Motivated by a need to think in terms of consequences, the language of ‘adaptation’ has become key in approaches tackling climate change.[i] While discussion of adaptation has an older provenance[ii], bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have adopted it with a justified urgency, and in ways that have seen adaptation enlisted by diverse actors – and across a variety of approaches – much as if it were a ‘chameleonic’ concept’. That is to say, approaches called adaptation appear ‘able to move further into policy either because they overtly complement institutionalized ideas’ or have ‘chameleon-like qualities which facilitate their translation into policy’.[iii] This understanding helps explain the seeming appeal of the concept but also contains clues as to why prevailing adaptation approaches have been inattentive to the racial determinants of vulnerability to climate change.
For its part, the IPCC describes adaptation as a ‘process of adjustment to actual or expected climate change and its effects, which seeks to moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities’[iv]. It's a definition used in short-term behavioural change such as shading windows and drinking water in heat events, keeping warm and using home energy efficiently in cold weather; to public education promoting broader community awareness and knowledge of weather-related risk at a population level, as well as in seeming key to large-scale infrastructure agendas, emergency management, hazard planning and associated risk assessments. The chameleonic quality is easy to spot.
In their systematic review, Porter and colleagues usefully distinguish between four types of action deemed as adaptation, comprising: (1) the aforementioned behavioural actions, (2) technical and infrastructural actions seen in planning and construction, (3) institutional responses such as creating policies, programmes, regulations and procedures and (4) ecosystem-or nature-based responses such as the regeneration of flora and the use of green and blue spaces (especially in cities). Notably, The UK Climate Change Act 2008 appeals to a mixture of these adaptation actions in providing a legally binding framework to cut UK greenhouse gas emissions, but foregrounds the UK’s ability to adapt to a changing climate with better in-land flood defences and preparedness for coastal erosion, energy security and the possible implications for agriculture. The governance of such adaptation meanwhile is partially devolved to the four administrations of the United Kingdom (and in the case of Scotland, there is a devolved statutory framework on adaptation set out through the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009).
The ways in which adaptation is understood and interpolated across multiple levels in the policy process, however, consistently fails to grasp that certain social dynamics render some populations more or less vulnerable to the ongoing effects of climate change. Vulnerability here means ‘the ability or inability of individuals and social groupings to respond to, in the sense of cope with, recover from or adapt to, any external stress placed on their livelihoods and well-being’[v]. In this meaning, vulnerability concerns a structured capacity to adapt to climate change and not the predictions of likely adaptive behaviour, something which Global South scholars and practitioners in particular have long emphasised[vi]. Namely, that adaptation approaches forged in the Global North, and advanced through international political and development agencies, are typically a-historical and weighted in their own favour, unable (or unwilling) to register the differential vulnerabilities left by colonialism. This is what Archbishop Desmond Tutu often used his platform to call attention to, specifically the ways in which ‘adaptation is becoming a euphemism for social injustice on a global scale’[vii]. Reflecting on the limitations of adaptation as a concept in UK governance also reveals how adaptation approaches currently ignore the ways in which experiences of racialization need to be part of any efforts.
The challenge in addressing racially structured differences requires us to think of vulnerability in adaptation as a multidimensional concept, something that registers differentiated levels of adaptive capacity for racialized communities, the structural impediments to this, and how these may be incorporated (or overlooked) within prevailing climate adaptation planning and action strategies. Research in the US, for example, has established that differences in the health risks of climate change are significantly higher for racial minority groups[viii], and whose needs are typically omitted in approaches to adaptation. Pulido[ix] has termed this the ‘environmental racism gap’, and which describes persistent inequality in environmental outcomes for minoritized groups as being ‘manifest in practices, regulations, and outcomes’[x].
In the UK too there is good evidence of differential racial vulnerabilities to climate change, including how Black and ethnic minority residents in cities have significantly less access to green spaces that white residents (in one study this was 11 times less).[xi] In the context of consistently warmer surface and/or air temperatures in UK cities compared with suburban and rural surroundings, the rise of Urban Heat Islands (UHIs) are a progressively common feature of urban life, and are due to a concentration of dark surfaces and lack of vegetation (encouraging greater heat absorption during the day and increased re-emission during the night).[xii]
Black and ethnic minorities are disproportionately resident in the locations of UHIs and which have long been connected with health impacts and elevated rates of heat-related mortality and co-morbidities,[xiii] and are part of a wider pattern in which heat-related deaths increased by 68% between 2000–04 and 2017–21.[xiv] Access to green spaces is therefore crucial and yet the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reports that racial minorities are nearly four times as likely as white people to lack access to outdoor space at home such as a garden (private or shared), patio or balcony, and two and a half times less likely than those of white ethnicities to have a private garden, even when comparing people of similar age, social grade and living situation such as location and living with or without children[xv].
We can anticipate that such disparities are intimately connected with health outcomes, and I have elsewhere argued that these should not be uncoupled from other disparities in education, the criminal justice system or child welfare[xvi]. These are precisely the domains in which racial inequalities are entrenched and reproduced, and in which the racial determinants of vulnerability to climate change are apparent and remain prevalent despite seeming compounding factors and variations.
There has been no consideration of this in the UK by either the Westminster or devolved administrations. The UK Government has stated ‘a need to address the interdependency and inequality of risks’[xvii], but makes no further mention of what these are and how they may be understood. The Technical Report for the third Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA3) identifies sixty-one climate risks cutting across multiple sectors of society, but contains not a single mention of race (or possibly cognate means of discussing this in terms of ethnicity or structural discrimination). This is despite the UK Environment Agency warning that even in its core areas of focus, ‘social vulnerability to flooding highlighted the disproportionate disadvantage experienced by ethnic minorities, particularly black ethnic groups’[xviii].
