Natura 2000 and climate change—Polarisation, uncertainty, and pragmatism in discourses on forest conservation and management in Europe

Koning, J. de; Winkel, G.; Sotirov, M.; Blondet, M.; Borras, L.; Ferranti, F.; Geitzenauer, M.


European forests are a resource that is targeted by several EU environmental and land use policies as forests can be of critical importance to mitigate climate change. At the same time, they are central to the EU's biodiversity policy, and particular the Natura 2000 network of protected areas. Yet, the interlinkage between climate change and biodiversity policy is complex and discursively contested. In this paper, we assess how the debate on climate change adaptation affects forest conservation and management under Natura 2000. Drawing on the concept of argumentative discourse analysis, we present evidence from 213 qualitative interviews with policy stakeholders and practitioners that were conducted at both the European policy level and the local country level in 6 EU member states. Our results demonstrate that the nexus between climate change adaptation and forest conservation policy is conceptualised differently by different stakeholders and practioners at different levels. Three major discourses can be made out (pragmatic discourse, dynamics discourse, threat discourse), which are characterised by a set of partially overlapping story lines. These discourses are employed by four discourse coalitions (environmental, forest users’, expert, and grass root coalition). As a general rule, debates at the European level are more polarised and politicised, while the local debates on climate change and Natura 2000 remain rather vague and are less polarised. This seems to indicate that the link between climate change adaptation and forest conservation is mostly an issue for an abstract high-level policy debate. At this level, climate change is used to influence well-known policies, and to legitimise distinct interests that were already present before the climate change debate has emerged.