New study argues that neoliberalism impedes adaptation to climate change

An article in the latest issue of the SEI journal Climate and Development is the first systematic, peer-reviewed analysis of how neoliberal policies block effective climate change adaptation.

Glenn Fieldman, assistant professor of environmental studies at San Francisco State University, argues that neoliberal globalization has increased people’s vulnerability to climate change, decreased resilience, created new risks from business activities, and limited governments’ and individuals’ ability to adapt to climate change.

Root causes

The “root causes” of social vulnerability to climate change and of insufficient adaptive capacity, Fieldman writes, “are located in the neoliberal rules, institutions and practices of the international political economy”.

Fieldman’s study goes further than any previous analysis in identifying a range of ways in which neoliberalism conflicts with effective responses to climate change.

Neoliberalism is built on the notion that “a rising tide lifts all boats”, says Fieldman, but global statistics show the opposite. Annual global GDP growth has slowed since neoliberalism began to take hold, from 2.4 per cent in the 1970s, to 1.4 per cent in the 1980s, to 1.1 per cent in the 1990s, to less than 1 per cent from 2000 to 2005. There has also been a “radical polarization” of incomes, according to United Nations figures: in 1960, the ratio between the richest and poorest fifths of the world’s population was 30:1, by 2004 it was more than 100:1.

Global insecurity

The neoliberal policy orientation to competitiveness above all else has pushed down wages and increased job insecurity for the global majority, Fieldman adds, making it hard for people to, for example, accumulate assets to make their homes storm-resistant or to recover from a disaster.

Eager to attract mobile capital, states have pushed smallholders off their land, and de-regulated real estate development has forced the poor into increasingly precarious locations, like erosion-prone hillsides. Pressure from global institutions such as the IMF to increase exports has led governments to encourage industries such as logging, which increase climate risks to individuals and communities. For example, shrimp farming for export in Bangladesh has damaged the mangrove forests that protect coastal communities from typhoon surges.  

At the same time, Fieldman shows, pressure to reduce taxes, eliminate trade tariffs and embrace austerity has left states with scant resources to invest in infrastructure or fund programmes that reduce poverty and build resilience. The result is a ‘hollowed out’ state that is unable not only to perform essential functions, but also to engage with civil society or support private initiatives that might fill the gaps.


Fieldman says that successful adaptation, “will therefore require thoroughgoing reforms to the neoliberal rules that have empowered capital but have disempowered states. Without such changes, states’ failure to cope with events like the 2010 floods in Pakistan may well pose challenges to their legitimacy.”

Yet the climate adaptation discussion so far is largely about policy add-ons, or changes at the margins. According to Fieldman what is needed “is recognition of and challenges to the political and economic – that is, systemic – causes of vulnerability.”  

The article is available at the Climate and Development web page: <>.

Reporters and editors may request a copy from the managing editor, Tom Gill, at

Contact the author at:

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