengthening capacities in this area. It provides an in-depth analysis of official development assistance trends and flows, as well as an overview of the enabling factors, obstacles and good practices. Finally, it suggests ways to overcome a number of technical, political and organisational challenges, and to accelerate capacity development for more effective climate action in partner countries.
Current conceptualizations of vulnerability have so far served to describe—and reproduce—social difference, setting people apart at local and global scales. Yet vulnerability is fundamental to the connectedness in social relations critical to understanding and acting on climate change. A more compassionate type of research is urgently required; that is, one that goes beyond the material and political dimensions to investigate the deeply personal. Drawing on politics of adaptation, emotional geographies, sustainability science and psychology literatures, the paper reconceptualizes vulnerability as co-suffering, linking lived experiences with a shared humanity.
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Resilience thinking has undergone profound theoretical developments in recent decades, moving to characterize resilience as a socio‐natural process that requires constant negotiation between a range of actors and institutions. Fundamental to this understanding has been a growing acknowledgment of the role of power in shaping resilience capacities and politics across cultural and geographic contexts. This review article draws on a critical content analysis, applied to a systematic review of recent resilience literature to examine how scholarship has embraced nuanced conceptualizations of how power operates in resilience efforts, to move away from framings that risk reinforcing patterns of marginalization. Advancing a framework inspired by feminist theory and feminist political ecology, we analyze how recent work has presented, documented, and conceptualized how resilience intersects with patterns of inequity. In doing so, we illuminate the importance of knowledge, scale, and subject‐making in understanding the complex ways in which power and resilience become interlinked. We illustrate how overlooking such complexity may have serious consequences for how socio‐natural challenges and solutions are framed in resilience scholarship and, in turn, how resilience is planned and enacted in practice. Finally, we highlight how recent scholarship is advancing the understandings necessary to make sense of the shifting, contested, and power‐laden nature of resilience. Paying attention to, and building on, such complexity will allow scholarly work to illuminate the ways in which resilience is negotiated within inequitable processes and to address the marginalization of those continuing to bear the brunt of the climate crisis. This article is categorized under: Climate and Development > Social Justice and the Politics of Development
Fossil fuel-based development has resulted in climate change and biodiversity loss, threatening the ability of the biosphere to sustain civilization. However, despite the transformative change needed to address climate change, the complexity inherent in dynamic, coupled social-ecological systems can create challenges that stifle mitigation and adaptation efforts. For example, increasing urbanization can mask information about the local and distal ecological impacts of unsustainable consumption patterns. Diverse actors, powerful vested interests in the status quo, and differential impacts of climate change create inevitable tradeoffs and conflicts among stakeholders. The multitude of plausible future scenarios and their dependence on actions taken today create challenges for planning, governance, and collective action. While there is a long history in psychology and economics of studying decision-making under uncertainty, we argue that the deep uncertainty inherent in climate change cannot be easily understood using these same paradigms. In this context, narratives—stories about how the world works, what the future will look like, and our own role in this process—can extend cognition, creating shared knowledge across space and time, and shape our beliefs, values and actions in the face of tremendous uncertainty. Narratives thus have political agency and can reinforce or disrupt existing power relations and trajectories. Here, we review some of this literature in the context of climate change.
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Climate change research is at an impasse. The transformation of economies and everyday practices is more urgent, and yet appears ever more daunting as attempts at behaviour change, regulations, and global agreements confront material and social-political infrastructures that support the status quo. Effective action requires new ways of conceptualizing society, climate and environment and yet current research struggles to break free of established categories. In response, this contribution revisits important insights from the social sciences and humanities on the co-production of political economies, cultures, societies and biophysical relations and shows the possibilities for ontological pluralism to open up for new imaginations. Its intention is to help generate a different framing of socionatural change that goes beyond the current science-policy-behavioural change pathway. It puts forward several moments of inadvertent concealment in contemporary debates that stem directly from the way issues are framed and imagined in contemporary discourses. By placing values, normative commitments, and experiential and plural ways of knowing from around the world at the centre of climate knowledge, we confront climate change with contested politics and the everyday foundations of action rather than just data.
As scores of climate change adaptation measures are implemented around the world, there have been growing calls among academics and practitioners to also address the processes that underpin human vulnerability to climate change. However, there is mounting evidence that adaptation and vulnerability are linked, such that ostensibly adaptive responses can have negative consequences and augment people’s vulnerability. We analyzed several climate change responses at various scales and developed a typology of five discrete but related modes by which the vulnerability of already vulnerable populations is being [re]produced. Crucially, this work suggests that for at least one of these modes, the vulnerability of other groups is perversely inverted, such that relatively secure populations perceive themselves to be at risk. The cases we present illustrate that people’s vulnerability is being used against them, or put another way, is being weaponized―exacerbating their precarity by excluding them from much needed and due assistance, while directing resources instead to bolstering the well-being of those already well-positioned to respond to climate threats. Our typology provides a theoretical intervention by illustrating how climate vulnerability and security are co-produced, as well as a practical tool to help decision makers to adopt more just and equitable climate policies.
First published in 1990. Routledge is an imprint of Taylor & Francis, an informa company.