At the same time, this is also a challenge to climate change researchers and funders to prioritize primary research which examine how adaptive measures can attend to these inequalities across hazard, planning, social vulnerability and long-term risk assessments. This is no less a priority in grasping how an increasing community awareness and knowledge of weather-related risk, and emergency management[xix] are being attentive to existing ethnic and racial disparities. This includes existing impediments in the urban environment, and where adaptation policies can exacerbate existing inequalities[xx]. As Manon Burbridge et al have argued, existing approaches are inadequately ‘weighted in the actual political, social and economic decisions that are made about how to manage, reduce, and adapt to risk on a community level’[xxi]. The status quo is further illustration of how approaches to public policy that originate only from institutionally privileged locations, ignore those hurt by public policy designed and implemented without the inclusion of their experiences.
Adaptation ‘policy’ as a variable can of course alternate and operate at multiple levels, but the interactions of policy practitioners and political governance is key. The Scottish Government has occasionally hinted at a distinct approach, in stating that ‘climate change poses risks to Scotland beyond those identified in the UKCCRA, including the unequal impacts of climate change on the most vulnerable in our society’, and promised ‘an outcomes-based approach allows us to address this’[xxii]. On further consulting its five-year Climate Change Adaptation Programme 2019-2024, we find a circular logic with no mention of race, only a generic statement that ‘The Scottish Government champions climate justice, and promotes a people-centred, human-rights approach that shares the benefits of equitable low carbon development, and the burdens of climate change fairly’[xxiii].
What adaptation approaches urgently require, therefore, is consistent recognition of the ways in which existing racial disparities contribute to climate change vulnerabilities. These need to be grasped in ways that do not uncouple from one another their constituent parts, namely connect up differential exposures with differential vulnerabilities and differential access to support.
It is only in so doing that adaptation approaches might address the racial determinants of vulnerability to climate change.
[i] Owen, G. (2020) ‘What makes climate change adaptation effective? A systematic review of the literature’ Global Environmental Change, 62, 102071, pp: 1-13.
[ii] Denevan, W.M. (1983) ‘Adaptation, variation and cultural geography’, Professional Geographer, 35 (4), 399–406.
[iii] Smith, K. (2010), Research, policy and funding – academic treadmills and the squeeze on intellectual spaces1. The British Journal of Sociology, 61: 176-195. p. 181
[v] Kelly, P. M. and Adger, W. N. (2000) ‘Theory and practice in assessing vulnerability to climate change and facilitating adaptation’, Climatic Change, 47(4), 325–52. p. 328.
[vi] Bassey, N. (2012) To Cook a Continent: Destructive Extraction and the Climate Crisis in Africa. Cape Town: Pambazuka Press.
[vii] Quoted in Tuana, N. (2019) ‘Climate Apartheid: The Forgetting of Race in the Anthropocene’,
Critical Philosophy of Race, 7 (1), 1-31. p. 5.
[viii] Sandink D (2013) ‘Reducing heat-wave risk through active and passive measures’, Munic World, 123 (4).
[ix] Pulido, L. (2017) ‘Geographies of race and ethnicity II: Environmental racism, racial capitalism and state-sanctioned violence’, Progress in Human Geography, 41(4), 524–533. p. 524.
[x] ibid. 525.
[xi] Dobson, J., and others. (2019) Space to thrive: A rapid evidence review of the benefits of parks and green spaces for people and communities. The National Lottery Heritage Fund and The National Lottery Community Fund, London.
[xii] Manon Burbidge, T. et al. (2022) ‘Don’t blame it on the sunshine! An exploration of the spatial distribution of heat injustice across districts in Antwerp, Belgium’, Local Environment, 27:2, 160-176.
[xiii] Martinez, GS et al. (2018) ‘Heat and Health in Antwerp Under Climate Change: Projected Impacts and Implications for Prevention’, Environment International, 111, 135–143.
[xiv] Romanello M et al. (2022) ‘The 2022 report of the Lancet Countdown on health and climate change: health at the mercy of fossil fuels’, Lancet, 400: 1619-1665.
[xv] ONS National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (2020) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/810197/N PPF_Feb_2019_revised.pdf pp: 27-29 https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/articles/oneineightbritishhouseholdshasnogarden/2 020-05-14 and Glover, J. (2018) Landscapes Review: National Parks and AONBs. Commissioned by Defra.
[xvi] Meer, N. (2022) The Cruel Optimism of Racial Justice. Bristol: Policy Press.
[xvii] UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (2022) Presented to Parliament pursuant to Section 56 of the Climate Change Act 2008. London: HMSO. p. 17
[xviii] Environment Agency, Chief Scientist’s Group. (2021) The state of the environment: the urban environment. London: HMSO.
[xix] Henstra, D et al. (2020) ‘Evaluating the suitability of policy instruments for urban flood risk reduction, Local Environment, 25 (2), 101-113.
[xx] Meer, N et al. (2021) ‘The role of asylum in processes of urban gentrification’, The Sociological Review, 69(2), 259–276.
[xxi] Manon Burbidge, T. et al. (2022) ‘Don’t blame it on the sunshine! An exploration of the spatial distribution of heat injustice across districts in Antwerp, Belgium’, Local Environment, 27:2, 160-176. P. 163.
[xxii] The Scottish Government (2019) Climate Ready Scotland: Second Scottish Climate Change Adaptation Programme 2019-2024. P. 21
[xxiii] Ibid. 10.
Blog post by Professor Nasar Meer, University of Edinburgh, and co-Editor, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power