PhD Dissertation, University of California Berkeley, December 2016
This dissertation examines how the phenomenon of climate change is changing the public conception of natural disasters, and vice versa. Using the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York City as a case study, this project draws on a year of in-depth fieldwork triangulated with media coverage, public reports, and city-level quantitative data to illustrate how popular misconceptions about how disasters happen were at work in the public response to the catastrophe. In particular, my research develops a conceptual framework using discourse analysis, to identify two false doctrines or tropes which underlie many of these misconceptions. The first, the doctrine of natural disaster, asserts that environmental disasters are fundamentally physiological rather than social in origin. The second, the doctrine of disaster exceptionalism, asserts that so-called natural disasters are rare and unpredictable events. The results of this project indicate that while climate change has the potential to disrupt these two false doctrines, this is not yet occurring in the public response to disaster. This dissertation also extends earlier work on the intersection of climate policy and environmental justice, known as the “climate gap”, and extends it to adaptation, proposing an “adaptation gap” is also at work. Finally, this dissertation proposes a new test for delineating different types of climate change adaptation, further developing work on what constitutes transformational adaptation.
The first chapter of my dissertation lays out the foundational arguments, including a description of two pervasive fallacies which I have found to structure the public discourse around disaster: that disasters are “natural” rather than social in character, and that disasters are exceptional, aberrant events. The second chapter articulates the concept of hazardscape, a holistic approach to risk, resilience, and vulnerability that incorporates a critical approach to socio-environmental systems. In my third chapter, I describe representations of adaptation, resilience, and vulnerability which were used in public debates in the wake of the disaster, and how these representations obscure how the status quo is maintained in the city’s approach to resilience. In my fourth chapter, I demonstrate that adaptation can, without an explicit commitment to social justice and addressing inequality, reproduce the social vulnerabilities which undermine resistance. Finally, I return to the idea of the two fallacies which has run throughout the rest of the work, and explore how the phenomenon of climate change might disrupt these fallacies. By recognizing the fundamentally social character of climate-related disaster, adaptive policies can better address the social aspects of resilience and vulnerability.