Climate Adaptation and Privileging the “Natural”

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Submission Summary
Two ideas that run through much of Western environmentalist thought are (1) nature is that which is untouched by humans, and (2) intervening in nature is generally bad, morally and epistemically. These ideas continue to be quite influential in environmental conservation. They define what successful outcomes look like, and what strategies are allowable for promoting these outcomes. An important contribution of environmental philosophy and philosophy of science has been to question these ideas about nature and intervening in nature. There is, for example, a rich tradition of challenging the human/nature conceptual dichotomy (e.g. Callicott 2000) and a growing literature that critiques excessive caution about conservation interventions (e.g. Brister et al. 2021). Our paper accepts these critiques and takes them as a starting point. But where the existing literature focuses almost exclusively on environmental conservation, we examine policy and discourse around climate change adaptation. We show that suspicion about “hi-tech” interventions that are perceived as unnatural, such as marine cloud brightening and genetic engineering, is common in adaptation discussions and decision-making (e.g. Van Haperen et al. 2012). At the same time, there is often uncritical acceptance of nature-based solutions (the use of natural features and processes to address environmental challenges) (Holl and Brancalion 2020). This bias against the technological and in favor of what is perceived as natural is familiar, and it has unfortunate consequences. It prejudices planners, managers, and the public against promising adaptation policies and unnecessarily pits so-called “green” versus “gray” solutions against one another, when in fact combining the two is likely crucial for effective adaptation (Seddon et al. 2020). What alternative heuristics might make better guides for decision-making around climate change adaptation? We explore this question in the rest of the paper and introduce a framework for communicating about and evaluating adaptation strategies that emphasizes three key insights from the adaptation literature (e.g. Browder et al. 2019). First, particular adaptation solutions only make sense as elements of larger adaptation packages, which need to deliver benefits over multiple time-scales. Second, the novelty or technical complexity of any given adaptation solution is much less important than its testability. Third, ongoing monitoring of adaptation solutions is critical, both for winning public support and addressing knowledge gaps.
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University of Pennsylvania
University of California, San Diego

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