Theme Panel: Democracy and Its Discontents

Democracy and Its Discontents: The Failing Politics of Climate Adaptation

Modern democracies face few, if any, more urgent and serious challenges than climate change. How can and should democracies properly respond? Most work focuses on mitigation policies to limit carbon emissions. The other, comparatively neglected face of response, is adaptation. Adaptation to sea-level rise, drought, fire and more is not a future challenge but confronted right now by every level of government.

Supported by the Social Science Research Council’s Anxieties of Democracy Program, the papers on this panel jointly ask how, when, and why individuals, communities, and institutions take steps to adapt to climate change. Consistent with the Democracy and Its Discontents conference theme, the papers in this panel span several subfields, identify issues faced by modern democracies, and propose constructive ways forward.

In the first paper, Nancy Rosenblum opens with a broad overview of the mindsets with which democratic officials and policy-makers and affected citizens approach climate change adaptation. She identifies three different mindsets: normalizing, resignation, and species awareness. She then identifies and discusses institutional arrangements that can encourage moving from normalizing and resigned reactions toward adaptation that works hand in hand with the larger question of mitigation.

The following three papers discuss adaptive strategies in the context of local institutions, among individuals, and in communities respectively. Sarah Pralle describes how the incentives created by the National Flood Insurance Program direct local conversations about climate change adaptation toward the costs of revising flood hazard zones, rather than the risks associated with flooding. Debra Javeline and Tracy Kijewski-Correa ask whether individual knowledge of and attitudes toward climate change are related to individual actions to protect themselves from the consequences of climate change. Finally, Hilary Boudet asks whether experiences of extreme weather events prompt communities to respond with climate-related actions, and finds that such events have a limited impact on either climate change awareness or action.

Jointly, these papers identify issues that impede successful adaptation responses in democratic systems, but they also offer up democratic solutions to the problems they identify. For example, Nancy Rosenblum discusses participatory strategies for changing adaptation mindsets, and Hilary Boudet identifies conditions under which climate change-related responses to severe weather events are more likely to emerge from affected communities.

Nancy L. Rosenblum, Harvard University (Discussant)