Adaptation, now? : Exploring the Politics of Climate Adaptation through Poststructuralist Discourse Theory

Abstract: Increasing evidence of anthropogenic climate change and the recognition that warming is likely to go beyond 2°C raises the need for responses that help people cope with the anticipated changes. The rise of attention to so-called climate adaptation on political agendas at the local, national and international scale has come about with a hastily growing field of academic knowledge production. But while adaptation choices are inherently political, adaptation has been largely considered a ‘problem free’ process and ‘tame’ challenge; only a relatively small strand of scholarly work engages in critical enquiry into the idea of adaptation, the discursive practices through which it is imagined, and related questions of power and politics.Responding to calls for more attention to the socio-political dimensions of adaptation and for conceptually embedded research, this thesis investigates the creation, interpretation and use of adaptation as a concept in research, policy and practice. Drawing on Poststructuralist Discourse Theory and the so-called Logics of Critical Explanation in particular, it develops a perspective through which the politics of adaptation can be investigated in a theoretically and methodologically consistent and transparent manner. Through a close analysis of official adaptation discourses at the international level, the EU level, and the national level in Germany, the thesis enquires into the discursive practices around adaptation responses and what these different discourses open up or limit in terms of broader implications for political action.The contributions of the thesis are empirical, methodological and conceptual. In addition to providing critical insights into contemporary understandings of adaptation, including revealing some depoliticising ‘building blocks’ in conventional adaptation discourses, the thesis makes two important conceptual contributions to the growing field of critical adaptation studies: (1) It suggests that the increasing interconnectedness between people and places makes it impossible to know whether adaptation efforts undertaken have in reality reduced net vulnerability or simply shuffled vulnerability across the board. Ignoring the potential for such redistributive effects can have significant consequences in practice and will likely lead to unsustainable and, in the long run, maladaptive outcomes. (2) It argues that non-rational and affective dimensions are vital to the emergence of adaptation responses and that paying attention to them is important if critical scholarship is to understand and intervene in the persistence of techno-managerial approaches to adaptation. Furthermore, to the field of critical policy studies this thesis makes a methodological contribution by developing a new analytical framework for poststructuralist policy analysis.