Conceptual research using critical theoretical methodology

Research design

A conceptual research approach falls within a critical social science philosophical orientation. While this approach underpins the entire book, including a critical analysis of the empirical findings from the Indonesian study, it was necessary to weight this methodological approach more heavily in the first half of the book in the chapters on adaptation (Chapter 3), mitigation (Chapter 4) and REDD+ mitigation/adaptation to women (Chapter 5). The reason for this is because together they form the basis, the theoretical underbelly for understanding, on a deeper level, what emerged in relation to the findings from the on-the-ground empirical study that are presented in Chapters 6 and 7. The findings of the study, particularly with respect to women, when assessed in juxtaposition with conceptualisations such as women as ‘silent offsets’ in REDD+, more broadly the ‘gendered silent offset economy’ under conditions of carbon capitalism, makes this clear. In other words, discerning theoretically what a ‘silent offset’ means was buttressed from on-the-ground findings, particularly how the concept of ‘gender mainstreaming’ has played its part in the silence of women in the climate change and economic discourses this chapter illuminates.

The purpose of critical research has been variously described as: seeking ‘to change the world’ through conducting research that critiques and transforms social relations (Neuman & Kreuger 2003, p. 81); in a milder variation, helping to understand and change social reality (Lather 1992, cited in Sarantakos 1998, p. 39); and revealing myths and disclosing illusions. The aim of this type of research is to contribute to empowering and emancipating people in its milder variation, whereas social reality for the critical theorist is based on oppression and exploitation (Sarantakos 1998). Thus, critical theorists generally conduct research from an emancipatory interest that digs beneath surface meanings, or what Baldwin and Bettini (2017, p. 7) refer to as the ‘political subsurface’, of dominant institutional frameworks and methods of knowledge that reveal and endeavour to counter existing power relations, oppression, exploitation and marginalisation in all forms.

While an emancipatory thrust is an important one in critical theory, other motivating cognitive interests can also be important, such as a technical interest (Alvesson &c Skoldberg 2009). An overriding motivational interest in this book is to suggest alternative ways of constructing climate change policies to avoid maladaptation. To this end, and in many respects, the emancipatory and technical thrust critical theorists adopt in their research is synonymous with that of a feminist standpoint theorist. That is, insofar as both seek to ‘place relations between political and social power and knowledge centre-stage’ (Bowell n.d.).

In the chapters on adaptation and mitigation that follow, the book is premised on both technical and emancipatory cognitive interests in critiquing mitigation and adaptation policies to climate change. In these chapters, I analyse the technical nature of climate change solutions, particularly mitigation policy, or the carbon offset mechanism of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol. Similarly, adaptation policy is viewed within the dominant paradigm of ‘development-as-usual’ (Work et al. 2019). What is argued and developed through these critiques is that the solutions to climate change indicate maladaptation emerges through several pathways. By drawing attention to the maladaptive features of adaptation and mitigation policies, alternatives to the dominant technical and market-centric aspects currently present in both emerge. That is, and in particular, the carbon-centric focus that is accompanied by technical measurements, verification, monitoring and reporting essential to the commodification of carbon to the detriment and exclusion of alternatives that would be more transparent and inclusive of the communities where the carbon programmes are situated.

What also emerged from a technical critique of climate change solutions, was a salient invisibility and silence of women in the climate change discourse in general and climate change solutions in particular, which have been sidelined by both scientific and market epistemologies. Thus, Chapter 5 is a feminist critique of the existing dominant theories that explain how and why a ‘gender gap’ has emerged in the area of climate change. The silence around women is due to the privileging of productive economy. That is, where market-based solutions to climate change mitigation policy reside, over social reproduction where women and, as importantly, adaptation policies are situated. This, in, by and of itself, is highly maladaptive because as one economist rightly cautioned, ‘mitigate we might; adapt we must’ (Nordhaus 1994, p. 189, cited in Pielke 1998, p. 160).

