The importance of political understandings of climate change
Be wary of narratives that deny local people’s agency and overlook their agendas and aspirations
PIFWA Mangrove Planting, By Marufish, CC BY-SA 2.0
For me the most interesting and provocative panel at the 5th Annual Development Sociology Conference, held at Cornell between the 6th and 8th October was the Climate Assemblages panel held in Warren Hall on Thursday 6th.
In particular, two of the presentations, one by Kasia Parocki of Cornell University, and another Liz Koslov of New York University, dealt with the issue of migration and displacement associated with climate change.
Paprocki emphasised the role of development infrastructure projects from the 1970s onwards in Bangladesh’s Coastal Delta which were associated with the narrative of the country being in danger of becoming a ‘basket case’. Among the interventions, a system of polders was developed which created relatively distinct socio-ecological conditions. In many of these polders, shrimp farming has been promoted in the last three decades, fundamentally transforming the landscape, and leading to the displacement of labour-intensive rice agriculture, obliging many people to migrate. Current vulnerability to climate change is generated as much by the differentiated impacts of the shrimp farming as much as any actual changes in the climate, and Paprocki suggested that the urgency attached to discourses around climate change might be exploited to create further opportunities for accumulation at the expense of many local people.
By contrast, Liz Koslov studied ‘managed retreat’ from the 1970s onwards on Staten Island, where people were encouraged to move through state-subsidised insurance. The increasing impacts of flooding on the Eastern coast has led to the formation of buyout groups in vulnerable areas, with local people arguing that as they were encouraged to live there, the state should help them to relocate to safer areas. To date, public authorities have tended to resist these demands, arguing that it is still viable to protect the coast. Thus whereas in some places, people are being encouraged to migrate as a consequence of ‘climate change adaptation’, in others grassroots demands to be supported in relocation fall on deaf ears.
The other presentations included an analysis of circulating climate change finance by Sophie Webber, who concluded that although the ‘adaptation complex’ of international donors is maintain and finance, thanks to a discourse that promotes the ‘circulation of best practice’, the reality is more prosaic with different adaptation projects fitting local places and institutions. There was also a discussion of Indonesia’s fire crisis and the potential of environmental restoration in Kalimantan’s peatland areas by Jenny Goldstein. She noted that significant sectors of the local population were more concerned about possible restrictions to development caused as a response to the air pollution caused by burning, and discussed the possibility that the unglamorous work of landscape restoration might constitute a means of ‘doing development differently’. Meanwhile, the concept of ‘climate change as development opportunity’ was discussed by Lucy Benge of the University of Auckland. She pointed out that some flooding can be beneficial to some rural communities in Cambodia due to expanded fishing opportunities, although people’s capacity to take advantage of this is differentiated. Building on this point with other examples, she argued that the notion of climate change as opportunity is not inherently negative, but depends very much on who is able to take advantage of changes and for what purposes.
Overall all of the five presentations agreed on the importance of political understandings of climate change, and cautioned against narratives that deny sweeping narratives that deny local people’s agency and overlook their agendas and aspirations.