Climate change mitigation and adaptation of the poor

A call for decolonial responses to climate change

World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Cochabamba, Bolivia, April 19-22, 2010. Image: The City Project Creative Commons License

by Helen Adams and Karen E McNamara

The Paris Agreement, drawn up at COP 21 in 2015, clearly connects climate action to human rights, and in particular to the rights of marginalized groups—Indigenous peoples, local communities, migrants, children, persons with disabilities, and women. As mitigation and adaptation responses to climate change have accelerated, so have the critiques of currently dominant approaches (e.g. technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives) to reduce climate change risks which are often justified through global benefits but ultimately have negative consequences at the local level. These critiques are important, as they can help a global movement for climate action learn from mistakes made by mitigation and adaptation responses in the past. This article re-issues a global call for pro-poor mitigation and adaptation responses now and into the future.

Climate change mitigation is about preventing future climate change and exposure to associated negative impacts and includes measures like increasing carbon sinks, transition to alternative energy sources, and storage mechanisms for carbon emissions. Adaptation activities seek to protect communities from the severe climate change impacts that are already programmed into the climate system, and range from engineering and policy to ecosystem- and community-based approaches.

Poor and marginalized communities and individuals are often the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. And many research studies have found that such groups are made more rather than less vulnerable as a result of mitigation and adaptation responses.

Poor and marginalized communities and individuals are often the most vulnerable to climate change impacts. And many research studies have found that such groups are made more rather than less vulnerable as a result of mitigation and adaptation responses. These “insults and injuries of intervention,” as put by Marino and Ribot, have to be understood and avoided for anyone who takes seriously the struggle for both an equitable and sustainable future. As such, the potential negative impacts of climate change mitigation and adaptation should be a crucial piece in any study of the linked climate-society system. This article highlights some of the key academic literature on the distribution of benefits and disadvantages of mitigation and adaptation efforts. We consider the ways in which this distribution of benefits and disadvantages is inequitable and damaging for marginalized communities, even though it also differs from business-as-usual development, and conclude with some recommendations on how to redress this imbalance.

Top-down actions justified by a global good

Mitigation projects driven by global and national-level priorities and donor agencies can have far-reaching negative implications at the local level. The global poor are often displaced by projects that seek to deliver alternative energy sources (de Sherbinin et al), particularly by wind turbine parks and agricultural production for bio-fuels. In both privileged and marginalized nation-states, the geographically and politically marginalized within the country are disproportionately exposed to the risks of radioactive waste from nuclear power generation (Shrader-Frechette), promoted as a form of clean energy by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Similar issues may arise with the proliferation of the much-disputed technology of carbon capture and storage, as geologically-stable sites are identified for storage of emissions, and better resourced local populations are more equipped (politically and financially) to resist projects based on perceived or actual risks (IPCC).

Technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives which do not consider the perspectives and needs of local people continue to dominate the adaptation landscape around the world.

Adaptation, in contrast to mitigation, is not implemented at the local level for a ‘global good’ but for the assumed benefit of local socioenvironmental systems’ adaptation to climate change. Still, technical and large-scale infrastructural initiatives which do not consider the perspectives and needs of local people continue to dominate the adaptation landscape around the world (e.g. coastal protection, desalination plants, dam construction; see Kates et al). These engineering interventions are targeted at particular climate change impacts, most notably sea level rise. Many of these “hard” adaptation initiatives have come under increasing attack for not only their mixed success but also, as researchers Barnett and O’Neill argue in their article “Maladaptation”, for hampering rather than strengthening local capacity for adaptation. Often, the most vulnerable bear the brunt of these actions—by being displaced to make way for large-scale “protective” infrastructure (such as dams) or through diminishing livelihood resources as a consequence of large constructions (such as sea walls that change local environments).

In addition to technical and large-scale infrastructural adaptation, migration is increasingly drawn upon as an adaption option, and such initiatives often suffer from the same top-down approach as other adaptation strategies. For example, the previous Government in the Maldives used climate change as a way of justifying the unpopular government objective of consolidating the population from 200 dispersed islands to 15 to 20 population centres (Kothari). Funded by the UK Government, the recent Foresight project, which examined these issues globally, highlighted the potential for migration to be a positive adaptation solution and an “extremely effective way to build long-term resilience.” However, this position is problematic when one considers rights to land and place-based culture for those expected to leave their customary homelands, as McNamara and Gibson show in a study of how Pacific Island ambassadors to the United Nations resisted any notions of “climate refugees” or mass exodus from their homelands. The communities, and even entire countries, that are considered for this “positive ‘transformational’ adaptation to environmental change,” in the words of the Foresight project, are almost invariably the poorest communities on the planet. As Farbotko and Lazrus have shown, based on years of research in Tuvalu, the effect of such a position is to silence those affected who do not wish to relocate.

Reinforcing damaging power dynamics at the local scale

Partly as a reaction to the failure of some of these large infrastructural adaptation interventions, adaptation researchers and local communities in the Global South have proposed community-based adaptation projects for protecting wellbeing and livelihoods (Schipper et al). Such projects are often supported financially by affluent nations which indicates that institutions in the Global North also recognize marginalized communities as sites of knowledge and resilience. Community-based adaptation is an established academic field and recent publications have focused on “scaling-up” the lessons learned from such practices (Schipper et al). But attempts to scale up can be problematic: for example, centrally planned adaptation can be insensitive to the dynamics of specific communities (despite their direct focus on community) and lack critical analysis of the long-term success of such interventions (Buggy & McNamara).

