Reframing adaptation: The political nature of climate change adaptation

Siri H. Eriksen, Andrea J. Nightingale, Hallie Eakin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

519 Scopus citations


This paper is motivated by a concern that adaptation and vulnerability research suffer from an under-theorization of the political mechanisms of social change and the processes that serve to reproduce vulnerability over time and space. We argue that adaptation is a socio-political process that mediates how individuals and collectives deal with multiple and concurrent environmental and social changes. We propose that applying concepts of subjectivity, knowledges and authority to the analysis of adaptation focuses attention on this socio-political process. Drawing from vulnerability, adaptation, political ecology and social theory literatures, we explain how power is reproduced or contested in adaptation practice through these three concepts. We assert that climate change adaptation processes have the potential to constitute as well as contest authority, subjectivity and knowledge, thereby opening up or closing down space for transformational adaptation. We expand on this assertion through four key propositions about how adaptation processes can be understood and outline an emergent empirical research agenda, which aims to explicitly examine these propositions in specific social and environmental contexts. We describe how the articles in this special issue are contributing to this nascent research agenda, providing an empirical basis from which to theorize the politics of adaptation. The final section concludes by describing the need for a reframing of adaptation policy, practice and analysis to engage with multiple adaptation knowledges, to question subjectivities inherent in discourses and problem understandings, and to identify how emancipatory subjectivities - and thus the potential for transformational adaptation - can be supported.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)523-533
Number of pages11
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
StatePublished - Nov 1 2015


  • Authority
  • Climate change adaptation
  • Knowledges
  • Politics
  • Power
  • Subjectivity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Ecology
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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