The issue of climate change is then a problem that requires the full resources of trans-disciplinary critical research. This requires employing the theoretical resources of disciplines that incorporate both the study of the social sciences and natural sciences, such as critical geography’s scholarly literature on ‘neoliberal natures’ (Bigger et al. 2018), in particular used in the structural critiques of climate change solutions. In 2009, when research for this book began life as a PhD thesis, it became obvious when reviewing the vast literature on the topic that climate change was regarded first and foremost as a science problem that could be addressed through technological and scientific means; hence utilising a critical research path emphasised a technical interest in my analysis over an emancipatory cognitive interest, though both are present.

The establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations scientific body charged with providing Assessment Reports at regular intervals on the state of knowledge on climate change, confirmed the pre-eminence of science’s role in addressing climate change. The global policy position that emerged in response to these periodic scientific reports has been identified in the literature as the ‘mitigation bias’ (Schipper 2006), where adaptation to climate change took second place. Indeed, until recently, to speak of adaptation was ‘taboo’ and tantamount to a defeatist position as discussed in the preceding chapter. Specifically, the Kyoto Protocol, which guides how climate change should be addressed, emphasised several market-based mechanisms, such as emissions trading and carbon offsets such as the CDiVI. However, in spite of the vast resources and time expended under this mitigation bias, the results have indicated that there have been increased global emissions in the first commitment period under the Kyoto Protocol (2008-2012) (Liverman 2009), and in its second commitment period (2013-2020) (Carnes et al. 2016; Evans & Gabbatiss 2019a, 2019b).

Thus the positivist orientation in which climate change mitigation is located, with its emphasis on technical measurements to establish baselines, ‘additionality’, measurement, reporting and verification in order to quantify the amount of carbon reduced and then ‘traded’ or ‘offset’, is not only a scientific issue but a political one. That is, it was a political decision to emphasise mitigation over adaptation, in spite of both being given equal footing in the UNFCCC. It was also a political decision to use market-based mechanisms to give primacy to mitigation through the Conference of Parties (COP) who meet annually in negotiating the policy responses to the scientific reports emerging from the IPCC. Thus, the political-ideological dimension of critical theory is emphasised in this critique, where the politics of climate change solutions is necessarily placed within a ‘setting for the continual formation of reflective political-ethical argumentations’ (Alvesson Sc Skoldberg 2009, p. 147). The political-ethical argument for just solutions to climate change is most saliently addressed in Chapter 8 on justice. The normative concept of justice inheres ethical arguments in its constitution. In other words, existing climate change solutions present as unjust when they ignore indigenous knowledge and ways of protecting their environments, or where women are used instrumentally to achieve outcomes for predetermined global mitigation projects that do not take account of their social roles and subjective needs.

The use of critical theory flags a fundamental refusal to treat problems as discrete phenomena that can be manipulated with ‘a bit of social [or scientific] engineering; rather they are viewed in light of the totality-subjectivity combination, that is, critical theory sees society in terms of culturally shared forms of consciousness and communication’ (Alvesson 8c Skoldberg 2009, p. 159). A positivist paradigm does not, and cannot, theoretically view reality in this way. Even though positivism and a critical perspective conceive social reality as being ‘out there’ to be discovered, which falls within a realist position - where the two approaches differ is in the way critical theory views social reality as evolving over time. That is, reality is not stable hut fluid. Positivism, on the other hand, views social reality as stable pre-existing patterns or order (Neuman 8c Kreuger 2003).

However, the role of human agency in climate change - that is, the recognition of anthropogenic climate change - should have put ‘the final nail in the coffin of environmental determinism’ (Head 2010, p. 236). That is, if ‘humans and their activities are embedded in the very structure of the atmosphere, we needed new ways of thinking about things’ (Head 2010, p. 236). With these thoughts in mind, critical theory was deemed the most appropriate orientation, with its variety of methods and the employment of a multi-disciplinary theoretical lens, as an attempt to find and develop new ways of thinking about climate change solutions. In particular, of what constitutes a just policy regime, addressed in the final chapter on ‘Justice in the age of the Anthropocene’.

