Forms of Power

Power shapes the who, what, and where of resilience and adaptation planning. Shifting unjust power structures toward community self-determination is critical to addressing long-standing social inequities.


By 2030, the global climate investment must reach $4.13 trillion to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, a 553% increase from the $632 billion investment of 2020.


The world's top three emitters (China, the U.S., and the EU) produce 16x the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions of the bottom 100.


The critical role of power in climate change adaptation is increasingly recognized by academic researchers and government planning agencies, but is often overlooked in practice. Woroniecki, Stephen, Ruth Kruger, Anna-Lena Rau, Maren Stefanie Preuss, Nora Baumgartner, Saline Raggers, Laura Niessen, et al. “The Framing of Power in Climate Change Adaptation Research.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews-Climate Change 10, no. 6 (2019). Vink, Martinus J., Art Dewulf, and Catrien Termeer. “The Role of Knowledge and Power in Climate Change Adaptation Governance: A Systematic Literature Review.” Ecology and Society 18, no. 4 (2013). Malloy, Jeffrey T., and Catherine M. Ashcraft. “A Framework for Implementing Socially Just Climate Adaptation.” Climatic Change 160 (April 14, 2020): 1–14. Power is most apparent in the ability to directly choose what happens in a given circumstance (decision-making-power). Dahl, Robert A. “The Concept of Power.” Behavioral Science 2, no. 3 (1957): 201–15. But people also exert power in society through more subtle and indirect mechanisms. Those who have the power to decide what policies or projects are considered in the first place can frame options to their own favor (non-decision-making power). People who shape how we think about ourselves and our situation Béland, Daniel. “The Idea of Power and the Role of Ideas.” Political Studies Review 8, no. 2 (May 1, 2010): 145–54. can influence what aspects of society we accept or try to fix, or even the solutions we are capable of thinking of (ideological-power). Stephen Lukes, a social and political theorist, calls these different forms of power the “three faces of power”. Lukes, Steven. Power: A Radical View. Macmillan International Higher Education, 2004.

In the resilience planning process, we can see Lukes’ three faces of power at work. Ideological power shapes how concepts like vulnerability, hazard, and resilience are defined and translated into policy and planning processes. Non-decision-making power determines which hazards are prioritized for response, what levels of risk or exposure are acceptable, and what types of solutions are considered viable. And decision-making power selects what plans are implemented on the ground. Ultimately, who holds these different forms of power determines who is protected and who is left exposed. Meerow, Sara, Joshua P. Newell, and Melissa Stults. “Defining Urban Resilience: A Review.” Landscape and Urban Planning 147 (March 1, 2016): 38–49.

Ultimately, who holds these different forms of power determines who is protected and who is left exposed.

Across the globe, the power dynamics of the resilience planning process have tended to favor people who are the most well-off, the most able to cope with climate change, and the least vulnerable. Arcaya, Mariana, Ethan J. Raker, and Mary C. Waters. “The Social Consequences of Disasters: Individual and Community Change.” Annual Review of Sociology 46, no. 1 (2020): 671–91. Even in the Western context, where some power is mediated by the structures of local, state, and federal representative democracy, systemic failures in representation consistently allow the wealthiest, most well-connected, and most knowledgeable citizens to shape decisions for their benefit. Opportunities for citizens to engage with one another about resilience, to understand each other’s situations, and to plan responses together are rare. The most vulnerable residents are often the ones without a voice in these decision-making processes, even though they have very clear ideas on what is needed to protect themselves (see Community-Based Resilience). Meerow, Sara, Pani Pajouhesh, and Thaddeus R. Miller. “Social Equity in Urban Resilience Planning.” Local Environment 24, no. 9 (September 2, 2019): 793–808.

The best way to ensure planning outcomes provide equal protection for all citizens, and avoid harming those least responsible for climate change, is to shift power towards the communities most vulnerable and least able to recover from disasters. These new powers must be codified in federal and state laws and planning policies to prevent erosion by special interests.

If we value the principles of equal rights, justice, democracy, and self-rule, we must champion each community’s right to shape their physical environment, to protect themselves against climate change, and to have power in planning processes and decision making that impact their well-being. Democratic decision making in resilience planning is not only more just over the long run, Young, Iris Marion. Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford University Press, 2002. but also results in more effective long-term solutions.

Written by
Justin Steil & David Birge

Learn more about
equitable resilience

Community-Based Resilience