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The promises and pitfalls of ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change as a vehicle for social empowerment

Stephen Woroniecki, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS)
Christine Wamsler, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS); Uppsala University Centre of Natural Hazards and Disaster Science (CNDS)
Emily Boyd, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS)


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Ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA) to climate change is an approach claimed to deliver social benefits relevant to marginalized groups. Based on a structured literature review, we interrogate such claims, asking whether such approaches may (or may not) contribute to social change and, more specifically, empowerment. We present a review of the predominant meaning and interlinkages of the EbA and empowerment concepts, which shows that EbA pays insufficient attention to issues of empowerment and agency. On this basis, we discuss how an empowerment lens could be (better) integrated into the conceptualization of EbA, suggesting key dimensions through which this could be supported. We show that the emphasis on empowerment theory and the merits that it brings to the EbA literature are helpful, leading to a number of important questions to adaptation projects on the ground. Incorporating an empowerment lens leads to an increased consideration of issues of power more broadly, especially the way marginalized groups’ agency, access, and aspirations are conditioned by social structures that may prevent strategic adaptation choices. We conclude that EbA will facilitate empowerment better by explicitly considering how social benefits can emerge from the interplay between particular types of actions, marginalized people’s adaptive strategies, and their relational context.

Key words

agency; climate change; ecosystem-based adaptation; empowerment; nature-based solutions

Copyright © 2019 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087