Methods of data collection and data analysis

A variety of methods are used in a critical theoretical approach, including analysis, reflection, critique and critical comparison (McMurray, Hall-Taylor 8c Porter 2002, p. 18). These methods have been applied to directly addressing the central question under analysis and, in particular, through an important method which involves the meticulous examination of existing theories (Alvesson Sc Skoldberg 2009). For example, alternative theories in the sciences and the humanities are used to critique the dominant theories of neoliberalism and global environmental economism that currently frame and shape unjust solutions under the UNFCCC to climate change. These various theories draw from: critical geography (Bigger et al. 2018; Bumpus Sc Liverman 2008; Castree 2006; Liverman 2009, 2011; McAfee 1999, 2014; McCarthy Sc Prudham 2004; Silvey 2009); ecological economics and critical accounting (Brown 2013; Daly 1995, 2005, 2008; Daly Sc Townsend 1993; Kosoy Sc Corbera 2010; Muradian et al. 2010). Additionally, in Chapter 5, feminist theories such as eco-feminism (Henderson 1982; Mellor 1996, 2012; Mies 2007) that directly critique status quo policy solutions to climate change, through the CDM and United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD+) Programme. The latter is a global carbon mitigation programme developed in collaboration with three United Nations agencies — the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The essential idea behind REDD+ is to incentivise developing countries to reduce deforestation and forest degradation.

What these various disciplinary theories hold in common, is a deep reservation that the dominant ideology, discourse, theory and practice of neoliberal environmentalism in general, and the market-based solution established under the Kyoto Protocol in particular, indeed the new mitigation mechanism established under Article 6.4 of the Paris Agreement, can ‘solve’ climate change. In this way, a well thought out theoretical frame of reference can facilitate making good interpretations, ‘something which requires particular attention to in critical theory as the idea is to go beyond surface meanings’ (Alvesson & Skoldberg 2009, p. 166). The following provides, by way of point, an example of how feminist theories are used to critique neoliberal environmentalism. In Chapter 5, a false universalism underscores current international adaptation and mitigation efforts based on a market-based epistemology; ecofeminism rejects neoliberal environmentalism for, among other aspects,

ignoring the context within which environmental relations are nested — for example, women relate to natural resources as part of their livelihood strategies, which reflect multiple objectives, powerful wider political forces and, crucially, gender relations, i.e. social relations which systematically differentiate men and women in processes of production and reproduction. iVIicro-studies of resource use reveal that the relations of women to environments ‘cannot be understood outside the context of gender relations in resource management and use’.

(Leach 1991, p. 14, cited in Jackson 1993, p. 1949)

In presenting the outcomes of a small-scale empirical qualitative research study (the second methodology employed in the book’s dual methodological framework), conducted in Indonesia in 2014—2015 focusing on the impacts of UN- REDD+ on ‘adat’ communities, women specifically, what the in situ study revealed was the primacy of ‘livelihood strategies’ in the thinking of women, and not carbon mitigation as REDD+ is currently framed. Indeed, research conducted so far on engendering climate change responses in the secondary sources, while no doubt well meaning, has focused endlessly on gender main- streaming. The existing framing of gender, however, tends to accord and be congruent with a well-worn historical path of women of the South being used for otherwise instrumental ends to meet and serve strategic capital interests of the North. In other words, there is little evidence of a relational perspective to be found here except, that is, to the galloping juggernaut of the global carbon market where, for example, a business case for women’s inclusion in this mythical creation is led by the United Nations in a paper entitled ‘The business case for mainstreaming gender in REDD+’ (UN-REDD Programme 2011).

Thus, not all feminist theories are on the same page, and the use of early ecofeminist theory to critique and re-evaluate the liberal feminist ideal of ‘gender mainstreaming’, exemplified in the UN-REDD ‘business case’ (UN-REDD Programme 2011), is a salient example. Classic liberal feminism (Bessis 2003), like all feminist theories in general, challenges gender bias and gender blindness.

