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New research maps how and where people resist climate adaptation 

Houses by a river, they are flooded. Photo: Pixabay.
Using resistance as a lens can shed light on entrenched vulnerabilities that underlie climate risks, and on continuing power struggles, according to researchers Ebba Brink, Ana Maria Vargas Falla and Emily Boyd.

Why do some people oppose interventions meant to protect them from climate hazards, and what forms of resistance are available to those most vulnerable and exposed? These questions are explored in a new literature study from LUCSUS that maps where people resist climate adaptation; how, and in what contexts. It shows that resistance to adaptation occurs overtly and covertly, in both low-income and high-income nations, and in urban as well as rural societies. This knowledge can yield important perspectives on how to plan, design and implement more democratic and fair adaptation in the future, according to the researchers. 

– We tend to see climate adaptation as something inherently good, where lack of money or capacity is the only hurdle to successful adaptation solutions. In contrast, people who don’t want to adapt are perceived as not understanding what’s good for them. But this ignores the fact that climate adaptation is seldom an apolitical or neutral process. There are historical and social contexts, in which climate risk is only one of many risks, says Ebba Brink, postdoctoral researcher at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, LUCSUS.

LUCSUS researchers, Ebba Brink, Ana Maria Vargas Falla and Emily Boyd, have examined people’s resistance to climate change adaptation in 56 scientific adaptation articles. Seen in isolation, it can be hard to understand why people resist measures that are designed to protect societies from the harmful effects of current and future climate change. However, as the need to adapt is becoming more and more pressing, the topic is important to study, note the researchers. 

Resistance occurs globally and takes many forms 

The study is unique in that it identifies both organised, overt and loud resistance, and everyday, covert and quiet resistance,  across common ‘sites’ where it occurs. In rural livelihoods, for example in Mozambique, Tanzania, Spain and the United States, people opposed relocation and new, drought-resistant crops or other livelihood changes introduced by governments to adapt communities to drought and flood. In urban informal settlements in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, dwellers typically protested against climate-motivated resettlements from floodplains or seasides, and quietly moved back after being resettled.

In the Pacific, people living on islands exposed to sea-level rise refused being labelled as climate refugees from ‘sinking’ islands, and tried to shift the focus to those powerful actors accountable for climate change. In other cases, found in Mexico, Peru and Sweden, resistance played out in the institutional landscape, representing interactions between often middle-class residents with national or urban-municipal adaptation planning or insurance laws, and involved resistance to for example placement, and privatisation of flood infrastructure and sea walls. Surprisingly, the study also found resistance against participatory adaptation, which is designed together with the communities it is meant to protect.

– Our study shows that resistance occurs globally, and takes many forms. It can be a legitimate way for people to voice their discontent or seek redress when adaptation planners ignore negative effects on their everyday lives. Quiet forms of resistance have often been more available to the poor and the powerless, such as the farmers choosing to use climate resilient crops only on certain parts of their lands in Tanzania, says Professor Emily Boyd, LUCSUS Director. 

Poor political representation and failure to address vulnerability drivers can explain resistance 

What motivates these acts of resistance, according to the researchers, can in large part be explained by poor political representation, as well as a failure of institutions and governments to address the whole spectra of vulnerability drivers. Many climate adaptation measures ignore social and historical contexts such as colonialisation and oppression, which can impact people’s willingness to leave their homes, or change their way of life.

Another problem is that too many initiatives are top-down approaches, that may serve elite interests, and maintain the status quo. This can also be true for participatory adaptation, since those who participate often are powerful or influential community members, thus excluding more marginalised voices. In such cases where participatory processes were captured by community elites, people showed their quiet resistance by badmouthing the adaptation project, dropping out, or attending meetings uninvited and sitting in the back.

Using resistance as a lens can shed light on entrenched vulnerabilities, that underlie climate risks, and on continuing power struggles, according to Ebba Brink, Ana Maria Vargas Falla and Emily Boyd. It also brings questions of accountability and responsibility to the fore – issues that are often sidelined in adaptation discussions and initiatives. 

– Climate change is a huge challenge. We need to adapt but should do so by giving people voice, agency and political representation. It includes addressing poverty, lack of social housing, food insecurity, and inequality too. Unless we deal with all of these risks, and really try to understand what drives different people to resist or drop out of adaptation, we will fail to adapt societies to a changing climate in a just and fair way, says Ana Maria Vargas Falla, visiting research fellow at LUCSUS. 

Download the article: Weapons of the vulnerable? A review of popular resistance to climate adaptation. It is published in Global Environmental Change.

A woman, Emily Boyd. Photo.

Emily Boyd

Emily Boyd is Professor in Sustainability Science at Lund University Centre for Sustainaibility Studies. She is a leading social scientist with a background in international development, environment and climate change, with focus on the interdisciplinary nexus of poverty, livelihoods and resilience in relation to global environmental change. Emily Boyd is currently leading work on undesirable resilience, politics of loss and damage and intersectionality in societal transitions, including on transformations under climate change. 

Emily Boyd  is an author for the IPCC, IPBES, and UKCCRA and a Earth System Governance Senior Fellow. 

Read more about Emily Boyd

Photo of Ebba Brink, postdoctoral researcher at LUCSUS. Photo.

Ebba Brink

Ebba Brink is a postdoctoral researcher at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS). She has a master’s degree in Engineering Mathematics with a focus on Risk Management, and a PhD in Sustainability Science, both from Lund University. Her research is interdisciplinary and focuses on the roles of people and nature in the governance of urban climate risk.

Read more about Ebba Brink's research and work