How climate activists finally seized the issue of adaptation in 2023

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Environmental philosopher Andreas Malm has described Sainte-Soline as an “avant-gardist struggle”.
Yohan Bonnet/AFP

Joost de Moor, Sciences Po

The idea of adjusting our lives to face up to the reality of a changing climate was, for a long time, seen as defeatist, or even a capitulation to fossil-fuel interests, by many within the European climate movement. Such “adaptation” was viewed with deep scepticism.

But 2023 challenged such assumptions. In autumn, activists ramped up protests against ski resorts and the winter-sports industry for their seemingly endless appetite for winter sports infrastructure. Environmentalists occupied the Girose Glacier in southeastern France to denounce plans for a new cable car. Deep scepticism was also expressed over whether holding preseason sporting events following the partial destruction of the Théodule Glacier in Switzerland.

By taking a stand, these ecologists were pressing authorities to rethink planning beyond the skiing model and its dependency on “white gold”. Far from constituting adaptation, they argued that the construction of winter sports infrastructure in the remaining snow-capped mountains threatened fragile ecosystems and only postponed the inevitable shift to alternative economic models. For them and others, it constitutes “maladaptation” – actions exacerbating communities’ vulnerability to climate variability.

Even more spectacular were protests against proposed water reservoirs in Sainte-Soline, western France, in March. Up to 30,000 protesters showed their opposition to the project, arguing that the dams, intended to collect fresh water during wet seasons to provide for increasingly drier periods, were inefficient due to water evaporation, and ultimately prioritised the interests of large agribusiness over locals’ rights.

The question of adaptation was therefore thrust into the spotlight like rarely before. Such protests demonstrate how deeply political climate adaptation is. What one group may perceive as positive adaptation may look like maladaptation to another, and a political struggle determines which view prevails. The environmental philosopher Andreas Malm described Sainte-Soline as an “avant-gardist struggle”.

From idea to real life?

For many years, academics have sought to shed light on competing interests that are often hidden in technocratic processes inherent to adaptation. For example, dikes intended to guard against flooding may appear as a reasonable solution to some, but others could consider them a maladaptation due to their tendency to increase flooding downstream. To overcome such tensions, academics have attempted to imagine a model that would not merely serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful or the economic status quo. This has become known as transformational adaptation.

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