Similar issues arise in mitigation projects for the Clean Development Mechanisms such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, conserving and enhancing forest carbon stocks, and sustainably managing forests). Research has shown that such projects are often driven by outside interests, not local users, and tend to lead to increased centralization of land entitlements (Beymer-Farris & Bassett). In Uganda, large REDD-funded projects from government-backed Norwegian companies exclude local communities and other actors from forestry resources that are necessary for local and national livelihoods (Lyons & Westoby). Marginalized populations with already precarious livelihoods are being further marginalized in order to offset the emissions of richer, heavily-polluting countries. Other research has shown that community-based adaptation projects often ignore unequal access to livelihood resources and land tenure, particularly in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America (Cannon), inequitable participation in decision-making processes (McDermott et al), and political disenfranchizement and elite capture (Dutta). As such, these projects often favour local elites, create community rifts, and deepen social differentiation and exclusion (Ensor & Berger).

Therefore, many attempts to emphasize communities as the scale for adaptation projects are flawed from the outset. Adaptation projects need to criticize and act to reverse the social dynamics, governance structures, and power relations that impact on and often cause vulnerability.

Blindness to the root causes of vulnerability

Adaptation responses are threatening rather than protecting marginalized people.

Responses to climate change driven by actors in the Global North, according to Pelling in his book Adaptation to climate change: from resilience to transformation, too often focus on “symptoms of vulnerability and risk”, rather than causes. Through adopting a simplified view of the complex causes of climate change, such actors can favour responses that reinforce the socio-political structures that have caused the conditions of vulnerability and risk in the first place (O’Brien & Leichenko). Pelling, again in his book, makes a poignant point: Privileged parts of global society thus shape responses to climate change into “limited to efforts that promote action to survive better with, rather than seek change to, the social and political structures that shape life chances”. In doing so, adaptation researchers and other actors are normalizing conditions of poverty and inequitable power relations (Ribot). This means that adaptation responses are threatening rather than protecting marginalized people.

Climate change responses at all scales are playing into and reinforcing ideas of the ‘Other’ (Said), conceptualizing certain groups of people as more deserving of suffering. Western nations with generally high adaptive capacity tend to take for granted that certain populations are vulnerable and exposed, rather than acknowledge that conditions of vulnerability are produced by uneven global systems of development, trade, and consumption (Ribot). There is even a tendency for Western governments to use the supposed resilience of local communities to justify unequal sociopolitical relations and shirk from their responsibility for climate change and poor communities’ vulnerability to its impacts.

Ways forward

Academic research on climate change mitigation and adaptation suggests various approaches to influencing policy, NGOs, development corporations, and climate finance institutions to responses to climate change that overcome, rather than deepen, current inequalities. However, as we have highlighted here, climate change responses at various scales have only deepened inequalities. We therefore want to propose a series of steps to address these issues.

No adaptation or mitigation response is neutral.

First, no adaptation or mitigation response is neutral, and this needs to be recognized at all scales and by all people working on mitigation and/or adaptation issues. Instead, such responses are highly politicized and involve trade-offs (mostly to the detriment of the most marginalized in society), which is recognized in the statement in the Preamble of the Paris Agreement. Researchers and practitioners need to find ways of improving the equity in conditions between and within countries. This will mean fewer top-down, technocratic approaches and more attention paid to the political processes justifying or enabling any intervention.

Second, researchers and practitioners must work to critically understand, respond to, and engage community-level social and power dynamics when designing and implementing adaptation projects. The impacts of climate change and responses to them, will lead to a redistribution of access to rights, land and resources, and thus there is a continued need to actively fight for an equitable redistribution of entitlements, not their further concentration in the hands of the already powerful.

Third, to achieve these above objectives, researchers, activists, and practitioners need to continue to make clear that the majority of climate change adaptation and mitigation responses are working to protect the consumption patterns of high-emitting, industrialized countries. What is required instead is a significant shift towards rights and responsibilities for action.

Mitigation and adaptation interventions present crucial opportunities for doing things better.

Until the aspirations and well-being of the poor and marginalized are placed centre stage in pro-poor mitigation and adaptation, the deeply-entrenched colonial legacies and inequitable hierarchical systems will mean that the most marginalized continue to suffer from both climate change and its “solutions.” Mitigation and adaptation interventions present crucial opportunities for doing things better, and as such can be used to radically alter the current distribution of power and access to livelihood resources. To do anything else is scratching the surface at best, and at worst endorsing and deepening pre-existing inequalities.

Karen E McNamara is a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland, Australia. As a human geographer, Karen examines how environmental change impacts people’s livelihoods throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Her research focuses on climate change adaptation, human mobility, and Indigenous knowledge.

Helen Adams is a lecturer at Kings College London, UK. Helen is an environmental social scientist working on the subjective dimensions of human interactions with environmental change, with a focus on marginal regions of low income countries. Helen is a Contributing Author on the Human Security chapter in the IPCC‘s Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group 2.