Framing “nature-based” solutions to climate change

Osaka, S. et al. | WIREs Climate Change | 2021 | Peer Reviewed | Review |


In recent years, there has been a growth in scholarship on “nature-based solutions” and “natural climate solutions” to climate change. A variety of actors have argued that these natural solutions—variously involving the protection, conservation, restoration, management, enhancement, or imitation of natural ecosystems—can play a crucial role in both mitigating and adapting to climate change. What is more, by virtue of their label, natural solutions promise to be particularly attractive to the public and policymakers and have received significant media and scholarly attention. But what is natural is also social: people, acting in various social groups, can selectively emphasize or deemphasize certain characteristics of climate solutions to make them seem more or less natural. The framing of particular solutions as “natural” or “unnatural” has far-reaching implications for climate policy, but has thus far been overlooked. Here, we undertake a critical review of the ways in which natural solutions to climate change have been framed and examine the normative and practical implications of this framing. We review what counts (and what does not count) as a natural solution, and find that those labeled natural are routinely framed under technical and social appraisal criteria as being more beneficial, cost effective, mature, and democratic than ostensibly artificial counterparts. And yet we show that, under greater scrutiny, the natural framing obscures the reality that natural solutions can be just as risky, expensive, immature, and technocratic. We conclude by reflecting on the dangers of narrowing the range of solutions considered natural and indeed, of selecting solutions through recourse to “nature” at all. Rather, climate solutions must be evaluated in terms of their specific qualities, against a far broader range of framings.