However, what the critical analytic method brings to the surface in its application to feminist theories, is that the liberal feminist ideal of women’s ‘equality’ has reinforced the dominant, neoliberal approach to climate change solutions such as REDD+. Indeed, the authors of the ‘business case for mainstreaming gender in REDD+’ appear to legitimate the myopic status quo of the primacy of a neoliberal economic approach to procedural inclusion via gender mainstreaming. Further, this is particularly evident in their circumscription of sustainability of mitigation benefits as, in the end, the preservation of investor confidence through the minimisation of risk and project reversal. In fact, the business case says as much in the final paragraph of its ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’:

Overall, giving consideration to gender equality in each readiness component of REDD+ makes good business sense, both creating and benefiting from a more stable investment environment for forest carbon assets.

(UN-REDD Programme 2011, p. 7)

Whether or not the authors of the business case are aware of their own research and gender blindness in reinforcing the notion that a market-based mitigation solution is the solution to climate change, thus legitimising the dominant neoliberal environmentalist theory that underscores REDD+ is unclear. What is clear, though, and feminists observe is

that research in general has been male-dominated, which has largely determined the questions addressed (or not addressed), and the way these have been answered ... In this way the asymmetrical gender relations in society are legitimated and reproduced.

(Alvesson Sc Skoldberg 2009, p. 237)

Thus, a reflective research process central to a critical perspective must include self-awareness to mitigate dominant modes of thought being regarded as rational, natural and neutral (Alvesson &C Skoldberg 2009, p. 176).

The purpose of the in-country study in Indonesia was to generate raw data expressing alternative modes of thought by those impacted on the ground through the mitigation programme of REDD+. Digging beneath the dominant strategy of gender equality employed by REDDH— gender mainstreaming — there was an obvious disconnect between what is considered by gender theory, and project developers, to be a well-intentioned strategy, with its practice in situ. The term gender, let alone gender mainstreaming, was little understood by the participants, let alone the adat women and communities they represent. Further, it has failed to address the critical issues of improving their livelihoods, specifically in the area of health for their families and income-generating projects (beyond propagating seedlings and planting trees) that suit their subjective positions and needs. The insights gained from face-to-face interviews are thus crucial to reformulating mitigation projects that both eschew elite language and for project developers to address the specific needs the women have expressed themselves, when directly asked. As one participant observed, being sensitive to gender, taken to mean women, in the climate change negotiations does not mean they have been mainstreamed into the heart of the project itself (API Jakarta 2014). That would require minimising elite language, learning to listen, and acting upon their specific expressed needs.

It has been necessary to present, by way of example above, how methods drawn from a critical theoretical orientation are employed and operationalised throughout the book. However, in addition to going beyond ‘surface meanings’, critical theory uses a praxis approach, or is action-oriented. That is, in an effort to distinguish between what is good theory and what is bad theory, a critical approach ‘puts the theory into practice and uses the outcome of applications to reformulate theory’ (Neuman & Kreuger 2003, p. 85). Indeed, the basic strategy of writing as resistance and activism is itself praxis. The voices and experiences of adat women and men gained in practice are used to reformulate aspects of current adaptation and mitigation policies they are subjected to.

Following the deeply complex and abstract account on the silence surrounding women in the climate change discourse, it became evident that a change in research orientation to empirical feminist qualitative research was needed to give voice to women (experts) in the climate change mitigation programme under UN-REDD+. This change in research orientation from the critical analytic framework was complemented by an empirical feminist qualitative research study, driven by a need to test theoretical insights regarding, for example, ‘silent offsets’, with on-the-ground accounts. While the conceptualisation of women as ‘silent offsets’ is to speak abstractly and theoretically, this was embedded in the empirical findings of the dedicated chapter ‘Where are the women?’

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