Confronting the ecology of crisis : The interlinked roles of ecosystem-based adaptation and empowerment

Sammanfattning: Nature-based solutions (NBS) focus on the material functioning of ecosystems as part of a transformative response to societal challenges. NBS represent a growing response to climate change with a range of interventions emerging across the world to address the causes and effects of climate change. The adoption of NBS is claimed to address a range of Sustainable Development Goals, including empowerment of marginalised people (Goals 10 and 15). In this thesis, I investigate these claims within the context of climate change adaptation. More specifically, I ask if and how ecosystem-based approaches (EBA) to climate change adaptation, as a type of NBS, empower vulnerable and marginalised groups. Four papers are presented that draw respectively on systematic review, conceptual synthesis, empirical, and comparative study. The empirical findings are from two sites in Sri Lanka with a range of climate vulnerabilities. Paper I systematically reviews adaptation case studies to show how empowerment can arise in an adaptation context amidst broader power relations. Paper II demonstrates theoretically the bounded and overlapping roles of EBA and empowerment. In Paper III, I show that EBA have the potential to support people’s empowered adaptive strategies amidst broader transformation of social-ecological relations, but this potential is presently constrained. In the studied cases, the dominant mode of EBA action as intervention limited the ability to support people’s empowered adaptive strategies. Across these papers, I demonstrate that frames embedded in EBA shape the institutional and material dimensions of these actions, becoming central to their capacity to support empowerment. Frames are discursive dimensions of power, or dominant modes of expression, that prefigure outcomes for who is empowered or disempowered through EBA initiatives. In Paper IV, I find that frames of EBA appear to reinforce assumptions of the passive dependency of marginalised people on Ecosystem Services. Further, the way that EBA is framed in biophysical terms may empower external experts and interventions, and lend authority to the knowledge claims of natural scientists. The papers collectively show that current frames of EBA do not make visible the social processes of adaptation or the predominant manner in which EBA is implemented as an intervention. These blind spots have consequences for empowerment since these frames hide people’s diverse and situated social-ecological knowledge, subjectivities, and agencies – aspects which better represent the ways in which people and ecologies emerge in co-evolutionary processes, including through responses to climate change. Confronting the issue of people being left out of the picture in NBS to climate change will entail a sizeable shift in the science and practice of these approaches. This turn would be facilitated by sustainability scientists acknowledging their position in power relations, confronting governance and equity issues in nominally benign solutions, and letting go of problematic assumptions about the relationships between people and nature.