How Racism and Classism Undergird Climate Adaptation Strategies

By Sean Luna McAdams**


Like a lot of folks, I get some of my best thinking done in the shower. The past few weeks, my shower thoughts have been consumed by how unbearably yuppie* my life is. And while the shower does lend itself to critical thinking, this self-reflection has also been spurred by physical change in my shower: I installed a base tank to reuse the water I shower with to flush my toilet. I could sing its praises till the cows come home. My water bill has halved since I started using it. Yet it’s also made me think a lot about climate adaptation strategies and how they reinforce existing power hierarchies globally and locally.

Map showing areas that would be flooded in the Netherlands without dykes. Source: Public Domain.

Map showing areas that would be flooded in the Netherlands without dykes. Source: Public Domain.

My water tank is an individual, micro-level example of a climate change adaptation strategy. Macro-level examples of climate adaption include the impressive $40 million plans by the city of Rotterdam to climate-proof itself by 2025 (over 60% of Dutch land is at risk for flooding).

Climate adaptation is quickly becoming the “common sense” policy response to climate change. After all, even if all green house emissions stopped today, we would continue to see warming from the past decade of emissions. Not to mention the bleak prospects for the 2°C cap commitment due to the improbability of a workable treaty or that 82% of global coal deposits would have to go unexploited. African participants strongly contested this “acceptable” upper threshold agreed to in Copenhagen, characterizing the agreement as a suicide-pact, climate colonialism, and climate genocide. Indeed, Maldives representative recently challenged this upper threshold last week in Geneva, defending a 1.5°C cap proposed by island nations most vulnerable to sea-level rise.

So we have a pretty bleak picture: the threshold agreed to will likely lead to significant harm, particularly to populations in the global South, and mitigating the harm will undoubtedly require far-reaching adaptation policies that will further benefit the North globally and middle and upper classes locally. Why? Existing knowledge and capital asymmetries.

Adaptation as Business

The question thus is not whether or not to implement adaptation policies, but rather how to do so. I argue that up to this point, most adaptation policy discussions treat it as a technical issue dominated by data that serves to obfuscate the inherently politically charged question of who and what is prioritized through adaptation (Hint: it isn’t historically underserved people). These policy discussions center on percentages of land at risk for floodingdrought-resistant crop strainsclimate insurance, etc. Yet it does not ask consider whoinhabits areas at risk for flooding, will have access to these crop varieties, or be able to afford climate insurance.

This use of technocratic window dressing obscures issues of distributive justice at the heart of climate change and instead offers a business logic as its solution. Studies forecast climate adaptation becoming a $2 billion global market as investments in climate adaption move into design, engineering, and construction phases. Indeed, even the United Nations has a program called the Private Sector Initiative, which boasts profits and “new market opportunities and expansions” for companies interested in the adaptation sector. Considering the highly unequal global distribution of scientific research production (10 countries account for 70% of research output, all from the global North), Northern economies will have unfair market power in this new industry because they have a “comparative advantage” in adaptation expertise and the capital to exploit it. Locally in Southern contexts, those most likely to benefit from adaptation strategies will be folks like myself that have the purchasing power and knowledge to invest in such initiatives, that is to say middle and upper classes.

Gains and losses of land on the Brahmaputra–Ganges–Meghna delta front 1984–2007. Source: Brammer 2014.

Gains and losses of land on the Brahmaputra–Ganges–Meghna delta front 1984–2007. Source: Brammer 2014.

This creates the ironic situation whereby those most responsible for climate change stand to gain most from it. It’s precisely ironic because of its injustice. Take as an example Bangladesh. Although it produces 0.3 percent of global greenhouse emissions, experts agree that rising seas due to climate change will inundate some 17 percent of the land and displace about 18 million people. Perhaps Dutch or American engineers can develop a complex system of dams to stave off the predicted 13-foot rise by 2100. How much could a state-of-the-art sea-level rise adaptation system cost nowadays anyway? Surely it’s within the grasps of one of the poorest nations in the world.

This scenario will occur even if we keep to the two-degree warming cap, which begs the question: would such an agreement be viable if the Netherlands faced an almost certain loss of a fifth of its territory within thirty years? More importantly it lays bare the implicit process of prioritization that occurs through adaptation technocratese. Borrowing from Ricardo Bonilla-Silva’s book Racism without Raciststhis prioritization is racist because it has incredibly racialized results independently of whether policy makers explicitly hate the Africans, Pacific Islanders, or Bangladeshis that will suffer as a result of their decisions. Instead of painting this issue as purely a technical matter of investment, we need to recognize it as the inherently political and distributive issue that it is. I hope that with that recognition come collective solutions developed through democratic deliberation that will create a differential approach emphasizing the needs of those most vulnerable through capacity building programs, vulnerability assessments, and financial support. And while I am glad that I have reduced my water consumption, I’m painfully aware that while that shields me from potentially higher utility costs, it’s a solution embedded in a system that could financially and physically leave others underwater.


*Yuppie is a US term meaning “Young Urban Professional.” It originated in the early 1980s and connotes a general malaise with the liberal, bourgeois political leanings of this demographic.

**Sean Luna McAdams is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).

Photo credit: Asian Development Bank