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Depoliticised and technocratic? Normativity and the politics of transformative adaptation

Schulz, Karsten, Rapti Siriwardane. 2015. Depoliticised and technocratic? Normativity and the politics of transformative adaptation. Earth System Governance Working Paper, No.33.


Dominant notions of adaptation to climate change are coming under increased scrutiny for their technocratic implications and depoliticising tendencies. Considering the loss of legitimacy that goes hand in hand with the characterisation of adaptation as a contested, depoliticised and technocratic top-down agenda, it has been repeatedly pointed out that ‘transformative’ adaptation may be a promising approach to reconcile the need to tackle the socio-economic root causes of vulnerability with pertinent calls for systemic change and repoliticisation. The paper responds to these controversial discussions about the political goals of adaptation in a twofold fashion. On the one hand, it draws on the cross-cutting ESG research themes of norms, knowledge and power to discuss the different ways in which the need for ‘transformative’ adaptation is being articulated in the interdisciplinary literature on climate change adaptation and resilience. On the other hand, it focuses on the argument that a transformative approach to adaptation is a necessary response to countervail the depoliticising effects that are commonly associated with the ‘post-political’ condition of climate politics. In sum, our analysis suggests that a deeper engagement with politicisation in the context of transformative adaptation requires a shift from a merely prescriptive reading of normativity to a more nuanced and descriptive account of normative framings and behaviour. Moreover, we propose to conceptualise dynamics of depoliticisation and repoliticisation as a single, generative process of politicisation, characterised by the simultaneous creation of discursive and material ‘enclosures’ and ‘exclosures’. We conclude that a framework which draws together structural and post-structural accounts of power and politics is required to avoid the externalisation, individualisation and naturalisation of socially produced risk.

Keywords: climate change adaptation; transformation; politicisation; normativity; post-politics; sustainability.

The Working Paper is available here (pdf).

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